Gaza protests bring bloodshed but scarce gain as anniversary looms

Palestinians in Gaza will on Saturday mark a year since mass protests and deadly clashes began along the Israeli border, with a demonstration expected to draw thousands and bring tensions to boiling point.

The anniversary falls only days after another severe flare-up between Hamas and Israel, with a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip that sparked retaliatory air strikes.

Israel also holds elections on April 9 and is seeking to avoid a major escalation before then.

The protests initially drew global attention, but with more than 200 Palestinians killed and participation seeming to have peaked, some are questioning what strategy to take now.

Thousands of Palestinians have gathered at least weekly along the border in protests dubbed the Great March of Return.

They are calling for Israel to lift its crippling decade-long blockade of Gaza, while also demanding refugees be allowed to return to homes their families fled in the late 1940s during the creation of the Jewish state.

Those homes are now inside Israel, whose government views the demands as advocating for the end of the Jewish state.

Palestinians and rights groups have criticised Israel for its response to the protests, saying soldiers were shooting at demonstrators who posed little threat.

Israel says its response is necessary to defend the border and accuses Hamas, with whom it has fought three wars, of orchestrating violence there.

The rallies peaked on May 14, the day of President Donald Trump’s landmark transfer of Washington’s embassy to Jerusalem after recognising the city, also claimed by the Palestinians, as capital of Israel.

It led to split-screen coverage of the serene embassy opening ceremony, attended by Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, alongside bloodshed in Gaza.

Israeli fire killed at least 62 Palestinians that day in border clashes, wounding hundreds more.

In recent months, the protests have gained less attention, though they were back in the news recently when a United Nations probe said Israeli soldiers had intentionally fired on civilians in what could constitute war crimes.

READ MORE: UN probe accuses Israel of possible crimes against humanity

A Facebook dream

In total, 258 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in Gaza since the protests began, the majority during border clashes.

Two Israeli soldiers have been killed over the same period.

Ahmed Abu Artema was widely credited with being a founder of the marches after a Facebook post calling for mass peaceful border protests went viral.

But as the protests continued, Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip, appears to have exerted more control.

Demonstrators have also shifted tactics. Early on, many protesters remained far away from the fence and demonstrated peacefully.

Others approached and burned tires to make it harder for Israeli snipers to see while throwing stones and shooting fireworks at soldiers on the other side.

Some sought to breach the fence, which has recently been fortified further, and explosive devices were also used.

There was occasional gunfire, and one soldier was killed by a Palestinian sniper.

Protesters later began launching balloons and kites carrying incendiary devices to set fire to Israeli lands near Gaza.

“What happened was not exactly what I had wished for, but there is a difference between dream and reality,” Abu Artema said.

“We have to fight for the rallies to continue in their popular and peaceful nature.”

Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a politics professor in Gaza, said while the protests had highlighted the situation in Gaza, mistakes had been made.

“One of the most important failures is that the marches have transformed from peaceful to violent,” he told AFP.

This, he said, helped Israel justify a violent response.

Meanwhile, the protests have achieved little.

In November, Israel agreed to allow tens of millions of dollars in Qatari aid into the impoverished enclave in exchange for relative calm, seen by many as a victory for the demonstrations.

Abu Artema said the protesters had succeeded in shining a light on the plight of Palestinians in Gaza.

“The marches were able to bring back to prominence the issue of refugees and engage popular energy,” he said.

Asaad Abu Sharkh, a spokesman for the marches, was less equivocal.

“The marches are the strongest message to the world that our people are committed to the right of return,” he said.

“The protests will continue into a second year until they realise their goals of breaking the blockade.”

‘Disappointment’

The organising committee is calling for all of Gaza to shut down Saturday for the demonstration.

Desperate economic circumstances mean people often feel they have little to lose.

Seven out of 10 young people in Gaza are unemployed, according to the World Bank.

“We come and we don’t know if we will achieve our goals,” said Ayman al-Maflah (20), who takes part every Friday.

“I’m not sure, as everyone is against us [Palestinians] and we’re against each other.”

Separately in Gaza, protestors recently took to the streets against rising prices and criticising Hamas rule.

Hamas cracked down violently, arresting more than 1,000 people, according to rights groups.

Abu Artema expressed “disappointment” at the crackdown.

“How can we convince the world of our right to peaceful protest against the occupation and they are seeing pictures showing us repressing people’s right to peaceful demonstration?”

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Adel Zaanoun
Adel Zaanoun
Palestinean journalist - AFP

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