Gazans growing weary of rioting along Israel’s border

Gazans have little to show for causing havoc on the border with Israel.

By World Israel News Staff and Associated Press

Ahmed Abu Artima was one of the initiators of the “Great March of Return,” the weekly riots along Gaza’s frontier with Israel, which were begun by independent activists but later taken over by Hamas, the violent terror group sworn to Israel’s destruction. But these days, he mostly avoids the demonstrations, according to the Associated Press.

He is among a growing number of Gazans who believe the protests have lost their way. With little to show from 18 months of demonstrations, many Gazans are beginning to question and even criticize the Hamas-led protests, a rarity in a territory where dissent is barely tolerated by the ruling Islamic terror group.

For several months now, Abu Artima has organized his own alternative protest. On a recent Wednesday, dozens of Palestinians gathered near the separation fence between Israel and Gaza, performing traditional dances and ballads between poem recitals and speeches by local community leaders. Children gathered around two camels decorated with embroidered saddles.

Abu Artima’s eyes sparkled as he watched. This is the kind of demonstration he envisioned when he and other young grassroots activists came up with the idea of building mass encampments along the fortified frontier. He calls it a protest that “tries to deliver our message as safely as possible.”

Held every two weeks, these events are in dramatic contrast to the main Friday protests.

Directed by a committee comprised of Hamas and other Gaza terror groups, the Friday demonstrations are held against a backdrop of black smoke from burning tires. Protesters hurl rocks at Israeli troops, who respond with clouds of tear gas and gunfire. Ambulances scream back and forth, ferrying the wounded to field clinics and hospitals.

When the protests began, Hamas quickly seized upon the popular idea and transformed the quiet gatherings into violent confrontations.

Under its direction, thousands of Palestinians have gathered at five sections of the fence each week, facing off against Israeli forces perched on earth mounds and in sniper positions. The Israeli troops fire live shots, rubber-covered steel pellets and tear gas, in what Israel says is a legitimate tactic to defend against attacks and border infiltrations.

Hamas officials have openly declared the intention of the riots is to breach the border fence.

Hamas’ human shields

The Gaza-based al-Mezan Center for Human Rights says 211 Palestinian protesters, most of them unarmed, have been shot dead during the demonstrations, including 46 under the age of 18. More than 18,000 have been wounded. The Health Ministry says 124 had amputations in lower limbs. One Israeli soldier has also been killed.

With Hamas dedicating this week’s protest to “child martyrs,” U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator Jamie McGoldrick urged both sides to protect children. “Boys and girls must never be targeted, put at risk or encouraged to participate in violence,” he said.

Hamas regularly uses human shields as cover for its terrorist activities. In June, 2018, the U.N. Security Council condemned the use of human shields, a position meant specifically for Hamas. “This decision is another important step in our activities to change the rules of the game at the U.N.,” Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Danny Danon said at the time.

Calling his event “The Return Journeys,” Abu Artima says he is focused on his original idea of highlighting the desire of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to the lands they fled or were forced from during the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s establishment. Some two-thirds of Gaza’s population are refugees.

“We want to present a model for the people that we can send our voice by art and national songs,” he said. “Our presence here even without direct confrontation is a message of determination.”

In Israel, the harmless sounding “right of return” is widely accepted on both sides of the political aisle as a euphemism for Israel’s destruction, entailing the return of millions of Arab “refugees” into the Jewish State. The numbers of refugees have been vastly inflated. A secret State Department report puts the actual number at closer to 20,000.

While the “right of return” was the original message of the demonstrations, Hamas quickly turned the focus to the 12-year-old blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt after the Islamic terror group seized control of Gaza in 2007.

Hamas blames the blockade for devastating Gaza’s economy and causing the unemployment rate to skyrocket to over 50 percent, ignoring its own failure to use its resources to better the lives of its citizens rather than investing in terror infrastructure, such as tunnels and missiles with which to attack Israel.

Israel says the closure is needed to prevent Hamas from arming.

Hamas views the protests as a key form of leverage in getting the closures lifted, so it urges maximum participation. On days before protests, vehicles with loudspeakers mounted on their roofs tour Gaza streets and mosques urging families to head to the fence. On Friday, buses pick up participants from across the strip.

There have also been calls to storm the frontier. In May 2018, as the U.S. was opening its embassy in Jerusalem after relocating it from Tel Aviv, more than 55 Palestinians were killed in a single day as tens of thousands protested amid Hamas calls to cross into Israel. Nearly all of them were later identified as terrorists, a testament to the ability of Israel’s security forces to make targeted killings under the most trying circumstances.

To prevent what could have been a fourth war in a decade between Hamas and Israel, mediators rushed to contain the protests. Under an unofficial Egyptian-brokered truce, Hamas scaled down the marches in recent months in return for Qatar-delivered cash infusions.

The Netanyahu administration has been criticized for allowing the payments to pass through. The Qatari cash, originally sent stuffed in suitcases, has been referred to as “protection money” by the Israeli prime minister’s political rivals, such as Israel Beiteinu’s Avigdor Liberman and Blue and White’s Benny Gantz.

On the Hamas side, critics include scores of people who were shot in the legs after Hamas assured them they would be safe. In Gaza’s inadequate medical system, such cases often end with amputations.

In a video circulated in August, a father scolded his wounded son at a hospital for going to the protests and accused doctors of not providing proper medical care for the teenage boy.

Hamas officials also came under fire after a press photo went viral showing rows of amputees at a Hamas event, each waiting for a $50 welfare payment.

Hamas attempted to portray the event as a celebration of solidarity, but critics said it was humiliating and accused the group of exploiting the wounded men for public relations purposes.

Khalil al-Hayya, a senior Hamas official, said his movement tries to provide allowances for each of those wounded.

“These are our capabilities, what shall we do? Shall we stop the protests?” he asked during a meeting with journalists earlier this month.

He said complaints of lack of proper care and discontent over the protests’ usefulness “carry a lot of exaggeration.”

One of those critics is Ziad al-Madani, a day laborer who barely scrapes together enough money to provide milk and diapers for his three children. Wounded by a live bullet last February, the 28-year-old ended up having his right leg amputated last month.

“This injury affected my life and now I’m unable to work,” he said, sitting with his children on a mattress, his leg still covered in bandages. “I did not get anything from these protests.”

Hussam al-Nadi, another young protester shot in the leg last spring, fears a similar fate. A metal ring known as a fixator stabilizes the bone in his right leg. Now, he joins the Wednesday activities organized by Abu Artima.

“This is a festival and a celebration and has no problems like the Friday protests,” he said.