Sifting the Sands of Protest in Gaza

Protesters in Gaza (from al-Jazeera.net/Reuters)

Please Note: This post is about the protests held in Gaza in Feb 2008.  For thoughts on what is happening in Gaza in early 2009 check this post (here) and keep checking back on my main page (here). It is interesting/disturbing to note how in a year things went from bad to worse.

Organizers in Gaza called for a massive non-violent protest today (Monday, Feb 25th, 2008), hoping for 1 person/yard from Erez Crossing in the north to Rafah in the south. Over this stretch of about 25 miles that would amount to aproximately 40,000 people. News reports from Reuters, the New York Times, Al-Jazeera, and Ha’aretz (Ha’aretz 1, Ha’aretz 2) put the actual number of protesters closer to 5,000. I link to 5 different articles here from prominent American, Arab, Israeli, and British news sources because I’ve learned over time that each one will have a piece of the story, and it’s almost always necessary to read a few articles to get a broader perspective.

Here’s what I’ve put together by way of summary:

  • The protest was in reaction to the Israeli blockade of Gaza (preventing all but basic humanitarian aid to be let in – and even that was cut off for a few days prior to the Egyptian border incident).
  • The nonviolent protest was called by an organization that backs the elected Hamas government.
  • The Israeli government said they would not rule out the use of deadly force if protesters were to storm the border as they did at the Egyptian border last month, further stating that Hamas would be responsible for anyone hurt by Israel defending its borders.
  • Gaza Map (from BBC)The nonviolent protest was actually two protests – about 3,000 in Beit Hanoun, a village in northern Gaza (aprox 6 km from the Erez border) and a group of 2,000 who marched towards Erez. This second group was turned back by the Hamas police before reaching Erez.
  • After the major protest ended a smaller group (~50 people) of Palestinians threw rocks at the Erez border crossing and a number of them were arrested
  • During the the protest a non-related group fired a couple of Qassam rockets into Israel injuring 3, including two children.
  • This weekend strikes by the Israeli Air Force were responsible for 3 deaths Beit Hanoun (the same village where Monday’s nonviolent protest took place). Gazans say the dead were civilians but the Israeli military says they were men preparing to make a rocket attack.
  • 2 other Gazans were killed in an IDF incursion into the Shajiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City. (nb – I have friends who live in that neighborhood and spent many times visiting them)

That’s the summary as best I can put it together. Now for some analysis:

Nonviolent Protest in a Powder Keg

The Gaza Strip is a powder keg waiting to explode. For the past half century it’s inhabitants have been subject to the whims of those who would seek to control the region (Europe, the UN, Arab nations, Israel, etc.). As a result they have been powerless to determine the course of their own futures. All entry and exit from the territory is controlled by Israel. Since 2000, travel outside of the territory by Palestinians has been severely restricted. All trade with Gaza must go through Israeli ports and are subject to Israeli tariffs and restrictions. Early this year Israel completely blockaded the territory not allowing any goods in or out, including fuel or basic humanitarian aid.

So I ask, what would you do? What did our American forefathers do when faced with what they considered to be oppressive British taxation standards with no say in the process. I believe that it is only poverty and the overwhelming military mismatch between Palestine and Israel that has kept Palestinians from a full-fledged military revolt. I also believe that nonviolent protest is a very good answer to the dilemmas that face the Palestinian people. The world listens when the oppressed put down their weapons and hold up their open hands in protest. Think Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelseon Mandela, the Burmese priests, etc. I wonder how the world would react if 40,000 protesters had shown up in the streets of Gaza today?

Trading justifications with casualty statistics

The violence on both sides of the divide is deplorable and largely avoidable. There is no excuse for Palestine to be firing Qassam rockets into Israel. There is no excuse for the Israeli Air Force making air strikes in Palestinian neighborhoods. Ostensibly chasing down Palestinian militants, the amount of innocent bystanders who have been killed in such actions is well documented and unacceptable. In this morbid trading of casualty statistics as a mean of justifications for further violence there are no winners. However, I bristle when news or government reports link things like the rocket attacks with the nonviolent protests occurring at the same time. Its like condemning Martin Luther King for Black Panther violence. And if one really wants to examine the stats they do not look good for the Israelis. The New York Times article linked above noted that the Qassam rocket attacks have resulted in 13 Israeli deaths since 2001. On the other hand Israel has killed 290 Palestinians in 2007 alone. 96 of those deaths were civilians. In one year they’ve killed 7x as many as Palestinian rockets have in seven years. I’d rather condemn all violence, but if we must engage in this morbid numbers game who seems to be more in need of a secure border?

What do we expect?

When violence flairs up in Gaza or when they protest, what do we expect?

If you or I were Palestinians what would we do? What would we do when an Israeli helicopter or jet flies over firing missiles into our neighbors houses? What would we do when IDF actions happen under cover of night in our streets? What would we do when our borders are closed and we cannot receive vital goods and services? What would we do when we seem to be the pawn of inaccessible governments on both sides?

Try to blow ourselves up? Shoot inaccurate and ineffective missiles? Throw stones in frustration? Sign a petition and attend a sit-in?

As Americans what would we do if we were faced with these conditions? Call our congressperson? Lobby Capital Hill for our freedoms? Start a revolution?

I applaud the Palestinians for their nonviolent protest today and am hopeful for more (larger) protests in the future. But realistically, I expect this situation is far more likely to explode into a violent confrontation. I’m not sure where history will place the finger of blame, but I have a sickening feeling in my gut that it will not point only at Palestinians or Israelis.

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