Editor’s note: this article is co-authored by Dorgham Abusalim.
The Great Return March in Gaza, a non-violent demonstration to bring attention to the unfulfilled Palestinian Right of Return as enshrined in United Nations Resolution 194, began on Friday to commemorate the 42nd anniversary of the 1976 Land Day, on which Israel killed six unarmed Palestinians protesting against its decision to expropriate a massive amount of Palestinian land. It is set to proceed with a series of protests and events leading up to May 15, marking the seventieth anniversary of the 1948 Nakba, when Israel was established and nearly 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes or forced to flee Israeli terror campaigns.
Organizers of the march could not have foreseen the parallels between their march and the American March for Our Lives movement. At the heart of both is the simple idea that human life must not be reduced to a political bargaining chip, nor should politicians gamble with the livelihood and rights of their constituents. Palestinians are far too familiar with this idea, especially so in Gaza. On the one hand, the repeated political brawls between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have left Gazans without a viable political alternative that is capable of addressing their needs while, on the other, leading Israeli politicians race to show how much damage they can inflict on Gaza to appease their own voters.
The first day of the march witnessed over 30,000 Palestinians taking to the border area of the Gaza Strip, where Israel has designated a fenced-off military buffer-zone that encroached on 17 percent of the total area of the strip and restricted access to 35 percent of Gaza’s arable land – a vital source of economic livelihood for many in the region. Informed by the civil struggles of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Ghandi, organizers repeatedly said that the demonstration is rooted in human rights, non-factional, non-violent, and above all, an attempt to simply highlight the ongoing plight of Palestinian refugees. One of the signs organizers prepared for the march reads “we are not here to fight.”
Yet, Israel deployed brute force against the protesters: drones, snipers, attack dogs, and tear-gas were few of the tactics Israeli forces used. They killed 15 Palestinians and injured over 1,400 others.
Their crime? They marched for their lives and rights.
Today, there are nearly five million Palestinian refugees with 1.3 million forced to live in eight refugee camps in the Gaza Strip. They make up 70 percent of two million Palestinians trapped under a siege imposed by Israel and Egypt – now in its eleventh year.
Indeed, for Palestinian refugees, the Right of Return is not merely a question of politics, international law, and history, but is also one that is deeply tied to their day-to-day lives, impacting them in myriad ways from freedom of movement and economic mobility, to where they can work and, occasionally, who they can marry. Thus, for them, the Nakba and the yearning to return home are not some remnant of a distant event from a bygone past but rather an everyday reality.
The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza further galvanized the masses to participate in the march. Hospitals are running out of important medical supplies and patients, living with chronic illnesses, are caught between a collapsing health sector and the inability to pursue treatment abroad. An estimated 97% of Gaza’s aquifer is polluted, and access to clean water is less than the minimum recommended by the World Health Organization. The seashore has been turned into a toxic swamp as Gaza’s sole power plant could no longer support sewage treatment before it is pumped into the sea. Unemployment hovers around at 50% and poverty stands at 65%. All of these conditions are impacting a population where the largest age group is those below 24 years-old.
This debilitating reality was not an option Palestinian refugees willingly chose. All they wanted to do was to return to their homes. What they were not expecting was that their exodus would be prolonged for seven decades, and that they would be subjected to condescending efforts to void their right to return. Many attempts were made by regional and international actors to resettle the refugees either inside or outside Gaza. Palestinians resisted such attempts and emphasized that their desire to return to their homeland is not a product of irrational rejection of any peaceful settlement on their part, but rather a commitment of a people who are strongly tied to their land and heritage, and refuse to live in a world where state boundaries and demographic realities are dictated through the barrel of a gun.
It’s no surprise that the organizers of the march chose the barb-wired border area instead of Gaza’s main squares to protest. In their view, the barb-wire fence is not only a scar that cuts through the land, but also a reminder that they cannot move freely, let alone return home.
While any substantial achievement in the near future for the march’s organizers seems far-fetched, the Great Return March indicates a revival of civil struggle among young Palestinians as a way forward. And, just as the old guard of Second Amendment partisans in the US seem incapable of comprehending the March for Our Lives movement – a rising tide of a new generation of political influencers and civil organizers – Israel too seems bewildered by the marchers in Gaza.
Indeed, the Israeli violent response is an all-too-predictable outcome of the colonial mindset that has informed how Israel treats Palestinians. In this mindset, Palestinians are inferior, violent, and hateful savages, and thus could never pursue civil nonviolent struggle, let alone be informed by the struggles of Mandela, King, and Ghandi. Hence, the only appropriate response to tame Palestinians, in Israel’s view, is brute force. This approach might help Israel’s immediate interests, but it is unlikely it will succeed at challenging the rising tide of a new generation grounded in intersectional civil struggles in and beyond Palestine.