The March of Return and the Quest for Justice in Palestine
Hummus For Thought -
WhatsApp-Image-2018-04-09-at-17.12.21Land Day 2018, March 30. Photo by Issam A. Adwan. Used with permission.

A shorter version of this was published on the New Arab on 3 April, 2018.

In Gaza, the Great March of Return, a series of peaceful demonstrations along the 65-kilomtere frontier between the blockaded Gaza Strip and Israel, started on Friday 30th March, marking the Palestinian Land Day. On the 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. In 1948, the state of Israel was established, thus bringing to an end a long history of Jewish diaspora and persecution, most recently and poignantly, at the hands of European powers. However, concurrent with the settlement of European Jews in Palestine, has been 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 concocted its 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. Up to this day, Palestinians remain a diaspora barred from returning to their homeland.

Following the creation of Israel and the dispossession of the Palestinians, Palestinian resistance to the Zionist project has taken multiple forms. From the tactics of guerrilla warfare and warplane hijackings in 1970s and early 1980s, to mass civil disobedience during the First Intifada in the late 1980s and early 1990s, through a period of notorious suicide bombings inside Israeli towns and cities during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s and, most recently (and least successfully) rocket fire 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 organized 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 front yard). No less importantly, in response to the call for boycott by a large coalition of Palestinian civil society organizations, the BDS movement has orchestrated 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 forms of Palestinian resistance against Israeli colonial domination of Palestinian life, land and resources. But it should serve as a background against which to read what has been called the Great March of Return, whose grassroots organizers have made sure to repeatedly emphasize its mass (as opposed to factional) and civil (as opposed to militant) nature. Despite this, on the first day of the protests, sixteen Palestinians were killed by Israeli snipers (otherwise called sharpshooters), and, equally alarmingly, over seven hundred were injured by Israeli live ammunition and rubber-coated steel bullets (otherwise known as rubber bullets). Nine more were killed during the protests held on the following Friday. During the last protests, many tires were burned by Palestinian protesters in response to the shooting of 19-year old Abdul Fattah Abdul Nabi while he was carrying a tire and trying to get to it to the Palestinian side (probably in order to burn it afterwards). Over 300 were also injured bringing the number of injuries to above a thousand. This huge number of injuries, and most likely disabilities, that Israel is capable of inflicting upon Palestinians is certainly not accidental but is in line with its deliberate policy of shoot to maim.

By meting out its full force on non-armed Palestinian demonstrators, the Israeli state is only doing what it does best: kill and maim Palestinian civilians on a mass scale. To be sure, in doing this, 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 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 be truly alarmed by the scale of violence that the Israeli state might resort to in its efforts to quell these demonstrations. Notwithstanding this morbid reality however, there also seems to be something different about these demonstrations that, in my opinion, could be reason to believe that what we are witnessing may be the start of what has eluded Palestinians all these decades and what could turn out to be the most significant expression of Palestinian popular demands for equality and self-determination.

It is quite reasonable to view the current marches, planned for the next six weeks, 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 of the Gaza Strip in 2007.  In one sense, the marches could signal a significant departure from the militant form of resistance spearheaded by Hamas and, more generally, the monopoly by Palestinian political factions over 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 of the political reality of Gaza as well as its relations with and towards Gaza 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. In particular, Israel has consistently employed a civilizationalist discourse to present its conflict with the Palestinians in Gaza as a form of a perennial conflict against a Hamas-led enclave inhabited by Jew-hating, irrational and extremist militants. Contrary to this, 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 what we are dealing with is not 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; this occupation has its roots in a colonial project that extends back to the late nineteenth century.

Of course, Israel has been quick to denounce the current demonstrations as a “cynical ploy” and “a dangerous provocation” by Hamas, the Islamist party in control of Gaza, as an a priori justification for its instinctive brutality against Palestinian demonstrators. Further, Israel has subtly invoked its right to self-defence in order to justify why it has used live ammunition killing close dozens and injuring over a thousand civilians. Despite this, since the demonstrators are certainly not Hamas or other militants firing homemade projectiles that rarely hit their target or cause any significant material damage not to speak of death or injury, the threat the Israeli state is claiming to be protecting itself and its citizens from appears to be less tangible. Thus, Israel’s official narrative has been clearly subverted despite its best efforts to portray the protests as being violent by associating them with Hamas.

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 Israel to justify its systematic and deliberate killing of Palestinian civilians by denying that they are civilians and associating them with militant groups or “hostile” activities. However, most alarming in this regard is Israel’s ability to expand the category of “hostile activities” so that it can include symbolic acts such as burning tires or even throwing rocks— acts which are historically associated with Palestinian mass civil disobedience. Israel has, rather audaciously, acted on the basis that such visibly non-militant and non-threatening activities are now taken for granted as hostile acts which pose immediate threat to the security of the formidable Israeli state, its army and its citizens, which thus require the shooting dead of those who commit 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 Defense Forces spokesman’s statement on Twitter, before the tweet was deleted, that the Israeli army knew “where every bullet landed”, thus explicitly acknowledging responsibility for deliberately shooting unarmed civilians.

However, on the second Friday, Israel found itself in hot waters following the fatal shooting of a popular Gaza photo-journalist, 30-year-old Yaser Murtaja, while he was filming the protests. Yaser was wearing a clearly marked press jacket when he shot in the stomach with an exploding bullet. In this case, the facts were crystal-clear, and Israel could not invoke its pre-given justification for the killing of civilians, i.e. deny that they are civilians and associate them with “hostile” activities. Therefore, gaping cracks started to appear in the Israeli official narrative of the incident. While the Israeli army initially denied that it intended to kill Murtaja, the following day the Defense Minister of Israel Avigdor Lieberman accused Murtaja of operating a drone above Israeli soldiers, and that Hamas militants have disguised before as journalists, thus suggesting that he was a militant or that he posed a threat to Israeli soldiers. Here Lieberman is only staying true to Israel’s long-standing tradition of blaming the civilians it kills by turning them into “militants”, “threats”, “terrorists” etcetera. Therefore, when one is killed, it is because they were not “really” civilians, they were in the vicinity of militants, or they were used as human shields by other militants. Of course, one should note that the Israeli army’s denial that it intended to kill Murtaja is exceptionally unconvincing and blatantly self-contradictory, since only a week earlier it asserted that Israeli troops knew “where every bullet landed”.

