Palestinians in Gaza had hardly begun their “Great March of Return” campaign before Israel responded with a level of violence and brutality not seen for some time, writes Lisa Gleeson. Yet their protests continue.
What began as a protest in 1976 after a rash of land confiscations by Israel — met by Israel with the killing of six unarmed Palestinians — Land Day each March 30 is an annual focal point for Palestinian frustration at being forcibly displaced and unable to return home.
This year’s Land Day was the start of a “Great March of Return” campaign that will run up to al Nakba (“the Catastrophe”) on May 15. Al Nakba marks the founding of the Israeli state on the back of the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians — many in Gaza are refugees from these events 70 years ago.
Thousands of Palestinians in Gaza gathered near the wall marking the the border Israel maintains — and uses to impose a brutal siege for the past decade. Conservative Israelis decried the horror of Palestinian “terrorists” provocatively marching to coincide with Jewish Passover celebrations, Gazans continued to flock to the border and set up camp.
In response, Israeli soldiers opened fire on unarmed protesters, shooting some in the back as they fled. According to the United Nations’ Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs for the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OCHA-OPT), Land Day ended with 18 Palestinian deaths and more than 1400 injuries.
One week later, for the Friday of the Great March of Return, Palestinians again gathered — to be shot once more by Israeli snipers. The April 6 protests ended with six dead, including one journalist and two children aged 13 and 15. Still Gazans insist they will continue protesting until May 15.
Israel’s insistence that it would only shoot at what it calls “terrorists” and “infiltrators” is becoming less believable by the day. Thirty-year-old photo journalist Yaser Murtaja wore a vest with “PRESS” clearly visible, yet was shot dead.
Health workers targetted
Health workers have also been targeted as they attempted to treat casualties. The World Health Organisation reported that, on April 6, five ambulances were targeted with live ammunition and tear gas canisters, injuring 29 medical staff.
Such illegal behaviour prompted the International Criminal Court to remind “all parties” that violence directed at civilians is a crime under the ICC's Rome Statute (notwithstanding the fact only one party is actually doing this). The ICC’s “preliminary examination” of events does not have the same weight as an actually investigation, but the prosecutor is looking at whether events surrounding the Great March protests fall under the court's jurisdiction.
Freshly bulldozed embankments along the border between Gaza and Israel have allowed at least 100 IDF snipers to take up stable, protected positions as they fire live ammunition at unarmed protesters. Firing live ammunition at unarmed civilians is illegal.
Yet crowds continued to gather and not because of any orders from Hamas to do so, Amira Hass noted in Haaretz.
In a video shared by Mondoweiss, Gazans explain why they are taking part in the Great March of Return — and what it would take to end the protests. None mention Hamas. They explain why the April 6 protests, labelled “Tyre Day” due to the mass burning of tyres that accompnied protests, took place.
The tyre burnings were not simply an outrageous act of environmental vandalism as Israel claims. Rather, Gazans collected and set fire to old tyres to create a smokescreen that would hinder the vision of Israeli snipers, making it harder for them to kill Palestinian protesters at will. This tactic did not stop Israeli soldiers firing into crowds, but it likely reduced the number of casualties.
Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem took out ads in major Israeli newspapers condemning the Israeli army’s response to the Gazan protesters. It called on troops to refuse to shoot unarmed civilians. This “Sorry commander, I cannot shoot” campaign was criticised by Israeli defence minister Avigdor Liberman, who called for an inquiry into the group.
This is the same Liberman who refused to call in inquiry into Israeli massacre on March 30, instead insisting that the Israeli soldiers involved deserved “medals”. Liberman has justified the killings by insisting there were “no innocent people” in Gaza.
Mainstream media has reported these events as “clashes” between Israelis and Palestinians — all but ignoring the illegality of Israel’s completely disproportionate response. “Clashes” implies a more or less fair fight between equals, not the calculated slaughter of civilians.
The fact that Israeli forces fired on a captive population with live ammunition, also delivering tear gas via drones, has passed largely without comment in the West. Instead, some media outlets have highlighted the Israeli claim that only “infiltrators” trying to breach the border between Gaza and Israel were fired upon — in a justified act to defend Israeli borders.
The Israel Defense Forces appeared to recognise it may have overstepped the propaganda mark, however. A March 31 tweet boasted of its actions the day before: “Nothing was carried out uncontrolled; everything was accurate and measured, and we know where every bullet landed.”
In Australia, emergency protests took place in several cities against Israel’s killings despite an almost total silence from politicians about the situation in Gaza. Greens leader Richard Di Natale’s statement encouraging the government to break its silence on Israel’s actions was welcome, but no other leader or MP has said anything. Foreign minister Julie Bishop has been conspicuously silent.
A clear counter-example was shown in Britain, where opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn issued a statement read out at pro-Palestine protests on April 7. The socialist and long-time supporter of Palestinian rights described Israel’s killings as “an outrage” and insisted “the silence from international powers must end”.
Corbyn noted: “The majority of the people of the Gaza Strip are stateless refugees, subject to a decade long blockade and the denial of basic human and political rights. More than two thirds are reliant on humanitarian assistance, with limited access to the most basic amenities, such as water and electricity.
“They have a right to protest against their appalling conditions and the continuing blockade and occupation of Palestinian land, and in support of their right to return to their homes and their right to self-determination.”
Despite Israel’s brutality, the Great March of Return protests show no sign of diminishing.
A spokesperson for the revolutionary socialist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine Jamil Mizher summed up the Great March movement on March 30, saying: “This unified national scene today reflects the steadfastness of the Palestinian people and their attachment to their land, the land of their ancestors for generations. This is the true expression of the will of our people.”
Mizher called the Land Day/Great March a “referendum on Palestinian rights”. It is a referendum Israel is determined to quash.