Right of return must be at the heart of Palestinians' struggle

Right of return must be at the heart of Palestinians' struggle
Comment: Through peaceful protest, Palestinians in Gaza are transforming their reality by placing the political roots of their problem at the heart of their collective struggle, writes Mohammed Sulaiman.
7 min read
03 Apr, 2018
On the first day of the protests, 16 Palestinians were killed by Israeli snipers [AFP]
In Gaza, the Great March of Return, a series of demonstrations along the frontier between the blockaded Gaza Strip and Israel, started last Friday 30 March - Palestinian Land Day. 

On the same day in 1976, six Palestinian residents of Israel were killed by the Israeli army during protests against Israel's confiscation of Palestinian lands.

The current demonstrations, planned to take place over the next six weeks, are the latest expression of Palestinian civil resistance, as the grassroots organisers of the marches have made sure to repeatedly emphasise its mass (as opposed to factional) and civil (as opposed to militant) nature.

Despite this, on the first day of the protests, 16 Palestinians were killed by Israeli snipers, and, equally alarmingly, over seven hundred were injured by Israeli live ammunition and rubber-coated steel bullets. The death toll has since risen to 17.

This brutal treatment was not accidental, but is in line with Israel's deliberate policy of shoot to maim.

By meting out its full force on non-armed Palestinian demonstrators, the Israeli state is doing what it does best: Killing and maiming Palestinian civilians.

It is emboldened by the simple fact that it has always done so with total impunity.

The Israeli state acts with the prior knowledge that whatever it does and no matter how brutally it acts, it will not be made account for its 
war crimes and other well-documented breaches of international law.

This alone is reason for us to to be truly alarmed by the scale of violence that the Israeli state might resort to in its effort to quell these demonstrations.

The Israeli state is doing what it does best: Killing and maiming Palestinian civilians

But the current marches should be viewed as something groundbreaking, if only because they are the first of their kind to take place in the Gaza Strip since the Palestinian Islamic resistance movement (Hamas) took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007.

In one sense, the marches could signal a significant departure from the militant form of resistance spearheaded by Hamas - or at the very least - from the monopoly by Palestinian factions over the resistance against Israel. In this regard, the non-violent nature of the marches seriously subverts the authoritative Israeli narrative of the situation in Gaza, as well as its relations vis-a-vis Palestinians more broadly.

According to this narrative, Israel always acts in self-defence. Hence, the violence of the Israeli state is always rationally and judiciously employed in order to protect itself and its citizens against the supposedly barbaric violence of irrational and innately hateful Palestinians.

But the ongoing mass and non-violent marches will serve to challenge this gross, albeit largely dominant, distortion of reality, and provide a more accurate reflection of the situation in Gaza; that this is not a conflict between two parties, let alone a conflict that has its roots in cultural factors or religious hatred.

Rather, this is an illegal military occupation by a powerful and nuclear state, of another civilian population, which has its roots in a colonial project that extends back to the late nineteenth century.

Read more: #GreatReturnMarch death toll reaches 17 after wounded Palestinian dies

Of course, Israel has been quick to denounce the current marches as a "a dangerous provocation" by Hamas, finding in it justification for its instinctive brutality against Palestinians.

Israel has subtly invoked its right to self-defence in order to justify why it has used live ammunition against non-armed demonstrators. Nonetheless, since the demonstrators are certainly not militants firing homemade projectiles, the threat the Israeli state claims to be protecting itself and its citizens against appears to be less than credible. 

However, it should come as no surprise that symbolic acts such as burning tyres or even throwing rocks - historically associated with Palestinian mass civil disobedience - are cast as hostile acts posing immediate threat to the security of the formidable Israeli state, its army and its citizens, apparently justifying the execution-style shooting of the perpetrators.

This, after all, is the logical result of the absurdity of the Israeli colonial (il-)logic coupled with its internationally secured impunity.

This is an illegal military occupation by a powerful and nuclear state, of another civilian population

Based on this, any action - violent or otherwise - taken by Palestinians to protest their mass incarceration and collective punishment, is automatically considered to be a hostile act that requires the full might of the Israeli state.

One sincerely wonders what is left for Palestinians to do in the face of such injustice.

Equally important, these marches come at a time when Gaza's humanitarian situation has hit rock bottom.

The Strip has been under a heavy Israeli-imposed blockade for over a decade, which has effectively hermetically sealed Gaza from the outside world.

The blockade has caused a horrifying humanitarian condition, referred to in a United Nations report as "
unliveable". Gaza has been teetering on the brink of collapse ever since, but the past few years, particularly following the last major aerial bombing campaign by Israel in 2014 dubbed "Operation Protective Edge", have seen an unprecedented tightening of the blockade, expediting Gaza's implosion.

The complete closure of crossing points between Gaza and the outside world meant that the population - one of the most densely packed anywhere, has been completely consigned to the besieged territory.

One sincerely wonders what is left for Palestinians to do in the face of such injustice

Add to this macabre picture the severe lack of even the most basic services, including electricity, sanitation and transportation infrastructure, adequate medical and education services, an unemployment rate standing at 60 percent for Gaza's youth, inflated food and oil prices, the prevelance of severe anxiety and other mental health conditions, and it's clear this is one of the most horrifying stories of human-orchestrated collective punishment and systematic, prolonged torture.

In addition, these marches were planned in response to yet another failed attempt to reach an agreement between Fatah and Hamas; the two largest Palestinian factions in control of the West Bank and Gaza respectively.

Many a regional effort to bring the two sides together under one unified government has fallen apart, and to the chagrin of Palestinians, the disagreements between the two parties run deep.

In the midst of all of this, it seems that Palestinians in Gaza have come to terms with their morbid reality: No positive change will happen unless they take matters into their own hands.

The March of Return is another act of civilian Palestinian resistance that underlines the relationship between Palestinian uprooted-ness and their current political predicament; a connection that was almost lost to the Palestinians, largely as a result of deep political and societal divisions, a series of successive military defeats and diplomatic capitulation, and a structural lack of regional and international diplomatic support.

The call for return to the homeland will surely serve to remind Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere of the origins of their physical and political entrapment.

No one is expecting Palestinians to be able to march to their actual homes and cities in what is nowadays Israel. However, the potent symbolism of these events is that they are taking place in Gaza, and under the most unlikely circumstances.

It is telling that it is Palestinians in Gaza - isolated from the outside world, and deprived of their most basic rights - 70 years after their original displacement are marching for their right to return. In essence, Palestinians in Gaza are reclaiming their narrative and their reality.

Palestinians are transforming this reality by placing the political roots of their problem at the heart of their struggle for dignity and basic rights.

This call for return acts as a horizon that unites Palestinians around the most essential element of their national identity; their mass displacement from their original homeland in 1948 known as the Nakba. Despite their systemically manufactured contemporary circumstances, Palestinians in Gaza have not lost sight of what their decades-long struggle has been for.

An end to their continued homelessness however, will not be achieved through ephemeral ceasefires, humanitarian proposals and partial solutions involving further compromises, but by fully claiming what is explicitly recognised by international law as theirs.

This re-centring of the right of return at the heart of the struggle of Palestinians in Gaza, in addition to the peaceful manner in which the protests have been planned, is why I see in these marches a cause for cautious optimism - particularly as the Israeli state braces for what it rightly sees, but tragically underestimates, as a threat.

Mohammed Sulaiman is a Palestinian writer from Gaza and a PhD candidate in Australia.

Follow him on Twitter: @GazaSubaltern

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.