I gasped as the first bullet struck a young man standing a few paces ahead of me. Watching him crumple to the ground, I struggled for breath and fought my natural urge to run. "Allahu Akbar!", the crowd roared around me. "Yalla, Shebab!" A half-dozen other men – none of whom could have been older than twenty, and most of whom looked much younger – rushed forward, retrieving their fallen compatriot and carrying him quickly to a waiting ambulance. A thin trail of blood marked their path, ending in a small, dark puddle where the first of the day's many gunshot victims had fallen.
Thousands of refugees and other Palestinians had gathered at the Erez Crossing in the northern Gaza Strip. An imposing military structure of massive concrete barriers and machine gunners' towers, the border wall separates Gaza Strip residents from the 78% of Palestine seized by the State of Israel in 1948. For the two-thirds of residents who are refugees, it also prevents their return to the homes from which they and their families were forcibly expelled that year. Palestinians throughout the world remember this Nakba, or catastrophe, every May 15 with gatherings, demonstrations, and resolutions to someday return.
But this year would be different. Inspired by the popular uprisings against dictatorships across the Arab region, Palestinians were resolved to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the ethnic cleansing of 711,000 people from their country by making history, rather than remembering it.
On the morning of May 15, Nakba Day, tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered around the borders of Israel and its occupied territories, determined to march to the homes and homeland denied to them for generations. In Beit Hanoun, they walked from buses forced to stop kilometers from the crossing by the sheer numbers of the crowd. Many remained at checkpoints preceding the crossing. Others pressed forward, their eyes fixed on the distant gate.
The Israeli response came quickly. Bullet after bullet penetrated the crowd of unarmed demonstrators, each one finding its target. Artillery shells pounded the sandy dunes around us, and after several hours, tear gas canisters hissed through the air. Over a hundred people were hospitalized with serious injuries, while elsewhere on the border, a 17-year old boy was killed by artillery fire. The rest of us escaped with tear gas inhalation, cuts from exploding concrete and shrapnel, and bloodstains from the limbs, torsos, and faces shattering around us.
Yet the demonstrators kept coming. After every retreat from gas, gunfire, or the thunderous boom of artillery, there was another surge. Only when the sheer brutality of the Israeli forces had sufficiently depleted the number of those capable of pressing forward did the strength of the crowd begin to wane.
And somehow, the overall mood remained one of measured, but tangible joy. The victory sign was everywhere, and smiles were common not only on the runners ferrying injured marchers to medical attention, but also on the young men and women they carried. Everyone seemed to intuitively sense that they were doing something historic, closing one chapter in the long, painful struggle for Palestinian freedom and opening another one that offered more hope for a happy ending.
Elsewhere, the state violence inflicted upon peaceful marchers was even worse. At the border between Syria and the occupied Golan Heights, Israeli gunfire killed four of them, while in Lebanon, ten suffered the same fate. Hundreds, if not thousands, were seriously injured.
But like the returnees in Beit Hanoun, those from Lebanon and Syria refused to be dissuaded by military repression. Dozens of the latter poured through Israeli barriers, spending hours in the welcoming villages of the occupied Golan Heights before leaving under the protection of their Syrian hosts. One, Hassan Hijazi, made it all the way to the Jaffa home from which his family was exiled in 1948. Before surrendering to Israeli police, the 28-year old told journalists, "I wasn't afraid and I'm not afraid. On the bus to Jaffa, I sat next to Israeli soldiers. I realized that they were more afraid than I was."
Hijazi's seven million fellow Palestinian refugees aren't afraid either. On Sunday, June 6, they will return to the borders created to exclude them, and perhaps beyond. Like the 63rd Nakba Day, this 44th anniversary of the Naksa, or setback – Israel's 1967 occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, and subsequent expulsion of 300,000 additional refugees – promises a commemoration like none before it.
June 5 will not determine the outcome of the Palestinian movement for return. That outcome was already determined by the decades of grassroots organizing and popular struggle that culminated in the historic mobilization of May 15. Its finality can be glimpsed in grievances by Western media like Reuters that "[t]he Palestinians who forced their way across Israel's border on Sunday turned back the clock on the Middle East conflict, putting centre stage the refugee question that many believed would be negotiated away," and confirmed by the sweaty, stammered insistence of Zionists like Benjamin Netanyahu that "it's not going to happen. Everybody knows it's not going to happen."
Those suddenly forced to defend not only the brutal excesses of their system, but the very racism of ethnic cleansing, exclusion, and apartheid upon which its existence relies, find themselves in a situation both uncomfortable and unprecedented. They have no reason to expect it to become easier in the coming months, as further waves of returning refugees push their fight for justice closer to the center of the world's attention.
But June 5 will shape the outline of this next chapter in the Palestinian saga: its intensity, its length, and what follows it. Was May 15 a singular moment, or perhaps one suited for occasional repetition? Or was it the harbinger of a sustained, consistent struggle to come, a Third Intifada simultaneously challenging Israel from within, on every border, and across the globe?
Palestinians have amply demonstrated their ability to resist occupation over the long haul, while the global solidarity network supporting them has reacted capably to atrocities like the slaughters of 1,400 Palestinians during Operation Cast Lead and nine passengers on the first Freedom Flotilla. If these two movements can organize and mobilize as effectively now, seizing a unique opportunity to take the offensive and keep it, the Palestinian freedom struggle could prove a quicker and more decisive one than many of us had dared to hope.
Joe Catron is a resident of Brooklyn, New York and a current member of the International Solidarity Movement – Gaza Strip. He writes in a personal capacity.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.