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Gaza blockade draws protest

Special to The Times

As Israelis watched nervously from across the border, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip staged parallel protests Monday against the Jewish state, placing a few thousand placard-waving demonstrators along the main highway and firing 11 rockets into Israel.

One of the rockets injured 10-year-old Yossi Haimov in the town of Sderot as an air-raid siren sent him and his 8-year-old sister, who were playing near their home, rushing for cover against a wall. Surgeons removed shrapnel from his right shoulder, saving his arm.

Israel had braced for a day of far more trouble. Incoming rocket fire is a near-daily occurrence in Sderot and other communities near Gaza, but after a civic group linked to Hamas called for a human chain of 40,000 people along the strip’s 25-mile length, the army sent troops to prevent a mass storming of the border.

Thousands of Israeli troops and police were deployed along the border fence and were backed, according to Israeli media reports, by an artillery battery and a team of snipers.

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But the turnout for the 2 1/2 -hour demonstration, a protest against Israel’s blockade of the coastal enclave, fell way below expectations and it was mostly peaceful.

As the crowd was dispersing, about 200 people tried to march to the border, but Hamas police turned most of them back. Many of the others, 40 teenage boys throwing rocks, were arrested by Israeli border guards.

Israeli officials were relieved. But Palestinian organizers, attributing the low turnout to bad weather, said larger demonstrations would be held to press for an end to what they call the siege of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents.

Israel imposed its blockade after Hamas violently took control of Gaza in June, ending a power-sharing arrangement with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah forces, which now control only the West Bank.

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Israel and the United States consider Hamas to be a terrorist group. Its followers have killed hundreds of Israelis.

Stepped-up rocket fire from Gaza last month prompted a tightening of the sanctions, causing chronic shortages of food, medical supplies, fuel and electricity.

Hamas’ response to the tighter restrictions alarmed Israeli leaders: Militants used explosives last month to knock down part of the wall along Gaza’s border with Egypt, enabling hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to pour across and buy scarce goods.

That border was resealed after 12 days, but the militant Islamic group had shown a capacity to undermine the blockade and, possibly, to breach Israel’s border defenses.

Predictions reached a point of hysteria on Israel’s airwaves before Monday’s demonstration. Effi Eitam, an ultranationalist member of the Israeli parliament, told Israel Radio, “The mob will stream into our territory. . . . It will be the end of the state of Israel.”

Palestinian organizers said that was never the intention. They ordered demonstrators to stay at least 1,100 yards from the border.

“This is a peaceful event aimed to send a message to the world that the people of Gaza want to live in freedom,” said Jamal Khoudary, an independent Palestinian lawmaker who is close to Hamas. His Popular Committee Against the Siege staged the protest.

“They call us terrorists because we use rockets to resist the occupation,” said Kalid Mahmoud, a 15-year-old demonstrator, noting the frequent Israeli incursions that have killed civilians along with militants. “Every day Israel is killing our women and children.”

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Most of the demonstrators were schoolchildren and university students. Organizers said four children from each classroom had been chosen to take part.

Instead of a continuous chain, the demonstrators gathered in five locations along Gaza’s north-south highway. Reuters news agency estimated 4,500 showed up in all.

Munir Dwayet, a Palestinian taxi driver who ferried demonstrators to the gathering points, told Israel Radio, “People here ask how much longer this situation will continue.”

Asked by the show’s host about the homemade Kassam rockets that fall on Sderot and other Israeli communities, he said, “I don’t want Kassams and I don’t want this siege. I hope this punishment will end, and calm will return to the people of Sderot as well as to the Palestinians.”

The rocket barrage Monday started as the demonstrators were gathering. One rocket landed near a high school in Sderot. The Popular Resistance Committees, a militant group close to Hamas, claimed responsibility.

Israeli airstrikes killed three Hamas militants in Gaza before dawn Monday. A fourth militant, belonging to the Popular Resistance Committees, was found dead during the day near the southern border town of Rafah. The group said he was killed in a shootout with Israeli soldiers.

richard.boudreaux @latimes.com

Special correspondent Abu Alouf reported from Beit Hanoun and Times staff writer Boudreaux from Jerusalem.

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