On March 30, 2018, tens of thousands of Palestinians approached the fences and walls that cut off the Gaza Strip from Israel and the outside world. In their hands they held Palestinian flags and signs bearing the names of the towns that their families had to flee during the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionist militias that paved the way for the creation of the Israeli nation-state. Seventy percent of Gazans are refugees. Fifteen protesters were killed by the Israeli Military that day, and hundreds more suffered injuries from ammunition and tear gas inhalation, but that didn’t stop Gazans from repeating the protest after the Friday prayers every week for months in what came to be called the Great March of Return.
The protest was a response to a call from Ahmed abu Artema, a poet and journalist descended from refugees from Ramle. Writing for Al Jazeera on the first anniversary of the march, abu Artema explained that he and his friends had become disillusioned with the state of affairs in Gaza. In 2018, Gazans had been living under siege for twelve years. Since Hamas had come to power, Israel, in tandem with Egypt, had completely encircled the tiny enclave, home to approximately two million Palestinians, severely restricting the movement of people, as well as certain medical supplies, foodstuffs, clothing, construction materials, and even blankets and generators. Flare-ups in tension between Hamas and the Israeli military had resulted in massive Israeli bombing campaigns in 2008, 2012 and 2014, killing Gazans by the thousands every time. The damage to infrastructure and the lack of resources have a disproportionate effect on the one million children living in the Gaza strip, who face high rates of malnutrition and lack clean drinking water. Internally, abu Artema feared that political parties had become more interested in shoring up their own support rather than taking concrete steps towards Palestinian rights and self-determination. His hope, that a non-partisan and non-violent movement would rekindle a spirit of popular resistance.
This was a vision that proved both incredibly resilient and dangerously fragile. The march gained popularity as a place where all Gazans, including artists, women’s groups, labor unions, artists, and even children, could express their hope, their anger, and their collective solidarity, despite efforts by different political parties to exert their own influence. The protesters also overwhelmingly remained non-violent, although some resorted to throwing rocks and other projectiles when they were hit with tear gas, rubber coated steel bullets, and often live fire from Israeli soldiers. Gazans paid a high price for their expression. By the last protest on December 27, 2019, the Israeli military had claimed the lives of two hundred and fourteen protesters. The dead included journalists, medical first responders, and forty-six children. Over thirty-six thousand were injured, of whom one thousand two hundred were permanently disabled. During the protests, one Israeli soldier was killed, and seven were injured.The price was high, yet the march remains a high point in Gazan popular resistance, and in the engagement between Gazan activists and international media and civil society.
Why, four years later, and in the midst of another massive and largely indiscriminate attack on Gaza, does the Great March of Return matter? On October 7th, the armed wing of Hamas engaged in an unprecedented retaliation against the siege, by breaking down the border wall, and launching a coordinated attack against Israeli military and, in clear violation of international law, civilian targets. This appeared to be the moment the Netanyahu government had been waiting for, and responded with massive and indiscriminate bombings across the strip. At the time this blog was published (insert update on statistics here). Israel has cut off food, water and electricity to the strip since October ninth.
The western media response has largely been to decontextualize the attacks. While rightly condemning Hamas’s attacks on civilians, the press is giving a free pass to Israeli politicians, justifying the mass bombing of Gazans, going as far as expressing an intent to commit genocide. It’s been noted that Israeli commentators and their sympathizers are not being asked on air to publicly apologize for the killing of civilians, including bombing hospitals, schools, and family homes, while the first question to Palestinians asking for a ceasefire or end to violence is to make them prove their anti-Hamas credentials. Yet Israeli military officials call Palestinians “human animals” or affirm that the focus is on “damage, not precision.” The callousness to life and liberty of the people of Gaza could not be clearer. The double standard, where Israelis are allowed to be considered as civilians and as victims while Palestinians are at best collateral damage, and at worst terrorists, could not be clearer.
It is the opinion of the Palestine Advocacy Project that there is no need to defend the innocence of families who have been killed by the dozens in bombings, or patients who died in airstrikes against a church-run hospital. Nor is there a cause that justifies depriving one million children of electricity and clean water. However, if proof is needed that the people of Gaza are conscientious and decent, that their actions speak to a need for peace, community, and an end to hostilities, one needs look no further than the Great March of Return. While the march is just one event in a hundred-year long history of nonviolent mass action, it remains one of the largest points of mobilization within that history. In this moment of unprecedented darkness in the history of Palestine, everyone should be following the example of Gazans who risked their life and limb, repeatedly and by the tens of thousands, to call for a peaceful end to the siege.
Graphic by Al jazeera