'We Die Anyway, So Let It Be in Front of the Cameras': Conversations With Gazans

My friends in Gaza are outraged by Israel's claim that Hamas rules everything. 'You people always looked down at us, so it's hard for you to understand that no one demonstrates in anyone else's name'

Palestinian demonstrators run for cover from tear gas launched by Israeli soldiers during protests along the Israel-Gaza border on May 15, 2018.
THOMAS COEX/AFP

“Our ability, the Palestinians, to be killed is greater than your ability, the Israelis, to kill,” a resident of the Deheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem told me at the beginning of the second intifada. Ever an optimist, he meant that because of this difference, in the end the two sides would reach a fair agreement.

On Tuesday this week, alongside the border fence and across from Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip, his mistake once again became clear. There’s a limit to the Palestinians’ ability to be killed. In the morning after the Monday of bloodshed, the protesters took a break. Sixty fresh mourning tents and hundreds of newly wounded justified the lull they asked for. The next day, Nakba Day, which was supposed to be the peak, was actually the day they gave up on the symbolic mass March of Return to the border fence.

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Between the sunflower and potato fields of the kibbutzim, I was jealous of my colleagues who were forwarding the statements by the army and Israeli politicians with such great self-persuasion. According to Israeli spokespeople, both military and civilian, the respite along the border fence is unequivocal proof that Hamas’ leaders control everything, and everyone is under their authority; they’re the ones who sent the people to their deaths a day earlier, they’re the ones who prevented that scenario the next day. So simple.

According to those reports, Egypt handed down instructions to stop the process – after receiving an Israeli request – and Hamas obeyed. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was humiliated, and it worked. All this is received in Israel as established facts, investigative journalism and another Israeli victory. There’s no need to be in Gaza to know, and it doesn’t matter that the army forbids Israeli journalists to enter the Strip.

All our bionic powers do the work: balloons for taking photographs, drones, eavesdropping, collaborators, an off-the-record statement by a senior Fatah official in Ramallah. All this appears to provide what we interpret as the gospel truth. In comparison, an abundance of details, explanations, assumptions, denials, hesitations and contradictions that we receive from the Palestinian side are considered failed journalism that doesn’t provide a bottom line.  

Near the sprinklers blithely spraying water in the Israeli fields, I wondered: If you knew that Hamas planned to cynically send people to their deaths so as to once again gain attention and portray Israel as evil, why do you do what they wanted? Why do you, who didn’t use nonlethal means, obey Hamas too?  

There’s an interior fence, a security fence, and a berm that was built with earth removed from the digging of Israel’s new underground barrier. And there’s a security road and then another one. And then the fields. Around it all are lookout posts and above are surveillance balloons and drones. And all you could do was prove Israel’s ability to kill and maim?

Silent proximity

From a hill in the fields of Kibbutz Nir Am, you could clearly see Beit Hanun, Izbet Abed Rabo and the edges of Shujaiyeh in northern Gaza. The tall apartment blocks too, rising high. The continuous built-up area from Beit Lahia to the southern end of Gaza City seems very close. A single white pickup truck drove along the seam line between the farmed Palestinian fields and the wide strip of land where Israel forbids farming, and to the north a horse-drawn cart set off.  

This silent proximity, without any contact, demonstrated the state of imprisonment – from the opposite side. After all, I once lived there, I went to all those places that I now see through binoculars and remember the events I covered and the people I wrote about, between the wars, during the wars, during the uprisings and so-to-speak lulls.

Now these places are a film, to see and not touch. A kilometer or two away are my friends, dear to me, and we’re not allowed to see each other anymore. One of them joked that he’d come to the March of Return camp and wave a large Palestinian flag to say hello to me. But WhatsApp is more convenient.

On the phone my friends are outraged and everyone says it in their own way: To say Hamas controls all this is to take from every Palestinian in Gaza not only their right to freedom of movement and a respectable livelihood but also the right to deep frustration and despair – and their right to express it.

“The Israelis look down on us and have always looked down on us. In your eyes, a good Arab is a collaborator or dead,” one said. “Therefore it’s hard for you to understand that no one demonstrates in the name of someone else. Everyone goes there for themselves. We’re a people without resources and now without a vision and without a plan, and at the lowest point in terms of international support and internal organization. But we went out to demonstrate in order to disrupt something in the celebrations of the transfer of the embassy. Jerusalem is dear to us. We go so as not to die in silence. Because we’re sick and tired of dying quietly, in our homes,” he added.

