Catholic Relief Services official: There’s little hope for an end to border violence in Gaza

An elderly Palestinian man falls on the ground after being shot by Israeli troops during a deadly protest at the Gaza Strip's border with Israel on May 14. Thousands of Palestinians are protesting near Gaza's border with Israel, as Israel celebrates the inauguration of a new U.S. Embassy in contested Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)An elderly Palestinian man falls on the ground after being shot by Israeli troops during a deadly protest at the Gaza Strip's border with Israel on May 14. Thousands of Palestinians are protesting near Gaza's border with Israel, as Israel celebrates the inauguration of a new U.S. Embassy in contested Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Why would anyone try to stare down military snipers at the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip? The Israeli Defense Forces killed scores of protesters and wounded thousands more when they did so on May 14. Now after a day of funerals and relative quiet on May 15, a new confrontation at the border may be brewing for Friday, May 18.

The willingness to rush the border fence despite the I.D.F.’s overwhelming firepower is a testimony to the despair of the people living in Gaza, said John Byrne, the chief of party in Gaza for Catholic Relief Services. Mr. Byrne describes a populace so frustrated by the Israeli occupation and chronic suffering on the Gaza Strip that many have told him that death at the border was a sacrifice they were willing to make. The border demonstrators, Mr. Byrne said, hoped their suffering might return world attention, distracted by other conflicts in Yemen, Syria and several countries in Africa, to the dismal conditions in Gaza.

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“They’re worried that people will forget or that people won’t take seriously what has happened to them.” Mr. Byrne was speaking from Jerusalem, where he had been briefly evacuated along with the rest of the international staff for C.R.S. in Gaza. He planned to return to Gaza, where he has resided for two years, on May 17.

Officials in the Islamic militant group Hamas have been pressuring many in Gaza to take part in the border demonstrations lest they or their families be perceived as disloyal, he said. But many probably did not need much persuading. “The feeling here is that there are no other options; they must bring attention to this and they are willing to sacrifice themselves because they believe life in Gaza is so difficult and getting worse in so many ways,” Mr. Byrne said. “There is a feeling of ‘What is the difference? How could it be worse?’”

Many protesters have come to believe that there is no other way for them to respond “except to put themselves up as martyrs at the border.” Mr. Byrne noted that a quote in a recent New York Times interview with a young Gazan—“life in Gaza is like dying…that it is a slow death”—is a widely shared sentiment. The young men who are protesting “feel they have no other choice.”

“I can get shot; it doesn’t matter. I’m living and dying at the same time,” Mr. Bryne described their thinking. Parents, exhausted by life in Gaza themselves, are unwilling or unable to intervene, he said.

The willingness to rush the border fence despite the I.D.F.’s overwhelming firepower is a testimony to the despair of the people living in Gaza.

A number of events converging on May 14 helped propel the border violence: the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, and the beginning of the annual commemoration of the Nakba, or the “catastrophe.” That is how Palestinians remember their mass displacement during the 1948-1949 wars. Their refugee status has now persisted for seven decades.

Pressure had been building, Mr. Byrne said, over the weeks since the start of “the Great March of Return” demonstrations at the border on March 30. “Everyone in Gaza was saying that ‘something’ would happen [on May 14].… They didn’t know what.”

That something turned out to be 58 deaths—57 people killed by Israeli army fire and a baby who died from tear gas inhalation. The Gaza Health Ministry reports that six of those killed by gunshots were minors and more than 2,700 people were injured, including 1,360 by live fire. Of the wounded, 130 remain in serious or critical condition. Justifying its use of lethal force, Israel has accused Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militants of using the protests—involving women, children, young people and elderly civilians—as a pretext to infiltrate Israel and carry out terrorist attacks.

“For the people of Gaza, yesterday was a day of tragedy,” said the U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov, briefing the Security Council in New York on May 15.

“Israel has a responsibility to calibrate its use of force, to not use lethal force except as a last resort, under imminent threat of death or serious injury,” Mr. Mladenov said. “It must protect its borders from infiltration and terrorism, but it must do so proportionally.”

