GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – In a sit-in tent camp near the Gaza border with Israel, a lecturer answered questions from activists grappling with the concept of non-violent protest.
They asked what’s allowed, listing different actions. Throwing stones and holding rallies is permitted, he said. Throwing firebombs is a “maybe” and using knives a definite “no.”
Such workshops — held amid weekly mass marches on the border for the past month — are the latest sign of the Hamas militant group’s search for new tactics for breaking the debilitating blockade of Gaza. Israel and Egypt closed the borders after Hamas overran Gaza in 2007, and Israel blockades the sea and controls the skies, making it increasingly difficult for the group to govern.
The border protests were the idea of grassroots activists several months ago, and the project, envisioned as non-violent, was quickly embraced by Hamas. The militant group has led the organization and been careful to contain the protests by keeping its armed men far away and out of sight.
Hamas has been supportive, said workshop lecturer Issam Hammad, a self-described independent who runs a medical supplies company. “They encourage young people to take part.”
Any degree of non-violence would be a striking departure for Hamas, which over the years has attacked Israelis with suicide bombings, shootings and rockets. For more than a decade the group has tightly controlled Gaza, quashing dissent.
The large-scale protests are the only card the group has left, three high-ranking Hamas officials told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were discussing internal strategy.
They said Hamas rules out other options — either disarming or fighting another cross-border war with Israel. The last one, in 2014, devastated Gaza, a coastal territory with 2 million people squeezed into 140 square miles (365 square kilometers).
Bassem Naim, another senior Hamas official, believes the new method has refocused world attention on Gaza’s misery. The territory suffers from grueling power cuts and a two-thirds unemployment rate among young men.
“The momentum of the marches is going strong and will continue,” he said. “People can no longer endure the siege and will not stop until the siege is stopped.”
Each Friday, thousands of people have gathered in five tent camps near the border, while smaller groups throw stones and burn tires closer to the border fence.
Since protests began in late March, 35 Palestinians were killed and more than 1,500 wounded by Israeli soldiers firing across the border. Rights groups say open-fire regulations are unlawful because they permit troops to use potentially lethal force against unarmed protesters.
Israel says it’s defending its sovereign border, including nearby communities, and that troops only target instigators. It accuses Hamas of using the protests as a cover for damaging the fence and preparing to infiltrate and carry out attacks. There is considerable fear among Israelis of a mass breach in which Gazans stream across, militants mixed in, wreaking havoc.
Nonetheless, the European Union urged Israel to stop using deadly force against unarmed protesters, and a senior U.N. envoy to the region called Israel’s deadly shooting of a 14-year-old Gaza boy last week “outrageous.”
Hamas has kept the pressure on Israel by at least telegraphing an embrace of nonviolence. For example, top leader Ismail Haniyeh recently spoke against the backdrop of posters of icons such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.
The senior Hamas officials said the movement has learned from mistakes, such as confronting Israel’s powerful military with crude rocket fire. They said Hamas is offering Israel an open-ended truce in exchange for lifting the blockade.
Hamas says it wants to keep its weapons for defensive purposes — a claim undercut by the group’s tunnel program. Hamas had built tunnels from Gaza into Israel in recent years, for attacks, before Israel began destroying them.
But Israel and Hamas’ main Palestinian rival, West Bank-based President Mahmoud Abbas, are skeptical because of the group’s refusal to disarm.
Hamas “is changing its tactics, but it’s not changing its nature and strategies,” said Palestinian analyst Abdel Majed Sweilem.
Abbas has told Egyptian mediators that he will only return to Gaza if Hamas hands over all powers, including control over weapons. Hamas drove out Abbas’ forces a year after it won 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections.
Organizers say that in addition to compelling an end to the blockade, the marches are meant to press for the “right of return” of refugees and their descendants to what is now Israel.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes in the 1948 war over Israel’s creation, and march organizers see May 15, the anniversary of Israel’s founding, as a key target day.
Some Hamas leaders have called for a mass border breach, while others are vague. Haniyeh told protesters that “we will return to Palestine,” without giving specifics.
Either way, Hamas faces a tough decision ahead of May 15.
If it stops short of a mass breach, momentum may falter.
Israel has warned that a mass breach could lead to many casualties. If huge crowds break through the fence, Israel could have a stronger case for using lethal force.
Hamas leaders would face renewed accusations of cynically exploiting Gaza civilians — especially if senior leaders stay back while desperate young men rush into danger. A high casualty toll also risks triggering another war.
Hammad, who began holding non-violence workshops a week ago, offers a definition of non-violence disputed by Israel, whose military considers stone-throwing and burning tires “acts of terrorism.”
But it’s new to Gaza, where young people grew up with Hamas’ fiery rhetoric and lived through three wars, including massive Israeli air strikes.
Participant Yousef al-Qishawi, 27, said he grew up thinking the use of force was the only language Israel understands, but has realized it only hurts Palestinians.
“Now, we are learning about more ways and peaceful methods that are more effective,” he said.
Associated Press writer Karin Laub in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed.