Under a tent canopy on a farm in Gaza’s Jabalia region on Wednesday, about 100 Palestinian civilians gathered for an unusual event. Forbidden to travel outside of Gaza due to the Israeli siege, they instead joined a satellite-enabled video conference with activists in the West Bank village of Bil’in. These activists dodge Israeli tear gas, skunk cannons and rubber bullets in their weekly demonstrations against the separation wall.
In Gaza, however, a similar protest movement is immediately met with live gunfire.
Saber Zaaneen, one of five panelists at the video conference, is one of many Gazans inspired by the activists in Bil’in. A self-declared left-winger who idolises Che Guevara and served as a Fateh policeman before Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, Zaaneen leads a new wave of non-violent demonstrations against the Israeli-imposed buffer zone. The demonstrations began about two and a half months ago, and now take place five days a week in border areas across Gaza.
Typically, Zaaneen and his fellow unarmed demonstrators march into the buffer zone, place Palestinian flags near the border wall and then retreat, often dodging bullets along the way. Protest participants said that Israeli troops shot three demonstrators in the legs last week — and that all survived and have since been released from the hospital.
A July 2008 flyer dropped by an Israeli Apache helicopter provided the spark for Zaaneen’s idea. The flyer forbade Palestinians from going within 300 metres of the border — yet Zaaneen knew of incidents in which Israeli troops had razed entire farms, fired at civilians and demolished houses one kilometre away from the border. He believed that Israel would continue encroaching unless Palestinians resisted.
He and other activists therefore began accompanying farmers as they tended their fields near the border. They also searched for — and found — the body of a Palestinian shot by Israeli troops and left to rot. Foreign activists from the International Solidarity Movement joined all of these efforts, and their extensive video footage shows Israeli troops firing live bullets towards civilians near the buffer zone.
During and after last year’s Gaza War, which claimed the lives of 13 Israelis and about 1400 Gazans, Zaaneen dropped his plans for larger-scale demonstrations. But he closely followed news from the West Bank village of Bil’in, where the wall under construction by Israel separated Palestinian farmers from their land. Since January 2005, Palestinians, left-wing Israelis and foreign activists have demonstrated every Friday in the village. One protester was killed in April 2009 when a tear gas canister struck him in the chest.
Activists won an uncommon victory in September 2007 when the Israeli Supreme Court decided that the wall created "undue hardship" in Bil’in and must be rerouted.
Three months ago, the Israeli army finally began carrying out the court’s demands. Last month, the army declared Bil’in a "closed military zone" and forbade internationals from entering Bil’in on Fridays.
Many Israeli and international activists who were part of the Bil’in movement are now participating in weekly demonstrations in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Claiming historical Jewish ownership of the land, the Israeli government has forcibly evicted Palestinian families from their homes in this predominantly Arab area. Orthodox Israeli settlers immediately moved into the homes and often clash with protesters.
Zaaneen felt heartened by the proliferation of these and other non-violent protest movements. "I wanted to experiment with this strategy in Gaza," he said. "The strength of these demonstrations is that they attract international activists and journalists to see what’s really happening."
He finally put his ideas into action on 9 January, when a new flyer arrived from the Apache helicopters warning Palestinians not to go within 800 metres of the border. Zaaneen "wanted to send a message to Israel that this is Palestinian land and the farmers are not leaving. They bring money only from working the soil." After visiting universities and community organisations, he rallied broad participation. Private individuals offered to fund the cost of the buses, video equipment, flags and other supplies.
In the most recent demonstration, which took place the day before Wednesday’s video conference with the Bil’in activists, Zaaneen led about 100 protesters towards the buffer zone in the district of Beit Lahia. In the same location two weeks ago, protesters had already planted Palestinian flags near the border when the Israeli troops arrived to disperse them. This week, however, Israeli troops were waiting for them.
When Zaaneen saw the Israeli tank, four armoured jeeps and multiple snipers a few hundred metres away, he felt profound concern for demonstrators’ safety — particularly after the shooting of three protesters last week. Before deciding to retreat, Zaaneen picked up a megaphone and addressed the Israeli troops with a rhyming Arabic chant. "Listen, listen occupiers!" he shouted as demonstrators repeated after him. "The people are steadfast and never humiliated. From Gaza to Bil’in, we are all resistance fighters!"
Watch footage of a demonstration on 20 April in the Gazan district of Beit Lahia and interview with Saber Zaaneen, organiser of Gaza’s non-violent protests against the buffer zone.