Merchants return with risks

GAZA-ISRAEL BORDER – A narrow track inside Gaza around 300 metres from the Israeli border marks a line beyond which most Gazans do not normally venture, fearing they will be shot by Israeli troops.

Since a protest began last Friday, the area has been transformed. Tented encampments have sprung up a few hundred metres from the 40km (25-mile) fence, and hundreds of youths venture even closer to hurl stones at Israeli soldiers and roll burning tyres at the barrier.

There is still fear following the deaths of 19 Palestinians from Israeli fire since the protest started.

But some Palestinians say they are enjoying the first chance in years to get so close. Merchants have set up food stalls and visiting families are entertained by performing camels and horses.

“These areas were abandoned because they are close to the border. It was hard for anyone to visit,” said Youssef Al-Najar, 47, as he sold chicken liver sandwiches from a tent.

Israel cites security for its precautions around Gaza, which is controlled by the armed Islamist group Hamas. In 2006 Hamas and other militant groups mounted a tunnel raid on an Israeli military post on the border in southern Gaza, capturing an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, and killing two of his tank crew.

Palestinians say the policy deprives them of large areas of farmland, cutting into livelihoods and reducing the space available to the densely populated strip’s two million residents.

Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Wednesday that Israel’s troops would continue its current policy.

“We will behave exactly as we have in the past week, with an understanding that anybody who harms our sovereignty and threatens it is endangering his life,” he told Israel Army Radio.

The protest that began last Friday has been dubbed the “Great March of Return”, a reference to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the conflict around the creation of the state of Israel 70 years ago.