Many questions remain about what led to the deaths of up to 58 Palestinians on Monday. One of the key issues surrounds how the protests are organized. Based on observation and discussions with sources close to the protests, the following presents a clearer picture of what has occurred over the last weeks, and attempts to paint a picture of how the May 14 protests unfolded.
Since the end of March, there have been mass protests along the Gaza border. These protests have been well organized and planned as part of an eight week “Great March of Return,” from the Palestinian Land Day on March 30, to the “Nakba Day” on May 15.
On May 14, the mass protests, which coincided with the US opening its embassy in Jerusalem and came a day before what was supposed to be the last day of the protests, resulted in 58 Palestinians 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 of demonstrations, protesters used a variety of different tactics and methods. For instance, protesters began lighting massive fires and burning tires during the second Friday, in early April. Then they began launching burning kites to ignite Israeli farmland. They also tore down a section of barbed wire of one of the fences between Israel and Gaza on April 27. It was during this protest that a reliable source provided some insight into the methods employed by Hamas and the protesters.
The protesters have gathered every Friday 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 some of the Hamas officials will show up in the morning or early afternoon to rouse the people and encourage them in their protest. Speeches will be made and prayers offered. It is well organized. Buses bring people to the protests. There are people selling food. There is even a macabre element of this, with protesters saying they’ll have a meal before they become “shahid” or a martyr at the front.
The masses of protesters who approach the actual fence are generally made up of young men and teenagers, including youth and children. There are very few women in the area closest to the fence. The protesters know how the Israeli 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 barbed-wire fence in sections to deter protesters from reaching the main fence. Israel has continuously warned since March that anyone approaching this kind of buffer zone would be shot. A section of barbed wire fence 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 thirty seconds running between the barbed-wire fence and the main security fence.
But what happened in late April was not just the spontaneous 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 fence.
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 people, 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 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 the May 14 protests. Joe Dyke, the AFP correspondent in Gaza, wrote on May 10 that, at a “briefing to foreign media, Gaza head of Hamas told journalists today he would support thousands of Palestinians breaking through the border fence next week.”
On Sunday the IDF dropped leaflets on Gaza warning protesters to stay away from the fence. On May 14 Dyke, in Gaza, tweeted: “literally as the US embassy inauguration is beginning, loud speakers east of Gaza City are calling on protesters to prepare to seek to breach the border fence.”
By the end of the day, 58 had been killed.
The article was published in The JPost