On 30 March every year, the Palestinians commemorate Land Day in memory of the killing of six protestors in 1976 after Israel had announced the seizure of Palestinian land in Galilee. This year, it also marked that first anniversary of the Great March of Return peaceful protests demanding the Palestinians’ legitimate right to return to their land usurped by Israel.
Since the start of the protests on 30 March last year, Israel has killed 270 Palestinians, including 50 children and a number of journalists and paramedics; shot and wounded 7,000; and otherwise injured around 30,000 more, according to Gaza’s health ministry. Around 136 have had limbs amputated. Every week during the Friday protests, the Israelis respond heavy-handedly, using snipers, drones, tanks and tear gas.
New weapons and munitions have been tested on the civilians of the Gaza Strip. A specially-adapted drone has been spraying a new kind of tear gas which has been described as “toxic” by doctors, and devastating butterfly bullets which shatter within the victims flesh have been showcased for the international arms market.
Although initially intended to last for just six weeks and set to end on Nakba Day 2018, the protests’ momentum saw them extended indefinitely. Hence, despite Israel’s murderous response, the Palestinians in Gaza have gone to the nominal border fences every Friday to put their bodies on the line and express their desire to exercise their legitimate right to return to their land inside what is now called Israel.
The Great March of Return has united Palestinians and presented a means for peaceful resistance to the brutal Israeli occupation. After much discussion on social media, young Palestinians opted for these protests independent of factional influences. This is a popular movement in every respect. All of the Palestinians in the coastal enclave, whether political or apolitical, have joined with civil society groups to march together and embarrass the occupation. Uprooted generations reminded the world that the Palestinians continue to be subjected to ethnic cleansing and untold suffering.
Israel’s response demonstrates its discomfort at the thought of Palestinians embracing peaceful resistance, because it wants to perpetuate the myth that the people of Palestine are the aggressors in this conflict, and extremists. Its own actions, though, have made it clear who the real terrorists are. Israel must fathom that it cannot continue to occupy the land of Palestine and keep the indigenous people in perpetual bondage, devoid of rights and equality.
The organisers of the Great March of Return have told us about the inspiration provided by the struggles of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and others, as well as the Arab Spring. That’s why they opted for peaceful popular resistance in the effort to seek justice. The guiding principles were the Palestinian refugees’ right of return in accordance with UN Resolution 194, and non-violence.
According to one member of the coordination committee of the movement, Belal Yasin, young Palestinians saw what was happening in Tunisia in 2011 and thought about using the same tactics against Israel. “As the political horizon has been blocked at all levels and the siege on the Gaza Strip has increased,” he explained, “this idea was seriously reconsidered by the youth at home and abroad by the end of 2017. Land Day 2018 was chosen as the start date due to its national significance and already high profile.”
The protests continued despite the loss of life and number of wounded, he pointed out, because an armed confrontation would be like suicide. “What’s more, we encouraged the formation of a unified leadership which has led to a national consensus among Palestinians. National awareness makes for collective responsibility amongst everyone in Gaza. There are also security, military, political and media concerns within Israel about the return marches, and they exploit the Trump administration. All of this gives us the confidence to continue.”
Yasin suggests that the main achievement of the protests, apart from a degree of unity among Palestinians, is that they expose Israel’s apparently inherent violence and have become an inconvenience to the occupation authorities. He is certain that the occupation state will succumb under pressure once it loses interest.
Many of the goals of the original march have been achieved, said Yasin, including raising awareness of the right of return; confusing Israel militarily, security wise and politically, without armed resistance; becoming a referendum against resettlement and displacement; developing popular cohesion; and encouraging unity among the factions in the leadership of the popular resistance. Together, these factors help to ease the political friction between Hamas and Fatah. Moreover, the world has taken notice.
Access to social media has seen the rise of the citizen reporter working alongside professional journalists to spread the word about the protests in Gaza and, especially, Israel’s deadly response. “Journalists on both sides of the professional fence face common difficulties,” said AFP journalist Mohamed Baba, “because there is no coordination with the Israelis to protect us while doing our job.” As a number of journalists have found out to their cost, wearing clearly-marked “Press” insignia doesn’t guarantee protection. “We make sure not to be close to the border but despite this we are still targeted by the Israeli snipers. I think most of the journalists were shot deliberately because snipers choose a target, take aim and fire, even if ‘Press’ is seen clearly.”
Baba himself was injured while covering the protests. When asked why he and his colleagues are targeted by Israel, he replied that their work entails them conveying the reality of the situation on the ground, and Israel does not want this to be known. “We are the window to the truth of what is happening to the Palestinians,” he concluded.
Noor Najjar is a freelance journalist who has been hit three times by gas bombs, her main concern, she insisted, is to publish details of Israel’s crimes. “I participate every Friday in the Great March of Return, our right of return motivates me to go even though the gas used by the Israelis has affected my nerves.” Her message to the world is that the Palestinians do not ask for their efforts to be valued, or for money to be sent. “We want you to stand with us and take a position to stop the ongoing killing of our people.”
Since its creation on Palestinian land in 1948, Israel has been expanding its nominal borders year by year. Today it occupies more than 90 per cent of historic Palestine, while keeping 4.5 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank under occupation as virtual prisoners. The Gaza Strip continues to be subjected to collective punishment in the form of a land, sea and air blockade which started in 2006.
The political situation looks even bleaker for Palestinians following this week’s General Election in Israel. Far from dampening the spirit of the people under occupation, though, the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, with support from those in the West Bank, will continue to gather on Fridays for their Great March of Return protests, exposing Israel’s crimes for the whole world to see.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.