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Palestinians’ Great March of Return: What You Need to Know

Photo by Jonas Moffat | CC BY 2.0

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was positively giddy. “What a glorious day!” he said to the crowd standing in front of the newly opened US embassy in Jerusalem. “Remember this moment!”

It was May 14, the day before the 70thanniversary of the Nakba, during which Zionist forces engaged in a program of ethnic cleansing that helped clear the way for a Jewish state. During the years 1947-1949, over 750,000 indigenous Palestinians were driven from their homeland, and the state of Israel was born in their place.

“This is history,” Netanyahu continued. “Mr. Trump, by recognizing history, you have made history!”

Netanyahu was wrong, of course. Trump does not recognize history. At least not the one he was thinking of. One of the most well-known events of the Nakba is a massacre in which Zionist paramilitary groups murdered at least 107 Palestinians in the village of Deir Yassin. During Netanyahu’s speech, less than 100 kilometers from the podium at which he was standing, his soldiers were, indeed, recognizing history; they were repeating it. On that one day, they shot and killed fifty-eight Palestinians and injured 2700 more in Gaza.

***

After occupying the Gaza Strip in 1967, the Israeli authorities unilaterally withdrew from the enclave in 2005. After Hamas won the Palestinians in 2006, Israel imposed an illegal and inhumane blockade of the territory that continues to this day. If that were not enough, Israel also committed three brutal assaults on Gaza in 2008/2009, 2012 and 2014, causing the deaths of thousands of residents and untold damage to its infrastructure and economy. The blockade and the attacks have left the area in ruins, creating a situation so dire that the United Nations reports Gaza will be uninhabitable by 2020. It is in this “world’s largest open-air prison,” as described by Noam Chomsky and others, that close to two million Palestinians are forced to attempt to survive. Conditions are so desperate in the Strip, that many residents feel like they have nothing left to lose by confronting the purveyors of their misery face-to-face.

For the last seven weeks, many Palestinians in Gaza have been involved in the Great March of Return, which is modeled on the 2011 Nakba Day demonstrations, when Palestinian refugees from Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and the Palestinian territories approached the border with Israel, demanding their right to return to the lands from which they were evicted. Beginning March 30, Gazans have been marching to the fence that Israel has created in order to keep them out. More than two thirds of Gaza’s two million residents are descendants of refugees created during the Nakba, and their right to return to their homeland is enshrined in several United Nations Resolutions. But the demonstrations are not merely about the right of return. They are also a protest against the horrifying living conditions endured by most Gazans.

The only weapons brought to the protests by the Palestinians were Molotov cocktails, slingshots and kites. These are, of course, nothing compared to the arsenal at the disposal of the world’s fourth-largest army. The Palestinians employed no rockets, guns or grenades, but this has not stopped the Israelis from characterizing the march as the work of violent extremists, and they have used this narrative to justify their brutal response.

“The Hamas terrorist organisation declares its intention to destroy Israel and sends thousands to breach the border fence in order to achieve this goal. We will continue to act with determination to protect our sovereignty and our citizens,” said Benjamin Netanyahu.

According to an Israeli report, soldiers stationed at the border fence with Gaza are permitted to use live ammunition on protestors that come too close to the fence – within 300 meters if they are armed and 100 meters if they are unarmed. These orders are not limited to the current situation. Israeli soldiers regularly shoot at farmers and residents who wander too close to the fence.

There have been many eyewitness accounts from the last week detailing the terrible consequences of this policy. On Monday, Canadian doctor Tarek Loubani was shot in both legs as he was standing in green surgeon’s clothes among a group of orange-vested paramedics at least 25 meters from the protestors.

“It’s very hard to believe I wasn’t specifically targeted, considering that there was a lull in activity, considering the fact that I was so clearly marked,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. According to the Gaza Ministry of Health, Loubani was one of seventeen medical workers shot on Monday. The doctor who came to Loubani’s aid was killed an hour later, after he was shot in the chest as he was tending to another patient.

“There was so much fire around him and so much live ammunition that his colleagues couldn’t get to him and couldn’t treat him,” Loubani told Democracy Now.

Declan Walsh, the Cairo bureau chief for the New York Times witnessed the shooting in the abdomen of an unarmed Palestinian woman by an Israeli sniper.

“She wasn’t holding a stone,” her brother told Walsh. “So what’s the excuse for shooting her?”

***

Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, the Israeli authorities still claim thatthe Great March of Return is merely a Hamas plot to attack Israel.

“It was clear to Israel and now it is clear to the whole world that there was no popular protest. This was an organized mob of terrorists organized by Hamas,” said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon, after Hamas claimed that most of Monday’s fatalities were members of the group.

This characterization of the march, while it absolves Israel–at least in its own eyes– of any wrongdoing, is inaccurate. In fact, although Hamas, as well as other Palestinian political parties, such as Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, were involved from a funding perspective, the movement was in reality organized by several committees representing many segments of Palestinian society, “including youth groups, women’s groups, nongovernmental organizations, legal-rights bodies, worker syndicates, and cultural associations.”

***

The United States’ response to the killings has, predictably, been nothing short of abominable. When White House Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah was asked whether Israel bears any responsibility for the massive death count, he was unequivocal in his response.

“No. We think that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Hamas is the one that, frankly, bear [sic] responsibility for the dire situation right now in Gaza,” he said. “We believe Hamas, as an organization, is engaged in cynical action that’s leading to these deaths.”

International condemnation of Israel has generally been widespread. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said that Israel’s application of “the unlawful use of force by an occupying power may also constitute a grave breach” of the Geneva Conventions.

Al-Hussein stated that many of the victims were “completely unarmed” and “were shot in the back, in the chest, in the head and limbs with live ammunition.”

This week the United Nations Human Rights Council, in a special session, voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution calling for a war crimes investigation into Israel’s actions during the protest. The United States, along with Australia, was the only nation among forty-five who opposed the resolution.

***

The statistics related to last Monday’s events are staggering. According to the Gaza Ministry of Health, fifty-eight Palestinians lost their lives on Monday, including seven minors and one paramedic. 2,771 were injured, including 225 minors, eleven journalists and seventeen paramedics. By evening there were 130 in serious and critical condition. 1,359 were shot with live ammunition.

Since the beginning of the Great March of Return, 107 Palestinians were killed, and close to 3,400 were shot with live ammunition, while almost 13,000 were injured overall.

US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, perhaps unaware of the data, told that body last week that “no country would act with greater restraint than Israel.”

***

Throughout its short history, Israel has made it abundantly clear that it places very little value on Palestinian lives, and its actions on Monday, May 14–targeting unarmed civilians, medical personnel and journalists–do very little to alter that perception. Israeli soldiers acted with particularly wanton disregard for Palestinians on that day, they have committed worse atrocities on many occasions. During the assault on Gaza in 2014 for example, the army killed at least fifty Palestinians on seventeen separate days. While the United Nations promises that it will investigate Israel for war crimes, the outcome of that probe will be almost irrelevant. Israel is used to being censured and condemned by the international community, but with the world’s only superpower backing it unconditionally, it knows it has little to fear, at least in the short term.

This article previously appeared in the American Herald Tribune.

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Richard Hardigan is a university professor based in California. He is the author of  The Other Side of the Wall. His website is richardhardigan.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @RichardHardigan.

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