Capturing 24 hours in Gaza, one hour at a time

Locals walk past graffiti in Gaza City, February 20, 2019. Political graffiti covers walls throughout Gaza. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

GAZA CITY (Reuters) – In the build-up to the one-year anniversary of the Gaza border protests that opened up a deadly new front in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Reuters photographer Dylan Martinez visited Gaza for the first time.

As someone who had never set eyes on Gaza, his assignment was to use those unfamiliar eyes to record life beyond the daily drumbeat of violence in the blockaded Palestinian territory.

The mood has become more tense in recent weeks as the March 30 anniversary nears, with trails of Palestinian rockets and Israeli missiles again appearing in the skies above.

Martinez did not know what to expect after he crossed through Israel’s fortified checkpoint and past a long caged walkway and parallel road leading to a dilapidated Palestinian checkpoint at the other end.

Bullet and shrapnel holes cover a wall as children fly kites in Gaza City, February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Bullet and shrapnel holes cover a wall as children fly kites in Gaza City, February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

“We have a great team of photographers and journalists in Gaza whose main task, really, is to photograph the protest, the clashes between Israel and Gaza,” said Martinez, 49, a 28-year Reuters veteran who has covered Europe, Asia and the Americas and is currently based in London.

“My remit, I think, was to do pretty much anything but that. Because everyone has seen that side of Gaza.”

Gaza is a 139-square-mile (360-square-kilometre) coastal strip situated between Tel Aviv and Sinai and is home to around two million Palestinians, two thirds of them refugees.

It has been governed by the Islamist Palestinian movement Hamas since shortly after Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers in 2005.

With its armed brigades and thousands of police and security men on the streets, Hamas controls Gaza’s interior as tightly as Israeli soldiers, gunboats and warplanes control most of Gaza’s perimeter, with Egyptian walls and watchtowers along the eight-mile southern border.

Accompanied by a Reuters assistant photographer from Gaza City, Martinez traveled the strip, photographing it at every hour of the day and night over a 10-day period.

Children play a game of "Arabs and Jews" outside a school in Gaza City, February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Children play a game of “Arabs and Jews” outside a school in Gaza City, February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

One of the most powerful scenes was a patch of wasteland between a school and a mosque where children were playing.

“These kids were burning some cardboard, they had trenches, they were throwing sandballs so they weren’t hurting each other. And I said, ‘Oh, what are you guys doing?’ and they said, ‘Oh, we are playing Jews and Arabs.'” The image, he said, “will probably stay with me forever”.

SUNSETS AND RUBBISH

Parts of Gaza, to his surprise, resembled an underdeveloped version of California’s famed Venice Beach – with glorious Mediterranean sunsets, bathers and skateboarders, but often with crumbling buildings and rubbish heaps as part of the backdrop.

Car wrecks are seen at a garage in Gaza City, February 18, 2019. This particular garage has cars dating back to the 1950s, including an old Opel. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Car wrecks are seen at a garage in Gaza City, February 18, 2019. This particular garage has cars dating back to the 1950s, including an old Opel. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

In vehicle scrapyards in the north, he saw stacks of discarded cars. With 53 percent of Gazans living in poverty, according to a United Nations report in December, valuable items such as cars are cannibalized for every accessory.

The same “use everything” dynamic could be seen at the harbor, where even the smallest fish discarded from a catch were gathered to be sold to poorer families.

On Friday, while youths were protesting at the Gaza-Israel border, Martinez went to the beach to see what was going on.

“I really understood that not 2 million people had gone to the border to clash with the Israelis. What else were they doing?” he said.

“I found a bunch of skaters there with, I don’t know, I think they had one or two boards between them, some pretty ropey roller blades…They were just busy filming themselves trying to do flips, trying to do tricks, things like that.”

After the sun goes down and the streets empty, pool halls and bakeries continue to operate through the darkness imposed by night, and by Gaza’s constant power cuts.

Martinez was warned many times by officials and bystanders on the street, in a more cautionary than menacing manner, not to photograph Hamas checkpoints and military installations.

