GAZA STRIP —
As the Islamic holy month of Ramadan began in Gaza, markets opened for the first time in days. But business was sparse as locals mourned the dead and tended to the wounded from bloody demonstrations earlier in the week.
“Ramadan is a good month and it brings blessings with it,” said 16-year-old Sadik, a high school student helping out in his father’s fruit and spice store. “But it’s not like it was before.”
The crowded old market is packed with fresh vegetables, dates and live animals for sale, but consumers in Gaza are poorer than ever after more than a month of protests that often shut down businesses and schools.
The protests culminated early this week with rallies against the U.S. embassy opening in Jerusalem and the forced exodus of Palestinians from what is now Israel over the past 70 years.
More than 60 people were killed and 2,700 were injured in the demonstrations, which included storming the border barrier separating Gaza and Israel. But Sadik said, like other youth, he will continue to protest. “It is our right to claim that land,” he added proudly.
A few kilometers away on a quiet side street, other Palestinian men echoed Sadik’s thoughts, but acknowledged that their main frustration was far more immediate than land lost so many years ago.
The men gathered under an awning for a three-day funeral for 8-month-old Laila, the baby who died after tear gas was dropped next to grandmother on Monday.
Isolated from other Palestinians and the world in general, Laila’s family members said residents of Gaza suffer extreme poverty, isolation and lack of basic services like consistent electricity and proper sewage disposal. More than anything, the men said, they lack job opportunities and any chance to get ahead.
The baby’s father, 27-year-old Anwar al-Ghunder, appeared in shock as he spoke of his lost child.
“On Sunday, we took her to the port and played on the swings,” he said. “We had a great time.”
A few years earlier, his first child was suffocated by smoke from candles lighting his home during one of Gaza’s frequent blackouts. The baby was under two months old.
Now, childless, unemployed and estranged from his wife, al-Ghunder shares a tiny apartment with five other men, who are also unable to afford a home.
“If I had a job and a home I would have 10 children,” he said. “But now I have only two birds in Heaven.”
For al-Ghunder and his family, the blame for their suffering lies mainly with Israel, whose forces surround their crowded patch of land and demand extensive permissions to get out.
The U.S., the U.N. and other Arab nations have also abandoned them for decades, they said.
When the cameras were off and microphones put away, other Gaza residents described their problems as more complex. In a two-room house attached to the family’s small grocery store, one mother of five said two of her teenage sons had been shot by Israeli bullets in the legs, and then returned to the border to protest again.
“Our leaders send our children back out to get killed,” she said, visibly angry. “If Israeli children get hurt, don’t they go home?”
Israel blames Hamas — both Gaza’s main government and a military organization that has been battling Israel for decades and is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., Israel and others — for the carnage, saying it forces Palestinian youth to protest.
In response to this charge, one Hamas leader said on Wednesday that 50 of those killed in the protests were Hamas members. This statement was taken by many to confirm accusations that the demonstrations were militant uprisings, not popular protests.
On the streets of Gaza City, the distinction is not that clear. While mourners carry the body of 51-year-old Nassar Abdullah into a mosque for prayers, a man in a pickup truck decorated with Hamas flags preaches, using a microphone.
“How many wars have happened and they could not defeat us?” he says. People on the crowded streets said they agree. Resisting Israel is part of their culture, and returning to their lost lands is a collective dream, even for those who have little hope that it will ever be realized.
“There may be more protests; it is our right,” said Muthaina al-Harrash, a mother of six, waiting for a prescription to be filled outside a hospital. “For me, I forbid my sons to go because it is dangerous. But they won’t listen.”