“If you die, be in front of the cameras. Loudly. I’m going to the mosque. There hasn’t been any order from above to go to the demonstration. I hear young people saying that tomorrow they’ll go die at the fence, like someone who’s talking about a picnic or candy. I went to the [March of] Return camp two or three times, and I didn’t like it. Too much confusion. If Hamas was controlling the entire event there wouldn’t be a mess there. After all, you know how Hamas events are always orderly, organized, disciplined.”

True, there were Hamas security people in civilian clothes; they weren’t there as Hamas but as law and order for the acting government, as at every mass event – to prevent armed people from approaching the fence, provocations by collaborators, to intervene if there was a dispute or sexual harassment.  

Hamas has lost its popularity in Gaza because of the failures and disasters of the past 10 years, a friend promised me after he reminded me that he “doesn’t like them at all.” At the beginning, they weren’t enthused by the idea of the March of Return, after young activists brought the idea to all the political factions' leaders, he says.  

After that Hamas adopted the idea too. As an organization, Hamas is capable of offering what other groups can’t: rides to the March of Return camps, maybe a sandwich and a bottle of cola and tents. “But they can’t force us to come and endanger ourselves. After all, it’s dangerous to be even 300 or 400 meters away, because the soldiers shoot at us.”

A foreigner in Gaza had the impression: “Hamas can’t order people to go to demonstrations and endanger their lives, but they can stop them from nearing the fence.” One of the ways is statements in the media.

The many non-Hamas dead

On Wednesday, a uniform report landed at a number of Israeli media outlets, that a Hamas leader, Salah al-Bardawil, “admitted in an interview with Palestinian television that 50 of the 60 killed in the past two days were Hamas members.” A great sigh of relief was heard in Israel. Hamas? In other words, terrorists by definition, in other words, you’re allowed to kill them. There’s even a commandment to do so.

The source of the report was an Arabic-language tweet by Avichay Adraee of the IDF Spokesman’s Office. He attached to the tweet, a short fragment from the hour-long-plus interview with Bardawil on the Facebook-transmitted news channel Baladna.

The interviewer, Ahmed Sa’id, asked difficult questions he was hearing on the street, mostly from Fatah supporters: What about the humiliation you suffered in Egypt, and why is Hamas sending people to the fence to die – and you are reaping the (political) fruit?

Bardawil had to defend his organization and say this wasn’t true, there was no humiliation and Hamas members were demonstrating like anybody else, with everybody else.

“Unfortunately, this is the organization today that nurtures the motivation and awareness among young people the most,” one of my friends explained to me earlier.

Let’s return to Bardawil. So he said that 50 of the 60 killed were Hamas members. I checked and was told that the official figure Hamas has is that from the beginning of the March of Return on March 30, 42 people linked to Hamas were among the 120 people killed: members of the movement, well-known activists, members of Hamas families.

It seems that about 20 members of Hamas’ military wing were killed, and they were killed not near the protests but under circumstances that still must be clarified. But the rest were unarmed rank-and-file protesters. And they demonstrated because they were Gazans. But once Bardawil said what he said it’s hard to deny his words in public. “This (figure of 50) is another typical exaggeration of ours,” said my friend who didn’t come to wave his flag to me to say hello.

As for exaggerations, “the idea of the March of Return to break the standstill and stop Gaza’s slow descent – we all liked that, me too,” said someone else. “But the details I don’t like. What’s this foolishness of the March of Return and lifting the blockade?’ They haven’t even thought through the slogans properly. Because if the goal is to return to the villages, the blockade is an irrelevant issue.”

Between the sunflowers and the few fires that broke out Tuesday, soldiers were at their posts on alert. They moved on the continuum between hyperactive self-importance and the idleness of a picnic. They were posted within the perimeters of the kibbutzim, a very short distance from the houses. The armored personnel carriers were also within the distance of a morning walk.

This is what’s called a military presence in the heart of a civilian population. I remembered the reverse circumstance, of Hamas positions in the Gaza Strip, which served as justification for Israel to besmirch the group as hiding behind civilians, and for the IDF to bomb anyone near them.