My asthmatic younger brother, Salah, 18, is scheduled for an urgent eye operation in Egypt, without which he might permanently lose the sight in his right eye. He’s also been awarded a scholarship to study in Algeria, and has been fighting to get out of the Gaza Strip to take up his place for nearly two years, without success.
His life is being entirely stolen from him by Israel's blockade, yet his future stares back at him just a footstep away, from behind the giant concrete walls that seal Gaza. He’s in a race against time not to lose his sight, his mind, and his life as well.
Almost every day, my brother shows up for the Gaza "Great Return March," although my mother has desperately tried almost everything to stop him from running bare-chested towards his death.
The border protests are the only place where it feels that he’s at least doing something about his own slow death, even if only to scream at the top of his lungs, telling the world "We are here!"
It’s the only place where he and all of my friends in Gaza can catch a breath of freedom, despite the stinging tear gas, even if it's just for a moment.
Salah quickly learned the "rules of engagement" and exercises extreme caution not to get hurt. "If you stand 300 meters or less from the separation fence, with a Palestinian flag and a keffiyeh, you’re liable to get shot in the legs, kneecaps or feet, and the wounded part is likely to be amputated," my brother explained. "If you hold a handful of rocks, or try to breach the fence, the snipers will aim at your abdomen, chest, neck or head."
Nonetheless, there have been Palestinians who've been wounded and killed while actually running away from the buffer zone. They were given no second chance. Even my brother, standing outside of the danger zone, fainted repeatedly because of the tear gas; he saw the kid next to him getting shot in the leg. At the hospital, my brother is always terrified that if he’d sign his name amongst the wounded, Israel willl ban him from ever leaving Gaza, for having taken part in the protests.
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The live–fire and tear gas that the IDF rains down on the protestors seems both arbitrary and targeted. The IDF have wounded 1600 civilians; many of whom were women, children and young teenagers, and 29 have been killed, including a young journalist whose sole dream was to step foot out of Gaza for once in his life.
On the other side, Hamas believes Israel is also carefully selecting some of its victims, targeting protest organizers to provoke violent retaliation and spark chaos. "Israel knows who to wound, maim or kill," a Hamas leader told me by phone.
The IDF claims that at least 10 young men, affiliated with Hamas and its Qassam brigades, have been shot. Whether true or not, Hamas personnel presence is confined to maintaining order at the protest and they don’t constitute a legitimate target, as long as they don’t pose a direct and imminent threat to the life of well-hidden IDF snipers.
Hamas believes Israel is deploying facial recognition technologies besides the numerous war-drones that obliterate the sky above. The movement warned its members to keep their faces covered, and leave their phones at home.
Hamas has deployed its security and intelligence personnel to maintain what it sees as the three critical parameters of the protest: independence, non-violence, and no breach of the fence into Israel. The security forces are assigned to prevent individual attempts to disrupt the protest’s non-violence, such as young people trying to throw molotov cocktails towards Israel. Some cases slip their attention; others are dealt with firmly.
Last Friday, my brother accidentally walked into a tent where the wounded were being attended to. He and his friends were dragged into interrogations by Palestinian internal security personnel for taking photos of the tent and for holding spontaneous interviews with the wounded.
Hamas, despite remaining dismissive of the protest’s ability to challenge Israel’s blockade, has, like all political parties would have done, jumped with alacrity into the protests to accrue political capital, recognizing the backdrop as an opportune moment for photoshoots, for fueling popular support and to advance its vested interests.
When Israel responds to the protests with violence, Hamas cheers those dramatic photographs' ability to return Gaza to world headlines, and to concentrate the people’s anger on Israel and its "complicit partner," the Palestinian Authority.
If Israel still resorts to a different strategy, Hamas believes that, given Netanyahu’s government crisis, the best offer Israel would have made would be to respond to the protest with a few measures to ease Gaza's incarceration, such as expanding besieged fishing and farming zones and opening the borders for the movement of goods and civilians.
But such measures, as earlier experiences shows, are conferred and then revoked at the earliest opportunity, since Israel’s declared goal of its siege on Gaza is to "keep the population’s heads above water, but their bodies drowned."
Hamas hopes the protest will go some way to counter the pressure that's been ramping up since the assassination attempt on Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. The Palestinian Authority initially blamed Hamas for the explosion which targeted Hamdallah's convoy as he was visiting Gaza. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas then threatened to impose even more severe sanctions on Gaza than those that already make the enclave unlivable.
Hamas hopes the protests will convince Abbas to give the reconciliation a second chance and avoid being blamed by Israel for pouring more fuel into Gaza’s imminent explosion.
Hamas is also calculating that both Israel and Egypt are watching how swiftly and easily it's mobilized the masses. That's in order that Israel might put pressure on Egypt to ease its part of the blockade to assuage popular tension and anger.
It would be a mistake for onlookers to assume that Hamas’ hijacking of the protest undermines its authenticity and the genuine pain of Gazans.
Yes, the protests are being pushed hard, by blanket promotions in street talks, schools, mosques, universities, shops and on taxies, the pictures of Ismail Haniya playing football close to the border, Yahya Sinwar’s inflammatory speeches, and Hamas paying $3000 to the families of the dead (despite the organization itself receiving the tenfold that amount).
But Hamas cannot drag young people out of bed at gunpoint and shuttle them to the borders to dance to its tune. Young Gazans are making their way there by their own free will.
Was it not for the misery inflicted by Gaza's status quo, no one would show up for that date with death. Although some have joined out of mere curiosity, to see an area they never dared to step foot in before, and others joined out of national pride, or to simply take photos, many of the people present felt they had to participate in the march to challenge their sense of their own slow and painful deaths.
Every protestor has a heartbreaking story and a profound reason to stand in front of immediate danger, unarmed. Gazans have been living on the edge of death, starvation and collapse for 11 years, pushing the boundaries for human survival. These grievances can never be faked, and they must be addressed.
Despite the evident danger, my brother, like most people I know in Gaza, is going to keep showing up at the protests every day, until he perishes - or breaks free.
Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2