TEL AVIV, Israel — Ongoing protests at the border between Gaza and Israel, now in their sixth week, are growing increasingly violent, as Palestinian demonstrators have reportedly begun using firebombs, burning tires and wire cutters to breach the barbed-wire border fence. Protesters who breached the barricade on April 27 attempted to cross into Israel, only to be repelled by Israeli soldiers, who fired at them with rubber bullets and live ammunition, killing three and injuring many others.
Holding Hamas accountable for breaching the fence, Israel’s Air Force struck on Friday evening several targets inside Gaza associated with Hamas, the Islamist-fundamentalist organization that governs the Gaza Strip.
The protests have been the most violent since the Israel-Gaza conflict in 2014. Since they began on March 30, more than 40 demonstrators have been killed and more than 5,500 have been injured, according to the United Nations. International organizations have criticized Israel for using live ammunition against the demonstrators. Several high-profile incidents have sparked international outrage, including the deaths of two journalists and a 15-year-old last Friday. Israel has said that its response has been proportionate and that it has a right to defend its borders from infiltrators.
Additional protests are scheduled in upcoming weeks, and organizers have promised to continue the escalation. The protests began and will end on days that memorialize formative events in the history of Palestinian nationalism. They started on March 30, a day known as Land Day, which commemorates the anniversary of Palestinian demonstrations against an Israeli plan to confiscate land in northern Israel in 1976. And they will end on May 15, which is the start of Ramadan and the date Palestinians call Nakba Day. Nakba, an Arabic word meaning catastrophe, is the name Palestinians have given to the events of 1948, when the State of Israel was created and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from or fled from it.
That the protests — which have been dubbed the “Great Return March” — will end on Nakba Day is especially symbolic: The Great Return March takes its name from the “right of return,” the right Palestinians claim for refugees and their descendants to resettle in Israel. The protests have been billed as a way for Palestinians to assert the right of refugees to return to Israel by breaching the security barrier that encloses Gaza. Whether Palestinians have a “right of return” is one of the central issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and one of the most fraught. While Palestinians demand that all Palestinian refugees have a right to return to Israel, Israel argues that mass immigration of Palestinians into Israel would upset Israel’s Jewish demographic majority and erase its claim to being a Jewish state.
The protests have arisen against the background of a massive humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. Since 2007, Gaza has been under an economic blockade by Israel and Egypt, and conditions in the coastal enclave have become so desperate that the United Nations has predicted that Gaza will be uninhabitable by 2020. Unemployment is at more than 40 percent, infrastructure destroyed during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict still has not been rebuilt, water supplies have been polluted with waste, electricity is limited to several hours a day and the movement of goods and people is severely restricted.
One complication is the rivalry between Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinian political party that controls the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank. Hamas came to power in Gaza in 2007, after it drove Fatah out in a civil war. While there have been various attempts at a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation over the years, all have failed, including Egyptian-led talks in October 2017. In the past year, Fatah has tried to gain leverage over Hamas by taking actions that have further exacerbated living conditions in Gaza, such as cutting the supply of electricity to Gaza and withholding salaries to civil servants in Gaza.
U.S. policy also plays a role. This year, May 15 will coincide not only with the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, but also with the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. Ismail Haniyeh, a leader of Hamas, has said: “The Palestinian people will demonstrate throughout Ramadan to deal with the many challenges facing us, and first of all the peace plan promoted by U.S. President Donald Trump, called the ‘Deal of the Century.’” And another leader, Yahya Sinwar, has promised that Palestinians would “breach the borders and pray at Al-Aqsa,” a site in Jerusalem that is one of the holiest in Islam. If the protests intensify, the breach of the security fence in April may presage even greater violence ahead.
Ben Manson is a freelance journalist based in Tel Aviv.
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