By Tareq Baconi
2 Apr 2018
On Friday, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip embarked on what they called the “Great March of Return”. In their thousands they walked and chanted metres away from the electric fence that has kept 2 million Gaza residents penned in for more than a decade. They planned to sit there, in a flimsily built tent-city, until Nakba day, on 15 May. That day marks the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, or “catastrophe” – when the marchers, their parents or their grandparents, fled or were forced to flee their homes upon the creation of the state of Israel.
Friday also marked another anniversary for Palestinians: Land Day. On that day in 1976, Israel’s soldiers and police opened fire on its own Palestinian citizens as they protested about the expropriation of their land by the government, killing six of them. Yet another impetus for this march is the US government plan to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem on 15 May, legitimising Israel’s violation of international law – in this case its illegal annexation of East Jerusalem.
But perhaps the greatest driver of this march is the tragedy of the Gaza Strip itself. Under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade for more than 10 years, Palestinians have experienced electricity shortages and a water supply crisis, with only a very few able to leave the tiny coastal enclave. They have been subjected to military assaults that make daily life seem like a post-apocalyptic vision.
Rather than address the political issues that underpin Gaza’s misery, the US and Israel recently embarked on a humanitarian mission to alleviate suffering in Gaza while paradoxically sustaining the blockade. That is because Israel believes it can manage the situation in the Gaza Strip indefinitely, while also maintaining control over the remainder of occupied territories.
With this march, Palestinians in Gaza are reminding the world that they cannot be “managed”. They and their fellow Palestinian refugees continue to hold rights under international law. UN resolution 194 affirmed the Palestinian right of return.
The march has given rise to competing narratives. Civil society organisers put out statements to the effect that this event was not affiliated with any political party and that it was a peaceful act calling for the right of return. In response, the Israeli government issued talking points calling the march a “hostile provocation” by Hamas. Rather than peacefully protest the inhumanity to which they are subjected, Palestinians are expected to maintain “calm” on Israel’s southern front. In response to news of the march, Israel positioned snipers with live ammunition and “riot dispersal gear” behind the safety of one of the most securitised fences in the world. The march remained predominantly peaceful, with some reports of stone-throwing and tyre-burning. Nonetheless, Israel responded with lethal force. Some 1,000 Palestinians were injured and 16 were killed.
Israel believes that it is within its rights to defend its borders in this way. But Gaza is not a separate nation neighbouring Israel. It is a territory under occupation. Even though Israel withdrew its settlers in 2005, it continues to maintain effective control of the strip. Palestinians in Gaza marched not towards the border with Israel, but rather towards the fence that has kept them segregated and imprisoned. Diplomats all over the world might shrug away the right of return as a right that cannot be exercised. Yet for the people on the ground, addressing the injustices of 1948 remains at the heart of their quest for freedom, justice and equality.
As the funerals that took place in Gaza this weekend attest, protest against Israeli repression often ends in tragedy. While it is difficult to advocate further popular resistance in the context of an inevitably violent response, Palestinians should nonetheless reflect on the power of civil disobedience in asserting their inviolable individual and collective rights. Peaceful marches in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem, in Israeli cities and in neighbouring countries may be one way to compel the world to challenge Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people.
• Tareq Baconi is a policy member at al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, and the author of Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance