At a Friday Great March of Return protest, 80-year-old Abu Fathi watches demonstrators move slowly toward the separation fence by the Gaza border.
“I was 11 years old when my family and I fled the bombing of our village and headed to the Gaza Strip. I remember looking behind me and seeing our neighbors and relatives doing the same thing, with fear and deep despair in their eyes. I can never forget the look on their faces,” he tells Mada Masr.
“Ever since that day 70 years ago, I have lived as a refugee in Gaza and dreamed of returning to my village. Hope never died in my heart. I always heard about marches organized by Palestinians and activists inside the territories occupied in 1948, where people were evicted and displaced during the Nakba. I hoped that this would happen in Gaza too, which is why as soon as I learned about the call for the Great March of Return to the eastern borders, I grabbed my crutches and headed there.”
Since their start one year ago today, on March 30, 2018, the marches of return in Gaza have signaled a new course of resistance against the Israeli occupation through peaceful means. Thousands of Palestinians have been marching to the eastern borders of the Gaza Strip every Friday — some demanding the right to return to their pre-1948 lands and others demanding an end to the 12-year siege of the Gaza Strip. Since 2007, Gaza has been under a severe siege that has pushed more than 1.5 million Palestinians below the poverty line, which led to a severe decline in purchasing power and the closure of factories and shops on a daily basis.
And while the marches have continued, they have somewhat declined with time and become a political tool amid developments on the ceasefire front with Israel and internal conflicts within the Palestinian leadership, leading many to question their function today.
Throughout the year of the marches, Gaza, home to over 1 million refugees from greater Palestine, has seen ebbs and flows in dynamics between its Hamas government and its Israeli rivals, influenced by the popular movement at the border. Last week, violence escalated across the Israel-Gaza border, with Israel launching airstrikes into the strip, after Palestinian rocket attacks injured seven Israelis north of Tel Aviv earlier in the week. While Egypt has been attempting to mediate a ceasefire, no agreement is in place as the marches mark their one-year anniversary.
“On the other side is our occupied land. These young people are protesting here despite having never seen that land. So how could I — someone who was born there — not care about politics? I came here to join this new generation in demanding our right to return to the lands we were expelled from,” Abu Fathi says as he watches the crowds gathered by the eastern border of Gaza.
It is a battlefield here. The fumes of the burning tires cover the sky. Thousands of protesters are running here and there. The smell of tear gas permeates the air. And occasionally one hears the sound of a gunshot or an explosion nearby, and then loud screams as a man writhing on the ground is taken to the nearest ambulance. There is no space for joking here; this is a danger zone.
But despite this, you see an old man who can barely walk pick up a stone and throw it — with all the strength he can muster — at the soldiers. You can hear the voice of a woman with a Palestinian flag wrapped around her neck screaming “We will return to our country in spite of you!” You find a woman giving out bottles of water to protesters, seemingly not in the least bit disturbed by the snipers pointing at her.
Throughout the past few months, Yazan, 20, would walk with his friends to the Jabalia refugee camp near the eastern border every Friday. He puts the Palestinian flag on his shoulders and carries a bag full for necessities for the day, such as a handmade mask to protect him from the onslaught of teargas, a slingshot, and other simple gadgets used by young protesters.
“How joyous I feel when I throw a stone and see it reach the other side! We are here not only to fight — we are here to feel alive,” Yazan told Mada Masr.
For the past 12 months, some protesters have simply carried the Palestinian flag, while others have thrown stones at Israeli soldiers stationed by the separation fence, flown “incendiary kites,” and thrown burning tires.
“Coming here has turned into a weekly ritual for me and my family,” said Intisar Abu Hassanein, who has participated in the demonstrations since they started.
“It doesn’t matter if the occupier threatens to wage a new war on Gaza if the marches don’t stop. The people can never go back. Thousands of people went out to demand their right to life, and going back from this is going to be more difficult than ever,” she says.
Truce in exchange for ending the protests
A source close to Hamas told Mada Masr that the movement has felt severe pressure to accomplish some tangible results in light of the substantial losses they suffered during the protests. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza, the Israeli army has killed no less than 266 Palestinians during the marches of return.
