JERUSALEM About 5,000 Palestinians turned out yesterday to form a human chain from one end of Gaza to the Israeli checkpoint at the other to protest against the strangling economic and physical siege Israel has imposed on the Gaza Strip. Fewer people showed up than expected, leaving the human chain with a number of gaps, and no one rushed the crossing. But the event marked a watershed, mainly because of the identity of its organizers: Hamas.
"It's paradoxical that this is coming from Hamas, the people who are really militant in their way of looking at resistance," said Eyad Sarraj, a psychiatrist and peace activist from Gaza.
When Hamas was busy planning suicide bombings on buses during the second intifada, Dr. Sarraj called on Palestinians to march to Israeli military checkpoints with flowers. Now Hamas is consulting with him.
"I had a meeting three months ago with top leaders of Hamas and urged them to pursue non-violent tactics," Dr. Sarraj said. "One of them said to me, 'You are asking us for a non-violent intellectual revolution.' "
That man was MP Jamal Khudari, who later called for yesterday's human chain and who heads the Popular Committee Against the Siege, a politically independent group that Dr. Sarraj has joined.
"This is a peaceful and civilized act to let the people express their rejection of the siege and of collective punishment," Mr. Khudari told journalists. "We are raising a cry to the world for it to act."
Israel beefed up its security, fearing 40,000 Palestinians would rush the Erez crossing. It was not Israeli lives that were in danger, said Eitan Barak, a foreign and security policy expert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but the country's image.
"It's not a security issue. Israel could stop [the march] easily by just opening fire, like what happens in totalitarian countries," said Mr. Barak. "But the high casualties will harm Israel's image.
"The danger is that the world will at some point force us to stop the steps we are doing right now, like reducing electricity," Mr. Barak said.
Last week, the European Union called for Israel to end its eight-month siege on Gaza, but no country has yet threatened Israel with sanctions.
Hamas's move towards non-violent resistance is not surprising to Arnon Regular, chief analyst of Roadmap Risk Assessment, a geopolitical consultancy firm based in Israel.
"Hamas understands ... that if you have goals to enter a political system, to create diplomatic relations with all Western states, to raise money from foreign governments ... then you need to change your image," said Mr. Regular. "Otherwise those goals will be unattainable."
Hamas's calls for truces, ceasefires and calm with Israel have increased over the past few months. The latest was on Friday.
Special to The Globe and Mail