As Gaza’s Great Return March goes into its 11th week, the massive protest along the border with Israel has become a source of much-needed business for a variety of types of people. For example, hundreds of foreign journalists have flooded the Strip and most need fixers, videographers, photographers or producers to help them complete their coverage. That’s how I became fixer for a day, a new challenge for me.
I received a call from a friend, asking me to “fix” for a Turkish journalist. My father begged me not to go due to the danger of the protest; already, 120 demonstrators have been killed and more than 13,000 wounded. But I decided to take the assignment.
I accompanied the Turkish journalist to the march the next Friday. As we approached, we could see thousands of protesters, obscured by huge clouds of dark smoke from tires burnt to hide them from the view of Israeli snipers. What grabbed my attention, because I wasn’t expecting to see it, were the large number of vendors selling whatever the protesters needed—toys, cigarettes, chocolates, ice cream and even cheap sandals and slippers.
The number of people seeking to earn some income by selling on the streets and now at the protest has soared in the wake of the Palestinian Authority’s decision to slash the salaries of its 40,000 Gaza employees by 50 percent. Likewise, the ripple effect from the cuts has caused the unemployment rate to jump to 80 percent—forcing even more to sell whatever they can wherever they can. They are found on Gaza’s beaches, in the main markets during special occasions like Ramadan and now on the border with Israel during the protests.
While the Turkish journalist talked to a protester in English, I chatted with a few of those vendors.
Mohammed Ettwan, 29, pushed a small, wooden cart carrying a small freezer full of colorful ice cream sundaes. Mohammed, surrounded by three kids waiting to buy, was sweated profusely under in the intense heat despite his hat.
“I come here daily with this small cart I made to sell what I can to all of the kids I find here,” Mohammed told me after the children ran away. “I graduated from university in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in history and tried to get a job, but I couldn’t. I begged a lot of people to let me work with them, but no one could hire any employees, so I made this cart and started taking it to the beach, weddings, parties, schools and now the border.”
He is very aware, however, of the danger. On May 26, Hussain Abu Oweida, 41, was shot last month by Israeli snipers while selling his own supply of ice cream and other frozen treats hundreds of meters away from the border. He was shot in the spine and died a few days later.
“Every day I come here I believe I might not come back home safe since I see people shot beside me and around me,” said Mohammed.
Another vendor, Hamdan, didn’t want me to publish his last name but was willing to talk about his efforts to sell cigarette packets. His forehead was deeply tanned and sweating from the sun and the flames of the tires set afire to obscure the vision of the Israeli snipers. He said he arrives at the border before iftar, the meal that breaks the daily fast during Ramadan (around 8 p.m.) and stays until midnight to sell his cigarettes.
“I am 34 and I have achieved nothing so far! I couldn’t pay for university, I can’t find a job and I can’t afford to marry. To try to overcome these conditions, I started selling cigarettes on Gaza’s streets and the borders,” he said, wiping his brow. Hamdan earns only 15 shekels a day (about $4 US) and must help support eight siblings. His only other income is a small welfare payment every three months.
Reporting that at least 53 percent of Gaza families live under poverty line, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics stated that the average wage in the Strip is just 1,680 shekels ($416) a month for full-time jobs—insufficient to pay daily expenses for families that typically number five to six.
Shaker, another vendor who had taken a break that day, came forward to tell his story.
“I used to come here before Ramadan, selling a lot of things for kids like toys and sandals. But that didn’t last for long,” he said. “A week ago, I was selling closer to the border and Israeli soldiers threw tear gas canisters at me and the protesters around me. I was injured and now I can’t stand that long.”
If the Israeli violence keeps up, Shaker, Hamdan, Mohammed and the others will have to give up on this new source of income. And then what?
A Scream From Heaven is my new poem describing the situation of the people of Gaza, and their wish to have peace and freedom like the rest of the world.
Painting by: Eric Citerne
First Published at We Are Not Numbers
Abdul Menim Aabed, 27, is among a crowd of Gazan Palestinians who are anxious—despite the obvious danger—to be among the first to try to sail out of Gaza tomorrow on Al-Hurriyah (Liberty). The boat is being organized by the Great Return March National Organizing Committee and will carry 35 Gazans who hope to receive medical treatment or to study abroad.
“I can’t walk right anymore and I can’t get the treatment I need here in Gaza,” says the wheelchair-bound Aabed, who was shot in both legs at the border protest May 4. “I’m desperate.”
The plan for the requisitioned fishing boat is to attempt its departure on May 29, the eighth anniversary of the Israeli attack on the Turkish boat Mavi Marmara, one of the ships in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla that tried to break through the blockade. When Israeli troops halted the flotilla in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea, nine activists were killed. The international outrage that followed forced the Israeli government to ease the blockade somewhat by allowing more goods into Gaza, but it has remained in place.
