A group of young men limp through the dust. The new symbols of Palestinian defiance, they say they were shot by Israeli troops during demonstrations close to the fence in the besieged enclave of the Gaza Strip.
They’re given seats close to the stage, in the shade of a warehouse-sized tent where the fiery speeches of some of Gaza’s leading militant leaders ring out.
Their places of honor were earned by being wounded during demonstrations against Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, which it jointly conducts with Egypt.
“We will continue our marches despite the huge difference in the balance of power, but one thing that this Zionist enemy does not have and we have, determination, will and sacrifice,” bellows Khaled al-Batsh, a leader in Islamic Jihad, considered a terrorist organization by the US and, like Hamas, which rules Gaza, dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish State.
Often described, even by supporters of Israel, as the “biggest open prison in the world,” Gaza is home to over two million people who have been locked in by Israel and Egypt and live under Hamas’ hard-line rule.
Israel says the blockade – which has been in place since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007 – is designed to stop the smuggling of arms into the territory. The Israeli government maintains it allows inflows of humanitarian aid.
Hamas remains dedicated to the Jewish state’s demise but is now struggling to co-opt, or harness, a popular and largely non-violent uprising originally organized by ordinary citizens.
The deadliest clashes in years broke out the day the United States moved its embassy to Israel in Jerusalem, the city claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians as their capital.
Palestinian health officials say that more than 2,700 protestors were injured and 62 killed by Israeli soldiers ordered to defend the fence that encircles Gaza. Medical records show that many of those injured were shot in the legs, according to the Palestinian health ministry.
No Israeli troops were injured in what may have been a grassroots demonstration but one that experts agree could not have happened without Hamas’ endorsement – and even help.
Israel insists that the demonstrations are a front for terrorist plots to break through the fence and launch operations against its citizens – especially as Hamas continues to insist that it is dedicated to the complete destruction of the Jewish State.
“Hamas is in charge of the Gaza Strip. Nothing happens here without Hamas’ approval and it approves of the demonstrations,” said Reham Owda, a prominent political analyst in Gaza.
“I think that Hamas is very proud to be embracing two ideologies. One is violent ideology and second is non-violent ideology. It depends on the time. Now the current situation in the Middle East doesn’t allow Hamas to use violence and it is better for it to adopt peaceful ideology because it gains more international support and more support from Gaza people,” Owda added.
The US explicitly blamed Hamas for the bloodshed.
“We believe that Hamas is responsible for these tragic deaths, that their rather cynical exploitation of the situation is what’s leading to these deaths, and we want them to stop,” Raj Shah, a spokesman for the White House said. “This is a gruesome and unfortunate propaganda attempt,” he added.
In an interview with CNN, Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar admitted that there was a propaganda advantage to the deaths and injuries that came with the demonstrations, where some Palestinians aimed slingshots and Molotov cocktails at Israeli forces and were met with live fire.
“We are very sorry about our victims. This is an important point but I think it is good for people [who] believe Israel is a peaceful system and only the aggressive side is from Hamas and the armed struggle,” said al-Zahar.
Al-Zahar insisted that while there were members of Hamas present at the demonstrations, both from the Qassam Brigades, its armed wing, and from its civilian branches, there was no plan to tear down the fence and launch terror attacks inside Israel.
“The military wing is secret so nobody can deny that they are present everywhere … if you are believing that Hamas is an isolated object it is not true, Hamas is involved in everything; present in hospitals, in school, in all affairs. Hamas is present everywhere so it’s not a strange thing to say supporters of Hamas, even leaders of Hamas, are participating in the demonstration against the Israeli occupation…
“It is purely symbolic. The protestors came from all the factions and from ordinary people. This was not just organized by Hamas,” Al-Zahar said.
But other officials have tried to boast of a high level of Hamas participation – possibly a sign that the group feels it needs to show a heavy presence in the demonstrations because of the widespread revulsion over the bloodshed – in an effort to exploit the propaganda “victory” for the Palestinians.
Salah al-Bardaweel, a Hamas politician, claimed that 50 of those killed on May 14 had been members of Hamas. Independent inquiries by CNN show that 24 of the dead were in some way affiliated with the movement and Hamas paid for the funerals of 26 others.
Historically, non-violence has failed to take off among the Palestinians. During the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, attempts to organize non-violent protests (which included a ban on slingshots and throwing rocks) were stymied by Fatah, the biggest political movement in the West Bank.
Fatah’s own “youth” broke up non-violent action against the Israelis under the leadership of Yasser Arafat. The ruling party was worried that the highly democratic nature of non-violent mass participation could undermine its vise-like grip on Palestinian power.
Ahmad Abu Artema, who was the originator of what he hoped would be a prolonged non-violent campaign called the “march of return.” He believes that non-violence has the potential to undermine the Israeli blockade of Gaza in a way that violence never could. He says that that up until three years ago it would have been inconceivable to get popular support for the demonstrations, much less the backing of Hamas and other militant groups.
“But they now realize, perhaps, that this is a way that could work. The Israelis have little idea what to do when confronted with non-violent protests,” Artema said.
Yaakov Perry, who used to run Shin Bet – Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, which is responsible for the West Bank and Gaza – agrees.
“Non-violent steps are easy to handle for Hamas or other terrorist organizations but almost impossible to handle from our side, from Israel’s side. If a million or half a million people decided to march from Gaza to Jerusalem it would be very, very complicated, almost impossible, to tackle or to handle,” Perry said.
Such a challenge is unlikely for now. Hamas called for a million to join the May 14 protests, but only an estimated 30,000-40,000 showed up.
And given that Hamas has said it wants to see the destruction of the Jewish state and the “evacuation” of its citizens, the movement may only be harnessing non-violence temporarily.
“Now is not the time for war,” Hamas co-founder Zahar said. “But there is one coming.”