Nahal Oz, Gaza – Patchwork clouds of smoke moved to and fro in the wind above a group of Palestinian youth waving Palestinian flags, standing on top of a low dirt ridge. Beyond it lay the Israeli border. I was near the Nahal Oz crossing, east of Gaza City in the northern segment of the Gaza Strip, close to where Israel used to bring diesel fuel into the Gaza Strip. It was Land Day. The sharp pop of bullets beginning to fly through the air grew louder as I drew closer to the group of shebab and cameramen stationed there, watching the youth below. They were maybe 150 meters from the border.
The smoke was from tires and garbage bags that had been set aflame or grass on which someone had tossed a match. The smoke gave the scene the look of a war zone. It looked like what it was. On the far side of the border were several Israel Defense Forces (IDF) jeeps, at least two Merkava tanks, looming, their turrets pointed at the group of fired-up Palestinians. There was also a Hammer, an electronic monitoring vehicle that can hear conversations at a great distance.
Other Palestinian youths were closer to the border, maybe 100 meters, well inside the Israeli-decreed “buffer zone.” All were bravely waving Palestinian flags. Bravely, because Israeli soldiers shoot to kill inside the buffer zone. They were there to commemorate Land Day. Land Day in Palestine is celebrated on March 30, an annual commemoration of the events of that day in 1976. In response to the Israeli government’s announcement of its plan to expropriate thousands of dunums – a dunum is a quarter acre – of land, Palestinians carried out a general strike, and there were marches in Arab towns across the breadth of Palestine. In violent confrontations with the Israeli army, six Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed.
Land Day was the first time since 1948 that Palestinians in Israel organized resistance to Israeli policies as a national collective. Its importance permeates the national consciousness. In Gaza, Land Day this year was big. The Popular Campaign for Security in the Buffer Zone and the Beit Hanoun-based Local Initiative group organized six simultaneous protests: the one I attended, at Nahal Oz; one each at Maghazi and Khuza’a in the central Gaza Strip; one in Beit Hanoun and one in Beit Lehiya, both in the northern part of the Gaza Strip; and one in Rafah, close to where Gaza adjoins Israel and Egypt.
In Gaza, as elsewhere, the struggle over land is increasingly urgent. This phase of nonviolent struggle has so far had a rural character, the result of zero-sum conflict between farmers and the occupying Army. Either farmers have access to their land or they don’t. If they don’t struggle for it they will lose it, and in some cases, as in the West Bank villages of Budrus and Bilin, where nonviolent mobilization partially changed the route of the apartheid wall, struggle over land has led to partial Palestinian victories – or ameliorated Palestinian defeat.
The Gazan buffer zone is particularly injurious for the besieged population there. Farmers are forcefully prevented from farming within 300 meters of the border, and have to worry about fumigation of their crops or sniper bullets within two kilometers, according to the Palestine Center for Human Rights (PCHR). As PCHR added, “30% of Gaza’s agricultural land cannot be worked without severe personal risk, causing the loss of livelihoods.”
This is the best land in Gaza. Ahmed Sourani from the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC) has commented that the buffer zone destroys the possibility of independent agricultural development in Gaza, which already has a population far in excess of the land’s carrying capacity. This is not a natural occurrence. Eighty percent of Gaza’s population has refugee status, having fled one or another Israeli depredation.
With 30 percent of Gaza’s farmland unavailable, sustainable planning is impossible. This land, and the abutting zones that are intermittently penetrated by sniper bullets, cannot be developed, although it is the natural place for infrastructural build-up in Gaza. As Sourani has written, “The border areas are the most fertile land in Gaza Strip. These agricultural lands constitute a food basket and represent food security to all those living in the region.”
Naturally, these restrictions have created mounting fury. They are restrictions that can only be maintained by force, and force is how they are maintained. According to the PCHR’s tabulations, from January 20 2009 to the end of the year, 37 people were murdered in the buffer zone. There were 166 recorded attacks.
The demonstration I was at was “calm”: no one was shot and bullets were restricted to warning shots, 10 or 20 meters away, as Palestinian youths huddled behind a large, intact piece of concrete, maybe the remains of a destroyed well. On their own land, they hid there for safety, probably within 80 meters of the border. For them, the Israeli sniper bullets may not have been warning shots. A PressTV reporter said that he felt the whiz of a bullet fly by his head, 500 meters from the border. When you shoot a bullet and there’s nothing behind it, it goes until it hits something. Still, the Nahal Oz demonstration was without casualties. Others were not.
Further south, in Khoza’a, a village east of Khan Younis, Israeli snipers used live ammunition, the reports muffled by silencers, to shoot three Palestinian youths: Hani Riad al-Najjar, 17; Walaa’ Farid al-Najjar, 19; Jom’a Ramadan al-Najjar, 22. Walaa’ was shot in the thigh. According to ISM volunteer Eva Bartlett, he said, “I saw the soldier who shot me. He didn’t give any warning, just shot me right away.” Israeli snipers often target the upper thigh, hoping to sever the femoral artery. Such wounds bleed the victim out quickly, and, often, snipers prevent EMT crews from reaching the victims of their marksmanship. When that happens the victims die.
Jom’a was shot in the head. Hani was wounded in both legs, the left one by gunshot, the right one by shrapnel. That shrapnel is still embedded in his body. As he testified to Bartlett, “The Israeli soldier was lying on a dirt mound across from us. He fired at me without warning.” The bullet hit just below his knee, and he will need an operation in order to remove it.
According to Bartlett, the demonstration in Khoza’a got close to the border shortly after noontime. IDF jeeps quickly arrived, and soldiers left their jeeps and assumed firing positions. Jom’a placed a flag on the border fence, and ten minutes after, he was shot. As Bartlett wrote, “Israeli soldiers repeatedly opened fire on the very visibly unarmed demonstrators, without any verbal warning, nor without warning shots in the air.” Jom’a has bullet shrapnel embedded in his skull. If he is lucky, it will be removable.
An IDF spokesperson told Ma’an news agency that their internal investigations showed that “soldiers operated in accordance with accepted dispersal procedures.” This can only mean that the IDF reserves the right to pump bullets into the legs of young Palestinian men for protesting peacefully on their own land.