Though Deadly, Gaza Protests Draw Attention and Enthusiasm

A Palestinian protester using a slingshot during clashes with Israeli troops near the Gaza-Israel border.

JERUSALEM — The “Friday of Tires” protest ended with another nine Palestinians killed along the fence hemming in Gaza despite a smokescreen of burning rubber and a second round of international criticism over Israel’s use of lethal force.

Now, young Gazans are talking about staging a “Flower Friday,” a “Coffin Friday,” and even a “Shoes Friday” at which demonstrators would fling footwear at soldiers to protest Israel’s longstanding blockade of the impoverished territory and its two million residents.

Far from being discouraged by the smaller turnout on Friday compared to a week earlier, Palestinians seem energized and enthusiastic about sustaining a generally nonviolent form of protest — even if it is Israel’s harsh response to it and the mounting Palestinian death toll that has put their conflict with Israel back on the international agenda.

“The Arab leaders, especially in the Gulf, thought they could neglect the Palestinian cause,” said Omar Shaban, director of PalThink for Strategic Studies, a Gaza think tank. “They thought it’s a stable conflict. But it reminds them, the U.S., Israel, the Europeans — all of them — that the problem is still there, guys. Things might seem to be stable, but no. It’s boiling.”

Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza and seeks Israel’s destruction, has always advocated armed struggle. So for Gazans, even a tentative experiment with nonviolent protest is a significant step.

And they might be onto something. The Israelis, for a variety of reasons, have long been worried about such a shift. And they now find the world paying attention as they use disproportionate force to prevent what they believe could be a catastrophic breach in the Gaza fence.

Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, likened attempts to cross Israel’s fence to American civil rights marchers’ attempts to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., more than 50 years ago. He said he saw the demonstrations as an opportunity for a strategic shift by Palestinians.

“This is not a battle that protesters are coming to with guns,” Mr. Munayyer said. “They’re coming to it with their bodies and they’re confronting very real policies of violent repression. The protesters paid with their lives to get people to question whether these policies are justifiable.”

“Frankly, I think this is Israel’s Achilles’ heel,” he added, “and it’s very important in this moment for the international community to be supportive of the protesters. They’ve always said, ‘Abandon militancy, abandon violence.’ If the international community allows the violent repression of these protests without any real condemnation or intervention to stop the killing, it’s going to send a message that the world doesn’t want any Palestinian resistance — not violent, not nonviolent, not anything in between.”

Gazans are grappling with an economy in collapse. Hospitals are short on medicine and there is electricity only for a few hours at a time. The water is undrinkable and raw sewage is pumped into the sea. While Gaza was poor and crowded to begin with, the 11-year-old blockade by Israel and Egypt has driven it into crisis.

The so-called Great Return March began on March 30 and is meant to continue every Friday for several weeks, culminating in a mass demonstration on May 15. That is Nakba Day, which commemorates the flight and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the Israeli war for independence in 1948.

On March 30, some 30,000 people attended the first Friday demonstration and 20 were killed by Israeli soldiers, according to Gaza health officials. Videos showed that some were shot while they had their backs turned to the fence.

On Friday, the crowds were thinner, but nine more Palestinians were killed.

Israel, endeavoring to explain its use of lethal force, released photos and video of a few Palestinians trying to penetrate the fence and said others had thrown firebombs at its soldiers in the latest round of protest. On Saturday, Israel’s Kan Radio reported that at least eight attempts were made to plant explosives along the fence during this past week’s demonstrations. The Israeli military also said it would investigate the death of a Palestinian cameraman, one of seven journalists reportedly shot.

But while many protesters threw stones or rolled burning tires toward the fence, far more could be seen doing little more than standing around — chanting, singing and shouting.

“These demonstrations have made the Palestinian people’s voice heard, and made the world hear its scream,” said Ahmed Abu Artema, a Gazan social-media activist who dreamed up the protest. “The aim of the siege is a fatal force targeting us. But we’ve decided to turn this pain into a positive spirit.”

Many protesters approached the fence, venturing into a buffer zone that Israel had declared hundreds of feet into the Gaza side. And many of those were shot at by soldiers, according to Gaza health officials.

For Israel, any opening in the fence risks that hundreds of protesters could rush through in a few minutes, said Giora Eiland, a retired major general and former head of Israel’s National Security Council. The barrier fence was “not as strong and robust as people might think,” he said.

“We don’t want to be in a position where we have to handle hundreds or thousands of people inside Israel,” he said. “This is something we would not be able to contain. So the right way is to make sure nothing happens to the fence.”

But that leaves its soldiers aiming rifles at unarmed people.

“What the Israelis are defending is not lives. They’re defending a fence,” Mr. Munayyer said. “That’s not the standard when it comes to the use of lethal force — to just snipe at people from hundreds of feet away.”

After the second Friday of protests, the Palestinians appeared unified. Though Hamas effectively managed the demonstrations in many ways, those participating came from the range of Gaza political factions and for the most part displayed only one banner — the Palestinian national flag.

Nathan Thrall, an analyst for International Crisis Group who closely watches Gaza, saw a “momentum building” in the second week. “You had huge numbers going on their own initiative,” he said. “People didn’t feel they were at a protest, they felt they were at some kind of a celebration.”

But Mr. Thrall — who noted that the Gaza demonstrators had burned the image of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia on Friday — said the demonstration’s main goal is to signal to the Palestinians’ Arab allies and to the United States that there will be a price to be paid if the Trump administration attempts to, in their view, eradicate the Palestinian issue.

“This is coming at a time when the Palestinians feel totally marginalized from the world agenda and even from the regional agenda,” he said. He pointed to an Saudi Arabian overflight agreement for Air India to fly to Israel, and the Arab states’ attendance alongside Israel at a recent White House conference on Gaza — one the Palestinians boycotted.

“They feel that the Arab states are not so much stabbing them in the back as in the face with their open embrace of Israel.”

Many Gazans have been talking about the demonstration’s final day, on May 15, as a moment for masses of protesters to try to cross the fence into Israel. That remains a nightmare scenario for Israel, according to Mr. Eiland, the retired general.

“If, and this has not happened yet, at the very same moment, thousands of people in different locations will assault the fence — among them children and women — this might create a real challenge to us because we do not want to shoot and kill dozens and hundreds of people,” he said. “And at the same time we do not want them to cross into Israel, because we cannot tolerate it.”

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