Analysis | Gaza’s wake-up, unifying call: Reflections on The Great Return March

Despite Israel's systemic, brutal attempts to repress it, the Great March of Return in Gaza, entering its fourth week today, marks a significant moment in the history of Palestinian resistance, and has re-centered the Right of Return at the heart of the Palestinian struggle for freedom and justice, writes Mohammed Sulaiman.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, April 20, 2018 13:47 - 0 Comments

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Three weeks ago today, on Friday 30th March, thousands of Palestinians in Gaza launched their Great March of Return, a series of peaceful demonstrations along the 65-kilometre frontier between the blockaded Gaza Strip and Israel, marking the Palestinian ‘Land Day’. On that same day in 1976, six Palestinian residents of Israel were killed by the Israeli army during protests against Israel’s continued confiscation of Palestinian land.

A century of dispossession and resistance

In 1948, the state of Israel was established after a long history of Jewish persecution in the diaspora, most recently and poignantly at the hands of European powers. However, concurrent with the settlement of European Jews in Palestine, was the creation of another diaspora.

In order to allow for the settlement of Jews in Palestine, the Zionist movement, buttressed by the promises of Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, in 1917, carefully oversaw and conducted a plan for the systematic expulsion and removal of the Palestinian inhabitants of the land, in what is now known as the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. To this day, two-thirds of Palestinians live in the diaspora, barred from returning to their homeland.

In the decades since the creation of Israel and the dispossession of the Palestinians, Palestinian resistance to the Zionist project has taken a multiplicity of forms. From the tactics of guerrilla warfare and warplane hijackings, in the 1970s and early 1980s, to mass civil disobedience during the First Intifada, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, through a period of suicide attacks inside Israeli towns and cities during the Second Intifada, in the early 2000s. Most recently (and least successfully,) was the spate of rocket fire attacks from Gaza into Israel, mainly since Hamas assumed power in the coastal enclave in 2007.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank, over the past decade or so, alternative non-violent protest strategies have been adopted and regularly organised, primarily in villages such as Bili’in and Nabi Salih — where Ahed Tamimi, a 17-year old teen has been recently handed an eight-month sentence by an Israeli court for slapping an Israeli soldier in her own front yard.

No less importantly, in response to the call for boycott by a large coalition of Palestinian civil society organisations, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has marshalled international efforts to bring about justice and equality for Palestinians through boycott, advocacy and other non-violent means.

This is far from an exhaustive list of the multivariate forms of Palestinian resistance against Israeli colonial domination of Palestinian life, land and resources over the past decades. But it offers essential context for understanding the ‘Great March of Return’, whose grassroots organisers have made sure to repeatedly emphasise the mass (as opposed to factional) and civil (as opposed to militant) nature of the protests.

Despite this, sixteen Palestinians were killed by Israeli snipers on the first day of the march. Equally alarmingly, over seven hundred were injured by Israeli live ammunition and rubber-coated steel bullets. Nine more Palestinians were killed during the protests held on the following Friday (April 6th). Tires were burned by Palestinian protesters on that day in response to the killing by the IDF of 19-year old Abdul Fattah Abdul Nabi, who was shot while simply trying to get a tire across to the Palestinian side (probably in order to burn it afterwards). Over three hundred Palestinians were also injured on the same day, taking the total toll to over a thousand injuries, at least, to date.

When Non-Violence meets ‘Shoot to maim’

The huge number of casualties, and most likely disabilities, that Israel has been inflicting upon Palestinians is certainly not accidental. In fact, it is precisely in line with its deliberate policy of ‘shoot to maim’. After all, by unleashing its full force on unarmed Palestinian demonstrators, the Israeli state is only doing what it does best: kill and maim Palestinian civilians on a mass scale.

Israel acts this way because it is deeply emboldened by one simple fact, which is that it has always done so with impunity. The Israeli state acts with the prior knowledge that whatever it does and no matter how brutally it acts, it will not be made to account for its war crimes and other well-documented breaches of international law. This, alone, is reason for us to follow closely how these events are going to unfold over the next few days and weeks, and to be truly alarmed by the scale of the violence that the Israeli state might resort to in its efforts to quell these demonstrations.

