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Dodging bullets in Gaza's no-go zone

Anti-Israel protests in Gaza can quickly turn deadly.

Gaza boys
Palestinian boys sit in front of a mural depicting a Palestinian prisoner in an Israeli jail in Gaza City, June 17, 2010. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

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.