“We felt that the American administration is working against the Palestinians in this issue,” said Isam Hammad, 52, the regional manager of a medical equipment company who said he volunteered to help Artema the day he read his Facebook post. “We felt this all the time but not as clear as this.”
Getting powerful groups to join — but not dominate — the movement took convincing, said Salah Abdel Ati, the head of the Great March of Return’s International and Legal Committee. Gaza been ruled by militants Hamas since they won elections in 2006.
Broad buy-in is part of the strategy. Organizers say the “Great March of Return” is financed by small donations and governed by a central committee of about 27 seats populated by representatives from some 18 political and civil society groups — including the dominant West Bank political party Fatah, as well as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, both of which are recognized by the U.S. as terrorist organizations.
Despite the march’s high ideals, demonstrators have resorted to violence — throwing stones, rolling burning tires and lofting “incendiary kites” to ignite Israeli fields on the other side of the fence.
“I do understand why they throw stones,” said Anas Inaina, 25, a project coordinator. “You do not throw flowers when you are just suffocating here.”
But human rights groups have faulted Israel for answering rudimentary weapons with live ammunition. The Israeli Defense Forces have said that was necessary to protect Israeli citizens.
Israeli officials are anxious to prevent a breach massive breach of the fence and potential attacks in communities on the other side of the barrier. They have warned Palestinians to keep well away from the boundary.
During the maiden demonstration on March 30, Israeli soldiers killed more than 20 protesters. Video footage showed several people being shot as they ran away.
The death toll jumped substantially on Monday.
No Israelis have been killed or injured.
Keeping the protests peaceful has been one of the organizers’ principal challenges, particularly reining in desperate young men.
The presence of women and children has had a calming influence — a novelty for Gaza resistance that Israeli officials have likened to the use of human shields. On Friday, women could be seen cooking and distributing food but also joining men on the front line.
“Women are taking places there and they are also welcome there and participating as equal as men,” said Alorjwan Fhurrab, 23, a recent graduate who is unemployed.
When Fhurrab joined the march one Friday in April, she said she was forced to flee when Israeli snipers opened fire.
“I was running as fast as the young men ran!” she said, but added “some young men were telling me to run faster in order for me to be safe.”
Organizers and rank-and-file activists hope the movement will remain a peaceful force beyond this week.
But they also worry that a violent reaction from Israel could lead to an unmanageable situation — one that would once again push violent groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad to the forefront.
“We believe we will continue,” said Ati, speaking before dozens were killed on Monday. “That’s one scenario. The other scenario is if the Israelis kill more people, if there’s a massacre … maybe we will go to war.”
Matt Bradley, Charlene Gubash and Wajjeh Abu Zarifa reported from Gaza City, Paul Goldman from Jerusalem, Lina Dandees from Tel Aviv, and Jason Cumming and F. Brinley Bruton from London.