Dodging bullets in Gaza's no-go zone

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Palestinian and international activists in the West Bank regularly dodge tear gas, skunk cannons and rubber bullets as they challenge territory that Israel controls, it says, for security reasons.

In Gaza, however, protesters are immediately met with live gunfire.

Since February of this year, small crowds of 50-odd unarmed Gazan activists have almost daily marched into the 300-meter buffer — or “no-go” — zone along the Gaza-Israel border. The demonstrators plant Palestinian flags in protest of Israel’s sweeping destruction of homes and farms in the buffer zones. At least eight protesters, including Maltese activist Bianca Zammit, have been shot by Israeli troops. In April, a protester was killed.

Protest leaders report that much has changed since nine Turkish activists were killed during an Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla. More Gazans, particularly women, are participating in the protests. A demonstration in northern Gaza on Tuesday attracted about 200 people despite scorching hot temperatures and dangerously high winds. Many participants said that they joined the protests for the first time three weeks ago.

“I joined after the flotilla massacre because I felt I must do something,” said Nabila Al-Masri, 46, while shielding her eyes from piercing bits of sand. “We are defending the farmers, we are defending our land, but what’s most important, we are defending our honor and dignity. We will not stay silent and accept this situation. We will claim our rights.”

And Israeli troops appear to be exercising more restraint. This is despite the Israeli government's continued insistence that the no-go zone is a "combat zone" where deadly force can be used against anyone who enters. The no-go zone has been used to launch rockets at Israeli cities, to plant explosives against Israeli soldiers, and to infiltrate Israel. On June 1, the day after the flotilla tragedy, two would-be Palestinian terrorists were killed in the no-go zone after an exchange of fire with Israeli troops, according to the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).

Protesters lament that they have not received much official support from their own side.

While unarmed protesters from all political parties are welcome at the buffer zone demonstrations, the vast majority of participants back Fatah — which lost power to Hamas in a 2006 election — or minority leftist parties. The Hamas government, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel for its support of deadly attacks against Israeli civilians, discourages the non-violent protest movement.

Last week, a demonstration planned for June 15 near the southern city of Rafah was blocked by the Hamas government purportedly because it fell on the anniversary of Hamas’ violent takeover of Gaza in 2007. Demonstration leaders report that, in recent months, Hamas police have interrogated protesters with strong Fatah loyalties and forbade them from participating.

A top Hamas leader, Salah Bardaweel, said in an interview with GlobalPost days before the flotilla raid that Hamas was seeking to maintain and enforce an undeclared cease-fire on the borders. He said he was concerned that Israel might portray the non-violent protesters as “aggressors” and use them as an excuse to launch another invasion. Bardaweel also rejected the protesters’ belief in using only non-violent means to oppose Israeli actions.

“There is a feeling within Hamas that the Fatah movement wants to move the struggle between us and Israel to a peaceful struggle,” he said. “This will only give Israel an opportunity to impose its will and become a de facto government in Gaza ... Also, Hamas doesn’t want Israel to think there’s only non-violent resistance in Gaza. Non-violence is a tactic. It’s only one form of resistance.”

As typically happens, Tuesday’s demonstrators marched behind a truck playing patriotic Palestinian music on loud speakers. The men positioned themselves towards the front of the crowd, while most women and children stayed towards the back. Men took turns holding the megaphone and leading the crowd in rhyming chants. “Zionists, Go out!” they yelled. “Palestine is a free nation!”

One man with a megaphone, Saber Zaaneen, conceived and implemented the original idea for these protests five months ago, and his idea subsequently spread to other border communities in Gaza. The growing movement is now coordinated by an umbrella organization called the Committee for Security in the Buffer Zones, which represents a broad spectrum of Gazan charities and does not accept donations from political parties.

Zaaneen argues that most of those killed by Israeli troops in the buffer zone have been civilians, particularly farmers, fishermen and desperate men scavenging stones from rubble near the border. Zaaneen himself is among the thousands of Gazans whose home was destroyed by the IDF and not rebuilt. For him, the admittedly risky demonstrations are not about intentionally putting civilians in harm’s way, but rather about asserting their “basic human rights” and drawing media attention to Gazans’ plight.

“We don't resist because we want to die,” Zaaneen said during an interview with GlobalPost in his family’s living room, dominated by a giant poster of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. "We resist because we want freedom, security, opportunities for our children, and an end to the siege. The power of these demonstrations is that they attract international attention to what’s really happening. We want foreigners, especially Americans and Israelis, to tell their governments that we should stop the violence and live together in peace."

Back at the demonstration on Tuesday — the group organizes protests three to five days a week in different locations — Zaaneen ran ahead of the crowd to shepherd back a mother and her 10-year-old daughter marching in front of the truck, just as he had called back two teenagers at the same protest location last week. Had these protesters separated from the crowd, Zaaneen feared they might have met the same fate as Ahmed Deeb, the 19-year-old who was killed at an April demonstration in southern Gaza. After running off to throw stones at Israeli troops, Deeb was shot in his femoral artery and died of blood loss.

Protesters on Tuesday stopped about 100 meters from the border in an area within eyesight of the heavily fortified Erez Terminal, the only civilian passageway between Israel and Gaza, staying for about 15 minutes, planting flags and delivering fiery speeches.

Zaaneen pointed to a watch tower along the border. "There's a sniper! And there's another one!" He warned of imminent gunfire. At last week’s demonstration in a nearby location, about a dozen warning shots hit the ground no more than 10 feet from the crowd. But on this day, not a single shot was fired.

As the group retreated, Zaaneen said that he felt encouraged by Israel’s apparent restraint, which he attributes to international outcry against the flotilla raid as well as the demonstration leaders’ success in keeping the crowd together as one unit. Zaaneen now plans to launch an English/Arabic/Hebrew website about his movement that he hopes will connect him with more foreign activist groups.

One such foreign activist group, the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), has received “loads more” communication from people outside of Gaza, according to Adie Mormech, a British ISM activist who attended Tuesday’s demonstration along with an activist from Italy. Shortly after the flotilla raid, ISM launched a Facebook media campaign called “Stop the Bullets” aimed at ending the use of live ammunition against Gazan civilians. 

“Rarely in the democratic world are you allowed to just take regular potshots at people and get away with it,” Mormech said, “particularly when they’re just doing a peaceful demonstration or farming their land. It’s a crime. A continuous crime. And we want it stopped.”