Nonetheless, what could plausibly explain this glaring inconsistency in the Israeli response to the killing of unarmed Palestinian demonstrators and Israel’s subsequent loss of the public relations battle with the Palestinians is that Israeli snipers indeed shoot to kill or maim Palestinian civilians deliberately— filming and cheering themselves as they did so. We can find our evidence for this 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 that “it opened fire only when necessary, against those taking an active part in the demonstrations.”

According to this, everyone killed in the protests is killed deliberately, not because of their participation violent or hostile acts, but due to their “active involvement” in the protests. Thus, active involvement in protests becomes Israel’s way of interpreting or supplanting the legal category of “participation of 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 shot also for being actively involved in the protest, filming and photographing at the frontlines. This is the logical result of the absurdity of the Israeli colonial logic coupled with its internationally secured impunity. It should be entirely clear that, based on the colonial logic of the Israeli state, any action, violent or otherwise, taken by Palestinians to protest against their mass incarceration, relentless control and collective punishment is automatically considered to be a hostile act that requires unleashing the full might of the Israeli state. One sincerely wonders what is left for Palestinians to do in the face of this injustice.

Equally important, Gaza’s demonstrations along the border between Gaza and Israel (known as the Green Line) happen at a time when Gaza’s humanitarian situation has hit rock bottom. Gaza has been under a tight Israeli-imposed blockade for over a decade, which has effectively made Gaza hermetically sealed from the outside world. The blockade, which has been fully enforced since 2007, has created a horrifying humanitarian condition which a United Nations report has called “unliveable”. Gaza has been teetering on the brink of collapse ever since, but the past few years, particularly following the last major aerial bombing campaign by Israel in 2014 dubbed “Operation Protective Edge”, have witnessed an unprecedented tightening of the blockade which, in turn, has drastically expedited Gaza’s implosion.

The complete closure of crossing points between Gaza and the outside world (the Rafah crossing point with Egypt and the Erez crossing point with Israel), meant that the population of Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, of over two million people have been fully consigned to the firmly besieged, extremely small 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 agricultural land. Add to this macabre picture all the subsequent details integral to this lethal blockade— such as severe lack in the most basic services including electricity supply, sanitation infrastructure, adequate medical services and equipment, education services and facilities, highest unemployment rate in the world standing at over 40% overall and 60% for Gaza’s youth, increased prices of food and oil, toxic stress, severe anxiety and mental conditions etcetera— and you will come to the conclusion this is one of the most horrifying stories of human-orchestrated mass suffering, collective punishment and systematic, prolonged torture.

Moreover, these marches have been planned in response to yet another failed, albeit the closest, attempt 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 fully took control of Gaza, having defeated and expelled their rivals in the secular Fatah party. Since then, Palestinians have had to live under the rule of two antagonistic governments, one in Gaza and another in the West Bank. Many a regional effort to bring the two sides together under one unified government have fallen apart, and to the chagrin of other Palestinians, the disagreements between the two parties run much deeper. Despite this, the most recent Egyptian-mediated deal signed in October last year was, at some stage, believed by some to have finally ended this schism, specially as many practical steps were taken following the signing of the agreement, including Hamas relinquishing its control of the Rafah crossing point with Egypt to the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. However, a few months later, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, was swearing and hurling accusations at Hamas of a bomb that targeted his prime minister Rami Hamdallah earlier last month.

In the midst of all of this, it seems that Palestinians in Gaza have come to terms with their gruesome reality: no positive change is forthcoming unless they take things into their own hands. Certainly, this may require a price much dearer than what Palestinians are willing to pay or could take longer than what Palestinians are willing to go. Nonetheless, regardless of how successful they turn out to be, the Mach of Return is another act of Palestinian resistance that, once and for all, underlines the inextricable relationship between Palestinian uprooted-ness and their current political predicament, a connection that was almost lost to the Palestinians, largely as a result of deep political and societal divisions, a series of successive military defeats and diplomatic capitulation, and a structural lack of regional and international diplomatic and political support.

The call for 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 march to their actual homes and cities in what is nowadays Israel. However, the potent symbolism of these events is that they are taking place in Gaza and under the most unlikely circumstances. In other words, it is highly telling that it is Palestinians in Gaza, who are isolated from the outside world, completely extracted from the material structure of Israeli state itself, deprived of their most basic rights, and seventy years after their original displacement, are calling and marching for return. Palestinians in Gaza are not simply pleading with their ruthless, colonial masters for better treatment and for loosening 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 rather return to their homeland. Hence, Palestinians in Gaza are in essence reclaiming their narrative and their reality.

It is also greatly significant that when Israel has intended and systematically attempted to create a separate reality for Gaza 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 to return. Therefore, this call for return acts as a horizon that unites Palestinians around the most constitutive element of their collective identity, i.e. their mass displacement from their original homeland in 1948 known as Al-Nakba, 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 claiming what they view as theirs and is explicitly recognized by international law, specifically in the UN General Assembly resolution 194, that they will be able to bring an end to their continued 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 unfolded until now, is why I see in these marches a cause for cautious optimism— particularly as the Israeli state braces for what it rightly sees, but tragically underestimates, as a threat.

read more