What to expect from Friday’s protests in Gaza

A Palestinian protester uses a slingshot to throw stones towards Israeli forces along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel on April 5, 2018
AFP

Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) – Thousands of Palestinians are to protest Friday near the border between Israel and Gaza, a week after 19 people were killed by Israeli troops in the bloodiest day since the 2014 war.

What happened a week ago?

Tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered near the border last Friday at five main sites across the Gaza Strip for the start of what was dubbed the Great March of Return.

It was one of the largest protests in recent years and organisers said it would be peaceful in nature.

While the majority of those involved engaged in social events including weddings, dances and communal prayers, smaller numbers approached Israel’s border fence, throwing stones and rolling burning tyres toward troops.

In response, Israeli snipers fired live ammunition, killing 19 and injuring hundreds of others, sparking accusations of disproportionate force.

Israel had pledged to stop any damage to the fence as well as infiltration bids. It also said there was an attempted shooting attack on soldiers.

It accuses Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs Gaza and with whom it has fought three wars since 2008, of using the protests as cover to carry out violence.

What are they calling for?

The march is calling for the right of return — meaning Palestinian refugees being allowed to go back to the land they fled or were expelled from during the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation.

This is supported by the United Nations in a resolution but has never been implemented, while around five million Palestinian refugees and their descendents live in the occupied West Bank, Gaza and countries surrounding Israel.

It is a key issue for Palestinians, many of whom still have the keys of the homes their families were forced to leave.

Israel says demanding they be allowed to return amounts to calling for the country to cease to exist.

Protests are to continue until mid-May, around the time the United States is due to move its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. 

The controversial pledge by President Donald Trump infuriated Palestinians, who see the annexed eastern sector of Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

Who is behind the protests?

Israel has accused Hamas of being behind the protests.

Organisers reject this, saying the rallies are independently organised and that Hamas is one of many groups involved. 

Hamas leaders appeared at the first protest on March 30.

What are the causes of the protests?

Analysts say the protests are fuelled by growing desperation in Gaza, which has been under a strict Israeli blockade for a decade. Egypt has also largely sealed its border with the enclave in recent years, citing security reasons.

President Mahmud Abbas’s internationally recognised Palestinian government, based in the West Bank and opposed to Hamas, has also increased measures against Gaza that analysts say are designed to punish the Islamists.

The result has been a stagnant economy with unemployment around 40 percent and youth unemployment even higher. Protesters cite the lack of meaningful opportunities in Gaza for their attendance, with many claiming they are not afraid of death.

Israel also says that Hamas glorifies death and encourages angry young men to seek “martyrdom”. The Islamist movement has paid the families of those killed $3,000.

What is expected Friday?

Thousands are again expected to approach the border in the same five locations.

Organisers say they are trying to take new measures to prevent this from happening but it is unclear if they will succeed.

Young men have been gathering piles of tyres they plan to burn along the border to create smokescreens, to make it harder for snipers to hit them. 

On Thursday, young men approached the border and threw stones in multiple sites, and there are fears of more bloodshed.

Will Israel change tactics?

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the European Union and others have called for an independent investigation into last week’s deaths.

Human Rights Watch said the killings were “calculated” and illegal, while Guterres urged Israel to exercise “extreme caution”.

Israel has rejected calls for a probe and insists its open-fire rules for Gaza remain unchanged.

“If there are provocations, there will be a reaction of the harshest kind like last week,” Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said.

.