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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Four killed as Gazans return to protest at border fence

Hundreds injured as Israeli troops fire on slingshot-carrying demonstrators

Tens of teargas canisters fired by Israeli troops, fall over Palestinian protesters at the Gaza Strip's border with Israel,
Tens of teargas canisters fired by Israeli troops, fall over Palestinian protesters at the Gaza Strip's border with Israel,

Black smoke billowed from burning tyres, darkening the clear blue sky and shielding the growing mass of protesters from the view of the Israeli soldiers hunkered down in earthen mounds on the other side of the fence marking the edge of the Gaza Strip.

Thousands of Palestinians on Friday returned to the fence that hems in Gaza’s 1.8 million inhabitants and all but cutting it off from the outside world with a blockade that prevents goods from coming in and its inhabitants from leaving.

Four people were killed and more than 600 injured from gunshots and the effects of teargas at five sites along the fence, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. As the ambulances drove away, they passed small trucks heading the other way with tyres to fuel the fire set by the protesters.

Hobbling determinedly on his crutches, Rami Qambas, 25, was returning to the fence after being shot during protests on April 30 here at Malaka, a barren stretch of uneven ground along the border next to a Coca Cola factory. His leg was wrapped in a thick layer of bandages, with metal stabilisers sticking out.

"I'm not afraid, I'm going back to my land," he said just before the next round of tear gas came whizzing across the border.

Fired from an Israeli armoured car, the canisters arced towards the crowd, trailed by fizzy vapour, before hitting the ground. The crowd hastily dispersed as the white clouds of gas contrasted with the tyre smoke only to return once the gas had dissipated.

Protests along the separation fence have been a weekly occurrence since March 30, which marked the anniversary of the expulsion in 1948 of Palestinians from today's Israel.

Dubbed the Great March of Return, it had claimed the lives of 123 protesters before Friday’s protest, and left thousands wounded as Israeli troops at the border fired live ammunition and teargas into the crowds.

Protests petered out in recent weeks, as the Ramadan fast and the sweltering heat kept people at home. But Gazans were back in force and with new impetus on Friday to commemorate the capture of Jerusalem by the Israelis in the 1967 war.

After noon prayers, Gazans thronged to the fence. The organisers had erected a podium under a makeshift roof that provided cover from the scorching sun, and the sound system soon blared out speeches to whip up the crowd.

"We going to march to Jerusalem with one million martyrs," cried Khalded Abatsh, one of the leaders of Islamic Jihad, a militant movement in Gaza.

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Moderate members of the committee that had organised the protests were also present and keen to emphasise the demonstration’s non-violent nature. Under cover of the thick black smoke, only the daring approached the fence, mainly young men and youths unleashing stones from slingshots at the soldiers. In return, the crack of sniper rifles ripped through the air.

After each shot paramedics rushed to the crowd at the fence, and carried stricken Palestinians on stretchers with gaping wounds and bundled them into ambulances.

At a safe distance from the fence behind earthen mounds, young men attached burning cloth to the tail of fire kites to set fire to the parched farmland that runs up to the fence on the Israeli side.

An Israeli drone unsuccessfully tried to cut the wires of the kite, but the attempt failed and the drone fell from the sky to be whisked away by a jubilant mob.

Obaida, 25, who had been hurling stones since the protests began on March 30, said he left the fence in the late afternoon as he “noticed that the snipers were beginning to target me”, he told The National.

“I want us to be able to return to our land, and stop the entire world from besieging us. We don't have jobs here, we don't have anything," he said.

Around two thirds of Gaza's 1.8m inhabitants are descendants of Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes in 1948. Its economy has been in the chokehold of a tight blockade enforced by Israel and neighbouring Egypt since Hamas was elected in 2006.

Repeated conflict has devastated the strip's infrastructure and stymied economic growth. The Israeli military has entered Gaza repeatedly to clash with Hamas, whose military wing is designated a terrorist organisation by the US and the European Union.

According to the World Bank, unemployment in Gaza is at 44 per cent. More than 60 per cent of those under thirty are unable to find work. One third of Gaza residents live below the poverty line, estimates the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. The creaking infrastructure fails to provide for enough clean water, and more than four hours of electricity a day.

The daily frustrations in Gaza will keep the protests alive, according to the organisers. “We have decided that we will continue the protests until we have our rights: The end of the siege of Gaza and the recognition of Jerusalem as a Palestinian city,” says Ektemal Hammal, a member of the organising committee.

Exhausted from the heat and the tear gas, most people trudged home after a few hours of protest. Many will return next week.