On Nakba Day, Gazans Faced a Choice: To Mourn Their Dead, or Go Out and Protest

A visit to a burning Israel-Gaza border, a day after the massacre

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Firefighters putting out a blaze near the Gaza border.
Firefighters putting out a blaze near the Gaza border.Credit: Alex Levac

On Tuesday, the tires burned on both sides of the fence that imprisons the residents of the Gaza Strip. Thick black columns of smoke rose into the air a few hundred meters apart, dispersing with the shifting winds, blackening the skies of the Strip and of what’s called the Gaza “envelope” – the Israeli communities along the border – blotting out the landscape.

Fires raged in the fields of Philistia, on both sides of the border fence. In both cases, it was Palestinians who lit them. On their side they burned tires, elevating their protest skyward in the form of dense smoke. Toward the Israeli side they sent their burning “fox tails,” the fire kites, no less primitive than the fire started by Samson in the Bible story (in Judges 15).

One of the kites set a field ablaze and also ignited a few terrifyingly large truck tires which for some reason were stacked next to the entrance of an Iron Dome missile defense battery somewhere in the fields of a kibbutz near the Gaza border, sending dark, acrid smoke wafting up. A soldier from the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit strode, distraught, through the black plumes of smoke, trying to stop us from photographing the flames that were almost licking the launcher’s base. “It will be Hamas’ victory photo,” he cried out, “Iron Dome burning.”

Firefighters and smoke near an Iron Dome battery near the Gaza border.Credit: Alex Levac

The fire was finally extinguished right next to the fence of the launch zone. A few hours earlier, when we had first passed by the site, a female soldier was ensconced in the guard post, dozing in the warm sun, a cap draped over her face. Now the fire reached the edge of her position. Firefighters and soldiers worked hard to douse it, but shortly afterward it flared up again, on the surrounding sand mounds.

It was a late fire, a revenge fire, if you will – of black smoke that evoked Black Monday, a day earlier, when some 60 people were massacred and about 1,200 wounded by live fire at the hands of IDF soldiers. We reached the fire at the same time as a yellow army fire engine.

The flames spread rapidly, consuming fields of thistles. The fields of the Gaza envelope were stained with black splotches, carpets of soot that a short time earlier were fields of wheat and grassy stubble, now completely burned. But the disaster is of course immeasurably more terrible on the other side of the fence. The “kite terror” is as nothing in the face of the siege, the sniper fire and the bombs.

Tuesday, Nakba Day, was intended to be the peak of the March of Return, which had begun six weeks earlier and had already taken the lives of more than 100 demonstrators and left thousands wounded. But the shock of what happened in these fields the previous day apparently had its effect.

The area abutting the fence on this day, Tuesday, was fairly quiet. Gaza was burying and grieving for its dozens of dead. Perhaps the demonstrators were afraid to return to the barrier; perhaps they were prevented from doing so, or they may have been too occupied with mourning. A photograph taken by Agence France Presse shows a mother hunched over the body of her infant son, wrapped in shrouds, on her way to the grave. That image spoke louder than words, and likely shocked many people around the world. In Israel, people were still busy celebrating the U.S. Embassy ceremony in Jerusalem and the Eurovision contest.

The mother of a Leila al-Ghandour, a Palestinian baby who according to Palestinian officials died of tear gas inhalation during clashes, holds her at the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, May 15, 2018.Credit: MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

A field of sunflowers at the edge of the Kibbutz Nahal Oz farmlands. The yellow flowers all point eastward, as though turning their back and diverting their vision from the events to the west, in the Gaza Strip. The sunflowers don’t want to see what’s going on in Gaza, just like the Israelis who tend them. The field of sunflowers extends almost to the fence, with its host of protective devices and the earth ramparts on which the snipers are perched. The pomegranate grove of another kibbutz, Nir Oz, far to the south, also reaches not far from the barrier. The pomegranate trees are now giving off their scent and above all displaying their flowers and first fruits.