Protest organizers have warned potential passengers it is likely the Al-Hurriyah will be attacked by the Israeli navy and they could be arrested as well. Still, Aabed and others are lining up to register for this first attempted voyage or for others that will follow.
Another hopeful passenger is Kamal Elias Tarazi, a Palestinian from Bethlehem who traveled through Egypt to Gaza to visit family members in 2012 and has been stuck there ever since, despite repeated attempts to leave.
“My health is bad and I want to go home,” he says. “I’ve tried to leave through [Egypt’s] Rafah crossing dozens of times, but they refuse to let me out.”
Egypt has opened the Rafah crossing for the duration of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, temporarily easing the border blockade of Gaza enforced by Israel for the past 12 years. But more than 20,000 residents hoping to travel are on the waiting list, a backlog created by long periods of closure, and Egyptian border officials are clearing about 400 travelers attempting to leave a day, about a third of the usual volume in past years.
For those with money, there’s also the option of what Gaza residents sarcastically call “Egyptian coordination.” This refers to payments, reportedly up to $3,000 per traveler, to Palestinian middlemen who claim to have connections on the Egyptian side. Few Gazans have that kind of money, however, and sometimes these middlemen simply pocket the fee without producing any results.
Permits are even more difficult to obtain to travel out of Gaza via the Israeli Erez exit. In April, for example, only about half of all requests by to leave for urgent health care were approved.
Holding a poster thanking Turkey and other countries for being willing to accept Palestinians, Tarazi didn’t seem scared about attempting to travel by boats since he has “tried all other means to get out. I don’t care if these boats are hit by the Israeli army. I have to try everything to get treatment and go back home to Bethlehem.”
Tarazi’s message to the world is the same as that of all of Gazans interviewed: to help break the Israeli siege.
“We have thousands of injured people here in Gaza and they must get treatment outside Gaza,” he says.
Yousef Abu Arish, director general for the Gaza Ministry of Health, said at a news conference that the health care system in the Strip is unable to deal with the large number of wounded (more than 13,000 to date) from the Great Return March.
“We’re working in inhumane conditions in terms of the extent of the injuries and the number of wounded being brought in at the same time to the shock room and the operating rooms. As skilled as the staff is and as much as they want to help the victims, in the end they’ll collapse under the burden,” Mahmoud Matar, MD, a specialist in orthopedics at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City told the Haaretz newspaper.
Adnan al-Barash, MD, added that surgeons are seeing complex injuries, including bullet-exit wounds 15 centimeters wide. “There’s no question the Israeli army is using bullets and other very dangerous weapons that leave very complex injuries requiring prolonged treatment, which the health care system in Gaza is unable to provide,” he said.
The attempt to address this crisis by sailing a boat out of Gaza comes one week after the launch of a three-ship flotilla attempting to break the Israeli blockade from the outside. The group includes a fishing boat owned by the Freedom Flotilla Coalition named Al-Awda (Arabic for return), which left the Norwegian port of Bergen April 30, and two ships sponsored by Sweden’s Ship to Gaza movement called the Heria (another English spelling for the Arabic word for freedom, or liberty) and Mairead—after Irish Nobel Peace Prize laureate and BDS activist Mairead Maguire, who was on board the 2010 flotilla in which the Mavi Marmara participated. Although the Free Gaza Movement successfully sailed five times into Gaza, all flotillas since 2008 have been forcibly stopped by the Israeli navy.
Israeli aircraft targeted and destroyed a boat May 23 in the Gaza City harbor that had been due to sail to meet this latest flotilla should it actually succeed.
“Gaza has become a big prison isolated from the world. The Palestinians of Gaza are banned from the exercising the simplest of human rights due to the Israeli siege,” said Salah Abdul Atti, a member of coordination committee for the Great Return March, when the attempt to sail out was announced. No further details on the boat or the first round of selected passengers were released, to try to protect them from Israeli reprisal.
During the press conference, students, injured people, children and others held posters saying, ‘’We dream to have a seaport’’ and “We are waiting for your ships and delegations to break the Israeli siege on Gaza.’’ One group held pictures of the nine passengers who were killed during the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara.
Ismail Ridwan, a leader with the Hamas government, noted, “Our case [against Israel] is political, and humanitarian cases should not be linked to political debate because health care and education are basic human rights.”
One 60-year-old woman who refused to give her name attended, even though she is too sick to travel by boat. Nevertheless, she said she came to the seaport to “support and encourage those who will participate so we can break the siege that is suffocating us.”
First published at Mekomit in Hebrew
When you walk in Gaza streets during the day, you find them full of young men standing on the pavements against the walls, looking at each other or chatting about their boring days. When you walk in the lightless nights, you see and hear nothing but the dogs and their barking, or you hear cries of little kids or little fights between couples. That’s the daily routine of the enclave.