Children make their way through the streets as they head to school in Gaza City, February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Children make their way through the streets as they head to school in Gaza City, February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Often, he did not realize what the buildings were because their exteriors gave no sign of what might have been within. Otherwise, Martinez encountered few problems.

“There’s a real sense of being enclosed. You can stand on the beach looking out toward the horizon and see this fantastic sun and crystal blue waters, a sense (that) you are part of the world and there is everything around you,” he said.

“You look to the right, you turn one way, and there is Israel and you can go down this road but in a car it was taking 20 minutes. You look the other way, there is Egypt. You go down the road there, there’s a blockade, you can’t go any further.

“You look inland, and there in the background as well is the horizon, is Israel. And you can’t go that way.”

“So there is always a feeling you can only go so far one way. And the other way. I did feel it. There is a sort of feeling of enclosure.”

(Writing by Stephen Farrell; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Tense calm on Gaza-Israel border after flareup

Israeli soldiers stand in a field next to armoured Israeli military vehicles near the border with Gaza, in southern Israel March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Schools reopened in southern Israel and traffic clogged Gaza’s streets on Wednesday in signs of a pullback from the most serious escalation of cross-border fighting in months.

But while violence eased amid Egyptian mediation, Israeli forces and Palestinian militants were on hair-trigger footing, with rocket attacks from Gaza and Israeli air strikes in the enclave briefly resuming late on Tuesday after a day-long lull.

Despite dozens of rocket launchings and Israeli attacks, no deaths have been reported. Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile interceptors have destroyed some of the rockets and Palestinian militants vacated facilities targeted in the air strikes.

Towns in southern Israel, where rocket-warning sirens have disrupted daily life since the current round of fighting began on Monday, reopened classrooms. In Gaza, schools were also operating and cars filled the streets.

The Gaza frontier remained tense, however, with Israeli troops and tanks deployed along the border. Both Israel and Gaza’s ruling Hamas militant group made clear that attacks by the other side would not be tolerated.

Even if the crisis subsides, it could shadow Israel’s April 9 election, in which right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has campaigned on a tough security platform.

TENSIONS BUILDING

The latest fighting has added to tensions that were already building ahead of the first anniversary on March 30 of the start of weekly Gaza protests at the border. Some 200 Gazans have been killed and thousands wounded by Israeli fire during those protests, and one Israeli soldier has been killed.

Israel says its use of lethal force is meant to stop attempts to breach the border and launch attack on its troops and civilians.

The protesters are demanding the right to return to lands Palestinians fled or were forced to leave in Israel during fighting that accompanied its founding in 1948.

Seven Israelis were injured in Monday’s initial rocket attack that hit the village of Mishmeret, 120 km (75 miles) north of Gaza. No other casualties in Israel have been reported. Twelve Palestinians have been wounded by Israeli strikes, Gaza health officials said.

Egypt was expected to pursue further truce talks on Wednesday, said a Palestinian official involved in the efforts.

U.N. Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov told the Security Council on Tuesday he had been working with Egypt to secure a ceasefire and that a fragile calm had taken hold.

Security is a major issue for Netanyahu, in power for a decade and beset by corruption allegations that he denies. He is facing his strongest electoral challenge from a centrist coalition led by a former general.

In Dheisha refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, a 17-year-old Palestinian was shot dead by Israeli troops during clashes with stone-throwers, an ambulance service official said, identifying him as a volunteer wearing a paramedic uniform. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Maayan Lubell and Gareth Jones)

Israel steps up armored deployment on Gaza border

Israeli soldiers speak next to tanks as military armoured vehicles gather in an open area near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip October 18, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

YAD MORDECHAI, Israel (Reuters) – Israel ramped up its armored forces along the Gaza border on Thursday in a daylight show of force, a day after a Palestinian rocket destroyed a home in southern Israel.

With the deployment clearly visible from main Israeli roads near the Gaza Strip, senior Egyptian security officials met leaders of the enclave’s ruling Hamas to try to calm tensions.

Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad militant group quickly denied firing the rockets.

Much may depend on the scope and intensity of a planned Palestinian protest at the border with Israel on Friday, where often violent demonstrations have been held over the past six months.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who convened his security cabinet on Wednesday after the rocket wrecked a home in the city of Beersheba, pledged to take “very strong action” if Palestinian attacks continued.

