As the Great March of Return roared past its half-year anniversary last Friday, it also seemed to reach levels of resistance and repression not seen in months.
The escalation aims to “put more pressure on the Israeli occupation authorities, hoping they meet the protesters’ demands — lifting the siege and recognizing the right to return,” a spokesperson for the Hamas movement told MintPress News.
Every Friday since March 30, the demonstration has mobilized thousands of Palestinians to a military barrier erected by Israel around the Gaza Strip.
Protesting both an 11-year closure of the Palestinian enclave imposed by Israel and Egypt, and Israel’s ongoing refusal to allow millions of Palestinian refugees — including two-thirds of the Gaza Strip’s population — to return to homes from which they were ethnically cleansed by Zionist and Israeli forces starting in December 1947, demonstrators have braved the tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets and live gunfire of Israeli troops.
Many have died from it, with 176 losing their lives to Israeli fire between March 30 and September 22, according to the World Health Organization.
During the same period, 20,833 were injured — including 10,762 requiring hospitalization, 5,048 struck by live bullets, and 1,200 needing reconstructive surgery on wounded limbs.
Israel’s defenders say the repression is necessary to protect the state’s borders, a claim that has drawn mockery from critics who note that Israel has never acknowledged any borders.
“The Israeli occupation claims its soldiers shoot the protesters because they damage the borders,” the Hamas spokesperson said. “Let the Israelis tell us: do they have definite borders, and where are they?”
Over the summer, protests seemed to have reached a bloody impasse, with Israeli soldiers injuring dozens of participants, while killing one or a few, each Friday.
But on Friday, Israeli fire escalated sharply, killing seven Palestinian demonstrators and wounding 506, including 210 sent to hospitals and 90 hit with live rounds, according to Ashraf al-Qidra, a spokesman for the Palestinian ministry of health in Gaza.
In a statement, he called it the bloodiest day of protests since May 14, when Israel killed more than 60 demonstrators on a single Friday.
Nothing else to lose
Friday’s heightened toll came as protesters expanded their activities, building a sixth “return camp” along the barrier and increasing the frequency of their marches on it.
While the Great March of Return has continued every Friday, it now occurs most other days as well, with demonstrators not only gathering at the inland barrier by day, but also marching north on the beach, holding “nighttime confusion” activities to frustrate Israeli soldiers with fire and lasers, and sailing flotillas of boats toward Israel.
“Every Friday they go to the eastern border, and they protest there,” Wafa al-Udaini told MintPress News.
Al-Udaini leads the 16th October Group, a youth organization in Gaza, and heads the foreign media unit at the al-Thoraya media company.
“Every Monday, there is a sailing protest, so they go to the western border with the occupation [Israel],” she said. “Every Wednesday, there is a protest near Erez crossing.”
“Of course, this to Israel means more killing to curb the Palestinians’ demands for freedom and human rights and return,” Refaat Alareer told MintPress. Alareer, a literature professor at the Islamic University of Gaza, has written articles about Palestinian life under Israeli fire in the Strip and edited two books on the subject. “The protests have escalated because in many ways the situation in Gaza is getting more and more difficult,” he said, adding:
More than ever before, Palestinians in Gaza have nothing else to lose. They are dying a slow death anyway.”
But despite shifts in their frequency and intensity, the protests’ quality remains the same, Hamas told MintPress.
“The protests are still peaceful despite what the Israeli occupation claims, that they are violent,” the movement’s spokesperson said.
While they often include demonstrators “throwing stones, burning tires and flying incendiary balloons or kites,” the spokesperson added, “the protests are still peaceful because none of these things harm the Israeli people — the civilians and the soldiers.”
An economy in collapse
The present escalation came days after the World Bank released an unprecedented warning of “an economy in collapse” in Gaza.
“A combination of war, isolation, and internal division has left Gaza in a crippling economic state and exacerbated the human distress,” Marina Wes, World Bank country director for the West Bank and Gaza, said in a statement on September 25, adding:
The economic and social situation in Gaza has been declining for over a decade but has deteriorated exponentially in recent months and has reached a critical point.”
The World Bank called the blockade “the core issue” behind the plummeting socioeconomic indicators listed in a 38-page report, including a 53 percent poverty rate, 79 percent reliance on governmental and private aid, and declining school enrollment and performance.
Others have attributed the spike to an apparent failure of efforts by Hamas, the Palestinian movement governing Gaza, to reach an agreement with its political rivals in the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA), along with Israel and Egypt, easing punitive measures against the Strip.
These encompass not only the closure imposed by Israel and Egypt, but also sanctions by the PA itself, including restrictions on travel by medical patients and other Palestinians, as well as cuts to the salaries of Gaza-based PA employees.
The party that imposes sanctions
During a speech to the UN General Assembly on September 27, PA president Mahmoud Abbas made a thinly-veiled threat to increase the PA’s sanctions against Palestinians in Gaza, which have sparked protests across the West Bank.
“[T]his agreement has not been accepted and so far it has not been approved,” he told the UN. “Maybe in the coming few days we’ll witness the last round of talks and then maybe we will take another action.”
Hamas’ response was even less opaque, with its spokesman Fawzi Barhoum calling last Friday’s protest “a message to the party that threatens the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip and imposes a siege on them” in a statement on Saturday.
“The message also reveals that the party that imposes sanctions on the Gaza Strip, prevents the people there from their livelihood, and destroys the elements of their steadfastness will fail to do so and will pay the price for their crimes later on,” Barhoum added.
With negotiations to lessen the siege, and end the political division between Gaza and the West Bank, apparently at a dead end, some analysts have speculated that Hamas — which has mobilized tens of thousands of its supporters for the Great March of Return — and other Palestinian resistance groups have few options other than heightened struggle.
“Both Israel and the PA are tightening the noose around the Palestinians’ neck,” Alareer said.
Defending their very existence
Al-Udaini attributed the escalation in part to frustration by participants at diminished international attention to the Great March of Return.
“For six months, the people were protesting near the separation fence, and the media was covering every single thing,” she said.
With their new tactics, she added, protesters aim “to attract the media, and to shed light on their protest and their call, in order to let the whole world witness what is happening here on the ground.”
Whatever its causes, the current surge shows the staying power of the Great March of Return.
“Between starving to death and living humiliated and oppressed on the one hand and struggling for a better life, for freedom and independence, on the other, many choose to fight back and, if need be, die trying,” Alareer said.
“But Palestinians do not resist to die,” he added. “Palestinians do not fight to be killed.”
“Palestinians fight to be free. They are defending their very existence.”
Feature photo | A Palestinian protester wears a plastic bag on his head as a protection from teargas as he waves a Palestinian flag during a protest at the Gaza border with Israel, Aug.10, 2018. Khalil Hamra | AP
Joe Catron is a MintPress News journalist covering Palestine and Israel. He is also a solidarity activist and freelance reporter, recently returned to New York from Gaza, Palestine, where he lived for three and a half years. He has written frequently for Electronic Intifada and Middle East Eye, and co-edited The Prisoners’ Diaries: Palestinian Voices from the Israeli Gulag, an anthology of accounts by detainees freed in the 2011 prisoner exchange.