The Hamas leadership was divided after the marches took off and clashes with Israel started to take place. Some wanted al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, to launch a direct confrontation against Israel, while others wanted to keep the military wing on high alert until the objectives of the protests are achieved. Egypt’s intervention presented a third option to the Hamas leadership: contain the demonstrations in exchange for aid. Officials in Cairo sought to sign a peace agreement with Israel and the Palestinian factions, which would partially lift the blockade against Gaza, imposed when Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007. The agreement, which took place last October, included the provision of more humanitarian aid to the besieged strip. In return, the protesters would fully commit to nonviolent marching.
Money, electricity, and fuel entered Gaza as a result of the Egypt-brokered ceasefire, which obligated Hamas to subdue the weekly marches to the borders. In return, Israel allowed more humanitarian aid to Gaza.
But there was something different about the protests after that. In the eastern section of Gaza, a group of protesters separated themselves from the marches and sat at a distance from the tents and protests. That was on the 33rd day of the marches of return. The protesters did not carry any signs or slogans.
“We got used to coming here every week and crossing the security fence and then going back home feeling victorious. Now, we cannot cross it. So we decided to just sit down,” Abdallah told Mada Masr.
A protester sitting beside Abdallah was ready to leave. “Come on! There’s nothing to do here. I’m going back home. Are you coming with me?”
Abdallah nodded, then threw a small stone he had been holding to the ground. “I’m coming with you,” he said, and left.
Ahmed, one of the protesters, pointed to the hill where Israeli snipers had been stationed.
“We got used to soldiers attacking us from behind this hill. We would hide behind the black smoke that emanates from the burning tires. And we’d come back when the Israeli troops reached the foot of the hill. They fired at us a few weeks back when we were close to the fence, and my friend was shot in the arm. But now, as you can see, we are quite a distance away from the fence,” he said.
Ahmed sees the protests as part of his weekly routine. “I’ve been coming here every Friday since the third march. The protests are an important Friday ritual to me. I get ready after eating lunch and head out to the borders with a couple of friends.”
When the Qatari ambassador Mohamed al-Emadi stopped by a gathering point in eastern Gaza in November, protesters surrounded his car. The protesters were not angry at Emadi — Qatari money had entered Gaza as part of the agreement to ease the blockade in exchange for subduing the marches. Rather, the protesters were angry about the political agreement being forced upon them. “We don’t want peace! We want a rocket launcher!” the protesters chanted around the ambassador’s car. Other chants called to attack the Israeli troops stationed by the borders and to end the siege.
“I will not stop marching ever,” said Sayed, 26. “Salaries might have been raised, and electricity is available, but we should not stop demonstrating now.” Sayed said that Israel could prevent the entry of essential goods and fuel into Gaza at any minute, which is why he thinks halting the marches would be “fatal.”
However, Abdelrahim, an employee within Hamas who received his full salary last December, after only receiving 60 percent of his monthly paycheck every forty days, told Mada Masr that he feels that the marches achieved more than he could have hoped for himself and his family.
“I’ve never held a sum amount of money that large before. I want some rest,” he said with a big smile on his face. “I feel that the sacrifices paid off. And I hope that I receive my full salary in the future. I’m sick of only getting 60 percent of my salary and waiting 40 days until I get paid,” he added, as his smile waned.
When asked if he will join the marches once more, Abdelrahim said “maybe I’ll think of joining if the salaries are late again, but for now, those who go to the borders every week are speaking for the rest of us.”
At the march, a man with one leg stood leaning on a crutch amidst chanting protesters. When asked about the look of sadness on his face, he said “I’m not sad. I’m fairly happy with what has been achieved so far. But have I really lost my left leg just for this? Anything less than turning Gaza into a paradise is not worth fighting for.”
With last week’s escalation on the Gaza-Israel border, the fate of the truce remains unknown, and alongside it, the partial easing of the blockade that may have led to more contained marches in the past.
