MALAKA, Northeast Gaza — Being at the protests in Gaza is a confusing experience. Loudspeakers blare patriotic songs as boys construct kites decorated with Palestinian flags and others arrive on trucks piled high with tires for burning. The mood is almost like a festival — until some protesters get too close to the fence and Israeli sniper bullets start flying, young men hurl stones, and Israeli military drones rain tear gas down on the crowds.
“It doesn’t affect us anymore,” says a young protester with a grin, his Palestinian scarf obscuring his face as he sits with friends on a mound of tires stashed in a ditch 500 yards from the front line. He doesn’t want to give his name, and as he speaks, his friends interrupt with a chant: "We are going to Jerusalem, even if a million of us are martyred!"
The protests in Gaza have dominated headlines since the Trump administration opened its new embassy in Jerusalem Monday. On Monday, Israeli soldiers opened fire on the crowds, killing more than 60 Gazans. Another 2,700 were injured by live sniper rounds, artillery, and tear gas. The clashes have continued, and there seems no end to the protests in sight anytime soon.
But despite the timing, the protests aren’t really about the U.S. embassy — they’ve been going on for weeks now.
The “Great March of the Return” was conceived earlier this year by civil society activists. The idea was to stage a series of peaceful demonstrations at the border fence with Israel, calling for the right to return to lands from which Palestinians in Gaza were expelled many years ago.
Life at the fence
Protesters pitched tents near the separation border. There is a community feel to the demonstrations, with cultural events organized for families and young children. Prayers are held less than a mile back from the Israeli border fence, and street vendors sell fresh-steamed corn and frozen sugared-ice drinks from brightly-painted food kiosks.
But there has also been death and injury since Day One. On March 30, tens of thousands of Gazans converged on protest sites near the border. Many were families responding to the call to demand that Palestinian refugees and their descendants be allowed to return to what is now Israel. But when some younger protesters began to throw stones and Molotov cocktails toward the border fence, Israeli soldiers opened fire, killing 23 and wounding more than 1,400.
Fast-forward to Monday, the date chosen by the Trump administration for opening its controversial new embassy in Jerusalem. Palestinian outrage at this development became a rallying point for the protests in Gaza, but the issues driving young Palestinians to risk their lives — and be killed — attempting to break the fence run much deeper.
Gaza has been under blockade by Israel for more than a decade now. There is no freedom of movement, and most Gazans simply cannot leave the territory at all. The economy is completely crippled, unemployment is around 45 percent, and even higher for those under the age of 30. There is an average of just four hours of electricity a day, most of the water system is contaminated, and basic services are almost non-existent. For young people, the future is bleak. Suicide rates have been creeping up; with no job prospects or chance of leaving many are starting to lose hope.
"Worst conditions ever"
“The youth in Gaza are facing the worst conditions ever,” said Tamer Abu Daka as he sat on his bed at home in Khanyounis, Gaza with his leg, shattered by an Israeli sniper bullet, propped up on a pillow.
Iron bars protrude from Tamer’s calf where Gazan doctors tried to shore up the smashed bone. The blockade has critically impacted medical facilities here also. He was shot at a protest near the border that popped up when the Trump administration first announced its decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Tamer’s shooting was captured on video by Israeli soldiers, who can be heard whooping and cheering as he goes down. It was posted on YouTube and went viral.
Tamer thinks his leg will need amputating. It’s gone a darker color and he’s starting to lose feeling in the limb. But despite the seriousness of his injury, his brother went out to protest near the border fence two weeks ago, where he was wounded by a sniper bullet in an almost identical way. The boys don’t seem motivated by political concerns, it’s more just the hopeless of the situation they find themselves in. “That’s why the youth go to the Eastern border. Because they got fed up,” Tamer says.
“They have nothing to lose. There is no life in Gaza — at all”
Hamas has called for the protests to continue into June. The group, designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, has ruled the Gaza Strip for more than a decade now. Cut out of talks over a new Trump administration peace plan, Hamas has nothing to lose if the violence escalates. It has endorsed the protests and encouraged its supporters to attend. Speaking to VICE News on Friday, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said the large turnout was a clear signal to the outside world of Gaza’s rejection of recent developments. “We are sending message to everybody,” said Zahar. “West Jerusalem is our land, we are not respecting this border!”
In Gaza City, hospitals are preparing for more casualties to come. Doctors say they were overwhelmed by the volume of patients that needed trauma surgery in the space of a few hours on Monday. At Al Shifa Hospital, the largest medical facility in Gaza City, nurses have set up a makeshift tent with extra beds to accommodate the injured.
Meanwhile, on the frontlines, first-aid medics like Mohammed Riza have settled into a weekly routine, braving the bullets and gas to rescue the severely injured and ferry them back to field clinics set up on the outskirts of the melee. He says most of the people he treats are under the age of 30.
“These young people, they don’t have problem if they get injured, even if they got dead,” says Mohammed. “They have nothing to lose. There is no life in Gaza — at all.”
As he sits on the back of his ambulance around 70 yards from the Israeli military positions, surveying the scene of gas-strewn chaos and tire smoke in the late afternoon, he reflects on what these protests are really all about.
“They took our land, they took everything. We live in hell in Gaza...imagine yourself without work, without electricity, you can’t travel, you don’t have money, you don’t have medicine — you’re already dead!”
Cover image: Palestinians set tires on fire in response to Israel's intervention during a protest, organized to mark 70th anniversary of Nakba, also known as Day of the Catastrophe in 1948, and against United States' plans to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, near Gaza-Israel border in Rafah, Gaza on May 14, 2018. Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.