STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: And I'm Steve Inskeep reporting from Gaza. We're in this territory at the western border of Israel where Israeli troops killed many people yesterday as they were trying to leave. Gaza health officials put the death toll at at least 60. Protesters were approaching fences that wall off this Palestinian zone. It was the deadliest day in six weeks of protests. We're going to bring you, now, the story of the day before that violence, a day that we arrived in Gaza about 8:30 in the morning.
(SOUNDBITE OF TURNSTILES CLICKING)
INSKEEP: First, you have to get in. And to reach Gaza from Israel proper, we walked through a series of those steel turnstiles. You know, the kind that led you through, but only one way? Then a motorized cart picked us up.
Giant wall with guard towers that make you think of a prison.
And it wheeled us across a no man's land that smelled of untreated sewage to the next checkpoint, where NPR employee Abu Bakr Bashir guided us through.
We've been through an Israeli checkpoint, a Palestinian Authority checkpoint. And, what is this?
ABU BAKR BASHIR, BYLINE: Hamas checkpoint.
INSKEEP: These are the guys with uniforms and guns.
BASHIR: Yeah. The only guys with the guns are the Hamas guys.
INSKEEP: That's right. Israelis hold the outside. The Palestinian Authority holds an inside checkpoint. But the real Palestinian checkpoint is inside that, run by the people with power in Gaza. Hamas is designated a terrorist organization by the United States but has held power here since winning elections in 2006. It rose among refugee families who fled Israel decades ago. They now live in a place where the buildings are shabby, the sea is brown with pollution, the economy is stagnant and Israel's security measures mean most people cannot get permission to leave. For one Palestinian we met, the frustration of those fences inspired a question.
AHMAD ABU ARTEMA: What if there is no borders at all between the countries, between the peoples?
INSKEEP: The man posing that question is of medium build, with glasses, and the cloth called a keffiyeh around his shoulders. Ahmad Abu Artema is a 33-year-old writer and says that since he was 2, he's only been allowed to leave this tiny territory a few times.
ABU ARTEMA: What happened with me in Cairo, it was the first time to hear the sound of the civil planes.
INSKEEP: Civilian airplanes?
ABU ARTEMA: Yes. Here in Gaza, usually I hear the planes, F-16s then...
INSKEEP: The F-16s.
ABU ARTEMA: ...Bombs. Then bombs.
INSKEEP: Commercial planes in Cairo made him feel the same way as Israeli warplanes that he knew. Years ago, he began talking of flying himself, flying over the Gaza fence like a bird.
ABU ARTEMA: Why not we be like birds? Birds, they can cross this fence easily and back.
INSKEEP: He talked with his friends of peaceful protests, of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, of hundreds of thousands of people scaling the fence in numbers too great for Israel's army to stop. Little happened until this year. That's when Hamas threw its power behind the protest idea, which meant the events grew more bloody than Artema anticipated. People raced toward the fences starting in March. On Sunday, Hamas was keeping people engaged until the next big wave.
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INSKEEP: At noon, men in uniform halted all traffic in the center of Gaza City for five minutes. It was said to be an action planned in sympathy with the protests.
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GAIL AUSTIN, BYLINE: There are people greeting each other in the middle of the streets, giving each other kisses on each cheek just in between the cars.
INSKEEP: That's our editor Gail Austin. At 12:05, cars began rolling past a giant billboard portraying a young man with a slingshot slinging a stone.
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INSKEEP: That billboard bore the date of Monday, May 14. Those are some of the small ways used to mobilize the population for a perilous cause. We drove to see a Hamas spokesman. Ismail Radwan sat with us beneath a Palestinian flag and a Hamas flag. What have the protests accomplished up to now, in your view?
ISMAIL RADWAN: (Foreign language spoken).
INSKEEP: He said brought the whole Palestinian cause back onto the table of the international community. He said Hamas has found these six weeks of protest to be so successful, the organization is planning several weeks more. It's a relatively new tactic for Hamas, which is much better known for its armed militant wing, but Hamas says it still maintains the right to bear arms against people they view as oppressors.
Does Hamas still stand for the removal of the state of Israel, the elimination of Israel?
RADWAN: (Through interpreter) This is not the way you ask Palestinians or Hamas a question.
INSKEEP: "We're in a coalition now with the Palestinian Authority," he said. "Like them, we're only demanding a Palestinian state on currently occupied territory." I reminded him, though, of something that Israel says.
They say, we must use strong measures against Hamas because Hamas wishes to eliminate Israel. When Israel says that, is it a lie?
RADWAN: (Foreign language spoken).
INSKEEP: He said, that's just anti-Palestinian propaganda but later added it was essentially true.
RADWAN: (Through interpreter) Now, to go to the recognition, Hamas does not recognize the Zionist entity because it's an occupation.
INSKEEP: This view has given Israel reason not to deal with Hamas, instead cracking down on Gaza. Now thousands of Gazans were preparing to push back. Near a spot where Palestinians often gather to approach the fence, we met Mohammed al Kurd. He was 16. He held a heavy metal tool in his hands.
What are these? What are these things in your hands?
MOHAMMED AL KURD: (Foreign language spoken).
INSKEEP: "It's a bolt cutter," he said, "for the Israeli fence." He said he had made it to the fence in the past without being shot.
KURD: (Through interpreter) It is very amazing. It makes you feel that you're actually, you're doing something good for your land, for your country.
INSKEEP: And as he thought ahead to Monday, he was dreaming of breaching the fence and burning military buildings on the far side, and walking to the village in Israel where his grandparents once lived. As we talked, children strolled on the bare sand toward Israel's barrier.
So now we have a couple of kids who are just marching off into no man's land. Neither of them can be 18 years old.
We heard shots from the direction of Israeli troops.
Three gunshots now. And there's some kids down here. They're just wandering around toward the fence.
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INSKEEP: That was closer.
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INSKEEP: The small crowd of young men retreated ever so slightly for the moment. That was Sunday. They were waiting for Monday, the day when thousands of people turned out for the protests, and more than 50 would be killed.
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