Gazans protest siege as Israeli attacks escalate

Tens of thousands of Gazans attempted to form a human chain thelength of the Gaza Strip on February 25. The action was a protest against Israel's illegal collective punishment of the 1.5 million residents of Gaza.

Israel has maintained a brutal siege against Gaza, closing all access to the territory and blocking the delivery of food, fuel and other essential supplies — including preventing ambulances from leaving.

The rally, organised by the Popular Committee Against the Siege of Gaza, sought to stretch along the main highway from Rafah in the south to Erez crossing in the north, and involved thousands of Palestinians, including school children. The aim of the protest was to draw international attention to Israel's criminal blockade.

In response to the non-violent demonstration, Israel bolstered its troop deployment along the Gaza borders.

According to the February 25 Jerusalem Post, Israel began moving heavy artillery into the region. Haaretz reported the same day that the Israeli military had been instructed to use live ammunition and sniper fire against Palestinian demonstrators if they breached border crossings.

The demonstration comes in the wake of Israel killing another six Palestinians in Gaza in the past week.

Hamas, which won Palestinian Authority (PA) elections in 2006 and has had full control over Gaza since June 2007, announced that it would use any means necessary to breach the Israeli blockade. Hamas spokesperson, Sami Abu Zuhri, told Haaretz on February 25 that "our people will not allow the continuation of this situation regardless of the results".

Zuhri stated that Hamas holds all Israeli leaders "responsible for any harm to the participants in these peaceful demonstrations".

The Gaza Strip has been under total siege from October 28, when Israel began implementing "phase 1" of its plan to collectively punish the residents of the strip in response to the Hamas securing full control in Gaza following months of bloody fighting against the Fatah-aligned and US-backed PA Preventative Security Service.

On January 23, Hamas and other Palestinian resistance fighters detonated a series of 20 coordinated explosions that brought down the wall running along Gaza's Egyptian border. More than 60,000 Palestinians streamed through into Egypt in order to buy much needed food and others supplies, bring short lived relief.

On February 21, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on Israel to cease its illegal collective punishment of the Gaza Strip. Reuters reported on February 22 that the resolution stated that "the policy of isolation of the Gaza strip has failed at both the political and humanitarian level" and that "the civilian population should be exempt from any military action and any collective punishment".

Even the US, Israel's closest ally, has expressed some reservations about Israel's actions in Gaza, with Mark Otte, US envoy to the so-called Quartet — the UN, EU, Russia and the US — stating on February 11 that, "Not only is nothing improving on the ground, but Israel's behaviour is getting worse".

However, the US has not pushed for Israel to cease its actions. A February 22 Haaretz editorial noted that "the expression of concern by low and mid-level officials, in whispers through cables, is still not pressure. So long as there is no president in the White House who threatens to suspend military aid to Israel, or avoids vetoing a Security Council resolution unfavourable to Israel, it is too much to talk about pressure being applied on Israel."

On February 27, Israel stepped up its assault on Gaza, with air-raids and artillery fire. On March 1, it launched a ground invasion with tanks and infantry. A March 2 Ynet.com article reported that an Israeli attack had flattened the office of the elected Hamas PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniya.

The pretext for this escalation was the death of an Israeli civilian in a February 27 Qassam rocket attack by Palestinian resistance fighters.

The rocket attack, a response to the extrajudicial assassination of 5 Palestinian political activists, brings the number of Israeli civilian casualties since May 2007 to three. Over 250 Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of "peace talks" in November.

By March 2, as many as 100 Palestinians had been killed in the latest Israeli assault, at least half civilians. Over 10% of the Palestinians killed are children under 16, including a five-month-old baby killed in air strikes and a one-year-old shot in the head by Israeli sniper fire.

The March 1 International Herald Tribune reported that Palestinians were "labeling the offensive with emotionally charged terms 'genocide' and 'holocaust". However, Israeli government leaders used similar language, with deputy defence minister Matan Vilnai telling Israeli Army Radio on February 29 that if the homemade rocket attacks continued the Palestinians "will bring a bigger holocaust upon themselves".

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