Gaza demonstration: peaceful protest or Hamas-led attack?

Ramallah (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) –


On Monday 60 Palestinians were killed along the Israel-Gaza border, with critics saying the Jewish state's soldiers fired indiscriminately on thousands of protesters.

Israel accused Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas of using the protests to carry out attacks.

What happened?

Beginning March 30, Palestinians have been protesting along the Gaza-Israel border for the right to return to the homes their families fled in 1948, during the war surrounding the creation of Israel.

Since then 116 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces as protests became violent clashes, with thousands injured, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza.

One Israeli soldier was hurt.

Protests culminated Monday as tens of thousands gathered along the border, coinciding with the controversial transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem.

Israel has maintained a crippling siege on Gaza since 2007 it says is necessary to isolate Hamas.

Critics say it feeds desperation and radicalism.

Was Hamas behind the protests?

Hamas, considered a terrorist organisation by Israel, the United States and others, has ruled Gaza for more than a decade since seizing it in a 2007 near civil war.

When the protests began on March 30, the organisers stressed they were independent.

From the beginning, however, Hamas embraced the protests and it seems to have exerted increasing influence over them as the weeks wore on.

In the days before Monday, Hamas leaders encouraged protesters to seek to breach the fence despite the risk of being shot.

On the day free buses ferried people to the border, while mosques encouraged people to attend.

Hours of violent protests ensued, with dozens killed.

As dusk neared and fears grew of more bloodshed after dark, the protests were suddenly over. Loudspeakers called people back and the thousands dissipated quickly.

?Hamas leads the march 90 percent," said Reham Owda, a political analyst in Gaza. "It is the current force that controls the Gaza Strip, this march was not possible without their coordination."

Were the protests peaceful?

For weeks thousands gathered in tents several hundred metres from the border, holding social events and waving flags.

But the protests were not purely peaceful, as Hamas and others claimed. Hundreds threw stones and even Molotov cocktails.

These frontlines, however, posed a limited threat to Israelis -- in most places the distances were too far for them to reach the soldiers on the other side of the border, let alone threaten the nearby Israeli communities.

The kites sent across the border carrying cans on fire were more of a practical threat, setting fire to multiple fields in recent weeks.

Over the seven weeks of protests, the overwhelming majority of demonstrators were unarmed, AFP correspondents on the scene said.

There were a handful of cases of guns being used, the Israeli army said. No rockets were fired.

On Monday smaller numbers pushed forward, seeking to breach the two layers of fence and enter Israel.

Some of these were carrying fence cutting equipment.

The Israeli army claimed there were multiple attempts to breach the fence by armed groups, and explosives were planted along the border.

It produced a video Thursday of protesters carrying knifes trying to cut the fence.

Was Israeli fire disproportionate?

The Israeli army has faced calls from the United Nations, European Union and others for an independent investigation.

The UN human rights chief on Friday called the fire "wholly disproportionate."

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein warned that "killing resulting from the unlawful use of force by an occupying power may also constitute wilful killings, a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention."

Such breaches are commonly called war crimes.

Among those shot with live ammunition were 250 children, according to Save the Children.

Israel has rebuffed calls for investigations, saying its action were necessary to stop border infiltrations.

Amit Gilutz, spokesman for the Israeli rights group B'Tselem, said "people have a right to protest without being shot at."

"There should not have been any deaths at all."

In contrast, Gerard Chaliand, a specialist in asymmetric warfare, said Israel had "no other choice."

"They could not let people cross the border."

Who are the dead?

Of the 62 killed Monday and Tuesday, a top Hamas official said 50 were members, citing "official numbers."

Other officials clarified this was the number they paid for the funerals for and pointed out this did not mean they were members of the armed wing or carrying weapons.

"If those protesters are affiliated with Hamas that does not mark them as legitimate targets," Gilutz said.

Among the dead in the early weeks was Yasser Murtaja, one of two journalists killed while wearing a press vest.

Israel claimed he was a Hamas operative, a claim undermined by proof he and the organisation he founded had been vetted by the United States.