A Palestinian waving flags as tear gas disperses from canisters fired by Israeli troops during a protest near Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, March 22, 2019
As I was driving from Jericho to Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, in early March, I noticed a large sign that Palestinians had set up in preparation for Land Day, on the thirtieth of the month. The sign showed the now ubiquitous Banksy print of a protester, with his nose and mouth covered, hurtling a bouquet of flowers—presumably in place of a Molotov cocktail—at an invisible oppressor. The drawing had been printed under one of the best-known lines by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish:
On this Land, there is what makes life worth living.
The sign was, for me, an ominous warning. Land Day commemorates the 1976 killing by Israeli security forces of six Palestinian citizens as they demonstrated against the government’s expropriation of their land in the Galilee. The shootings marked a milestone in Palestinian collective memory: Israel’s readiness to use live fire against unarmed citizens (an event inconceivable had the protesters been Jewish) showed that Palestinians within Israel’s 1948 borders shared with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories subjection to such lethal repressive measures.
This year, Land Day coincides with the first anniversary of the Great March of Return protests in the Gaza Strip, which I wrote about for the Daily last year. There, too, a deep sense of foreboding prevails, even as organizers ambitiously plan for a “one million person” march. Since last March, according to the World Health Organization, Israel has killed more than 260 and injured nearly 6,400 Palestinians in Gaza using live fire. In all, more than 27,900 Palestinians have been injured over the course of the demonstrations through other crowd-dispersal tactics, including tear gas and rubber bullets. Nearly 150 people have been crippled, requiring amputations, or left paralyzed.
Only weeks ago, a UN Commission of Inquiry “found reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli security forces committed serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law” in dealing with these large-scale civilian protests. According to the UN investigation, Israeli snipers targeted, and continue to target, children, health workers, journalists, and disabled persons, most of whom were identifiable, and the vast majority of whom were unarmed and posed no security threat to Israel. One foreign journalist present at the demonstrations described Israel’s conduct toward protesters as “slow, methodical shooting.” Such assessments have been reinforced by video footage from the demonstrations and have been corroborated by reports from Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations.
As in the original Land Day protest decades earlier, albeit today on a far larger scale, Israel has again used lethal force on Palestinian civilians engaged in a struggle for rights. In Gaza’s bloody present, the conviction that peaceful protests are a celebration of life, symbolized by the sign outside Ramallah, appears almost naive. If anything, the experience of Gazans over the past fifty-two weeks has been a grim foreshadowing, and yet another reminder, of how easily popular mobilization is crushed and how staggering the cost is.
The 2018 Great March of Return began not as a Hamas-organized political operation but as a call from grassroots activists and ordinary inhabitants. Tens of thousands of residents of the Gaza Strip, a territory the size of the Philadelphia city-county area but with a far denser population of nearly two million, began congregating around the fence that separates Gaza from Israel and keeps Palestinians segregated there. Return marches, aiming to assert the right of Palestinian refugees to their original homes, have a long history, and have proliferated within the Palestinian diaspora in Syria and Lebanon, as well as inside Israel itself. At a time when the Palestinian national movement is particularly weak and fragmented, lifting the banner of return has offered a unifying framework that transcends political and geographic divisions, one rooted in the universal Palestinian demand for the right of return, as enshrined in UN Resolution 194, which was passed in 1948 and has since been regularly reaffirmed. For Israel, the demand for a Palestinian return en masse poses an existential threat to the state’s Jewish majority.
Other urgent matters propelled the 2018 protests. Most pressing were the desire and need to lift the stifling blockade on Gaza, now in its twelfth year. According to the UN’s assessment, Gaza will by next year be no longer fit for human habitation, thanks to the severe shortage of drinking water, the continuing energy crisis, and the high likelihood of a medical epidemic. Through large-scale peaceful demonstrations, Palestinians wanted to project Gaza’s image to the world, and compel the international community to take action to end their suffering. Many Gazans also marched to protest the policies of the Trump administration toward Palestinians. Particularly insulting, I was told by a senior NGO official in Gaza, were the US policies toward Palestinian refugees that culminated in the American defunding of the United Nations Relief and Welfare Agency (UNRWA). For many Gazans, the services this agency provides make this a matter of life and death.
By most measures, a year on, the protests have failed to achieve their goals.
Gazans tell me of the sense of jubilation that prevailed this time last year. People of all political affiliations and from all social backgrounds joined in the marches, which were initially planned to end on May 15, marking the anniversary of al-Nakba, or “catastrophe,” that befell Palestinians with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. The protests were peaceful and family members of all ages including women and children participated in a communal movement, which seemed to signal a hopeful shift away from Hamas’s militarization and toward a new politics of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience. Palestinians elsewhere greeted the protests as an inspiration, an all-too-rare moment of courageous unity and solidarity, and a reaffirmation of Gazans’ image of themselves as providing the bedrock of Palestinian resistance to Israel’s continued occupation.
