The Palestinians and Israelis are at it again, one side demonstrating for freedom and independence and the other opening fire indiscriminately at demonstrators. This time around, the protests have the ingredients to be a real game-changer. However, the international community seems not to care, both about the deteriorating situation on the ground or the powder keg that is the Gaza Strip.
On 30 March 2018, the Palestinians launched the ‘Great March of Return’. The day marked the beginning of a planned six weeks of protests that Gazans are hoping to maintain until mid-May, to call for a lifting of the decade-long blockade imposed by Israel and for fulfilling Palestinians’ right of return.
Why 30 March?
As explained by Sam Bahour and Fida Jiryis in an opinion piece in Haaretz, ‘Every year since 1976, on 30 March, Palestinians around the world have commemorated Land Day. Though it may sound like an environmental celebration, Land Day marks a bloody day in Israel when security forces gunned down six Palestinians, as they protested Israeli expropriation of Arab-owned land in the country’s north to build Jewish-only settlements … Today, with no resolution in sight to the historic injustices inflicted upon them, Palestinians in Israel and elsewhere use this day to remember and redouble their efforts for emancipation.’
The world’s Reaction
The official Israeli reaction has been bold and public, declaring that they have decided to use force.
In an April 2018 report titled If the heart be not callous: New position paper by B’Tselem on the unlawful shooting of unarmed demonstrators in Gaza, B’Tselem, an Israeli independent non-profit organization whose goals are to document human rights violations in the Israeli-occupied territories, confirmed that ‘since the wave of protests near the Gaza-Israel fence began on 30 March 2018, the Israeli military has killed 32 Palestinians in Gaza, 26 of them demonstrators, and injured more than 1,000 with live fire’. The report states the official Israeli military policy toward those demonstrating as well as listing testimonials from Palestinian eyewitnesses to the Israeli actions in Gaza; both are horrifying and point to more difficult days ahead.
On the Palestinian side, various officials issued all-too-familiar template statements, condemnations, calls for UN intervention, and the like. But there was no real sense that any of the leadership is actually backing any of the civil disobedience on the ground.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed his deep concern for the events unfolding in Gaza and called for an independent inquiry into the violence. “This tragedy underlines the urgency of revitalizing the peace process aiming at creating the conditions for a return to meaningful negotiations for a peaceful solution that will allow Palestinians and Israelis to live side by side peacefully and in security,” Guterres declared. Subsequently, the United Nations Security Council convened an emergency meeting in New York but failed to adopt any meaningful statement due to stiff opposition from the United States and the United Kingdom.
The European Union’s Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini followed in Guterres’ footsteps by calling for an “independent and transparent investigation into the use of disproportionate force by the Israeli military during ongoing demonstrations on the Gaza-Israel border”. In her official statement, Mogherini added, “Freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are fundamental rights that must be respected.” France also urged Israel to show restraint and reminded the Netanyahu government of its “duty to protect civilians” and to respect “the Palestinians’ right to peacefully demonstrate”. The Vatican added its moral voice as Pope Francis called, in his Easter Sunday address, for “reconciliation for the Holy Land”, adding, “the wounds of ongoing conflict” on the Gaza-Israel border “do not spare the defenseless”.
The White House, as well as Congress as a whole, was supportive of Israel. Jason Greenblatt, the US envoy to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, attacked Hamas.
‘Hamas is encouraging a hostile march on the Israel-Gaza border,’ he tweeted. ‘Hamas should focus on desperately needed improvements to the lives of Palestinians in Gaza instead of inciting violence against Israel that only increases hardship & undermines chances for peace.’
But on 12 April 2018, a surprising voice emerged where it was least expected, when several members of Congress released a statement on the protests in Gaza. They urged the protesters to carry out their right to nonviolent assembly while also calling on the Israel Defense Forces to exercise utmost restraint in the use of deadly force and to comply fully with international law.
The members of Congress also noted that they ‘are deeply disturbed by the tragic loss of life over the past two weeks of protests carried out within the territory of Gaza, with more than a dozen Palestinians killed by sniper fire – including an unarmed teenager and a respected photojournalist – and many hundreds more injured by live ammunition’. The representatives also strongly rejected ‘the dangerous contention’ made on 8 April by Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman that ‘there are no innocent people in the Gaza Strip’.
Heading towards Further Tragedy?
A 2015 report published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development on assistance to the Palestinian people warned that the Gaza Strip could become ‘uninhabitable’ by 2020 if current economic trends persist. It seems that the Great March of Return is the beginning of the Gazans’ final scream for assistance before they fall into oblivion.
In the weeks to come, leading up to 15 May 2018, the dual commemoration of Israel’s establishment in 1948 and Palestinian’s dispossession, also known as their Catastrophe (Nakba), indications are that Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as those residing inside Israel, may join the Great March of Return. This would create a very different dynamic that will challenge Israel and the intentional community.