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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 October 2018

Gaza's 'night confusion units' step up months of anti-Israel protest

They do not represent an important threat, says an Israel military official: 'Our snipers have night vision'

Protesters in Gaza calling themselves the "night confusion units" hold incendiary devices attached to balloons to be launched towards Israel. AFP
Protesters in Gaza calling themselves the "night confusion units" hold incendiary devices attached to balloons to be launched towards Israel. AFP

It's nearly 10pm when young Palestinian men begin banging drums and chanting songs. Others attach incendiary devices to balloons – all closely watched by Israeli snipers on the border.

For six months, Palestinians gathered regularly along the fence between the Gaza Strip and Israel for often-violent daylight demonstrations against Israeli policies.

But in recent weeks they developed a new tactic: "night confusion units".

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Protests can go on until the early hours.

Organisers say they want to force Israel into easing its crippling decade-long blockade of Gaza, but residents in nearby Israeli communities say their lives are being destroyed.

Israel accuses Gaza's Hamas rulers of controlling the protests.

Hamas says it backs the demonstrations but is not commanding them. It says the idea for night protests came from the demonstrators themselves.

"Every day the young men on the border invent ways to develop marches and the most recent was the night confusion unit," Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said.

An Israeli military official, who did not want to be identified, said the night protests do not pose a new challenge.

"Our soldiers, including our snipers, have night vision equipment," he said.

"There are a few dozen, sometimes a few hundred demonstrators [at night]... they burn tyres, throw incendiary bottles and sometimes grenades and do not represent a more important threat than the daytime demonstrations."

A Palestinian protester takes part in a night-time protest on the Gaza-Israel border. AFP
A Palestinian protester takes part in a night-time protest on the Gaza-Israel border. AFP

The night protests are part of a resurgence in border demonstrations following a brief lull as Egypt and UN officials pursued a long-term truce between Hamas and Israel.

Those talks stalled, as did efforts to reconcile Hamas and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas's rival Fatah group.

As a result, there have been renewed warnings of yet another conflict between Hamas and Israel. The two sides fought three wars since 2008.

During one recent night-time protest, AFP watched as several hundred demonstrators gathered a few dozen metres from Israeli soldiers – separated by the fence – near Rafah in southern Gaza.

In a tent slightly further into the strip, young men inflated dozens of white balloons inscribed with "I love you".

They then attached flaming devices to the balloons, and launched them towards Israeli territory.

Others hurled primitive sound grenades – their booms resonated across the border.

"We will not stop launching incendiary balloons until we break the siege on Gaza," said "Abu Anas", one of the organisers of the night's activities.

Anas insisted the movement was independent of Hamas.

Saqer Al Jamal, 22, said he and fellow protesters believe Israeli soldiers fear their actions.

"The goal is to confuse the occupation and send our message to the settlers nearby that there is no sleep until we achieve our demands of lifting the siege and returning to our country," he said.

Rony Kissin, spokeswoman for the Israeli community of Kerem Shalom located next to the Gaza border, called the night protests a "nightmare".

"Now they've started to throw sound bombs and it's very, very scary," Ms Kissin said.

"The children are very afraid of it. It's very dangerous. It is really like a weapon."

Balloons attached to flammable materials launched by Palestinian protesters fly towards Israel. AFP
Balloons attached to flammable materials launched by Palestinian protesters fly towards Israel. AFP

The border protests since March 30 have been labelled the "Great March of Return" because demonstrators call for Palestinian refugees to return to their former homes inside what is now Israel.

More than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled in the 1948 war surrounding Israel's creation.

At least 194 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed by Israeli fire since the protests began. One Israeli soldier was killed in the border area during the same period.

Israel says its actions are necessary to defend the border and stop infiltration and attacks, which it accuses Hamas of orchestrating.

It also points to the hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage caused to Israeli farmland by the kites and balloons.

But Israel's use of live fire during the protests has drawn international concern.

Palestinians and rights groups say demonstrators have been shot while posing no real threat.

Just before midnight in one recent protest, dozens of youths approached the fence in an attempt to breach it.

One of the youngsters collapsed to the ground.

Medics treated the 17-year-old, who was shot in the foot.

Mohammed Abu Aqaleen, another 17-year-old, said he was shot three months ago and now walks on crutches. He vowed the demonstrators would "continue to confuse the enemy with sound grenades and horns".

His family fled Jaffa – now inside Israel – in the 1948 war.

"This confusion will bring us back to Jaffa," he said.