by Ahmed Abu Artema
On March 30, 2018, I witnessed something that I will never forget. I saw tens of thousands of people, with different political affiliations and ideological backgrounds, standing together in one field, raising the Palestinian flag and banners bearing the names of the villages and towns from which Israel had uprooted them.
On that day, the divisions among Palestinians disappeared, and the people came together to demand their inalienable rights.
The Great March of Return opened a new chapter in the Palestinian struggle for freedom. It gave the Palestinian people a new opportunity to collectively rise up against the Israeli occupation.
Since then, we have paid a heavy price for our peaceful resistance. Some 266 Palestinians have been killed and more than 6,557 have been injured by live ammunition; 124 have had a limb amputated.
But we have persevered. Every Friday, thousands of us, women and men, young and old, have continued to stream to the border fence with Israel to demand our legal right to return to our homeland and demonstrate that we will not accept a slow death inside the walls of the Gaza Strip prison.
The Great March of Return has rekindled our spirit of resistance, empowered us, made us stronger and more unified.
When I and my friends first started discussing the idea of a march more than a year ago, I did not expect that we would achieve so much.
The idea came to us at a time when popular resistance in Palestine had suffered massive decline. Since the end of the second Intifada in 2005, there have been sporadic protests but no spontaneous mass movement.
Instead, various political factions had taken over the streets with planned demonstrations, rallying their members and supporters. Such activism organised along political lines had reduced many Palestinians to passive bystanders and alienated them.
This was highly detrimental to the national cause, because it factionalised the resistance movement. Since the occupation targets the Palestinian people as a whole and not just a particular political faction, the national struggle can only be successful if it involves every single Palestinian.
In addition, Israel’s wars on Gaza in 2008, 2012 and 2014 had shifted the spotlight to the armed factions and away from popular resistance. These military confrontations had also allowed Israel to double down on its attempts to justify its excessive use of force against the Palestinian population under the pretext of protecting itself from attacks from armed groups.
As a result, international attention had shifted away from Israel’s rights abuses and focused on its security pretences. This had additionally side-lined ordinary Palestinian and their demands for an end to the occupation and the right of return.
But all of this changed with the Great March of Return.
What distinguishes it from the protests and confrontations of the recent past is not only its popular and peaceful nature, but also its inception. The idea for the march came from the youth of Gaza – my friends and I took the initiative and floated the idea on social media. Ordinary Palestinians discussed it and helped it to mature and transform into something that can be adopted by all members of the Palestinian society.
The Great March of Return, as an idea conceived by the people, managed to cut across factional lines and build a united front. It channelled the Palestinian people’s energy that does not find a place in the activities of traditional factions.
Individuals and families without any political affiliation who in the past had felt they could not find a place for themselves in many other protests actively participated in this march. Civil society organisations and activists also joined and so did clan unions.
The Great March of Return also attracted many young people who had been disillusioned and depoliticised by the disastrous state of internal Palestinian politics and rekindled their spirit of resistance. It helped a new generation of Palestinians embrace the Palestinian struggle for the right to return.
The march – with its popular mandate and peaceful nature – also managed to undermine Israel’s efforts to present Gaza as a “security issue”. The constant protests have been a source of dismay, annoyance and embarrassment for the Israeli occupation.
Israel’s violent response to the Great March of Return proved that it does not want the Palestinians to adopt the peaceful option. Scared that our peaceful resistance can harm its propaganda efforts painting us as the aggressors, Israel chose to attack demonstrators that pose no direct threat to its people. And as its soldiers killed, maimed and silenced peaceful protesters, the Israeli state tried to put the blame of the bloodshed on the victims.
However, this time, the occupiers did not succeed. This march helped more and more people around the world see our plight and hear our demands for freedom and dignity.
The Great Return March restored credence to the concept of peaceful struggle. If armed resistance confronts the occupation with bullets, the peaceful struggle confronts it with the power of words and the justice of the cause.
Israel may have military strength, but it is morally weak. It displaced a people, occupied its land, and continues to usurp their freedom and dignity to this day. Therefore, the Palestinians naturally have the moral high ground in this struggle and their peaceful protests deliver stronger blows to Israel than any other weapon.
One year after the start of our march, I’m filled with a mix of sadness and determination. We paid with the lives and bodies of many Palestinians for these peaceful demonstrations. With every single Israeli bullet that hit one of the protesters, our suffering and grief as a people multiplied. However, we did not give up for 70 years and we have no intention to do so now.
The Great March of Return is the response of a proud nation to decades of occupation, aggression and theft. By taking this peaceful stand, we are announcing to the world that despite Israel’s attempts to wipe us out, we are still standing strong and united.