On March 30, which happened to be Good Friday – a Christian holiday commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus and His death at Calvary — Palestinians in the Gaza Strip set off for their “Great March of Return”. Their plan: walk, chant, and sit meters from an electric fence surrounding the greatest prison on earth.
They would remain until May 15, Nakba Day. This marks the 70th anniversary of the “catastrophe” when their grandparents, their parents, and some of the marchers themselves — children at the time — were forced to flee their homes as the State of Israel was born.
They would not be allowed to proceed without violence. The Israeli Government prepared snipers with live ammunition and “riot dispersal gear” behind the safety of one of the most securitized fences in the world. As the march remained predominantly peaceful, despite some reports of stone-throwing and tyre-burning, Israel responded with lethal force. On that Good Friday and in a follow-up march a week later, 39 Palestinians were killed — including journalist Yasser Murtaja, clearly wearing a “Press” identification jacket — and about 1,500 injured.
Murtaja’s last video:
The march was meant as a peaceful protest in an area where there are no residents, the “Security Buffer Zone” or the Access Restricted Area. The demonstrators were joined by some families from surrounding areas, in what is still a fairly new form of protest in Gaza.
That Friday was another important anniversary for Palestinians. Land Day marks the occasion in 1976 when Israel’s soldiers and police opened fire on their own Palestinian citizens, as they protested about the expropriation of their land by the Government: six demonstrators were killed.
Yet another impetus for the Great March of Return was Donald Trump’s plan to relocate the US Embassy to Jerusalem on May 15, 2018 legitimizing Israel’s violation of international law and its illegal annexation of East Jerusalem.
(Photo: Hassan M Shoaap)
The Security Zone
The Gaza Strip is a roughly rectangular territory lying along the Mediterranean Sea. From north to south, it is about 45 km, with a width between six and 12 km from east to west. The 365 square-km area is divided into five districts: North Gaza, Gaza, Deir Al Balah, Khan Younis, and Rafah.
The Separation Fence runs along the border of all five districts. The zone classified as highly dangerous extends westward from the fence, ranging between 500 and 1500 meters inside the Strip. It starts at the northern border along the outskirts of Beit Lahiya and Um An-Naser village and continues along the northern and eastern parts of Beit Hanoun. It covers 62.6 square km — approximately 35% of Gaza’s cultivable land and 85% of its maritime area — rendering this totally or partially inaccessible to Palestinians.
According to information from the Israeli Defence Force (or Israeli Occupation Force, its name for occupied Palestinians), Israel’s efforts to impose the “buffer zone” of access-restricted areas (ARA) began after implementation of the disengagement from Gaza, with the departure of Israeli settlers, in September 2005. The IDF/IOF set the boundary of the buffer area 300 meters from the eastern and northern borders of the Gaza Strip. However, Israeli forces have attacked civilians, property, and objects at a distance of 1.5 km from the border.
Between September 2005 and the first part of 2012, the IOF killed 190 persons in the border areas, including 11 women and 47 children, according to Al Mezan’s Centre for Human Rights. The IOF shelled and damaged 1,066 houses, 613 of which were completely destroyed. Almost 8,700 persons were displaced, including 4,334 children. The IOF razed 3,108 dunams of agricultural land, directly affecting 4,563 persons who earned their sustenance from farming.
Gaza has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade for more than 10 years. Palestinians living on the Strip have experienced a water supply crisis and sewage problems, especially after three Israeli wars (2008/9, 2012 and 2014); electricity shortages; severe restrictions on their movement with very few able to leave the enclave. Young Gazans today feel they have one of two choices: either commit suicide in complete desperation or, if they can leave Gaza, try to build a new life outside it.
From Protest to Citizenship
For those attempting to continue to resist Israeli occupation peaceful protest is just another way to continue being on life support. Their message to the world is that Palestinians continue to hold rights under international law, that they are humans not sub-humans, as Israel constructs its occupied people. This march is a peaceful act calling for the right of return, even if Israel and much of the international press have called the demonstration — unaffiliated to any political party — a “hostile provocation” by Hamas.
Palestinians will not be “managed” and they will not remain quiet on Israel’s southern front. They are peacefully protesting the inhumane conditions to which they are subjected on a daily basis by an occupying power.
Gaza may be a territory under occupation, with Israeli control by air, sea, and land, but the power of civil disobedience makes Tel Aviv nervous. Peaceful marches in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem, in Israeli cities, in neighbouring countries, in Europe, and other areas of the world put Israel’s PR machinery under pressure. What we are witnessing through our TV screens and our social media are politically-active agents, acting in defiance of their situation and never giving up their claim to be heard amid geopolitics and the manipulations of states.
This is the same spirit and the same three principles that guided the first Intifada: self-reliance, self-organisation, and a defiance of the occupation. Once mundane acts before Israeli occupation of Palestinian land — such as wearing the kuffiyeh, dancing the dubke, and cooking muqloubi — are important political symbols of a strong Palestinian national identity. This is a form of radical politics that gives Palestinians a claim to a homeland, even if it is not recognized by much of the international community.
Palestinians’ claim to citizenship of a homeland has never been stronger. And a global discussion of Palestinian rights is ever-present.