Why protesters put their lives on the line by approaching Gaza fence

Image: Palestinian protesters
Protesters take cover from tear gas near the fence between Gaza and Israel on June 8. Copyright Mohammed Abed
Copyright Mohammed Abed
By F. Brinley Bruton and Wajjeh Abu Zarifa with NBC News World News
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"We want to live a dignified life but we are losing hope," one demonstrator who was shot by Israeli troops told NBC News.


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Before the bullet tore through his left leg, Hadad Gamry knew that he was venturing too close to the razor-wire fence between the Gaza Strip and Israel.

But the 20-year-old wanted the world to know how angry he was, so Gamry says he taunted the soldiers on the other side anyway. That decision resulted in him becoming a statistic — one of the more than 13,000 Palestinians protesters injured near the barrier since March 30. At least 142 demonstrators have also been killed by Israeli troops, according to Gaza's health ministry.

"No electricity, no clean water, no open borders — this is how we in Gaza live," he told NBC News from a bed in al-Shifa, the main hospital in the blockaded seaside enclave. "We want the world to know about all our problems."

Propped up on a pillow, the skin was pulled so tight over Gamry's purple-brown foot that the swollen flesh looked ready to burst. Doctors have told him if he doesn't receive permission to travel to Israel for specialized treatment they will likely have to amputate part of his leg.

"Why did we go to the fence? We are trying to change our lives — we want a state," the high school student added while surrounded by fellow patients at the hospital's orthopedic unit, all of them among the more than 3,600 protesters wounded by Israeli bullets near the barrier. "We want to live a dignified life, but we are losing hope."

Hadad Gamry, 20, was shot in the leg last month while protesting at the fence separating Israel and Gaza.
Hadad Gamry, 20, was shot in the leg last month while protesting at the fence separating Israel and Gaza.David Copeland

Gamry was wounded on May 14, the deadliest day of the "Great March of Return" demonstrations, in which Palestinians demanded the right to enter into Israel and reclaim homes lost after the country was founded in 1948.

The idea took off in the impoverished Palestinian enclave where 70 percent of the population are refugees or descendants of refugees. A similar proportion in Gaza depends on humanitarian aid.

That tens of thousands knowingly risked being shot by Israeli forces speaks to the growing desperation on this narrow, blockaded 25-mile strip of land.

President Donald Trump's special adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is in the Middle East this week trying to craft an international aid package to alleviate the suffering. The plan is widely thought to be a precursor to the president's "deal of the century" aimed at a long-term resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel maintains that Hamas, the Islamist group controlling the enclave that many countries consider a terrorist organization, has encouraged civilians to put themselves in harm's way and then used them as cover to commit violence.

A Palestinian boy protests near the barrier between the Gaza Strip and Israel on May 14.
A Palestinian boy protests near the barrier between the Gaza Strip and Israel on May 14.Mahmud Hams

Gamry and others NBC News spoke to in Gaza rejected the idea that Hamas had compelled them to go to the fence, saying they went because they had run out of ways to make the world pay attention to their suffering.

"It is Israel that is shooting us, not Hamas," said Gamry, shaking his finger for emphasis. "We went to the protests willingly."

Asma Abu Daqa, a mother of three whose right leg was shattered by an Israeli bullet when she ventured too close to the barrier, felt the same way.

"Nobody pushed us to go — we went because we believe in our rights," she said from the European Gaza Hospital in Rafah, the bolts of a metal frame slicing into her right shin. "I want a future for my children."

Asma Abu Daqa with her husband, Mohammed, and her baby son, Amir, while being treated in hospital.
Asma Abu Daqa with her husband, Mohammed, and her baby son, Amir, while being treated in hospital.David Copeland

Abu Daqa said the blockade, the Israeli occupation of ancestral lands, the constant threat of violence and a crushing loss of hope all fueled the Palestinian protests.

So she ignored warnings from Israeli forces via flyers and loudspeakers not to go near the soldiers and the fence on May 14. Abu Daqa, 24, said she took a stand by using her body to face down Israeli troops.

"My son at 7 has seen two wars," she said. "I don't want him to see another, and for that I am willing to pay a price."

Israel and Hamas have fought three conflicts in the last 12 years — the latest in 2014. There is a growing sense that another war is inevitable.


Some 30 rockets and mortar shells were fired by militants late Tuesday and early Wednesday into Israel, which responded with airstrikes.