“Israel has a responsibility to calibrate its use of force, to not use lethal force except as a last resort, under imminent threat of death or serious injury.”

He also called on Hamas, which controls Gaza, not to use the protests as a diversion for carrying out violent attacks at the border and provoking Israeli forces. “Its operatives must not hide among the demonstrators and risk the lives of civilians,” he said.

A senior Hamas official Salah Bardawil said on May 16 that 50 out of the nearly 60 protesters killed were Hamas members, with the others being “from the people.” It was unclear if the protesters he was referring to were militants or civilian supporters of the Islamic group.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said that admission meant “that there was no popular protest. This was an organized mob of terrorists organized by Hamas." But human rights groups say the identity of slain protesters, including a possible affiliation to a militant group, is irrelevant if they were unarmed and did not pose an immediate threat to the lives of soldiers when they were shot.

Gazans believed the demonstrations and death of protesters at the border would attract world attention, and it has. But, according to Mr. Byrne, they have been disappointed by the international response so far, especially the indifference to the bloodshed shown by the leadership and people of the United States.

While U.N. officials and European Union delegates to the United Nations quickly deplored the I.D.F.’s combat response to demonstrators and urged restraint, U.S. state department officials and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, blamed Hamas leadership for inciting the violence and refused to comment on Israeli tactics. A State Department spokesperson did note at a press briefing on May 15 that the Trump administration “regrets the loss of life.”

“Gazans don’t understand why people don’t care,” Mr. Byrne said—and not just about Monday’s violence, but the grind that is life in Gaza under Israeli occupation.

Mr. Byrne can offer a depressing litany of socioeconomic and infrastructural challenges that combine into the misery of Gaza. Most residents have electric power for only about three hours a day; water purification and sewage systems do not work. “The water is undrinkable, it has to be trucked in,” Mr. Byrne said. Garbage collection has essentially ceased. Unemployment, officially 44 percent, is actually significant higher, he believes. His C.R.S. program is aimed at providing employment for 14,000 people over five years. It has received 158,000 applicants for those placements.

Many people are sheltering in homes that remain only partially rehabilitated since the 2014 war between Hamas and Israel. The third open conflict between the I.D.F. and Hamas since 2008’s “Operation Cast Lead,” it led to weeks of aerial and artillery pounding of Gaza City and finally ended with more than 2,100 killed and more than 17,000 homes damaged or destroyed.

Few on the strip will ever have the opportunity to leave; women and children may be occasionally allowed through the Erez Crossing into Israel, typically for medical treatment, and the Egyptian crossing at Rafah is infrequently opened. That means many of the boys who grow into claustrophobic manhood in Gaza have never been out of the Gaza Strip. That is part of the reason Gaza, one of the most densely populated places on earth, has been likened to an open-air prison.

After two years in Gaza, Mr. Byrne describes residents as “friendly” and “resilient,” even optimistic. “In spite of all that is happening, people have still been hopeful,” he said.

But he has watched over the last two months as that hope has all but evaporated. “They used to think that somehow everything would eventually work out; they don’t feel that way anymore. They are receiving no leadership from Hamas or the Palestinian Authority. They feel oppressed constantly by Israel, and they feel abandoned by the international community.”

A perfect storm of fiscal pressures in recent weeks preceded Monday’s violence. The Palestinian Authority, hard-pressed for cash itself, has been making only partial payments to the significant number of salaried personnel it maintains in Gaza. And funding from U.N. and the U.S. Agency for International Development for employment and other projects in Gaza has been discontinued or held up for reassessment by the Trump administration. With salaries and paychecks halted, everyday commerce has ground to halt, and the cash economy in Gaza has shut down, Mr. Byrne said.

Over the last two months, “conditions that were already bad got considerably worse.”

“We have been calling this a slow-onset emergency,” he said. He is preparing now for that emergency to escalate.

“There will be marches again on this Friday and they are called to continue until June 5, but I don’t believe that people have the stomach to march anymore after seeing what happened on Monday.”

