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The Great March of Return facing the Israeli settler colonial control

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Round Table Discussion "What is going on in Israel/Palestine?", May 24th 2018

Between the 30th of March and the 15th of May, more than one hundred #Palestinians were killed and ten thousands were wounded in the mass #protests along the barriers between the Gaza Strip and #Israel. The protesters called for the Palestinians’ right of return to their homes and lands from which they were expelled in 1948. Despite escalating protests, the USA and Israel celebrated the relocation of the US #embassy from Tel Aviv to #Jerusalem on a high-pitch tone. The simultaneity of these events became bizarre, if not hawkish. How can we understand these events?

The protests are annually organized, and today known as the Great March of Return. Protesters call for an active implementation of the right of return. Although this right was enshrined in the UN General Assembly Resolution 194, Israel has denied it since then. Mobilization of protest against this denial usually begin on the Land Day, which commemorates the 30th of March 1976 in the remembrance of six Palestinian citizens of Israel who were killed when protesting Israeli plan to expropriate more lands. The protests last until the 15th of May when the Palestinian observer the ‘Nakba Day’ (Catastrophe). This date marks the beginning of the Palestinian exile and destruction of the Palestinian society. More than 700.000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled or fled the atrocities and around 500 villages and towns were ethnically cleansed (Ilan Pappé 2006) in the course of six months between 1947 and 1948.

This year, the Nakba commemoration marked 70 years of dispossession of the Palestinian refugees. The ongoing Israeli #occupation and #colonization in Palestine has culminated in unbearable living conditions in the two regions, West bank and #Gaza Strip. The latter is home to approximately two million people, more than two thirds of whom are refugees from 1948. A tight Israeli blockade has also been imposed on Gaza since 2006. In 2017, Robert Piper, the UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Aid and Development Activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, explained in his report to the United Nations that the situation in Gaza ‘passed the unliveability threshold’ years ago (UNSCO 2017, p. 2). By 2017, 95% of water has become contaminated, the unemployment rate is running at 45 per cent, 47 per cent of the population lives under conditions of food insecurity, electricity is provided only between 2-4 hours a day, the housing sector has massive shortage, the mobility infrastructure is critically destroyed, the basic health services are ill, and the education at all levels suffers extreme inconsistencies. Today, Gaza is known for being an isolated ‘open air prison’, a ‘ghetto’ or even the biggest ‘concentration camp’.

This year, the Nakba Day and Land Day commemoration were violated by the decision of the American government to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem. This decision is in sharp contradiction to a number of international laws and United Nations Security Council resolutions, among them is the UNSCR 478.

The non-violent protests began in March 2018 with a Palestinian resident of Gaza who erected protest tents next to the ‘buffer zone’ that Israel demarked in Gaza. Protests grew in volumes and later on, the #Hamas government in Gaza mobilized the residents to join. A number of protesting Palestinian youth escalated the protests by burning tires and throwing stones across the buffer zone. The frictions developed into direct targeting of Palestinians by the Israeli military.

Israel claimed that killing 112 protesters and wounding more than ten thousands in the course of two months, mostly by sniper bullets, was an act of ‘self-defence’. For Israel, the protesters are conceived as Hamas agents, thus are regarded as ‘terrorists’ and legitimate targets. Along these lines the killing of Palestinian protesters is often constructed in Israeli official discourses and justified to the public. When asked to comment on the killings, Israel’s Defense Minister, Avigdor Liberman, bluntly stated that “there are no innocents in Gaza” (Lazaroff 2018).

The US endorsed the Israeli position, while the EU has moderately challenged the Israeli position by calling on ‘both sides’ to show restraint and called Israel to use force proportionally (Federica Mogherini 2018). A UN Human Rights expert firmly called on the Israeli government “to immediately cease its lethal assault against protesters at the Gaza fence” (UN Human Rights). Palestinians on the other hand, claimed that all Palestinian political factions have orchestrated these mass and non-violent #demonstrations under a unified steering committee, and made clear that they are not commanded by Hamas (Daoud Kuttab 2018).

Similar discourses can also be identified when probing the languages and terminologies used to cover the protests by mainstream media agencies. For example, ‘violent protests’ (The times of Israel) and ‘violent riots’ (BBC) were consistently used to dismiss the non-violent nature of the protests and their legitimate calls for right of return. Furthermore, passive language was also employed to transform the killing of Palestinians into natural deaths. This was explained by The Guardian journalist Moustafa Bayoumi who stated that

‘It is the peculiar fate of oppressed people everywhere that when they are killed, they are killed twice: first by bullet or bomb, and next by the language used to describe their deaths. A common condition of oppression, after all, is to be blamed for being the victim, and that blame gets meted out in language designed to rob the oppressed of their very struggle.’ (Bayoumi 2018)

Indeed, some protestors threw stones, Molotov cocktails and burned tires toward Israeli soldiers stationed more than 1.5 kilometers away from the protesters. But these #resistance actions are non-comparable to the illegal and heavy use of weapons by the Israeli army. The resistance and other forms of protest against the injustices in Palestine, we argue, should be seen as a logical response to the maintained #Nakba and the Israeli settler colonialism.

The Israeli violence against the Palestinian protesters hasn’t stopped. However, the mass killing of protesters on the 14th of May has prompted new forms of armed resistance by a landscape of Palestinian political factions. The most visible in media is the military escalation between Hamas and Israel. This media reporting seems to have overshadowed the killing of 62 Palestinians in one single day, the 14th of May. Attacks and counterattacks were referred to as the Israeli–Hamas/Islamic Jihad attacks and counterattacks, as if conflict occurred between two equal parties, or as if the event has no long history of colonialism.

This piece took shape during a public panel debate , titled “what is going on in Israel/Palestine?”, organised at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, May 24th 2018.

Wassim Ghantoush, PhD-student, Peace and Development Research

Feras Hammami, Associate Professor, Conservation and Cultural Heritage

Helena Lindholm, Professor, Peace and Development Research


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