Thursday, June 17, 2010

Flotilla tragedy boosts Gaza’s peaceful protest movement

Thank you to everyone who participated in the Jewish Fast for Gaza conference call. My Global Post article about how Gaza’s non-violent protest movement has been boosted by the flotilla tragedy was delayed until next week, when I will observe another demonstration. In the meantime, I’ll use this blog post to tell the story of the demonstration I observed on Tuesday.

First, a bit of background described in previous posts: Palestinian and international activists in the West Bank village of Bil’in regularly dodge tear gas, skunk cannons and rubber bullets as they challenge territory that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) controls for alleged security reasons. In Gaza, however, a Bil’in-inspired protest movement is immediately met with live gunfire.

Since February of this year, crowds of more than 50 unarmed Gazan activists have marched into the 300 meter “no-go zone,” or “buffer zone,” along the Gaza-Israel border three to five days per week in different locations across Gaza. 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 in the legs by Israeli troops. In April, a protester was killed.

At Tuesday's demonstration in the northern district of Beit Lahia, participants said they felt newly empowered in the wake of the flotilla tragedy. The demonstration attracted a larger-than-normal group of at least 200 people, an unusually high turnout of about 100 women, and many participants who had come for the first time.

“All of us are going to this demonstration in solidarity with the Freedom Flotilla,” said Maysa Abbas, 37, as she and other new recruits (pictured on right) sat in chartered bus on their way to the demonstration. “We’re trying to break the siege in any way we can. We want the Arab world, and the rest of the world, to pay attention to our suffering.”

The Israeli government has asserted 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 IDF.

As the bus grinded to a halt about a half mile from the border, 22-year-old Hala Salman pointed out the window to a lifeless, sandy strip of earth that once bore watermelons, eggplants, and tomatoes. “That’s where my family used to have our farm,” she said, shaking her head. “That’s our land.”

Salman and the other demonstrators then congregated behind a truck playing patriotic Palestinian music from loud speakers. Most of the men marched in the front of the crowd holding flags and banners, while most women and children marched towards the back.

At the lead was a man with a megaphone, Saber Zaaneen (pictured on right), who recited rhyming chants against the siege that were repeated by the group. 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 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 collecting stones and other materials from destroyed buildings near the border. Zaaneen himself is among the thousands of Gazans whose home was destroyed by the IDF and not rebuilt. For him, the dangerous buffer zone demonstrations are not about intentionally putting civilians in harm’s way, but rather about asserting “basic human rights” and drawing media attention to Gazans’ plight.

“We don't resist because we want to die,” Zaaneen said when we spoke before the demonstration in his family's living room, which is adorned with a giant poster of 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 Tuesday demonstration, Zaaneen stiffened as he spotted two teenagers running away from the group. “Come back! This is for your protection!” he pleaded through the megaphone. To Zaaneen’s relief, the boys (pictured on right) did return. Had they not, Zaaneen feared they could have met the same fate as Ahmed Deeb, a 19-year-old demonstrator who was shot in his femoral artery at a April demonstration in southern Gaza and died of blood loss. Deeb had separated from the crowd to throw stones at Israeli troops.

The demonstrators stopped atop a sandy hilltop within eyesight of three army jeeps approximately 100 meters away. In the 10 minutes that demonstrators stood in this location, Israeli snipers fired about a dozen warning shots that hit the ground more than 10 feet from the crowd. (In past demonstrations I've observed, the warning shots hit the ground less than two feet away.) While atop the hill, Palestinian boys planted flags, women and children ventured to the front of the line, and protest leaders gave fiery speeches blasting the blockade and the siege.

As the protesters retreated, Zaaneen expressed his satisfaction with the size of the crowd and their success in staying together as a cohesive group. He said that he now feels renewed inspiration to launch an English / Arabic / Hebrew website about the anti-buffer zone movement and to network 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 (pictured on right), a British ISM activist who attended Tuesday’s demonstration along with three other foreign activists. Shortly after the flotilla tragedy, 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.”

While unarmed protesters from all political parties are welcome at the anti-buffer zone demonstrations, the overwhelming majority of participants back Fatah or minority leftwing parties. The defacto Hamas government, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel for its support of suicide and rocket attacks against Israeli civilians, celebrates the non-violent foreign aid flotillas seeking to enter Gaza, yet discourages Gaza’s own non-violent protest movement.

Top Hamas leader Salah Bardaweel (pictured on right) told me three days before the flotilla tragedy that Hamas is currently seeking to maintain and enforce an undeclared ceasefire 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 expressed his objection to many of 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 defacto 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.”

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