Gazans form human chain in protest against Israeli blockade

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The Independent Online

A non-violent protest by Palestinians against the Israeli blockade of Gaza was clouded yesterday by a lower than hoped-for turnout and the wounding of a 10-year-old Israeli boy in a series of rocket attacks by militants. About 5,000 people – including many placard-waving schoolchildren and university students – formed a "human chain" outside Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza to demonstrate against the deepening hardship caused by the seven-month closure of the Strip.

The largely peaceful outcome of the demonstration belied doom-laden Israeli media speculation, reinforced by thousands of heavily armed military and police around Gaza, that protesters would seek to storm through the crossings with Israel after last month's breach of the border with Egypt.

Although similar protests were held in other towns, the overall numbers also fell well below the 40,000 predicted by organisers who were seeking to draw international attention to a blockade which has halted industry, starved Gaza of many basic consumer goods, and severely depleted fuel and power supplies.

Meanwhile militants launched at least five Qassam rockets, one of which wounded the 10-year-old, Yossi Haimov, in the border town of Sderot. A spokeswoman for the Barzilai Medical Centre in Ashkelon said that surgeons had saved his arm after he sustained shrapnel injuries in his shoulder. A mother and her one-year-old baby were also wounded.

Earlier yesterday, three Hamas militants were killed in two Israeli air strikes in Gaza, which also injured five other people. The Popular Resistance Committee claimed that another militant found dead in the southern border town of Rafah had belonged to the group and had been killed in a gunfight with Israeli troops. The Israeli military claimed no knowledge of this incident.

Some areas on the Israeli side of the border were declared closed military zones and foreign journalists were prohibited from entering Gaza as 5,000 police backed up troops amid reports that the Israeli military had stationed an artillery battery and snipers close to the border fence.

Ahmed Youssef, a senior aide to the de facto Hamas prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, had claimed last month that thousands of Gazans were ready to risk their lives by marching on the Erez crossing into Israel if the borders remained closed after last month's breach. Tens of thousands of Palestinians poured into Egypt after Hamas had destroyed the southern border barrier at Rafah.

But Jamal al-Khoudary, an independent lawmaker who organised the event with the blessing of Hamas, said that yesterday's protest had one message: "The necessity of breaking the embargo." He added: "We are undertaking peaceful protests and community activities. We did not breach the border." He insisted that the protest had been a success though rain in southern Gaza had affected numbers.

Hamas paramilitary police blocked about 2,000 activists from approaching the Palestinian side of the Erez crossing. Israeli border police later fired shots over the heads of several dozen youths who burnt tyres and throw stones at them; 49 youths were arrested.

Ehud Barak, the Defence minister, said after the protest: "The state of Israel won't interfere in the freedom of Palestinians to rally ... in Gaza, but the Israeli military will defend the borders and the crossings from Gaza into Israel."

Mohammed Nazzal, a member of Hamas's political bureau, told the Associated Press from Lebanon: "Hamas is ready to ... stop firing rockets on Sderot if Israel stops its aggression." Gaza sources say Hamas has dropped its insistence that Israel should cease operations in the West Bank in return for a ceasefire in Gaza.