Israeli leaders have said they will not tolerate rocket attacks or attempts, during the border protests, to breach Israel’s frontier fence with the Palestinian territory of two million people.

A Reuters photographer counted some 60 tanks and armored personnel carriers at a deployment area near the border, calling it the largest number he has seen there since the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas.

In Gaza, a Palestinian official said the Egyptian delegation was also in contact with Israeli leaders to curb the current tensions.

“The situation is delicate. No one wants a war,” he said.

“Palestinian factions are demanding an end to the Israeli blockade that strangled life and business in Gaza,” the official told Reuters.

Palestinians have been protesting along the border since March 30, demanding an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the right to return to lands that Palestinians fled or were driven from upon Israel’s founding in 1948.

About 200 Gazans have been killed by Israeli troops since the border protests began, according to Palestinian Health Ministry figures. Palestinians have launched incendiary balloons and kites into Israel and on occasion breached an Israeli frontier fence.

More than 2 million Palestinians are packed into the coastal enclave. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but maintains tight control of its land and sea borders. Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border.

In addition to sporadic incidents, Israel and Hamas have fought three wars in the past 10 years. The internationally-mediated peace process aimed at finding a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is all but moribund.

(Reporting by Amir Cohen, and Nidal Almughrabi in Gaza, Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Ori Lewis and Richard Balmforth)

More than 30,000 displaced in Syria’s Idlib in latest offensive: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: An internally displaced woman sits outside a tent in Idlib province, Syria July 30, 2018. Picture taken July 30, 2018. REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – More than 30,000 people have been displaced within rebel-held northwest Syria by bombardment by Syrian government and allied forces which began last week, a United Nations official said on Monday.

“As of 9 Sept. 30,542 people have been displaced from northwest Syria, moving to different areas across Idlib,” David Swanson, spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) said.

Damascus, backed by allies Russia and Iran, has been preparing a major assault to recover Idlib and adjacent areas of northwest Syria from rebels. The area is Syria’s last major stronghold of active opposition to the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

About 3 million people live in the opposition-held area, which comprises most of Idlib province and adjacent small parts of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo provinces.

Swanson said that since Friday mortar and rocket attacks had increased, especially in the northern Hama countryside and southern Idlib rural areas.

He said 47 percent of those displaced have moved to camps, 29 percent are staying with families, 14 percent have settled in informal camps and 10 percent are in rented accommodation.

(Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Angus MacSwan)

Hamas fires rockets, Israel bombs Gaza amid talk of truce

A Palestinian man inspects a Hamas site that was hit in an Israeli air strike, in Al-Mughraqa on the outskirts of Gaza City August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Eli Berlzon

GAZA/SDEROT, Israel (Reuters) – A Palestinian official said on Thursday armed factions in Gaza were prepared to halt a round of rocket attacks on southern Israel if the Israeli military stopped its strikes after two days of cross-border violence.

An explosion is seen during an Israeli air strike in Gaza City August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

An explosion is seen during an Israeli air strike in Gaza City August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

A pregnant Palestinian woman and her 18-month-old child, and a militant from the Islamist Hamas group that rules Gaza, were killed in the Israeli attacks, and at least five civilians were wounded, local medical officials said.

The Israeli military said seven people were wounded in southern Israel. One was identified by her employer as a Thai agricultural worker.

The flare-up came after officials on both sides had talked about potential progress in an effort by the United Nations and Egypt to broker a truce to end months of violence and alleviate deepening humanitarian and economic hardship in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli firefighters survey the scene where a rocket exploded in the southern city of Sderot, Israel August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Israeli firefighters survey the scene where a rocket exploded in the southern city of Sderot, Israel August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

A Palestinian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, raised the prospect of an imminent end to the current fighting.

“Factions of the resistance consider this round of escalation over as far as we are concerned, and the continuation of calm depends on the behavior of the occupation,” the official said, using militant factions’ term for Israel.

The Israeli military declined to comment on the official’s remarks.

The official, at a command center used by armed groups in Gaza, said they had been “responding to crimes” by Israel – a reference to the killing on Tuesday, in disputed circumstances, of two Hamas gunmen.