Children play in the street in Gaza City.
Children play in the street in Gaza City.David Copeland

The pervasive threat of violence backs up the land, sea and air blockade imposed in 2007. Hamas won elections the previous year and then seized control of the enclave in a power struggle with rival Fatah.

Israeli observation balloons hover over the 226-square-mile territory's periphery, and snipers' nests and towers for remote-controlled machine guns squat near the fence. It is often impossible to escape the persistent hum of Israeli drones.

Economically, the blockade is making life intolerable for many of Gaza's 2 million residents. Almost none of the water is clean, raw sewage is pumped straight into the sea and worsening power shortages mean Gazans have electricity for only around four hours a day on average. Unemployment rates are close to 50 percent — more than 65 percent among those under 30.

And political impasse rules the lives of those in Gaza.


Israel and much of the world officially refuses to deal with Hamas and long-term talks aimed at creating an independent Palestinian state including Gaza, the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem — which Israel captured in 1967 — have stalled. Infighting among Hamas and Fatah, the dominant West Bank political party, have severely compromised Palestinian bargaining power.

It is against this backdrop that tens of thousands of protesters repeatedly gathered in camps along the fence with Israel.

Israeli officials worried that demonstrators would break through and carry out "swarming" attacks. An estimated 40,000 were protesting on May 14 when Israeli forces opened fire along the barrier, killing 60 Palestinians and wounding 2,700 others. Hamas later said that 50 of the fatalities were members.

The deadliest rally to date coincided with the inauguration of the American Embassy in Jerusalem — a move that dismayed and infuriated Palestinians.

Israel's military said rocks, "firebombs and explosive devices" were thrown toward the fence, which stretches for 40 miles.


But Israel's use of deadly force against demonstrators, journalists and health workers provoked an international outcry.

"The mere fact of approaching a fence is not a lethal, life-threatening act, so that does not warrant being shot," the U.N. international body's human rights spokesman, Rupert Colville, said last month. "It seems that anyone is liable to be shot dead."

International law states that "lethal force may only be used as a measure of last, not first, resort," he added.

Last week, the U.N. General Assembly condemned Israel for excessive use of force. On Tuesday, the U.S. withdrew from the U.N. Human Rights Council, citing unfair treatment of Israel.

And earlier this year, the U.S. cut funding for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees by millions of dollars. The U.S. is the organization's largest donor.


So Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, Trump's special envoy to the Middle East, have their work cut out for them.

Mohammed Yassim, a truck driver, said he had many reasons to protest even if he risked his life.

"Yes, my life is important, but I can't take it outside the context of everything else here in Gaza," he said as he recovered from a bullet wound in his right leg in Al-Shifa Hospital. "I cannot talk about my personal life without talking also about all the other things, like the Holy Land, and basic things like water, electricity and freedom of movement."

He added, "Our problem is not with Israel, it is with the occupation."

Yasser Abu Jamei, the executive head of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, and his son Mohammed.
Yasser Abu Jamei, the executive head of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, and his son Mohammed.David Copeland

The blockade and related economic and social hardship has provoked a mental health crisis among Gazans, according to Yasser Abu Jamei, the executive head of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program — the largest independent mental health network here.


Budget cuts to the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, severe poverty, the lack of political resolution and the constant fear of violence are breeding despair and deep anger, he said.

"All the news coming from all sides is basically terrible," Abu Jamei said. "People are under pressure all the time."

When the U.S. — a big, powerful and trusted government — moved the embassy to Jerusalem, Abu Jamei said many here perceived it as "like telling the Palestinians to go to hell."

Hamas appears ready to play the long game, staying in power and waiting out Israel and the U.S. at any cost.

Basem Naim is a senior Hamas official.
Basem Naim is a senior Hamas official.David Copeland

Greenblatt has stated that Hamas must disarm and recognize Israel if it wants to play a role in a future Palestinian government, but Hamas has so far made no such commitment.


"If the stronger one cannot defeat the weaker, [the stronger] is defeated," senior Hamas official Basem Naim told NBC News. "And if the weaker one does not surrender, he is not defeated."

The former Hamas health minister added: "And we are not surrendering. As long as we are not raising the white flag, you cannot say that Israel has won the war."

Naim said that even if some of those protesting at the fence were members of Hamas or another militant group operating in Gaza, they were entitled to be treated as legitimate demonstrators as long as they did not bring weapons with them.

"Most of those young people who are going to the fence have nothing to lose," he said.

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