Organisers say Gaza protests to be scaled back
‘March of Return’ protests to be held monthly from March as negotiations towards a Hamas-Israel ceasefire continue.
Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip will scale back protests along the fortified separation barrier with Israel, factions in the coastal territory have said, in a potential sign of a lasting detente between Israel and Gaza’s rulers Hamas.
The Higher National Committee, a collection of Gaza-based factions and civil society organisations that organise the protests, said there will be a rally this Friday but that demonstrations thereafter would be held monthly and on national occasions, beginning in March.
For nearly 20 months, Palestinians have held weekly demonstrations dubbed the “Great March of Return” in what began as a grassroots effort to draw attention to the difficult living conditions in Gaza and call for the right of Palestinians to return to long-lost homes in what is now Israel.
Some 80 percent of Gaza’s two million people are refugees or descendants of refugees. Israel rejects any such return, saying that it would eliminate its Jewish majority.
However, Hamas quickly took control of the protests, which have sometimes turned violent as young men have attempted to cut through the separation barrier and thrown rocks and firebombs at Israeli troops who have used live ammunition against protesters.
Israeli fire has killed some 215 Palestinians, most of them unarmed, including 47 people under 18 and two women, according to the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. Hundreds of others have been seriously wounded in the demonstrations.
Israel has said it was defending itself against attacks and infiltration attempts but Palestinians and international human rights groups have accused Israel of using excessive force.
The protests have tapered off in recent months, which analysts attribute to diplomatic efforts by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations to avert wider escalation of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, and broker a ceasefire agreement that would ease the crippling 12-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade.
Israel has said any progress would depend on a halt to the protests, as well as rocket fire out of Gaza.
Late on Wednesday, a rocket attack believed to have been launched by the Islamic Jihad group forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu off the stage during a campaign stop in southern Israel. Israel responded by bombing a series of Hamas targets.
Israel says it holds Hamas responsible for all fire out of Gaza, even rockets launched by rival armed groups.