12-year-old Adbul Rahman Nawfal had his leg amputated two days after being shot with an Israeli explosive bullet while peacefully protesting on Gaza’s eastern border.

Notwithstanding this morbid reality, however, there also seems to be something different about the current wave of demonstrations which, in my opinion, could give us reason to believe we are witnessing perhaps the start of something that has eluded Palestinians all these decades: The most significant expression of Palestinian popular demands for equality and self-determination in decades.

It is quite reasonable to view the current marches, which are planned to continue for six weeks (until the 11th of May), as truly original if only because they are the first of their kind to take place in the Gaza Strip since the Palestinian Islamic resistance movement, Hamas, took control in 2007. In one particular sense, the marches could signal a significant departure from the militant form of resistance spearheaded by Hamas and, more generally, from the monopoly by various Palestinian political factions over the resistance against Israel.

In this regard, the civil and non-violent nature of the marches poses a palpable threat to the Israeli state and its authoritative narrative around the political reality in Gaza, as well as its relations towards it and the Palestinian territories more broadly. According to this narrative, Israel always acts in self-defence; whenever it kills and maims Palestinians, confiscates their land, demolishes their houses, arbitrarily arrests their children, separates their families, destroys their infrastructure, blockades them from land and sea, Israel is acting in self-defence. Hence, the violence of the Israeli state — embodied in its complex colonial enterprise — is always rationally and judiciously employed in order to protect itself and its citizens against the barbaric violence of irrational and innately hateful Palestinians.

More specifically, Israel has consistently employed a civilizationalist discourse to present its conflict with the Palestinians in Gaza as a perennial battle against a Hamas-led enclave inhabited by Jew-hating, irrational and extremist militants. In this light, the ongoing mass civil demonstrations will serve to challenge this gross, albeit largely dominant, distortion of reality and provide a more accurate reflection of the underlying situation in Gaza, namely that we are not dealing with a conflict between two parties, let alone a conflict that has its roots in cultural factors or religious hatreds. Rather, this is an illegal military occupation, by a powerful and nuclear state, of another civilian population — an occupation that has its roots in a colonial project that extends back into the late nineteenth century.

Predictably, Israel has been quick to denounce the current demonstrations as a “cynical ploy” and “a dangerous provocation” by Hamas, evidently as an a priori justification for its planned, customary brutality against Palestinian demonstrators. Further, Israel has subtly invoked its right to ‘self-defence’ in justifying its use of live ammunition, which have so far killed dozens and injured over a thousand Palestinian civilians.

Still, the demonstrable fact that the vast majority of the demonstrators are not “members of Hamas”, or of any other militant group, has seriously undermined the Israeli state’s claim to be protecting itself and its citizens. Despite its best efforts to portray the protests as being violent, and linking them to Hamas, Israel’s official narrative has been clearly subverted and damaged. Of course, it should come as no surprise that Israel would attempt to portray the protests as being “aggressive”, “threatening” and “hostile” activities. It has become customary practice for it to justify its systematic and deliberate killing of Palestinian civilians by denying that they were civilians at all, and reflexively associating any Palestinian victims with militant groups or “hostile” activities.

‘Hostile activities’: Blaming the victims

Most alarming in this regard, however, has been Israel’s ability to expand the category of such “hostile activities” to include symbolic acts, such as burning tires or even throwing rocks — acts which have been historically associated with Palestinian mass civil disobedience. Rather brazenly, Israel is now treating visibly non-militant and non-threatening activities as hostile acts that pose immediate threat to the security of the formidable Israeli state, its army and its citizens — acts which, in consequence, require and justify its shooting dead any Palestinian civilian who commits them.

It was on this basis that Israel killed Abdul Fattah Abdul Nabi during the first Friday protests, on 30th March 2018. This also explains the Israeli Defence Forces spokesman’s sinister assertion on Twitter (swiftly deleted since) that the Israeli army knew “where every bullet landed” — thus explicitly acknowledging responsibility for deliberately shooting unarmed civilians.

On the second Friday (April 6th), however, Israel found itself in hot waters following the fatal shooting by the IDF of a popular Gaza photo-journalist, 30-year-old Yaser Murtaja, while he was filming the protests. Murtaja was wearing a clearly marked ‘press’ jacket when he was shot in the stomach with an exploding bullet. In this case, the facts were crystal-clear and Israel could not invoke its customary pretexts (denying the civilian nature of the victim and linking him to hostile activities).

Gaping cracks started to appear in the official Israeli narrative around the incident. While the IDF initially denied that it intended to kill Murtaja, the following day the Israeli Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, accused the victim of operating a drone above Israeli soldiers, and even claimed Hamas militants had disguised themselves before as journalists — thus suggesting Murtaja was posing a threat to Israeli soldiers.

In adopting this stance, Lieberman was only staying true to Israel’s long-standing tradition of blaming the civilians it kills by turning them into “militants”, “threats”, “terrorists” and so on. When a Palestinian civilian is killed, the logic goes, it is because they were not “really” civilians. They were “in the vicinity of militants”, or were being “used as human shields” by them. Needless to say, the Israeli army’s denial that it intended to kill Murtaja is exceptionally unconvincing and blatantly self-contradictory, especially when, only a week earlier, that same army was boasting of how its troops knew “where every bullet landed”. 

The glaring inconsistencies of Israel’s explanations for the killing of unarmed Palestinians — which have proved hugely costly in its public relations battle — are further confirmation that Israeli snipers have, indeed, been operating an official policy of shooting to kill or maim Palestinian civilians deliberately, some even filming and cheering themselves while doing so.

Evidence for this can be seen not only in the facts on the ground, as relayed by human rights groups, or even the aforementioned deleted tweet by the IDF spokesman, but in another official statement by the Israeli army, in which it declared it had “opened fire only when necessary, against those taking an active part in the demonstrations.” This explicitly confirms that all those killed by the IDF during the protests were targeted deliberately, not because of their participation in “violent” or “hostile” acts, but simply because of their “active involvement” in the protests.

Thus, “active involvement” in a protest, which seems to amount to the mere act of being present at one, has become Israel’s way of expanding the legal category of “participation in hostilities”. Just like it killed Abdul Nabi on 30th March for being an “active protester” who, as the footage clearly shows, bravely attempted to carry a tire towards the Palestinian crowd, Murtaja was also shot for being “actively involved” in a protest, filming and photographing at the frontlines. This is the logical result of the absurdity of the Israeli colonial logic, coupled with its internationally-protected and enabled impunity.

It should be entirely clear that, based on the colonial logic of the Israeli state, any action, violent or otherwise, taken by any Palestinians to protest against the mass incarceration, relentless control and collective punishment of their people, is now automatically considered a “hostile act” that requires and deserves the full might of the Israeli state being unleashed on them. One sincerely wonders what is left for Palestinians to do in the face of this injustice.

‘Unlivable’: Gaza’s humanitarian catastrophe

Equally important, Gaza’s demonstrations along the border with Israel are taking place at a time when the humanitarian situation within the enclave itself has hit rock bottom. Gaza has been under a tight Israeli-imposed blockade for over a decade, which has effectively hermetically sealed Gazans from the outside world. They had been teetering on the brink of collapse since 2007, but there has been an unprecedented tightening of the blockade in recent years, particularly after the last major aerial Israeli bombing campaign in 2014. This has drastically accelerated Gaza’s implosion, rendering it, in the words of a recent UN report, “unliveable.”

The quasi-permanent and complete closure of crossing points between Gaza and the outside world (the Rafah crossing point with Egypt, and the Erez crossing point with Israel), has meant that the two-million-strong population of Gaza, one of the most densely-populated areas in the world, have been fully consigned to a besieged, minuscule bit of territory — exactly 360 square kilometres, including the Buffer Zone (or the Access-Restricted Area) along the border with Israel, which accounts for 17% of Gaza’s overall territory and 35% of its agricultural land.

To this macabre picture, one must append all the subsequent details integral to this lethal blockade — such as the severe lack of the most basic services, including electricity supply, sanitary infrastructure, adequate medical services and equipment, as well as educational services and facilities. Add to that the highest unemployment rate in the world — at over 40% overall and 60% among Gaza’s youth — increased food and oil prices, toxic and endemic levels of stress, severe anxiety and mental health issues, and you will come to the conclusion that this is one of the most horrifying stories of human-orchestrated mass suffering, collective punishment and systematic, prolonged torture in modern history.

Against this bleak context, the Great Return marches have been planned in response to yet another failed attempt — though one that came closest in years — to reach an agreement between Fatah and Hamas, the two largest Palestinian factions, in control of the West Bank and Gaza respectively. In mid-2007, after a period of armed internal skirmishes, Hamas forces took full control of Gaza, having defeated and expelled their Fatah rivals. Since then, Palestinians have had to live under the rule of two antagonistic governments, one in Gaza, the other in the West Bank. Many a regional effort to bring the two sides together under one unified government has fallen apart. To the chagrin of other Palestinians, the disagreements between the two parties remain deep-rooted.

Still, the most recent Egyptian-mediated deal, signed in October last year, was, at one stage, believed by some to have finally ended this schism, especially as many practical steps were taken following its signing, notably Hamas relinquishing its control of the Rafah crossing point to the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. However, a few months later, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the PA, was swearing and hurling accusations at Hamas after a bomb attack had targeted his prime minister, Rami Hamdallah.

In the midst of all of this, it seems that Palestinians in Gaza have come to terms with their gruesome reality: No positive change will be forthcoming, they have to come to realise, unless they take things into their own hands. This may certainly require a much dearer price than what Palestinians are willing to pay, and could take longer than what Palestinians are willing to go.

The right of return: A unifying call

Nonetheless, regardless of how successful they turn out to be, the March of Return protests are another act of Palestinian resistance that, once and for all, underlines the inextricable relationship between Palestinians’ uprooted-ness and their current political predicament, a connection that was almost lost to them, largely as a result of deep political and societal divisions, a series of successive military defeats and diplomatic capitulations, and a structural lack of regional and international diplomatic and political support.

The call for a return to the homeland will surely serve to remind Palestinians, in Gaza and elsewhere, of the origins of their physical and political entrapment. Of course, no one is expecting Palestinians to be able to physically march on to their actual homes and cities in what has become Israel. However, the potent symbolism of these protests is that they are taking place in Gaza and under the most unlikely circumstances.

Indeed, that it is those Palestinians who are most isolated from the outside world — completely excised from the material structure of Israeli state itself, deprived of their most basic rights seventy years after their original displacement — who are calling and marching not for some minor adjustment but for their right of return, is extremely powerful and significant.

Palestinians in Gaza are not simply pleading with their ruthless, colonial masters for better treatment or for a loosening of their shackles. They are no longer demanding only the easing of the blockade or even the establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 armistice line, but a return to their homeland. Palestinians in Gaza are, in essence, reclaiming their narrative and their reality.

It is also greatly significant that although Israel had intended, and systematically strived to create, a separate reality for Gaza — one which relegated it from being a political question to a purely humanitarian one — Palestinians are transforming this reality by placing the political roots of their problem at the heart of their struggle for dignity and basic rights.

While Gaza has been reduced to soundbites about basic, individual rights that appeared to be separable from their collective and national rights, Palestinians in Gaza are now calling for their individual human rights through invoking their most fundamental and collective right: Their right to return.

In this context, this call for return acts as a horizon that unites all Palestinians around the most constitutive element of their collective identity, namely their mass displacement from their original homeland in 1948 — known as Al-Nakba (‘the catastrophe’) — and is a reminder that, despite their systemically manufactured contemporary circumstances, Palestinians in Gaza have not lost sight of what their decades-long struggle has been for.

In short, it is not through ephemeral ceasefires, humanitarian proposals and partial solutions involving further compromises, but through fully (re)claiming what they view as theirs — and is explicitly recognised as being so by international law, specifically in the UN General Assembly resolution 194 — that they will be able to, at last, bring an end to their decades-long homelessness and suffering.

This re-centring of the right of return at the heart of the struggle of Palestinians in Gaza, in addition to the peaceful manner in which the protests have been planned and conducted until now, is why I see in these marches a cause for cautious optimism; particularly I see the Israeli state bracing itself for what it rightly sees, yet tragically underestimates, as a threat to its occupation and dispossession of the Palestinian people.

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Mohammed Sulaiman

Mohammed Sulaiman is a Palestinian writer from Gaza and a PhD candidate in Australia.

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