Inside look: How Gaza protesters attempted to breach the border fence

Over the past eight weeks, protesters in Gaza have altered their strategy as Israel has warned them to refrain from approaching the border fence.

May 15, 2018 11:17
4 minute read.

Attempts to sabotage security infrastructure on Israel-Gaza border, May 14, 2018 (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

Attempts to sabotage security infrastructure on Israel-Gaza border, May 14, 2018 (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)


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Many questions remain about what led to the deaths of over 60 Palestinians on Monday. One of the key issues surround how the protests are organized. Based on observation and discussions with sources close to the protests who witnessed them, the following presents a clearer picture of what has occurred over the last weeks and likely indicates how Monday’s protests unfolded.

Since the end of March there have been mass protests along the Gaza border. These protests have been well organized and planned to be part of an eight-week “Great March of Return,” from the Palestinian “Land Day” on March 30 to “Nakba Day” on Tuesday, May 15.

On Monday, the mass protests, which coincided with the US opening its embassy in Jerusalem and came a day before what was supposed to be last day of the protests, resulted in 60 killed and up to 2,700 wounded, according to Gaza-based Palestinian reports.

The protests have been organized around five locations next to Israel’s security fence. Over the eight weeks they took place they used different tactics and methods. For instance protesters began lighting massive fires with burning tires on the second Friday, April 6. They began launching fire kites into Israel, to set fields aflame. They also tore down a section of one of the fences’ barbed wire on April 27. It was during that protest that a reliable source provides some insight into the methods that Hamas and the protesters have used.

The protesters have gathered on Fridays with tens of thousands participating. At the very back of the protest, hundreds of meters from the fence, are tents and field hospitals, prayer areas and families. This is where Hamas officials show up in the morning or early afternoon to rouse the people and encourage them in their protest. Speeches are made and prayers offered. It is well organized. Buses bring people to the protests. There are people there selling food. There is a macabre element to this, with protesters saying they’ll have a meal before they become “shahid” or martyr at the front.

THE MASSES that approach the fence are made up of generally young men and teenagers, including youth and children. There are very few women closest to the fence. The protesters know how the security forces have been operating. They expect to be shot or are cognizant that this is a distinct possibility. There are ambulance teams and medics, as well as numerous spontaneous volunteers, ready to take away the injured, many of them shot in the legs. As the young men burn tires, and others prepare Molotov cocktails, or slingshots, some prepare kites to fly. The goal of the protesters is to get to the fence and, with select groups of young men who have brought wire cutters, to cut through. Most of them don’t make it this far. But some of them do.

Gazans who attempt to reach the main security fence first have to deal with other obstacles. There is a barbedwire fence in sections to deter saboteurs reaching the main fence. Israel has continuously warned since March that anyone approaching this kind of buffer zone would be shot. It was a section of barbed-wire fence that was torn down and dragged away in late April. The Palestinians cheered as they brought it back to the protest camp. A sign of victory. According to reports it takes about 30 seconds running between the barbed-wire fence and the main security fence.

But what happened in late April was not just spontaneous and chaos of rioters at the fence. Some of those wounded and killed by live fire, as shown on videos, have not been directly threatening the fence, but there are others groups whose sole purpose is to penetrate the barrier. The actual attempt to get closest to the fence and break through it has involved planning and coordination on the Palestinian side.

Hamas members, unarmed but clearly directing some of the young men, are in the crowd. They watch for an area of burning tires and protesters where the protesters have managed to get close to the fence or breach the first line of barbed wire. Some of these professional activists are on motorcycles and they may come and go or drive along the line of protests or observe them from a high point. When they sense that a breach can be made they gather together groups of young men, men who have prepared beforehand for the assault. Like some kind of First World War charge of death, the young men then rush as a group toward the fence.

During the April 27 events up to 700 men were reported by the IDF spokesman Col. Jonathan Conricus to have assaulted the fence “in a way that we have not seen them assault it before,” according to a New York Times report. An earlier Times report titled “300 Meters in Gaza: Snipers, Burning Tires and a Contested Fence,” summarized well the planning and details of the protests and confirmed later accounts.

Planning began ahead of Monday’s protests. Joe Dyke, the AFP correspondent in Gaza, wrote last Thursday that at a “briefing to foreign media, Gaza head of Hamas told journalists on Tuesday he would support thousands of Palestinians breaking through border fence next week.”

On Sunday, the IDF dropped leaflets on Gaza warning protesters to stay away from the fence. On Monday, Dyke, in Gaza, tweeted: “literally as the US embassy inauguration is beginning, loudspeakers east of Gaza City are calling on protesters to prepare to seek to breach the border fence.”

By the end of the day, 60 had been killed.

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