Before the protests had even begun, however, Israel took the line that these were “Hamas protests” and Israeli officials expressed concern that armed attackers might breach the fence and enter Israeli population centers. That pre-emptive framing prepared the way for Israel to use disproportionate force in response. On the first day, between 40,000 and 50,000 Palestinians congregated in areas near the fence that the protest’s organizing group, the Higher National Committee, which comprised representatives from different political factions, as well as civic leaders and human rights activists, had designated beforehand. Many described the initial atmosphere that day as “festive.” Within hours, Israeli snipers safely positioned on raised berms just beyond the buffer zone inside Gaza killed eighteen Palestinians and wounded 703 others with live ammunition; the youngest casualty was a two-your-old boy, with a head injury, the oldest was a seventy-one-year-old woman shot in the legs. The lack of any effective global reaction helped perpetuate a pattern of unarmed protesters’ meeting lethal excessive force, repeated on a weekly basis.
As the governing entity of the Gaza Strip, Hamas had endorsed the protests and provided logistical support for those coordinating the marches. The organization was also actively involved in the Higher Committee of the Protests. But as the UN investigation has found, the movement’s participation did not alter the character of the protests as civilian. Along with other political groups, Hamas adhered to and reinforced the demonstrators’ call for the protests to be unarmed. For the planned duration of the marches, from March 30 until after May 15, no rockets were fired by Hamas or other factions, despite Israel’s live-fire policy.
The power of Israel’s “Hamas narrative” is such that the mere fact of Hamas’s participation drew the accusation that these demonstrations were terrorist attacks that merited a military response. Israel’s use of the Hamas label neutralized for governments of the international community the David vs. Goliath image that has in the past been an effective public relations asset of popular uprisings, notably during the days of the First Intifada (1987–1991), which won global sympathy for the Palestinian cause.
As the numbers of Palestinian dead and injured mounted in Gaza, the already-deprived healthcare sector sagged under the weight of the casualties. But the nature of the marches also began to shift after the first six weeks: protesters adopted more confrontational tactics, using sling-shots, throwing stones, burning tires, cutting the barbed wire, and flying improvised incendiary devices on kites and balloons in an attempt to damage property and agricultural lands within Israel. The UN investigation concluded that these actions were, for the most part, unorganized and sporadic, and were not coordinated by Hamas or other organized groups. Still, the protests remained predominantly unarmed and widespread, and presented no discernible threat to Israeli civilians that might justify Israel’s live-fire policy.
Many refer to mid-May as a turning point. Several developments collided: the anniversary of al-Nakba, the official end of the protests, and the relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem. On May 14, around 40,000 Palestinians in Gaza demonstrated against the embassy move. The Israeli military circulated a video in advance warning that “the Hamas terrorist organization plans to send armed terrorists among 250,000 violent rioters to swarm and breach Israel’s border with Gaza and enter Israeli communities… [Hamas] plans to carry out a massacre in Israel.” There was no evidence to support claims of violence even as protesters called for breaching the fence. Nevertheless, that day Israeli snipers killed some sixty Palestinian protestors and injured more than 1,100 through live fire, the largest death toll in a single day since 2014.
Soldiers monitoring a Great March of Return protest from an Israeli military post overlooking the fence near Rafah, Gaza, March 22, 2019
After that Thursday, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, a smaller Islamist armed faction, reverted to the military tactics they had used against Israel over the past decade, after Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. While the various factions had initially adopted a strategy of restraint, from May 15 Hamas began responding with rocket fire to Israel’s apparent determination to fire on civilians.
Some Gazans told me that they supported the Hamas decision, and there were many calls on social media at the time for Hamas to defend the front line from Israeli fire. Others spoke of their frustration that the protest movement became militarized by Hamas, and of their concern that this simply played into Israel’s security argument; and they voiced hurt at the thought of continuing to protest as sitting ducks in front of Israeli snipers. As retaliatory rocket fire from Hamas and other military groups against Israeli periphery communities around Gaza resumed, a tactic that is also deemed a war crime because of its indiscriminate nature, the protests diminished in size, with Palestinian youth setting off more incendiary balloons and kites and causing greater damage to nearby Israeli agricultural lands.
