What: Thousands of Palestinians marched to the fence at the nominal border between the Gaza Strip and Israel, calling for the right to return to their ancestral homes and an end to Israel's siege of the territory
Where: The besieged Gaza Strip
When: 30 March 2018
On 29 March, 150 Palestinians walked towards the nominal Gaza border fence, which encircles the besieged enclave and restricts the movement of its 1.9 million inhabitants. The marchers carried kites as a peaceful symbol of resistance against Israel's 12-year-old siege on the Gaza Strip, calling for the right of return to their ancestral homes as enshrined in UN Resolution 194.
This was the eve of the Great March of Return. Preparations were under way for the next day's march, with tents, caravans and spaces for cultural activities set up ready for the expected demonstrators. On the other side of the fence, Israel watched and waited.
The Israeli establishment was quick to lambast the planned march, with army spokesman Avichay Adraee saying: "We will not allow Hamas leaders to continue to hide in Gaza while women and children are sent to the border fence." Former commander of the Israel Defence Forces Southern Command, Yoav Galant, added: "If the situation on the Gaza border escalates, the assassination of Hamas leaders is an option that remains on the table. In times of conflict, everything is allowed."
The next day, 30 March 2018, tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered at the fence, congregating in different pockets in the north, centre and south of the territory. That day was Land Day, which marks the anniversary of Israel's 1976 killing of six Palestinian citizens who were protesting against the state's expropriation of their land.
Israel responded to the Great March of Return with force; Palestinian health officials reported casualties as early as midday. Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf Al-Qidra said in a statement that, "Three marchers were moderately injured by Israeli army gunfire." By the end of the day, at least 15 Palestinians had been shot and killed.
That day's events were a sign of things to come. The march was initially intended to take place every Friday for six weeks, with the final Friday coinciding with Nakba Day on 15 May, when Palestinians commemorate their forcible displacement from their land in 1948. In the six weeks that followed, Palestinians in Gaza returned every Friday to the fence, flying flags, holding keys – the symbol of the right of return – and wearing the keffiyeh, the traditional Palestinian scarf.
Israel's heavy-handedness escalated as the weeks went by; reports emerged that the IDF had used drones to drop tear gas on demonstrators, dropping canisters from 10 to 20 metres above the ground. A subsequent report found that Israel used the Great March protests as a "lab and a showroom" for its latest military equipment, among which was the "Sea of Tears" teargas drone "specifically designed for use in Gaza."
Israeli soldiers also fired live ammunition at protesters, using butterfly bullets — which explode upon impact, pulverising tissue, arteries and bone and causing severe internal injuries – to kill or maim anyone in their path.
On 6 April, Palestinian journalist Yaser Murtaja was shot by an Israeli sniper, despite wearing a vest clearly marked "PRESS". Murtaja was shot in the abdomen while covering that week's march but, despite being rushed to hospital, succumbed to his wounds just hours later.
Numerous other journalists came under fire, with 20-year-old Yousef Al-Kronz shot by an Israeli bullet that penetrated both of his legs, according to a case report by Amnesty International. Amnesty added that, "Yousef had his left leg amputated after Israeli authorities denied him permission to travel to Ramallah in the occupied West Bank for urgent medical treatment."
Six weeks after the first march took place, US President Donald Trump followed through on his election campaign promise to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, declaring the occupied city to be Israel's "undivided" capital. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians once again gathered at the border fence in protest; IDF snipers shot and killed at least 63 people and wounded more than 3,000. Commentators juxtaposed these bloody scenes with the formalities and grandeur of the embassy opening, pointing out that just 40 miles separated the two events.
What happened next?
Although the Great March of Return was supposed to last only six weeks, marches continued every Friday throughout 2018. Between 30 March and 31 December, 189 Palestinians were killed by Israeli snipers, among them 35 children. Over 20,000 more were wounded, the largest recorded in the occupied Palestinian territories since the end of the Second Intifada in 2005. In contrast, no Israeli deaths were reported as a result of the demonstrations. Four Israeli army soldiers were wounded.
In July, Israel opened an internal investigation into the IDF's conduct in the Great March of Return. The report concluded that all of the Palestinians killed between 30 March and the release of the findings died as a result of "operational mishaps" and that the army's "weapons fire was carried out in accordance with open-fire orders." The investigation also concluded that "demonstrators intruded into the line of fire after troops had opened fire and [there were] incidents in which bullets ricocheted, subsequently hitting Palestinians."
The UN Human Rights Council opened its own probe into the march, the findings of which were released in February this year. The investigation "conducted 325 interviews and meetings with victims, witnesses, government officials and members of civil society and gathered more than 8,000 documents" in order to reach its verdict.
According to the UN, "The [Great March of Return] demonstrations were civilian in nature [and] did not constitute combat or a military campaign," meaning that the legal framework of law enforcement should have been applied. This framework permits potentially lethal force "only in self-defence or for the defence of others when there is an imminent threat to life".
The report concluded that, apart from two minor incidents which could be deemed a "threat to life" or "direct participation in hostilities… in all other cases, the use of live ammunition by Israeli security forces against demonstrators was unlawful". It added:
[quote] "The commission therefore found reasonable grounds to believe that demonstrators were shot in violation of their right to life or of the principle of distinction under international humanitarian law […] intentionally killing a civilian not directly participating in hostilities is a war crime."
The sheer volume of injuries has had a devastating effect on Gaza's already devastated health service, with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors without Borders) calling the situation a "slow-motion health-care emergency". The UN estimates that around 8,000 surgical operations were cancelled or postponed due to the demand on hospitals treating the wounded. When the wounded were referred to hospitals elsewhere in the occupied Palestinian territories, or abroad, Israel denied patients' the necessary exit permits to leave the Gaza Strip.
Though most international attention has focused on Gaza, the Great March of Return also spread to the occupied West Bank. Thousands of people have taken to the streets throughout the year in the major West Bank cities of Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron, expressing support for their compatriots in the coastal enclave. On 14 December, these protests culminated in a "day of rage" across the occupied West Bank, after a week marred by Jewish colonial-settler violence and Israeli raids into Palestinian cities.
As in the Gaza Strip, Israel has responded to these protests with disproportionate force. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has joined Israel in cracking down on the protesters, attacking women, trying to prevent journalists from filming and arresting scores of demonstrators. A spokesperson for Hamas – which governs the Gaza Strip and with which the Fatah-controlled PA has been engaged in a 12-year feud — said of the authority's violence, "It's a shame that the national security forces are confronting our people and attacking them and continue to protect [Israel]."
Fifty-two weeks after the Great March of Return began, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank continue to demand their legitimate right of return and an end to the Israeli-imposed siege on the Strip. Israel and Egypt are working to negotiate an end to the marches, in return for prisoner releases, concessions on Palestinians' freedom of movement and an end to the closure of crossings to and from the territory. Whether these negotiations will bear fruit, however, remains to be seen.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.