KHUZAA, Gaza Strip (AP) - Palestinian activists chanted “death is better than humiliation” as three-wheelers stacked with old tires drove into a tent camp in a barley field near Gaza’s border. The tires are to be burned at a mass protest on Friday, in hopes clouds of black smoke will shield demonstrators from Israeli snipers.
For some of the young Gaza men hanging around the camp, the chant wasn’t just rousing hyperbole. They have been throwing stones and burning tires near the border in recent days, despite new warnings by Israel’s defense minister that anyone getting too close to the fence risks getting killed.
It’s not an idle threat - 19 people were killed by Israeli fire since last Friday, including 14 in border protests, and many more were wounded.
Nahed Qudih, a 17-year-old high school student, said he has nothing to lose by joining his peers in the seemingly futile and dangerous act of running toward armed soldiers who fire from behind a fence, some perched on high earthen berms providing cover.
“If I was wounded or became a martyr, my family would be proud,” he said.
Qudih’s family would like to see him realize his dream of becoming an engineer, but “not an idle engineer,” he said, referring to bleak job prospects amid rising Gaza unemployment, now at 48 percent, according to the Palestinian statistics bureau.
Such desperation has helped drive what Gaza’s Islamic militant Hamas rulers hope will be several weeks of border protests, with the largest crowds expected on Fridays.
The idea was initially floated by social media activists, but has since been coopted by Hamas, with the backing of smaller militant factions.
Employing its organizational prowess, Hamas set up five tent camps near border points as a magnet for protesters, offering bus shuttles and monitoring developments from an operations room.
For Hamas, it’s perhaps the last chance to break a Gaza border blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt since seizing the territory from its rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in 2007.
The blockade has devastated Gaza’s economy, made it virtually impossible for people to enter and exit the territory and left residents with just a few hours of electricity a day. Tap water is undrinkable and the Mediterranean coastline has been polluted with untreated waste.
Other blockade-busting tactics by Hamas have failed over the years, including three cross-border wars with Israel and repeated rounds of unsuccessful power-sharing talks with the West Bank-based Abbas. The last round collapsed last month, in part because Hamas refused to disarm.
Hamas leaders have billed the final protest, set for May 15, as the “Great March of Return” of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, implying they would try to enter Israeli territory. But they have stopped short of specifically threatening a mass breach of the border fence.
It’s a risky plan.
Three senior Hamas official said the group wants to avoid another devastating war with Israel, but border tensions could quickly escalate - especially if Israel makes good on threats to target Hamas positions deeper inside Gaza unless the protests stop.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing confidential strategy, acknowledged they don’t have a Plan B if the blockade remains in place after May 15.
At a minimum, Hamas hopes to draw international attention to Gaza and improve leverage if Egypt brokers a new round of talks with Abbas, the officials said. In a sign that the pressure is working, the Egyptian intelligence met with Abbas this week to try to prevent a Gaza escalation.
Israel has accused Hamas, which it considers a terrorist group, of cynically exploiting Gaza’s civilians for its political gains by sending them to the dangerous border area.
It argues that it has a right to defend its border, alleging that Hamas used last week’s protest as cover for trying to damage the border fence, plant explosives and, in one incident, fire on soldiers. Military officials believe Hamas is encouraging people to break through the border.
Israel has rejected criticism of open-fire orders that allowed soldiers last Friday to target the “main instigators” of protests and those approaching the fence. Rights groups have said firing at protesters who don’t pose an imminent threat to the lives of soldiers is “blatantly unlawful.”
Israel argues that Hamas could have ended the suffering of Gaza’s 2 million people by disarming and renouncing violence. Hamas has refused to give up its weapons - even at the cost of derailing talks on getting Abbas to assume the burden of governing Gaza, a prerequisite for opening Gaza’s borders.
Critics say the closure policy has backfired by largely harming Gaza civilians, while leaving Hamas solidly in control. They also accuse Israel of using the blockade to advance political aims, such as deepening a separation of Gaza from the West Bank, both sought for a future Palestinian state.
In a protest camp near the village of Khuzaa in central Gaza, about 500 meters (yards) from the border fence, organizers were busy preparing for the next round of marches.
Musab al-Qasas, 26, unemployed and supervising tire collection Tuesday, said the protests gave him and his friends a sense of purpose. He said he has been injured twice in protests near the border since President Donald Trump recognized contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December.
Al-Qasas said desperation over bleak job prospects and economic hardship isn’t the sole motive for continuing to risk his life. “I love my homeland and I’m ready to sacrifice for it,” he said.
Israel has alleged that the protests are led by militant groups, saying at least 11 of those killed belonged to armed factions, including two who opened fire on Israeli soldiers Friday.
Organizers have portrayed those affiliated with militant groups as fellow protesters who left weapons and faction insignia at home.
By sunset Tuesday, thousands of people, including families with children, had flocked to the Khuzaa encampment, which has become a center of nightly entertainment.
Patriotic songs played over loudspeakers, and people performed folk dances in small circles. Vendors sold falafel and ice cream. Those who wanted more calm spread their prayer rugs and mats on a drying barley field behind the camp and sat there, sipping coffee and tea they from thermos bottles.
The camp was equipped with portable toilets, floodlights and internet service. Earthen berms between the border and the camp provided additional protection. Ambulances were on stand-by to ferry the wounded to hospitals.
“People come here out of frustration,” said Qudih, the high school student. “If the situation is good, you won’t see anybody here.”
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed.
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