FAMILIAR PATTERN

The latest fighting has stayed within familiar parameters. The rocket fire from Gaza has not targeted Israel’s heartland and the Israeli military said its air strikes were limited to Hamas installations.

Yuval Steinitz, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner cabinet, told Israel Radio before the Palestinian officials comments that Israel was “not eager for war” but would make no concessions to Hamas.

An Israeli policeman walks next to the scene where a rocket exploded in the southern city of Sderot, Israel August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Netanyahu was due to hold a security cabinet meeting later in the day after consultations with security officials.

Rocket warning sirens sounded almost non-stop in the southern Israeli town of Sderot and other border communities from sunset on Wednesday. Many residents have a reinforced room in their homes where they can shelter. The military said more than 180 rockets and mortar bombs were fired from Gaza.

Ambulance sirens echoed through the night in Gaza, where families huddled at home as powerful explosions shook buildings. The Israeli military said its aircraft struck more than 150 facilities belonging to Hamas.

U.N. Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov said in an overnight statement: “I am deeply alarmed by the recent escalation of violence between Gaza and Israel, and particularly by today’s multiple rockets fired towards communities in southern Israel.”

The United Nations, he said, has engaged with Egypt in an “unprecedented effort” to avoid serious conflict, but cautioned that “the situation can rapidly deteriorate with devastating consequences for all people”.

Gaza has been controlled by Hamas for more than a decade, during which time it has fought three wars against Israel, the latest in 2014.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Writing by Ari Rabinovitch and Ori Lewis; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Robin Pomeroy, Richard Balmforth)

Syria’s Assad defies U.S., presses southwest assault

People ride in a truck loaded with belongings in Deraa countryside, Syria June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Alaa al-Faqir

By Angus McDowall and Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs on opposition areas of the southwest on Friday for the first time in a year, a war monitor and rebel officials said, in defiance of U.S. demands that President Bashar al-Assad halt the assault.

Assad has sworn to recapture the area bordering Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and the army began ramping up an assault there this week, threatening a “de-escalation” zone agreed by the United States and Russia last year.

The United States on Thursday reiterated its demand that the zone be respected, warning Assad and his Russian allies of “serious repercussions” of violations. It accused Damascus of initiating air strikes, artillery and rocket attacks.

A big offensive risks a wider escalation that could draw the United States deeper into the war. The southwest is of strategic concern to U.S.-allied Israel, which has this year stepped up attacks on Iran-backed militia allied to Assad.

The barrel bombs targeted a cluster of rebel-held towns including Busra al-Harir northeast of Deraa city, where the government attack threatens to bisect a finger of rebel ground jutting northwards into land held by the government.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said Syrian government helicopters had dropped more than 12 barrel bombs on the area, causing damage but no deaths.

Abu Bakr al-Hassan, spokesman for the rebel group Jaish al-Thawra, which fights under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), said the munitions had been dropped on three towns and villages, and that war planes had hit another.

“I believe (the bombardment) is testing two things: the steadfastness of the FSA fighters and the degree of U.S. commitment to the de-escalation agreement in the south,” he told Reuters.

Syrian state television said on Friday that army units had targeted “lairs and movements of terrorists” in the area.

While government forces have made heavy use of artillery and rockets in the assault, they have yet to draw on the kind of air power that was critical to the recovery of other rebel-held areas. Russian warplanes have yet to take part, rebels say.

Still, Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon was quoted as saying that Russia was helping Damascus to recover the south.

“We say that the Syrian army now, with support from Russian forces, is recovering its land in the south and restoring the authority of the Syrian state,” Alexander Zasypkin told the pro-Hezbollah newspaper al-Akhbar.

“Israel has no justification to carry out any action that obstructs the fight against terrorism,” he added.

Children ride on a truck with belongings in Deraa countryside, Syria June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Alaa al-Faqir

Children ride on a truck with belongings in Deraa countryside, Syria June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Alaa al-Faqir

HOSTILE FORCE

A rebel commander in the south accused Iran of trying to torpedo the de-escalation agreement and vowed fierce resistance. “We possess many weapons,” said Colonel Nassim Abu Arra, commander of the Youth of Sunna Forces group.

