With little to show, Gazans question mass border protests

Israeli forces take aim during clashes with Palestinian demonstrators following a weekly protest in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Friday. (AFP)
Updated 11 October 2019

With little to show, Gazans question mass border protests

  • Weekly protests are meant to draw attention to plight of Palestinians

GAZA CITY: Ahmed Abu Artima was one of the founders of the “Great March of Return,” the weekly protests along Gaza’s frontier with Israel meant to draw attention to the plight of the territory’s 2 million people. But these days, he mostly avoids the demonstrations. 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 beyond the hundreds of people killed or wounded by Israeli fire, 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 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.

Friday rallies
Directed by a committee comprising Hamas and other Gaza 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 says the violent protests, which are still attended by a few thousand people every Friday, are meant to force Israel to ease its crippling blockade. But the demonstrations have done little to improve conditions in Gaza, and have come at a high human cost.
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,” UN 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.

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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.

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.”
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 it seized control of Gaza in 2007.
The blockade has devastated Gaza’s economy and caused the unemployment rate to skyrocket to over 50 percent. Israel says the closure is needed to prevent Hamas from arming.

Leverage
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 US 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.
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 while Qatar delivered cash infusions for Hamas’ civil servants and welfare programs. UN-sponsored job creation programs were also envisioned.
Hamas scaled back the protests, triggering more accusations that it was acting for its own interests. Critics include scores of people who were shot in the legs. In Gaza’s overwhelmed 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.


’Sister protests’: Lebanon, Iraq look to each other

Updated 11 November 2019

’Sister protests’: Lebanon, Iraq look to each other

BEIRUT: A Lebanese flag flutters in the protest-hit Iraqi capital. More than 900 kilometers (500 miles) away, a revolutionary Iraqi chant rings out from a bustling protest square in Beirut.
“Don’t trust the rumors, they’re a group of thieves,” sings a group of Lebanese musicians in Iraqi dialect, referring to political leaders they deem incompetent and corrupt.
“The identity is Lebanese,” they continue, reworking the chant by Iraqi preacher Ali Yusef Al-Karbalai, made popular during the street movement there.
Such recent shows of solidarity have become a common feature of protest squares in the two countries, where corruption, unemployment and appalling public services have fueled unprecedented street movements demanding the ouster of an entire political class.
They serve to “shed light on similarities between the two movements and boost morale,” said Farah Qadour, a Lebanese oud musician.
“The two streets are observing and learning from each other,” said the 26-year-old who is part of the group that adopted Al-Karbalai’s chant.
In Lebanon’s southern city of Nabatiyeh, hundreds brandishing Lebanese flags chanted: “From Iraq to Beirut, one revolution that never dies.”
And in the northern city of Tripoli, dubbed the “bride” of Lebanon’s protest movement, a man standing on a podium waved a wooden pole bearing the flags of the two countries.
“From Lebanon to Iraq, our pain is one, our right is one, and victory is near,” read a sign raised during another protest, outside Beirut’s state-run electricity company.
In Tahrir Square, the beating heart of Baghdad’s month-old protest movement, demonstrators are selling Lebanese flags alongside Iraqi ones.
They have hung some on the abandoned Turkish restaurant, turned by Iraqi demonstrators into a protest control tower.
Banners reading “from Beirut to Baghdad, one revolution against the corrupt” could be seen throughout.
Lebanon and Iraq are ranked among the most corrupt countries in the region by anti-graft watchdog Transparency International, with Iraq listed as the 12th most corrupt in the world.
Public debt levels in both countries are relatively high, with the rate in Lebanon exceeding 150 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
“What’s happening on the streets in Iraq and Lebanon, they’re sister protests,” said Samah, a 28-year-old Lebanese demonstrator.
“They’re the result of an accumulation” of years of problems.
One video that went viral on social media networks showed a masked Iraqi protester dressed in military fatigues demanding the resignation of Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, one of the main targets of protesters in the small Mediterranean country.
In a video released online, a group of young Iraqi men had filmed themselves singing, “Lebanon, we’re with you!“
The two movements also seem to be adopting similar protest strategies.
In both countries, rows of parked vehicles have blocked traffic along main thoroughfares in recent weeks.
University-aged demonstrators wearing medical masks or eye goggles have occupied bridges and flyovers, refusing to believe pledges of reform from both governments.
The big difference is that in Iraq, the demonstrations have turned deadly, with more than 300 people, mostly protesters but also including security forces, killed since the movement started October 1.
Lebanon’s street movement, which started on October 17, has been largely incident-free despite scuffles with security forces and counter-demonstrators rallying in support of established parties.
The two movements, however, are united in their anger about the kind of political system that prioritizes power-sharing between sects over good governance.
The consecutive governments born out of this system have been prone to deadlock and have failed to meet popular demands for better living conditions.
“We are united by a sense of patriotic duty in confronting this sectarian political system,” said Obeida, a 29-year-old protester from Tripoli.
He said he had high hopes for Iraqi protesters because the sectarian power-sharing system there is relatively new, having emerged after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
“In Lebanon, it’s more entrenched,” he said of the arrangement that ended the country’s 1975-1990 civil war.
On a Beirut waterfront, dotted with luxury restaurants and cafes, a 70-year-old Iraqi man who has been living in Lebanon for five years looked on as demonstrators laid out picnic blankets on the grass.
With a Lebanese flag wrapped around his neck, Fawzi said the protests looked different but reminded him of those back home.
“The goal is one,” he said.