Late morning. Behind the fence two fairly small bonfires of tires are already visible, a demonstration of presence. A large Palestinian flag flaps in the breeze, and a few people can be seen in the sandy area that runs down to the fence. The view of the Gaza prison always stirs grim thoughts, which are made even grimmer on a day when so many are being laid to rest. The smoke hides the houses of the Strip, behind the area of the demonstrations. From afar the Gaza Strip looks normal; up close, nothing is normal there.

In the pine grove next to the Black Arrow monument, commemorating a 1955 revenge operation against the Egyptian army in Gaza by the Paratroops Brigade, are the war correspondents of the world – both those who are fearful of entering the Strip and those who are not allowed in. It’s a long way to the border fence from here, but this is the only place that the IDF allows media people to be, not including those who can find their way to the fence through the many paths in the fields here. Female soldiers from the Caracal Battalion, armed with knee protectors, are something of an attraction for the foreign reporters. A Knesset member, Haim Jelin (Yesh Atid), who lives in the area, hardly misses a camera; these are his 15 minutes of fame.

Reporters on the Gaza border.Credit: \ Alex Levac

The weirdest place in the sector is the Kerem Shalom crossing, at the southern edge of the Strip, near Rafah. It’s here, in days long gone by, that we would pass on the daily bus to Cairo that departed from Tel Aviv and crossed the Suez Canal, believe it or not. It’s also the last crossing point for merchandise between Israel and Gaza that’s still open: Karni passage was closed in 2007, Sufa in 2008, Nahal Oz in 2010 and the Karni conveyor in 2011; and Kerem Shalom, too, was closed last week for a few days after the Palestinians set fire to the Gaza side.

The place is desolate. On Tuesday, Israel decided to renew the passage of goods through Kerem Shalom, so it was reported, but only about half-a-dozen idle trucks were in the large parking area: a few fuel and gas tankers of Ephraim Burstein, and two trucks bearing signs, “Gan Eden [Paradise] 2014 Ltd.,” and “Pandoor doors: A sign that you didn’t cut corners.”

Paradise or not, corners cut or not, the passage to Gaza is deserted. Far more abandoned than the crossing to Egypt. Ruined buildings, torn signs, rundown facilities, and only a dense barbed-wire fence and Egyptian flags on the other side. An Egyptian armored vehicle passes across the way, and the soldiers look at us. This is a trilateral crossing point – Israel, Egypt, Gaza – and a double point of evil, of Israel and of Egypt: one the source of Gaza’s troubles and the other, the one that cuts it off from the world.

Smoke rises behind a sunflower field on the Gaza borderCredit: Alex Levac

At the exit from this surrealistic site, where not a soul is to be found – certainly not one is visible, plus there’s no one to stop us from wandering around freely – a tattered road sign still lists the traffic symbols that are in use in Israel.

Welcome to Israel. This was once the southern gateway into the country for those coming from Egypt. The letter “S” in the word “Shalom,” on the large sign above the concrete wall, “Kerem Shalom Crossing,” tilts forward, wrenched from its place.

An equally forgotten reality is projected by signs along the way here that direct one to the “safe passage” between Gaza and Hebron, created in the wake of the 1993 Oslo Accords. How many discussions were held about the traffic arrangements and how few vehicles ever traveled the route, before Israel canceled the arrangement and severed the Strip completely from the West Bank, long before Hamas took over Gaza.

Israeli firefighters fight a blaze near the Gaza border.Credit: Alex Levac

An object in the sky, opposite the Black Arrow monument. Is it a terror kite or a bird of freedom? Only birds and the planes of the Israel Air Force can move here without being shot at, between Gaza and Israel, between prison and liberty. A flock of birds with snow-white wings flies directly over the fields, moving from side to side, birds without borders. We are following the black smoke and the IDF’s yellow fire engine to the fire that’s liable to damage the Iron Dome battery and give Hamas its “victory photo.”

On the other side, the first fatal casualty of the day is counted.

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