Rebels in the southwest have received support including arms from Assad’s foreign foes during the seven-year-long war.

Analysts of the conflict believe this support continued even after U.S. President Donald Trump decided last year to shut down a military aid program run by the Central Intelligence Agency, though it may have been scaled back.

Assad has this year recaptured the last remaining enclaves of insurgent territory near the capital Damascus and the city of Homs, including the densely populated eastern Ghouta region.

But there are still large areas outside his control. Apart from the southwest, the rebels also hold a swathe of northwest Syria. Insurgent groups backed by Turkey hold parts of the northern border area.

And the quarter of Syria east of the Euphrates is controlled by an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias supported by the United States. The United States also has a base at Tanf, near Syria’s borders with Iraq and Jordan, which controls the Damascus-Baghdad highway.

On Thursday a commander in the regional alliance backing Assad said a U.S. strike had killed a Syrian army officer near Tanf. However, the Pentagon said a U.S.-backed Syrian rebel group had engaged “an unidentified hostile force” near Tanf, without casualties on either side.

The Syrian government has denied using barrel bombs, containers filled with explosive material that are dropped from helicopters and which cannot be accurately aimed. However, United Nations investigators have extensively documented its use of them during the conflict.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall and Tom Perry; Editing by William Maclean and Mark Potter)

Israelis on Gaza border unmoved by Palestinian protests

A farmer tends to a water faucet in a field in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, near the Gaza Strip border, Israel April 8, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Dan Williams

NAHAL OZ, Israel (Reuters) – Hardened by years of rocket attacks from next-door Gaza, residents of this frontline Israeli village seemed unmoved on Sunday by Palestinians’ mass demonstrations at the border and Israel’s deadly response to them.

Confrontations on each of the last two Fridays have been clearly visible from Nahal Oz, a kibbutz just 800 meters (yards) from the frontier. The sounds of Arabic chants, smoke from burning tyres and the cracks of gunfire from Israeli sharpshooters have wafted in across the wheat, jojoba and sunflower fields.

“I’m sorry about what is happening there. I know the situation is very, very difficult,” Israeli farmer Daniel Rahamim said about economic hardship in Gaza, the Palestinian enclave ruled by Hamas, an Islamist group that advocates Israel’s destruction.

“But I don’t talk about a peace deal anymore. Maybe we can achieve a long-term ceasefire,” Rahimim, 63, said as he irrigated his crops. He said his 24-year-old daughter, still “traumatized by rockets” left the area after the demonstrations started.

FILE PHOTO - A demonstrator with a Palestinian flag looks on during clashes with Israeli troops at the Israel-Gaza border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

FILE PHOTO – A demonstrator with a Palestinian flag looks on during clashes with Israeli troops at the Israel-Gaza border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Twenty nine Palestinians have been killed since the protests began on March 30 along the frontier of the Gaza Strip. The demonstrations have been dubbed “The Great March of Return” of refugees and their descendants to ancestral homes now in Israel.

Drawing international criticism for its use of live fire, Israel said it is doing what is necessary to stop violent protesters from damaging or breaching its fence with the blockaded enclave.

Nahal Oz, like dozens of other villages and working class towns on the Gaza periphery, has over the years been targeted by Palestinian short-range rockets and mortar bombs and faced the threat of Hamas cross-border tunnels.

As last Friday’s protest got under way, six Israeli high school students who were on a study visit to Nahal Oz, clambered up an abandoned guard tower to peer into Gaza. They watched impassively and silently as the crowds gathered.

“I don’t feel any empathy for them (Palestinians),” said Ahuva Avraham, 62, who runs the grocery. “I would be happy if we could live in peace, but they don’t want to sit and talk with us.”

Haim Jelin, a legislator from Israel’s opposition centrist Yesh Atid party, and a resident of nearby Kibbutz Beeri, agreed with the government in rejecting U.N. and European Union calls for an inquiry into Israel’s killing of protesters.

“When it comes to the Gaza Strip, there is no coalition and opposition,” he told Reuters in an interview on farmland 300 meters (yards) from the border fence.

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Susan Fenton)