As smoke clears, capturing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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GAZA (Reuters) – The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often framed in black and white, an outlook captured by this image of Palestinian youths shrouded by clouds of smoke that block out everything except an isolated moment of protest and defiance.

Reuters photographer Mohammed Salem’s photograph of a handful of demonstrators in a field of dying flowers and charred grass recorded a new phenomenon in an old war – the weekly Palestinian protests that began in the spring of 2018 along the Gaza-Israeli border.

FILE PHOTO: A man holds the body of a baby wrapped in a shroud who died after being delivered prematurely following a shooting attack on Israelis near the settlement of Ofra, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, before his funeral at Mount of Olives cemetery in Jerusalem, December 12, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
FILE PHOTO: Burnt ground and trees are seen on the Israeli side of the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, near kibbutz Or HaNer, June 3, 2018. Tracts of Israeli land have been burned up by incendiary materials flown over the border by Palestinians using kites or balloons. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
FILE PHOTO: A Palestinian boy covers his face with a plastic bag to protect himself from tear gas fired by Israeli troops during a protest near the maritime border with Israel, in the northern Gaza Strip, October 1, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
FILE PHOTO: Palestinians run from tear gas fired by Israeli troops during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border fence in the southern Gaza Strip, October 5, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
FILE PHOTO: A Palestinian man argues with an Israeli soldier during clashes over an Israeli order to shut down a Palestinian school near Nablus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
FILE PHOTO: Balloons connected to a device can be seen over the Israel-Gaza border as Palestinians protest on the Gaza side of the border, Israel, October 19, 2018. Palestinians using kites or balloons have flown incendiary materials over the border with Israel, causing fires. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

The protests pitted thousands of Palestinian demonstrators against heavily armed Israeli soldiers on the other side of the fortified border fence intent on stopping the protesters from crossing or approaching the frontier.

What became known as the “Great March of Return” dominated the headlines for months, evolving into a compelling but deadly form of attritional public spectacle, all covered by photojournalists risking their lives to document it.

Taking place in a handful of accessible locations at prearranged times, the protests became battlegrounds of image and spin for both sides.

The Israeli military published video footage, pictures and social media posts in Hebrew, English and Arabic to support its message that its forces were engaged in “riot dispersal”.

Hamas, the militant Islamist group that controls Gaza, televised images of the Palestinian dead and wounded, and Palestinian protesters posted images from the front lines on social media.

The primary stated purpose of the protests was to revive a demand by refugees for the right to return to lands that Palestinians were driven from or fled when Israel was founded in 1948. Israel has ruled out any such right, concerned that the country would lose its Jewish majority.

But the immediate factor was Palestinian anger at U.S. President Donald Trump’s decisions on Dec. 6 last year to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to begin preparations to move its embassy to the city that is sacred to three of the great monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

FILE PHOTO: An explosion is seen during an Israeli air strike on Hamas's television station, in Gaza City, November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Zakot
FILE PHOTO: Flames rise after a Palestinian rocket attack on the Israeli town of Sderot, near the Israel-Gaza border, November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
FILE PHOTO: Female demonstrators run for cover from tear gas fired by Israeli forces during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip, May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
FILE PHOTO: A man stands inside a house damaged by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip overnight, in the Israeli city of Ashkelon, November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
FILE PHOTO: A Palestinian demonstrator uses a sling to hurl stones at Israeli troops during a protest near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
FILE PHOTO: Relatives of a Palestinian, who was killed at the Israel-Gaza border, react at a hospital in Gaza City, June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
FILE PHOTO: Palestinian demonstrators run for cover from Israeli fire and tear gas during the 'Great March of Return' protest near the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip, on the day that the United States opened its new embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018. Israel celebrated May 14 as the 70th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, an event that Palestinians regard as their "Nakba" or "Catastrophe," when they lost their homeland in the conflict that surrounded the birth of the modern Jewish state. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
FILE PHOTO: Relatives and friends carry the body of Israeli Rabbi Raziel Shevah, who was killed in an attack claimed by Hamas, during his funeral in the Havat Gilad settlement outpost, West Bank January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Trump’s move delighted Israel’s government, which regards Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish people, but infuriated Palestinians, who claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they hope to establish in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and in Gaza.

The deadliest day of the protests was May 14, when the new embassy held its opening ceremony. It fell on a symbolic date for both sides – the 70th anniversary of the creation of Israel. That is a joyous day for Israelis, but an event regarded by Palestinians as their “Nakba” or Catastrophe when they lost their homeland.

The Jerusalem-Gaza juxtaposition made headlines at home and abroad, and produced a worldwide split-screen television moment as Trump’s daughter Ivanka attended the embassy ceremony, even as Israeli troops killed around 60 Palestinian protesters just over 70 km (43 miles) away.

The border protests continued and morphed into other forms.

Israelis were angered by another new phenomenon first seen in 2018 – the Palestinian ‘fire kites’ and balloons loaded with petrol bombs by Gaza militants and sent flying over the border.

Palestinians continued to call for an end to an Israeli-led blockade on Gaza.

FILE PHOTO: An Israeli man looks on as Israel's Iron Dome system fires an interceptor rocket in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, July 14, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
FILE PHOTO: Palestinians gather around a building after it was bombed by an Israeli aircraft, in Gaza City, August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
FILE PHOTO: Relatives of Palestinian militant Mohammed Abu Dakah, 31, who was killed in an Israeli strike, mourn during his funeral in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, July 21, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem
FILE PHOTO: The brother of a Palestinian teenager, who was killed in an Israeli air strike, reacts in Gaza City, July 14, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
FILE PHOTO: A Palestinian demonstrator hurls stones at Israeli troops during a protest at the border fence between Israel and Gaza, east of Gaza City, August 31, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
FILE PHOTO: A relative of Palestinian teenager Belal Khafaja, who was killed during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border, reacts at a hospital in the southern Gaza Strip, September 7, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

The conflict switched to the skies in November when a bungled Israeli commando mission inside Gaza erupted into a deadly gunfight and then the fiercest Palestinian rocket salvoes and Israeli air strikes since the 2014 war.

The skies fell quiet again as the year drew to a close, giving way to ceasefires and mediation efforts, as all sides waited for the Trump administration to unveil its long-expected Middle East peace plan.

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