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.
“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