The truce with Israel is not the only reason the marches have been subdued.
Since the first day of the marches of return, Palestinian factions have declared their support for peaceful demonstrations and called upon citizens to join the movement as much as possible. The Higher National Commission for the Great March of Return was formed, which included various national movements, human rights activists, dignitaries, and others.
“The occupation forces tried in every conceivable way to stop the marches of return, starting with the policy of discouragement in exchange for easing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, increasing the access to electricity throughout the day, and allowing in more fuel. When this failed to dissuade people from participating in the marches, Israel threatened to use brutal violence. And indeed it did not spare any effort to quell the protests,” said Essam Hammad, member of the Higher National Commission for the Great March of Return and Breakage of Siege.
Hammad added that the momentum of participation in the marches is still ongoing even if there have been some changes, and this is in spite of the multiple threats made by the Israeli army in an attempt to stem the populist tide.
With the formation of the Higher National Commission for the Great March of Return, it seemed that there was an agreement between the different factions about the importance of these marches — a development that many considered to be a step towards achieving Palestinian reconciliation and ending the cycle of Palestinian-Palestinian conflicts that began when Hamas won a sweeping victory in the 2006 elections.
But the recent increase in political skirmishes between Fatah and Hamas has made reconciliation seem less likely, especially after the failure of negotiations in Cairo and the intransigence of both parties throughout the last year.
The Palestinian Authority decided to withdraw all of its employees from the Rafah Border Crossing at the beginning of 2019. The Hamas-dominated Palestinian Legislative Council was also dissolved in Ramallah as per a Constitutional Court ruling. After that, there were many political arrests in the West Bank and Gaza. Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, declared publicly at the beginning of this year that Hamas’ insistence on opposing the Palestinian Authority might prompt him to halt the monthly money transfers to Gaza.
From that point on, many people started to question the feasibility of the marches. “I used to go to the marches with my son, but I stopped participating ever since the negotiations to reach a long-term truce started in Cairo. This definitely affected the frequency of the marches, especially that matters escalated following the failure of these negotiations as a result of the divisions between Fatah and Hamas,” Yazan told Mada Masr.
Ahmed had a different opinion. “One political faction or the other cannot control all these crowds. And even if that is the case, it would not be for that long. Those who went out and joined the marches did so by themselves and without pressure from anyone,” he said to Mada Masr, smiling as he looked at his injured leg, which was shot by an Israeli sniper.
“Most of those who marched to the borders are young people. They are not signaled to move about by anyone. They came because they have been suffering from the siege on Gaza, the pain of unemployment and poverty. They came to knock the wall of the reservoir,” he added. “Revolt! You have nothing to lose but your chains and tents.” His injured leg, Ahmed said, is “for the country.”
“On the second Friday of the return marches, my friends and I were eager to burn some tires that we had collected from everywhere in the city. I was very excited and impatiently waiting for the time we agreed upon to burn the tires. When the time came, I wrapped the Palestinian flag that was hanging on my shoulders around my face, carried a torch, and headed towards the location I had put the tires in. It was 100 meters away from the security fence, but before I reached it, a sniper bullet hit me in the foot,” he told Mada Masr.
“I thank God that the injury was not deep enough to warrant an amputation, but it did force me to stay in bed for several months. After the wound began to heal a little bit, I started to join the protesters by the borders again.”
“Young people in Gaza have greatly suffered during the years of the siege. There is no life here in Gaza. We are surrounded here from all sides, by Israel and our parties and our divisions. There is nothing left for us but to participate in these marches. Maybe the world will listen to our cries and screams, maybe it will move towards helping us out of this miserable life,” Yazan told Mada Masr.
When asked about his opinion of how political parties dealt with the marches, Yazan said that he is not here because a party called upon him to participate, but because he has a right to life and he came to demand it.
“Our parties have brought us nothing but dreadful divisions,” he added.
Abu Fathi does not care about the opinions of the political parties. “Our parties ruined the cause with their divisions,” he says. “I am here because I want to see my land again before I die. I do not know when we will return, but I do believe that the new generation will return.”