By Olivia Kashti
On 30th March 2018, over 30,000 Palestinian inhabitants of Gaza marched towards the Israeli border in what has been called “The Great March of Return”. Over the next six weeks, a series of protests, mostly non-violent, took place, demonstrating the Palestinians frustration with their current situation. The protests ended on 15th May, Nakba Day, which marks the removal of over 300,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948 after the declaration of the State of Israel in Palestine. As a result of this day, over 300,000 Palestinians became refugees, including 70% of Gaza’s current population of over 2 million. These people want the right to return home, to return to the land their ancestors lived, and to freedom.
The Great March of Return coincided with the American Embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as administered by US President Donald Trump, in a show of solidarity with Israel. Mistakenly, the world media saw the protests in Gaza to be a direct response to this, but that is not the case. The concerns of Gazans go far beyond that. Life in Gaza is life in an open-air prison. Over 2 million people live in the 17 square miles that Gaza consists of; making Gaza one of the most densely populated places in the world. There is no access out of Gaza, and the conditions within, are shocking. 80% of adults, and 60% youths are unemployed. Over 72% Gazans live without enough food, and 65% of families live in poverty. On average, Gazans receive between three to six hours of electricity per day, and 97% of the overall water found in Gaza is unfit for human consumption. There is a shortage of medical assistance; with 45% of required medicine, and 28% of medical equipment being unavailable. This is what the Gazans are protesting against. A ruined economy and the feeling of being trapped has left Gazans in despair.
In 2014 Israel created a buffer zone between the Israeli border and Gazan land, eating away at the already scarce land that Palestinians had to live on. This buffer land is some of the most arable in Gaza, but Israel has forbidden farming in the area, costing Gaza around 75,000 tonnes of produce per year. Furthermore, Israel has placed limits on the fishing area off the Gazan coast, meaning this is also an unavailable food source. Israel justifies these actions as security measures, but that does not seem to be the only incentive. The measures affect individual lives.
The Great March of Return was Palestinians standing up to their oppressor. But this march had a difference; it was a peaceful protest. The organisers wanted to stray from the media portrayal of Palestinians as barbaric, rather to prove themselves as reasonable and asking sincerely for demands that are within reason. Khaled al-Batsh, the head marcher for the Al Awda camp in Jabalia refugee camp stated; “we will engage in peaceful activities that assert our right to return to our land, in contrast to the Israeli narrative, which casts us as violent.” The hope was that since the Palestinians would not be carrying weapons, the Israelis would not have anything to hide behind; they would have to join the conversation. There were training workshops in nonviolent resistance strategy taught in the tents near the borders, and Palestinians were to move gradually, and peacefully, closer to the border. The protest camps were set up about 700 meters from the border, and each tent was labelled with a town or village from which occupants were expelled. Families attended the demonstrations as a day out, they brought picnics and used the event as an excuse to leave the crowded city and experience open air. Palestinian youth sent out 1000 kites and balloons adorned with Palestinian colours and the names of erased Palestinian towns and Palestinians that had been killed; “since we cannot reach our stolen lands, we are going to fly our kites over them.” Olive trees were planted near the border, and Palestinians were fighting for freedom and dignity.
Unfortunately, the protests were not met peacefully. 52 Palestinians were killed, and over 2,400 were injured. Amongst the two killed were Yasser Murtaja, a 31-year-old video journalist and photographer who was shot as he recorded, and Razan Al-Najjar, a 21-year-old medic who was killed as she helped treat injuries at the border. Both were wearing symbols that clearly demonstrated their roles. Yes, admittedly there were some Palestinians acting violently, and although Hamas were not key organisers of the protests some of their members were present. However, the non-violent emphasis of these protests has been largely ignored by Western media, and particularly Israeli media. The reason Israel acted in the way it did, is because the Palestinians demand for the Right to Return, despite it being a peaceful one, feels threatening to the Israeli core. The idea of the return of Palestinians to their land, who their entire narrative portrays as terrorists, is not something Israel is comfortable with. However, the killing of innocent civilians, and the refusal to even listen to the grievances of the Gazans living in horrific conditions at the hand of Israel, is something the rest of the world watches with a heavy heart.