The right of return is certainly an issue that has compelled some to the border demonstrations, he said, “but it is really being able to live like human beings with some dignity and autonomy” that are the prime motivations.

“It’s that simple. People want to be able to move freely, to have a little money in their pockets and to have some hope for a future—if not for themselves then for their children.”

With reporting from the Associated Press

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
5 months 1 week ago

Did Hamas create this particular crisis to get photos of dying people in order to generate sympathy? Apparently so.

To the point of getting babies killed for photo ops? Is that also true?

Would life be much better in Gaza if Hamas disappeared? Probably so. Life in Gaza is a horror show but is it Hamas or Israel that is creating the horror? You get very conflicting reports.

Mike McDermott
5 months 1 week ago

Despair? Not really. Their motivation is an ideologically driven anti-semetic hatred. Generations taught to hate the other (in this case the Jewish people) are driven to behave this way. The responsibility for this bloodshed begins and ends with Hamas.

John Corcoran
5 months 1 week ago

Mike, how long do you think these people should be kept in this open air prison ? Is 70 years not long enough?

William Bannon
5 months 1 week ago

50 of the 60 killed were Hamas members per Hamas. That might never reach fake news.
It raises the question....what were these fifty doing physically to get themselves shot....were they using wire cutters on the fense, were they trespassing the buffer zone? The NY Times reported that the baby had a heart condition and doctors differed on whether tear gas affected her at all. Her mom was at home....a twelve year old brought her on the bus unbeknownst to the mom who stayed home with a tooth ache.

rick mazzola
5 months 1 week ago

I sadly but do understand why my country, the United State, looks the other way when Israel conducts it's terrorist activities like this one, it's political suicide (think Jewish money) and though I pray that the U.S. orders Israel to give up the land it encroaches on and Netanyahu stops killing innocent Women and Children or we will break off all Diplomatic Relations with them. But no such pro quid pro exists between the Israeli government and the Vatican who should be shouting loud and clear for Terrorist Israel to end it's violence against Palestine and the Palestinian people or break its Diplomatic Relations.

Vincent Gaglione
5 months ago

May I suggest a perspective on the Palestinian-Israeli situation that sheds light on how badly the situation has deteriorated? There is no one answer to all the issues of the situation, both sides being responsible for behaviors that have deepened the problem. There are attitudes, however, that have evolved, that work against the resolution of the situation, and NY TIMES op-ed writer David Brooks speaks to them eloquently (Friday, May 18, 2018, NY TIMES), at least I think so:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/17/opinion/gaza-israel-palestinian-extr…

Randal Agostini
5 months ago

How do you put a lid on a boiling kettle - you can't unless you turn the heat down. It is ridiculous to keep printing about the same suffering over and over again, without ever seeking to resolve the cause of the problem. How do you correct a wayward child - by appeasement?
It is unfortunate that for years misguided compassion and tax paid funds have both fueled an economy and incited generations who believe that pictures of death and destruction have led to more of the same aid that has kept Gazan's as prisoners in their own land.
Gaza could be a thriving society like Lebanon was and Singapore or Hong Kong are, as a conduit between Egypt and Israel.
This conflict is built upon Hamas hate for Israel and Israelis, which has been proven over and over again through their persistent aggression against the country of Israel.
It is unfortunate that the Trump administration has turned off the spigot that has maintained the Gaza economy, but it may be the key that unlocks the elusive door to peace.

J Cosgrove
5 months ago

Gaza has a border with Egypt and a large percentage of those in Gaza originally were descendants of Egyptian residents. So it is not just Israel that contains Gaza. They also have a border on the Mediterranean.

A lot of their problems might disappear if they recognized Israel and got rid of Hamas. Not an accepted solution unfortunately. Why?

Danny Collins
5 months ago

"The willingness to rush the border fence despite the I.D.F.’s overwhelming firepower is a testimony to the despair of the people living in Gaza"

Despair or a hatred of Israel and a willingness to be martyred for the cause of Islam? The willful blindness and unwillingness to quote Hamas leaders when they are speaking to their own people betrays that the author of this article is unwilling to acknowledge the truth of the situation.

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