World News

Waves of Gazans vs. Israeli Tear Gas and Bullets: Deadliest Mayhem in Years

Posted May 14, 2018 8:35 p.m. EDT

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — He crawled along the bumpy ground, wire-cutters in hand. People around him were felled by bullets. He choked when Israeli jeeps sped past, peppering him with tear gas. A few yards away, a man was shot in the leg. Behind him, he said, a teenage boy was shot in the head, fatally.

By the end of the day, Ismail Khaas, a 23-year-old Palestinian protester, accomplished what he had set out to do: He touched the fence separating Gaza from Israel.

“That’s the priority, and we achieved it,” he said.

Khaas insisted he did not have a death wish. But on Monday, the deadliest day in Gaza since the 2014 war with Israel, the risks may not have seemed commensurate with the rewards.

He was one of thousands of young Palestinians who charged the fence in waves, engaged in what seemed a logic-defying game of chicken with the highly armed Israeli soldiers arrayed on the other side of the fence.

Both sides were driven by history and politics in one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

Many of the Gaza protesters were furious at the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the disputed holy city, with a ceremony that took place Monday barely 40 miles away.

The protests also were timed to the eve of the 70th anniversary of what the Palestinians call the nakba, or catastrophe, on May 15, 1948, when hundreds of thousands were fled or forced from their homes in what is now Israel.

For many of the young protesters flinging themselves at the fence, with such little real hope of getting through, it also seemed an act of desperation over the circumstances of their impoverished, isolated lives in a territory that they call a virtual prison camp since Israel imposed a blockade 11 years ago.

Khaas, for instance, has no job, has never left Gaza and by his own admission spends much of his time sleeping. His only achievable dream, of getting married, is hindered by poverty — he does not even have a bedroom to himself in his family’s home.

The mass protest also was an act of defiance. Among the first Gazans to stride toward the border fence on Monday were groups of women in long black cloaks, many clutching shoulder bags and holding aloft Palestinian flags. Other women followed, recording their steps with cellphone cameras.

“We don’t want just one or two to get closer,” shouted a woman cloaked in a niqab, the full-body female garb worn by devout Muslims, urging others to follow. “We want a group.”

For the protest organizers, the prominence of women may have been encouraged by another reason — the Israeli soldiers might be less likely to fire on women.

The sky was filled with Israeli drones and Palestinian kites, some carrying crude explosive loads that their flyers were hoping would blow into Israel. Now and then, a shot rang out as Israeli soldiers picked off individual marchers, usually by shooting them in the legs, creating a brief flurry of panic that caused some protesters to retreat or flee.

But that sense of restraint evaporated as crowds swelled along the length of the fence. Inky clouds of smoke from burning tires piled high by the protesters to obscure the Israeli view were laced with spirals of tear gas fired from the Israeli side. The rate of sniper fire increased. Palestinian ambulances screamed back and forth. The number of deaths rose sharply.

The scenes resembled a sweeping tableau of an old-fashioned battleground. Behind the central protest zone, there were areas for prayer, refreshments, medical care and even entertainment. Protesters chatted or ate lunch as shouting rescuers rushed past, carrying the dead or wounded.

After midday prayers, clerics and leaders of militant factions in Gaza, led by Hamas, urged thousands of worshippers to join the protests. The fence had already been breached, they said falsely, claiming Palestinians were flooding into Israel.

Several speakers reserved their harshest words for President Donald Trump and his decision to move the United States embassy to Jerusalem, which Palestinians want to claim for their capital in their aspirations for a future state.

“America is the greatest Satan,” said Sheikh Marwan Abu Rass, a portly cleric who held his index finger in the air as several thousand people did the same. “Now we are heading to Jerusalem with millions of martyrs. We may die, but Palestine will live.”

It seemed to work. As he spoke, smoke rose in the sky, and men peeled off and started to move toward the fence. As the afternoon wore on the confrontation was punctuated by booms and blasts. An Israeli tank shell landed in a field of cucumbers behind the protest area, hurting nobody. A hovering drone emitted a volley of tear gas canisters that tumbled and curled through the air, scattering protesters.

At the rear of the protest area, Aseel Nasser, a determined 12-year-old girl, stood her ground. Facing a video camera operated by her brother, she recited a poem that extolled the virtues of jihad against Zionists. She was undeterred by the risks, explained her father, Khalil Nassar, 46, an education ministry official, who had brought her along. “It would be a great honor to be martyred by the occupation,” he said.

The father was interrupted by a new blast: an Israeli airstrike against a building a few miles away, in Gaza City. It was the fifth of the afternoon, and now the protesters started to move away. Some carried trophies, like small lengths of barbed wire they had snatched from the fence. A man whose face was covered by a scarf triumphantly brandished a pair of wire-cutters. Asked if it had been worth it, he shrugged. “This is normal, here,” he said.

Aseel and her father left, too. They would return on Tuesday for more protests, they said.