GAZA-ISRAEL BORDER (Reuters) - A narrow track inside Gaza around 300 meters 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, however, the area has been transformed. Tented encampments have sprung up a few hundred meters from the 40-km (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. [L5N1RI27S]
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 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.
It is scheduled to last until May 15, which Palestinians call the “Nakba” or “catastrophe”.
The protesters seek the right of return to areas that their families lived in before 1948, which are now inside Israel. The Israeli government rules that out, concerned that Israel would lose its Jewish majority.
Maps of Gaza from recent years by United Nations humanitarian agencies indicate a “no-go zone” of up to 100 meters from the barrier, with limited access for farmers in some areas from 100-300 meters and a further “risk zone” beyond that.
Israeli military officials declined on Wednesday to specify exact distances, but a spokeswoman said that the rules of engagement had not changed during the current protests, and that Palestinians were warned “not to approach the vicinity of the fence or the border.”
So delicate is the task of balancing Palestinian needs against Israeli security concerns that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) periodically negotiates agreements with Israel for farmers’ access.
Alyona Synenko, an ICRC spokesperson, said it involved “sensitive” and protracted negotiations to first clear unexploded ordnance, then bring machinery closer than usual to the border to make the land cultivable.
Only then could ICRC staff facilitate access for farmers when they go in to plant and harvest in the cleared areas, she said.
In a Gaza Strip accustomed to such curbs on movement, the recent changes - however temporary and precarious - are a relief to some.
Earlier this week football fans watched the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals match between Real Madrid and Juventus on a large screen in a protest camp around 700 meters from the border in southern Gaza.
One salesman had set up in a tent bearing the notice “Tea and Coffee of the Return”.
“I used to sell by the sea, but now everyone is going east, so I followed them,” said pizza-seller Mahmoud Al-Zebda, 24, who said he is earning four times what he did before the protests.
Writing by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Stephen Farrell; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall