TODAY (March 30), tens of thousands of Palestinians have headed towards the Israeli fence in Gaza to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Great March of Return.
At the time of publication, two Palestinians had been killed, and many more wounded by Israeli fire.
March 30 also marks Palestinian Land Day, which commemorates a 1976 decision by the Israeli government to expropriate thousands of hectares of Arab-owned land in the Galilee region north of Israel.
One year ago, Palestinians in Gaza launched a series of weekly protests along the Israeli border, in which thousands of demonstrators have gathered every Friday to call for their rights, and an end to a grinding blockade imposed on the territory since 2007. However, after 52 weeks of regular protests, the situation in Gaza seems to have only worsened.
The Great March of Return was initially thought up by young Gazans with a vision to shift the dynamics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The idea was to gather hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, who would cross into Israel in a non-violent march, demanding their right of return to their ancestors’ homes and the right to live side by side with Israelis.
Hamas, however, which has led the march since day one, saw the protests as a way to place pressure on Israel and the international community to lift the blockade. The idea of crossing into Israel was ruled out. Other Palestinian activists and thinkers supported the group’s strategy.
Nevertheless, Hamas understood the need for the demonstrations to be non-violent. At first, Gaza’s internal ministry deployed its security officers among the crowd to keep order.
Activists who believed that Israel would not use excessive force against peaceful protestors were gravely mistaken. On the very first day, 15 Palestinians were shot dead and more than 700 were wounded.
As the protests became a weekly event, Israel has continued targeting the protesters using live fire, explosive bullets, tear gas and nerve gas. The total number of Palestinians killed since the start of the Great March of Return, so far, is 275 including 51 children. Around 29,000 have been injured, including more than 7,000 wounded by live fire.
More than 136 have had to undergo amputations and dozens have been paralyzed after being intentionally shot in the spine by Israeli snipers. Israel has never even tried using water cannon or other non-lethal crowd-dispersal methods. Three paramedics have been killed and 670 injured in the protests, while two journalists have lost their lives and dozens more have been hospitalised.
Midway through the protests last year, faced with continued state-sanctioned Israeli violence, protesters began burning tyres, and dispatching incendiary balloons and kites into southern Israel. The hope was that these steps would put pressure on the Israeli government to alleviate its crippling blockade. Despite the efforts of the United Nations and Egypt, just days ago Israel rejected Palestinian demands.
Many residents of southern Israel, meanwhile, have placed pressure on their government to bomb Gaza instead of alleviating its suffering. The Israeli government has been better disposed to the option of war rather than that of ending the blockade. Indeed, in recent months, several attacks have been made on the Gaza Strip.
The March of Return protests have now become an expression of Gaza’s political, humanitarian and social problems. On any given week, the number of demonstrators has corresponded with the humiliations the Strip’s people have experienced. When The Trump administration relocated the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on Monday May 14 last year, over 30,000 Palestinians took to the borders to protest the move. 52 Palestinians were killed, and over 2,400 were injured.
International solidarity with the protests hasn’t reached the level that Gaza’s activists hoped for. What solidarity there has been has largely related to Israel’s violence against protesters than in favour of their aims.
Israel has seized every opportunity to put forward the narrative that Hamas is using the demonstrations as a cover to carry out terrorist attacks. These absurd claims still find their way into some corners of a western media that has largely ignored the reasons why so many Gazans are risking their lives and limbs every week.
Combined with inertia from the rest of the international community, the US’s actions with regard to Palestine have emboldened Israel. It now acts with impunity, in its violence against protesters and in its collective punishment of more than two million Gazans, via the 12-year blockade.
When asked why they take part in the demonstrations, in spite of the dangers, their response is often that a quick death is better than the slow one they are experiencing under the blockade.
However, in the face of international apathy and Israeli intransigence, the number of Gazan critics of the March of Return is increasing, as are their calls for stopping it. But the choice that the leaders of the march face are stark. Continue with the protests, in the hope of an unlikely positive outcome, and risk more losses and possibly a new war on Gaza. Or end the protests and tell their supporters that their sacrifices were for nothing, that their rights have slipped further away than ever, and that the blockade will continue to steal their lives away from them.
(Ali Adam is a Gaza-based journalist and researcher whose work focuses on issues linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The article first appeared in The National.)