Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Shots fired as activists test Gaza 'exclusion zone'

Gaza – Ma'an – A few dozen Palestinian and international protesters approached Gaza's northern-most area on Sunday, drawing fire from Israeli forces operating an "exclusion zone" inside the coastal enclave's borders.

Israeli armed forces fired four gunshots when the group approached an area near the Erez crossing, said Saber Az-Za'anin, coordinator of Local Initiative, a Beit Hanoun-based organization seeking to reclaim some 300 meters of privately owned farmland.

Az-Za'anin said soldiers also shouted at the protesters, demanding they leave the area, and opened fire when they initially refused. "We decided to leave for the sake of our lives and to avoid any danger ... we want to break the siege in a peaceful way," he said.

An Israeli military spokesman told Ma'an that "IDF soldiers identified a suspicious gathering in a restricted area in the northern Gaza. Soldiers responded according to procedures by firing warning shots in the air."

A few weeks ago, Israeli aircraft dropped warning flyers over the Gaza Strip reiterating that Palestinians were banned from approaching the zones, which are inside Gaza but along the periphery.

Similar demonstrations have taken place four times in recent weeks, the latest protest marking the closest they have come to the Gaza-Israel borderline. To mark the occasion, two Palestinian flags were placed at the furtherest spots the demonstrators reached, which they said was about 50 meters from the barrier.

Local Initiative activists "are determined to reclaim the right to move freely on every inch of the Palestinian land and to support farmers to continue farming near the border where they often face firing and threats," the International Solidarity Movement said in a statement.

The area of Beit Hanoun, located in northeastern Gaza, suffered significant destruction during the Israeli military assault that began in late December 2008. Many houses were completely destroyed and no buildings were left standing anywhere near the border.

This combined with the imposition of the "buffer zone" and a general lack of safety has made farming extremely risky in the otherwise fertile area, where wheat, vegetables and fruit, including Gaza's famous strawberries, have been grown for centuries.