What was billed as a six-week campaign of peaceful protests in Gaza descended almost immediately into chaos and bloodshed on Friday, with at least five Palestinians reported killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers along the border with Israel.
Soon after the campaign began Friday morning, the Israeli military reported that thousands of Palestinians were rioting in six locations along the border, rolling burning tires and hurling stones at the fence and at Israelis soldiers beyond it.
By early afternoon, the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza said that five Palestinians had been killed by Israeli small arms and artillery fire, and 170 injured.
Declaring the area surrounding the Gaza Strip a closed military zone, the Israeli military said it was “responding with riot dispersal means and firing towards main instigators.” Israeli forces reportedly fired live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas.
The Palestinian organizers had called for peaceful protests, with men, women and children bused to tent encampments that popped up in recent days about 700 yards from the border with Israel.
Hamas, the Islamic militant group that dominates Gaza and is known for its armed resistance, has joined the call for a different form of popular struggle, referred to as the Great March of Return, or the March of the Million.
The idea was to protest Israel’s more than decade-long blockade of Gaza, which restricts the movement of people and goods in and out of the coastal territory, which Israel calls a security imperative, and to highlight Palestinian demands for a right of return to the lands that became Israel 70 years ago. A majority of Gaza’s two million residents are refugees of the 1948 war that surrounded Israel’s creation, or their descendants.
Girding for violence, Israel had almost doubled its forces along the border, deploying snipers, special units and drones, and warning that it would act to prevent any breach of the border fence or violation of Israel’s sovereignty.
The idea for the border encampments, in about half a dozen locations, was initiated by a Gazan social-media activist, Ahmed Abu Artema, a political independent, and was soon adopted by Hamas, which has been promoting the protest on its social media platforms and urging Palestinians to participate.
“Our will in achieving the actual return to our lands is more powerful than jet fighters and a gun,” Mr. Abu Artema said by phone on Friday as he was on his way to the protest. “This march is rightful and will not be used and exploited for political agendas.”
For Israel, the prospect of nonviolent mass protests posed the challenge of trying to maintain deterrence by threatening harsh measures, while also trying to avoid mass civilian casualties. Amos Harel, a military analyst for the liberal newspaper Haaretz, wrote on Friday that the Israeli military “will have to maneuver between two goals likely to be contradictory.”
B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, warned in a statement that any shoot-to-kill policy against unarmed demonstrators would be unlawful, unless the soldiers’ lives were threatened.
Before the larger clashes broke out, the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza reported one Palestinian man killed near the border zone early Friday by Israeli artillery fire — one of the five it reported dead later in the day. The Israeli military said the man was acting suspiciously; the Palestinians said he was a farmer.
With Gaza’s economy collapsing, fears of an explosive response have mounted. In recent years, first Egypt and then the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank joined Israel in squeezing Gaza financially.
Israel’s hard-line defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, warned Gazans to keep away from the border in a post on Twitter written in Arabic. “The Hamas leadership is risking your lives,” he wrote. “I advise you to get on with your normal everyday lives and not to participate in the provocation.”
The protest came at a particularly charged time, as Jews prepared for the start of the Passover holiday on Friday, and as Palestinians observed Land Day. The day commemorates the events of March 30, 1976, when Israeli security forces shot and killed six Arab citizens of Israel during protests over the state’s expropriation of Arab-owned land in northern Israel.
The Gaza protest is billed to reach its peak on May 15, when Palestinians commemorate the Nakba, or catastrophe, the anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence and the 1948 war in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lost their homes through flight and expulsion.
This year, May 15 is expected to be particularly explosive. It comes a day after the planned move of the United States Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a step that has provoked international criticism and Palestinian outrage, and it coincides with the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.
Organizers of the border protest had hoped to create an almost festival-like atmosphere to attract families, setting up portable washrooms and providing free food, water and Wi-Fi.
But tensions in Gaza were building up for weeks. Palestinian militants have planted explosives along the border, and individuals have cut through the fence, some armed with knives and grenades, and set fire to Israeli military equipment, apparently testing Israeli preparedness and putting local communities on edge.
The protest feeds on Palestinian anger over the long blockade and the failing reconciliation process between Hamas and Fatah, the rival, mainstream movement led by President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Western-backed Palestinian Authority holds sway in parts of the West Bank.
Mr. Abbas, whose forces were routed from Gaza during factional violence in 2007, has vowed to tighten economic sanctions on the enclave, where most of the population lives in poverty and lacks such basics as regular electricity.
Hamas appeared eager to direct Gazan anger toward Israel.
“The memory of Land Day renews in our consciousness the power of blood, which bled like a waterfall to defend the land, and which erupted like a volcano in the face of the occupiers,” Hamas said in a statement.
Israel has fought three wars in Gaza over the past decade and has invested heavily in combating the threat posed by rockets fired by Hamas and other militant groups, and from tunnels crossing under the border.
But the tent encampment and planned marches add a new dimension that observers feared could lead to bloodshed and escalation. Even before the protests started, Israel had started a campaign holding Hamas responsible for any violence.
“The campaign organized by Palestinian leaders is in fact a dangerous, premeditated provocation meant to fan the flames of the conflict and increase tension,” the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
“Hamas uses its resources for armament, smuggling tunnels, and other militaristic purposes, instead of investing in the civilian infrastructures in Gaza,” it added, asserting that Hamas had spent more than $10 million on the campaign, paying Gazans to get them to participate.
Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, the chief spokesman of the Israeli military, described Hamas as “an organization in crisis” and accused its commanders of hiding behind women and children.
“This is not Scouts summer camp,” he said of the border encampment in a radio interview on Thursday. “It’s a battle zone.”
Source: New York Times