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April 16, 2010

In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict

GAZA CITY (AFP) – They walked across shelled-out no man’s land on the edge of the Gaza Strip, drawing within 200 metres (yards) of the Israeli border before gunshots snapped over their heads.

And yet the Palestinians who made their way towards the border last week had not come to fire rockets or bury explosives, but to wave flags and hurl stones in protest against Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory.

After years of armed struggle, growing numbers of Gazans are now taking up the kind of “popular resistance” pioneered in the West Bank, where similar weekly protests against Israel’s controversial separation barrier have emerged as a central expression of the Palestinian cause.

As in the West Bank, the demonstrations along the Gaza border are non-factional and tied to local concerns about land encroachment, in this case a 300-metre Israeli buffer zone inside the Gaza border fence.

“We were surprised by the popular turnout,” said Mahmud al-Zaq, who helped launch the movement with political figures, academics and rights activists. The protests regularly attract hundreds of supporters.

“We are resurrecting the popular struggle that was absent. We are not presenting ourselves as an alternative to armed struggle,” he said.

As in the West Bank, the protests are billed as non-violent but usually see youths burning tyres and hurling stones at Israeli soldiers on the other side of the fence.

But unlike in the West Bank, where troops usually respond with tear gas, sound grenades and rubber bullets, the protesters in Gaza have faced live fire.

The Israeli military says it fires warning shots over the demonstrators’ heads to keep them out of the buffer zone, a desolate strip of flattened land intended to prevent attacks by militants.

In the years leading up to the 2008-2009 Gaza war, Palestinian militants fired thousands of makeshift rockets at southern Israel and frequently clashed with its troops along the border.

The frontier has been much quieter since the war, but last month two Israeli soldiers and two Palestinian militants were killed when fierce clashes erupted after militants planted explosives.

“Each side knows that it cannot approach the security fence because it is a military zone,” an Israeli military spokesman said. “Nobody is entering the 300-metre zone in order to play ball.”

Several people have been wounded since the protests began last month, including a nine-year-old boy, Raid Abu Namus, who was shot in the head on March 30 and remains in serious condition, according to medical officials.

Such concerns have not been enough to deter people like Abdelrauf Sharrab, 43, who has taken part in several marches and describes them as a “national obligation.”

Like other demonstrators, he has been inspired by the weekly protests held in two West Bank villages against the construction of the Israeli barrier, which snakes through the occupied territory.

“The weekly demonstrations in Bilin and Nilin have shamed Israel and forced it to change the route of the wall,” he said, referring to a decision by Israel’s Supreme Court to re-route the wall near Bilin.

“Maybe here we can force Israel to stop confiscating land for the security buffer.”

The protests differ sharply from the approach taken by the Islamist Hamas movement, which has ruled Gaza since June 2007 and has the long-term goal of destroying Israel through armed struggle.

But Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said the protests “aid the military resistance because they expose the crimes of the enemy.”

“The popular resistance is a form of struggle that attracts international and global support,” he said. “But we don’t discount any other form of resistance, including military resistance.”

Although Hamas is officially committed to armed struggle, it has moved to rein in rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip in the wake of the devastating 22-day offensive Israel waged in December 2008.

Some 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the war and thousands of homes were destroyed. Thirteen Israelis were killed during the same period.

Organisers of the protests insist they are not trying to replace the armed struggle, which they argue is justified under international law because of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.

But the sheer scale of the war and its lop-sided results may have convinced many Gazans that a less violent strategy may be in order.

“This will have a greater impact than bullets and rockets,” Zaq said.