Gaza protests grind on with little hope

Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) –


Mohammed Hellis takes three things with him to demonstrate Fridays on the Gaza border with Israel: a traditional Palestinian scarf, a slingshot and his ID card for identification if shot dead.

The 21-year-old no longer believes the Hamas-backed protests that began more than 18 months ago will change Israeli policy or improve his life in the Gaza Strip.

But, like for the few thousand people who continue to turn out weekly, the demonstrations have become a potentially deadly routine.

"When Thursday comes around I don't know how to sleep. I am excited for Friday. What do I want to do tomorrow? I think about getting ready, where I will go, who will come with me," Hellis said.

The March of Return protests, which began in March 2018, were originally conceived by civil society groups to peacefully protest Israel's crippling decade-long blockade of Gaza.

Yet they were quickly seized upon by Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas, who have fought three wars with Israel since 2008, and have been accompanied by clashes.

Officially the demonstrations are still going strong but the numbers of protesters have dropped from tens of thousands for much of 2018 to only a few thousand, and global interest has all but disappeared.

At least 311 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in Gaza since the protests began, the majority during the demonstrations, while thousands of others have been wounded.

Eight Israelis have been killed in Gaza-related violence over the same period.

- 'People want explosions' -

Hellis shares a single bedroom in a rundown flat in Shejaiya, east of Gaza City, with his four brothers. Between them they have been shot 15 times since protests began, they say.

None of them has full-time work -- around two-thirds of young people in Gaza are unemployed.

His older brother Ziad's leg is in a cast and he lost most of his hearing after being hit on the ear with a tear gas canister, but he drags himself to the border most weeks.

Hellis, who has gained a dedicated group of young followers due to his reputation for bravery close to the border fence, says people are "suffocated by life" in Gaza.

"There are people with a very high level of poverty. They are just asking for normal lives."

Israel says the blockade of Gaza is necessary to isolate Hamas -- designated a terrorist organisation by much of the West -- and stop it from obtaining materials for weapons.

Critics say it is collective punishment of two million people and feeds extremism.

In recent months, Hamas has struck an informal truce with Israel in exchange for a slight easing of the blockade.

As a result, it pressured demonstrators to tone down the protests, calling for fewer Molotov cocktails and an end to nighttime protests that tormented Israeli families living close to the border.

Hellis, who was part of the night brigades, thinks the lack of action has contributed to fewer protesters.

"People want explosions, they want tyres burned. There is something missing," he said.

Tareq Baconi of the International Crisis Group think tank said the protests had initially succeeded in highlighting the impact of Israel's blockade, which began in 2006.

They showed Palestinian "popular resistance on the world stage again, to demonstrate that the blockade was unjust", he said.

Yet that initial success faded and the protests are now heavily influenced by Hamas, which can ramp them up or down to increase leverage with Israel.

"It has become a tool to pressure Israel into agreeing to ceasefires," Baconi said.

- 'Dreams are gone' -

Hamas has faced criticism from some in Gaza for keeping the protests going, seemingly without purpose.

Alaa Hamdan, 28, was killed on October 4.

As they brought his body home, a veiled relative screamed at the TV cameras, apparently addressing Hamas.

"Shame on you -- every day 'return, return, return (marches)'. You killed us with your return. What did we get from 'return'? Tell us," she shouted.

She said Alaa was trying to save cash for IVF treatments for his wife.

"He was looking for work but couldn't find it. He was going to the return marches just to eat."

Free meals and drinks are given out by pro-Hamas organisations at the border.

Ziad, 24, says boredom drives people to the protests.

"(My father) told me not to go. But we are living in this house... five brothers in one room, on top of each other, always in each others' faces," he said.

"You have to change the atmosphere."

Hellis sees little alternative to continuing the protests in a Gaza Strip trapped in misery, even if he ends up dead.

"My dreams ended, my dreams are gone."