The people of the Strip have everything. They have Facebook and twitter accounts. They exchange pictures on Instagram. They love and they fall in love. Yet, they have neither freedom nor peace.
To catch a dream of theirs, they were hoping that the Palestinian reconciliation would be achieved, but the political division between Fatah and Hamas worsened their lives, which was already worse by the Israeli siege.
To try to make a change in their lives, residents of Gaza started to go to protest on Israeli borders, demanding Israeli government and the international community to urgently end the siege imposed on the Strip in 2016 by Israeli occupation.
Peaceful and unarmed, they go every Friday to Israeli borders, where they installed tents and camps, in which they made several activities to show the world what it means to be a Palestinian living in the Gaza Strip.
These camps became home for thousands of unemployed youths, who stay there during the day and the night, doing nothing but protesting their hard economic conditions.
Despite being unorganized, the marches almost succeeded in conveying people’s messages to the world. Protesters kept protesting until May 14th and 15th, the dates that coincide the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem and the anniversary of the Palestinian Nakbah.
Unexpectedly, more than 60 Palestinians were shot killed and at least 2000 injured by Israeli snipers during these protests, which incited the international community and organizations reactions.
In response to Monday’s killings, a UNHRC resolution adopted by 29 votes called for the Council to “investigate all alleged violations and abuses of international humanitarian law and international human rights law” in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and particularly the occupied Gaza Strip.
After the deadly killings on Monday, protests were expected to stop completely. Yet, Palestinian factions in Gaza declared that protests will not stop.
While on borders among protesters, Yehya Sinwar, Gaza Hamas leader, said that protests will continue.
“Return Camps will continue every Friday until achieving our goals. Our next main demonstration will be on June 5th.”
To know the reactions of Gaza people, and what they expect to happen after the protests, I went to the crowded streets on central Gaza to interview some citizens.
Manal Mohammed, Gaza student, said that she is with the protests, but she is against violence and blood.
“I like to see people protesting peacefully on borders since they have rights to ask for, and of course having their rights can’t happen unless people speak up.”
Asked what those rights are, Manal answered, “First of all, we want to end the siege so we can have our freedom. Then we want to lower the rate of the unemployment since I am a student, and I am scared to graduate because I am sure I will not get a job.”
Due to the hard economic conditions hit Gaza since the beginning of Gaza siege, unemployment rate is between 60% and 80%. This high rate raised because of the salary cuts as well that affected the lives of the Palestinian Authority Employees in the Gaza Strip.
Mahmoud Abdulal, Gaza-based PA employee, said that he is with the peaceful protests, “since these protests are a right for every suffering human.”
“In addition to oppose Trump’s move of the US embassy, we want these protests to also put pressure on President Abbas to pay our salaries since we are living in the worst times, especially we are in Ramadan, and we want daily expenses for your kids.”
Despite the fact that the Palestinian President declared that he would pay the salaries, PA employees of Gaza didn’t get their payments since three months now.
Ahmed Abu-Jabal, a father of seven, has a different story from others. He said that until now protests achieved nothing, and dozens killed and thousands injured.
“I am with the protests for sure, but I want these protests to achieve our dreams as fast as possible before we lost the rest of the Palestinian young men.”
Like most of Gazans, Ahmed is jobless, and he can’t get what his family asks him for, especially during Ramadan.
“My youngest son asked me for a shirt today, and I can’t get it to him. What shall I do? Shall I kill myself? If our leaders want us to protest, we should know that these protests should let us feed our kids.”
Unemployed people of the Strip are the most affected people. Some of them tried to commit suicide, and other committed suicide and died. Three days ago, Fathi Harb, 21, died after he set fire in himself.
By the end of 2016 and 2017, suicides were happening so often that the phenomenon had started to become public knowledge. Figures quoted by local journalists stated the number of suicides in 2016 and 2017 was at least three times the number in 2015.
I went to Shifa Hospital and met with an injured guy, 28, whose name is Mutaz Riyadh. He was injured during borders protests along with his friends. When asked why he went there, he said that it’s all because of Trump’s move of the US embassy to Jerusalem.
“I went to borders to protest the move. Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Palestine, and I am ready to lose my whole body for Jerusalem.”
In addition to US embassy relocation, Mutaz said that he dreams to marry, and that he wants to put pressure on his dad so he can get him married.
Seemingly, the disheartened people of the Strip use the protests to achieve their dreams and hopes. Some want to claim their homelands, which is now Israel, while others want to tell the world that Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine. Some want the siege to be ended, while others want to get jobs. Some go to protests because they have nothing to get busy with, while others go to protests because they have nothing to lose.
Loving Jerusalem Is Innate is a poem I wrote to show the world how much we Palestinians are in love with Jerusalem.