Hamas’s return to its military strategy risked moving the parties toward another escalation of conflict in the Gaza Strip, until Egypt and the UN intervened to resuscitate indirect diplomatic channels between the parties and bring Israel to the negotiating table. Many Palestinians drew a depressing moral from this chain of events: where a popular movement had failed to engage the international community, Hamas’s military response increased the likelihood of ceasefire talks. That simply reinforced the view among Palestinians that Israel, and the international community, respond only to shows of force.
Hamas and Israel have remained in those talks since last summer, culminating in an indirect ceasefire agreement in November. Based on that agreement, Israel today allows Qatar to send humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip in return for Hamas maintaining military restraint and policing the Great March of Return protests. When Israel interrupts the lifeline of fuel and funding from Qatar, typically in response to the firing of rockets or other provocations associated with the protests, Hamas ratchets up the scale and the intensity of the marches to increase pressure on Israel. This dynamic reached a new peak of tension when Hamas fired rockets at the Tel Aviv area on March 14, reportedly by mistake on that occasion, and again on March 25, wounding seven Israelis, in an apparent bid to force on Israel to address the economic situation in the Gaza Strip.
What thus started as a social movement with genuine grassroots support in Gaza, one year later risks being entirely subsumed into the nihilistic closed-loop system of episodic belligerence that characterizes relations between Israel and Hamas.
Nahi Alhwyty, a Gaza resident, responding to destruction caused by Israeli airstrikes in retaliation for a Hamas rocket attack, Gaza City, March 26, 2019
There are Gazans today who celebrate Hamas’s ability to turn the protests into concessions from Israel. Yet there is also despair that, given the sacrifices, those gains have been minimal, and have come nowhere near the goal of lifting the blockade. There is also widespread resentment that Hamas coopted popular activism through its intervention. After aid flowed into Gaza in return for Hamas’s policing of the marches, Palestinians bitterly decried it as a “blood for money” deal, according to which the cash payouts disproportionately benefited Hamas’s own factional interests. This growing resentment has gathered force in recent weeks after Hamas staged its own brutal crackdown against Gazans who were marching to protest economic misery in the Strip.
The jubilation that marked the early days of the marches last year, and the optimism that a popular uprising might offer an alternative to Hamas’s official policy of militarized resistance has given way to cynicism. Fewer Gazans join the front-line protests, and the marchers represent a narrower section of Palestinian society than they once did. Today, families try to prevent their children from going to the fence. Of the teenagers who went last year to seek glory and a sense of agency over their lives, many returned disabled and more deprived of hope than before; fewer see any point in taking their place. Such is the economic desperation many face, I learned, that a few are willing to contemplate the additional welfare income that might become their due if they were to suffer an amputation as a way to ease their families’ hardship.
Israel’s use of overwhelming force to respond to civilian protests is a familiar enough story for most Palestinians. So is the subjugation of popular action and social movements by Palestinian military-political factions, including not only Hamas but also the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization before that. But as Palestinians debate the virtues of shifting to a rights-based struggle that demands full equality from the river to the sea, Gaza’s present predicament shows how treacherous the path ahead is.
In the absence of an effective or unified Palestinian leadership, let alone a representative one, and amid a reshuffling of the regional and international order that has marginalized the Palestinian cause, many Palestinians feel that this is an increasingly vital debate. It is not only Gazans who risk defeat by the muzzling of popular protests. Forty-three years after the original Land Day marches in Israel, Palestinian citizens of Israel are facing more institutionalized discrimination than ever. The Nation State Bill passed last year affirms that only Jews have the right to self-determination within Israel. The codification of inferior status for Palestinians in Israel has been reiterated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently affirmed that Israel is “not a state of all its citizens,” before partly walking back his remarks—a strategy he has deployed in the past to speak to Israel’s hard right, without fully alienating more liberal supporters abroad. Even Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s main, and more centrist, political rival in Israel’s upcoming legislative election, this month publicly ruled out any political alliance with Arab parties in the Knesset.
The rightward trajectory of Israel’s politics and the growing consensus behind Israel’s de facto annexation of the West Bank are unwittingly beginning to transform Palestinians, fragmented into territorial and political silos, into a single collective entity facing different aspects of the same oppressive power: an Israeli state that discriminates in favor of Jews over Palestinians across the entire land. The promise of widespread popular movement that challenges Israel’s hegemony is appealing, if frightening to some, and unrealistic to others. Many younger Palestinians are nonetheless taking inspiration from the legacies of the American Civil Rights movement and the South African anti-Apartheid struggle, as well as from their own long history of popular resistance. In this respect, the Great March of Return—though checked for now by the obstacles facing a people under occupation—is simply a staging post in the long struggle ahead.