Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

MIDEAST: A Weekly Walk to the Border

Eva Bartlett

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip, Jul 8 2011 (IPS) - It is another sweltering morning in Gaza. Despite the heat, a tenacious group of women, men and children gathers near the bombed Agricultural College in Beit Hanoun for the weekly march to the “buffer zone”, the 300 metres flanking the Gaza-Israel Green Line border which Israeli authorities have declared off-limits to Palestinians.

A march to protest the Israeli-imposed buffer zone. Credit: Eva Bartlett/IPS.

A march to protest the Israeli-imposed buffer zone. Credit: Eva Bartlett/IPS.

Around a decade ago, Palestinian farmers could still access land up to 50 metres from the border. The Israeli-deemed “no-go zone” expanded over the years to 150 metres, then 300 metres, cutting Palestinian farmers from their orchards, crops and grazing land.

A decade later, those orchards bulldozed by Israeli bulldozers, farmers now struggle to access land in some areas up to two kilometres along the 300 metre buffer zone violently rendered off-limits by the Israeli soldiers.

Over 30 percent of Gaza’s agricultural land is not worked on because of the buffer zone. This is Gaza’s more fertile land, where olive, fruit, citrus and nut trees once flourished, along with wheat, barley, rye and other crops, providing much of Gaza’s needs.

Gaza’s north has been particularly hard-hit over the years. And in the last three years, it is people from Gaza’s north which have led the non-violent demonstrations against the buffer zone.

As we march the dusty kilometre to our destination 300 metres from the border – a weathered pair of Palestinian flags placed at an earlier demonstration – Khalil Nassir, 46, explains that it is the third anniversary of the weekly marches in Gaza’s north.

The popular Palestinian resistance song, Unadikum (I call to you), blares from Saber Zaneen’s cell phone through the megaphone from which in a few minutes Zaneen, 45, will broadcast the message against the buffer zone. Zaneen and Nassir are two of the founders of Local Initiative, the community group which leads these demonstrations.

“We are a people’s resistance. We march for the farmers and the families living in the buffer zone,” Nassir says.

“Many families have had their homes destroyed, their trees and crops bulldozed, and are prevented from working their land. This includes many families beyond 300 metres from the border,” he says.

“This is the third year that we’ve marched on a weekly basis in different areas of the north,” says Nassir.

The group of approximately two dozen marches towards Erez, flanking the road roughly half a kilometre to the west along which travel those fortunate few allowed to pass through the Israeli- controlled border crossing. Straight ahead is one of the many solid concrete military towers that dot the border, from the northwest to Gaza’s southeast. It is from this tower that Israeli soldiers’ shooting usually begins.

“When we first began, we only ventured up to 300 metres from the border. But slowly we started getting closer to the border. On Palestinian land,” Nassir points out. “In some areas we have walked right up to the border.”

On May 15, when non-violent popular demonstrations marking Nakba Day (remembering the 1948 forced expulsion of over 750,000 Palestinians from their land to make way for the Jewish state of Israel) took place in Lebanon, Syria’s Golan Heights and Gaza, this same small group of Beit Hanoun demonstrators were joined by what participants estimated to be 1,000 protestors. Over 100 protesters were injured, and one teenager killed by Israeli shooting and shelling from military towers and tanks on the unarmed protesters in Gaza.

On Jun. 7, at the same small mound of earth with its two flags where we’ve paused for speeches and chants, Mohammed Kafarna, 19, was injured by Israeli-fired bullet shrapnel to his neck, thigh and abdomen.

“They opened fire without warning,” says Nassir. “Mohammed was injured right away.”

Aside from farmers and demonstrators, some of Gaza’s most desperately poor have been the victims of Israeli soldiers’ shootings and shellings, what Israeli authorities say are security measures.

The many ruined houses near the border provide both rubble and metal, valuable in Gaza under siege which has let virtually no construction materials enter for the past five years. It is in these plots of destruction that Gaza’s collectors sift, risking unexploded ordinances or attacks from Israeli soldiers.

Since 2010 alone, at least 11 Palestinian civilians have been killed in the northern Gaza border region, including: a 91-year-old farmer hit by Israeli shelling 600 metres from the border, a 64-year-old farmer shot several times in the heart while on his land 550 metres from the border, and an 18-year- old scrap collector on land 600 metres from the border.

Well over 30 more civilians have been injured, the majority impoverished scrap collectors shot in the foot or leg by Israeli soldiers along the border. A number of these were as young as 14 and 15.

In most of the demonstrations, international activists march alongside unarmed Palestinians, documenting the Israeli attacks. “We march whether or not we have internationals or journalists with us. Every week,” says Nassir.

“We liaise with popular demonstrations in the occupied West Bank, like in Ni’lin and Bil’in,” he adds.

The village of Bil’in has, after six years of non-violent demonstrators, achieved the minor victory of having the Israeli separation wall moved slightly back, returning roughly 150 acres of land to the village, which still waits for the return of a further 330 acres.

The megaphone cuts and Saber Zaneen urges us to move back, away from the buffer zone. Israeli soldiers and military jeeps have appeared and the demonstration leaders want to avoid further victims of Israeli firing.

“We are aware there is great danger in this area,” says Abu Issa. “And they do regularly shoot at us. We don’t want casualties, but we will march on Palestinian land, for the families and farmers who can’t access their land.”

Republish | | Print |