A wounded father, his missing son and a slingshot army locked in war without end

Published by The Mail on Sunday (20th May, 2018)

I met Raed Selawy as he lurched over the bumpy terrain on crutches with two freshly bandaged bullet wounds on his leg. He had his sons aged 12 and eight beside him and they were heading towards thick black smoke and flying bullets by the border fence.

‘We have our land and a house over there,’ he said, pointing towards the snipers on sandy mounds facing us on the Israeli side. ‘I am teaching my sons not to forget the return of our land and that we are living under occupation.’

Two hours later, I saw him again emerging through clouds of tear gas – but this time with just his younger son, who looked distraught with reddened eyes and face wet from tears.

Where was his other boy, I asked. ‘I lost him,’ he said. ‘But I am here to throw stones at Israeli soldiers and fight for our rights. I must get my sons familiar with throwing stones.’

And so the cycle of fury and despair seeps from one generation to the next as hopes of peace in one of the planet’s most wretched and explosive struggles recede again.

I was at one of five confrontation points between Gaza and Israel, where for the eighth week hundreds of Palestinians joined fierce protests known as the Great Return March. These aim to highlight lands lost to Israel.

Hours earlier, the United Nations had announced a war crimes inquiry into the ‘wholly disproportionate’ slaughter of 62 protesters on Monday, the bloodiest day in Gaza since the last war in 2014. Hundreds more were injured.

I watched the tragic theatre of these protests as crowds gathered, some bringing big tyres on motorbike trailers and kites to set alight for burning Israeli fields. They stood defiant, 150 yards from the contested fence behind a curtain of smoke from flaming tyres.

Youths hurled stones with slingshots that fell before the border, then jumped in the air, arms aloft, as if they had scored in a game of football. Some moved closer to the barbed wire or broke away to the right. One group of veiled women stood together on a rise.

Israeli military vehicles raced along the other side to force back protesters with fusillades of tear gas and the occasional firing of live rounds. Ambulances with blaring sirens sped away a few of Friday’s 56 casualties.

Even as I listened to Ismail Haniyeh, leader of Hamas, the Islamist militant group that runs Gaza, whipping up the crowd a few hundred yards back from the border, another barrage of stinging tear gas landed beside me.

Haniyeh carried on speaking, saying the protests would not stop. His nephew told me they were planning another major confrontation early next month. The crowd responded with chants urging Hamas to ‘strike, strike Tel Aviv’ with its rockets.

Once again, the spilling of blood on this soil highlights the saddest of divisions – while two million people crammed into Gaza stay locked in an impoverished prison with few jobs, endless power cuts and growing frustration.

Hardline leaders on both sides push away hopes of peace. And the United States abandons any pretence of peace-broking by moving its embassy to Jerusalem in recognition of the city as Israel’s capital, so that President Donald Trump can cynically appeal to a domestic alliance of Jewish hawks and hardline evangelicals.

The dismal sight of his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner celebrating this foolish relocation, while Israeli soldiers mowed down people less than 60 miles away, should haunt the President. But he will just move on to provoke more disruption elsewhere.

Israeli officials fumed they lost the propaganda war ‘by knockout’. They seized on Hamas claims that 50 of the dead were its activists, leading one confused Tory MP to first condemn Israel’s actions, then absolve it of all blame for defending borders against ‘terrorists’.

The truth is more complex. Between ten and 24 of the dead were militants. More may have been Hamas supporters – but that does not make them terrorists.

And most think that Hamas is exaggerating its role to deflect attention from divisions and its own failures of government.

‘Hamas was feeling the pressure starting to build up against them,’ said Mkhaimar Abusada, professor of political science at Al Azhar University. ‘Their popularity was going down so they decided to make use of the protests to divert attention to Israeli occupation.’

The protests were launched by young activists on social media seeking a non-violent civil rights campaign. It is driven by anger over an 11-year blockade that wrecked the economy and boredom of living on such a tiny strip of land as much as by borders and division.

Israel claims some protesters were armed, although the only weapons I saw on Friday in Palestinian hands apart from four molotov cocktails were slingshots, kites and wirecutters.

As the protests took off, political factions such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad jumped on the bandwagon. Hamas organises buses to border sites while paying $3,000 to the families of the first people killed and smaller sums to those wounded.

Both groups back the destruction of Israel and have bloodstained histories. Now they pose as doves – although, as I was warned by Khalid al Batsh, leader of Islamic Jihad, this could change again.

‘We are having peaceful demonstrations with no military equipment but the Israelis kill our people,’ he said. ‘If the international community does not help, there might be discussion of another response.

‘What would happen if 60 people were killed and 3,000 injured in Tel Aviv by the resistance movement? Your country would denounce our actions. But in our case, there is silence.’

Not everyone backs protests. ‘I don’t want to see another drop of blood spilled,’ said Mohammad Al Taluli, a 26-year-old activist who has been jailed seven times and has seen social media accounts shut down repeatedly for open opposition to Hamas. ‘All of us want to see the right of return but we don’t all want to remove the Israelis.

‘Hamas and other Islamic factions live by using the blood and devastation of Palestinians.’

A symbol of the slaughter that shocked the world was Layla Ghandour, an eight-month-old baby who died in her grandmother’s arms from probable tear gas inhalation. Yet I was struck by her grandmother’s refusal simply to accuse Israel, despite seeing other family members shot dead in previous protests.

‘There is no excuse to shoot people and kill children,’ said Heyam Omar, 37. ‘But I blame everyone. All leaders look after themselves and neglect ordinary people.’

Amid the misery and mass killings of Gaza, it is hard to argue.

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