The Palestinian protest camps in Gaza are world’s most daring protest

Today is the long-planned climactic day of the Great March of Return, a Palestinian protest on the fenceline of the Gaza Strip. On March 30, Palestinians set up five protest camps a half-kilometer from the Israeli military. These camps are themselves a form of mass protest, reminding the world that two-thirds of Gazans are refugees from towns, villages, and farms within Israeli territory. The protest’s chief demand is the Right of Return, their ability to freely return to their homes and/or to re-establish the communities they have maintained in exile for the past 70 years. Protesters are also demanding an end to the eleven-year blockade of Gaza, imposed in 2007, which has crippled the territory economically. The camps have been the staging grounds for weekly demonstrations, in which ten to thirty thousand protesters rally while at first hundreds, and more recently thousands of protesters have advanced into the unilaterally declared buffer zone along the fence. During these protests, unarmed Palestinians have thrown stones and flaming bottles towards the fence, and used a variety of tools to dismantle part of the wall that keeps them caged and isolated from the rest of the world.

Marchers, journalists, protesters engaged in confrontation and those who have peacefully approached the fence have all been subjected to an unprecedent barrage of violent force on the part of the Israeli military, who are positioned in towers and earthen embankments on their side of the fence. Israeli snipers have shot over 2,500 people and as of today, killed over fifty Palestinians. Yet week after week they keep coming.

The Great Return March in Gaza continues to be the most daring tactical encounter between protesters and security forces on the planet.

If you’ve seen the film Gandhi, you know the scene where people line up and risk beatings to defend their strike. Journalistic coverage of this march on the Dharasana Salt Works was a devastating proof the moral bankruptcy of British Rule in India. I’ve long said this could not be repeated when the opponent has deadly weapons. The Gaza protests have proven me wrong.

The Gaza protesters are unarmed militants, not satyagrahis. They are not arriving empty-handed but with stones in their hands. But they have injured no one on the Israeli side. They are deploying unequal means: inflicting symbolic damage while suffering brutal and deadly violence. And their response to that violence is not to switch to the deadlier means at their disposal (guns and rockets), but to keep coming back.

This is the dynamic of the Soweto Uprising, a turning point in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Unequal violence proved morally unsustainable for the regime, ultimately isolating it from its support system in the United States and Europe. The dynamic on the side of Israel and its backers remains unknown; will shooting thousands of essentially defenseless civilians provoke a moral reckoning? That choice is up to us.

You probably haven’t seen this protest from the inside. To do so, see the last footage captured by Yaser Murtaja, who was killed by Israeli gunfire in April. It offers a flash of insight into what the ongoing Gaza protests entail. Watch it.

After the break, four things you need to know about the protests…

1. Gaza is still occupied

Peter Beinart, writing at The Forward, explains:

First, Israel declares parts of Gaza off-limits to the people who live there. Israel has established buffer zones — it calls them Access Restricted Areas — to keep Palestinians away from the fence that separates Gaza from Israel. According to the United Nations, this restricted area has ranged over the past decade from 100 to 500 meters, comprising as much as one-third of Gaza’s arable land. People who enter these zones can — and over the years have been — shot.

In addition to barring Palestinians from much of Gaza’s best land, Israel bars them from much of Gaza’s water. In 1993, the Oslo Accords promised Gazan fisherman the right to fish 20 nautical miles off the coast. But since then, Israel has generally restricted fishing to between three and six nautical miles. (Occasionally, it has extended the boundary to nine nautical miles). Since sardines, which the United Nations calls Gaza’s “most important catch,” “flourish at the 6 NM boundary,” these limitations have been disastrous for Gazan fisherman.

The second way in which Israel still controls Gaza is by controlling its borders. Israel controls the airspace above Gaza, and has not permitted the reopening of Gaza’s airport, which it bombed in 2001. Neither does it allow travel to and from Gaza by sea.

Israel also controls most land access to Gaza. It’s true that — in addition to Gaza’s two active border-crossing points with Israel — it has a third, Rafah, with Egypt. But even here, Israel wields substantial influence. Asked this week about Hamas’s desire to repatriate the body of a dead operative via Rafah, Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett boasted, “Could we prevent it? The answer is yes.”

This doesn’t excuse Egyptian leader General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who to his discredit, has largely kept the Rafah crossing closed since he took power in 2013. But even when Rafah is open, it isn’t a significant conduit for Gazan exports. As Sari Bashi of Human Rights Watch explained to me, there is little market in Egypt for goods from Gaza, both because those goods are expensive for Egyptian consumers and because transportation across the Sinai is difficult. So when it comes to goods leaving Gaza, the Strip is largely under Israeli control.

Finally, and perhaps most profoundly, Israel controls Gaza’s population registry. When a child is born in Gaza, her parents register the birth, via the Palestinian Authority, with the Israeli military. If Israel doesn’t enter her in its computer system, Israel won’t recognize her Palestinian ID card. From Israel’s perspective, she will not legally exist.

This control is not merely theoretical. If Israel doesn’t recognize your Palestinian ID card, it’s unlikely to allow you into, or out of, Gaza. And because Israel sees Palestinians as a demographic threat, it uses this power to keep the population in Gaza — and especially the West Bank — as low as possible. Israel rarely adds adults to the Palestinian population registry. That means that if you’re, say, a Jordanian who marries someone from Gaza and wants to move there to live with her, you’re probably out of luck. Israel won’t let you in.

[I]n these and myriad other ways, Israel constrains the lives of virtually every person in Gaza. As the indispensable Israeli human rights group Gisha has observed: “Gaza residents may not bring a crate of milk into the Gaza Strip without Israeli permission; A Gaza university cannot receive visits from a foreign lecturer unless Israel issues a visitor’s permit; A Gaza mother cannot register her child in the Palestinian population registry without Israeli approval; A Gaza fisherman cannot fish off the coast of Gaza without permission from Israel; A Gaza nonprofit organization cannot receive a tax-exempt donation of goods without Israeli approval; A Gaza teacher cannot receive her salary unless Israel agrees to transfer tax revenues to the Palestinian Ministry of Education; A Gaza farmer cannot get his carnations and cherry tomatoes to market unless Israel permits the goods to exit Gaza.” Claiming that Israel divested itself of responsibility for Gaza when it “withdrew totally” in 2005 may ease American Jewish consciences. But it’s a lie.

As Wikipedia summarizes, “the United Nations, international human rights organisations, and the majority of governments and legal commentators consider the territory to be still occupied by Israel, supported by additional restrictions placed on Gaza by Egypt.”

2. The Right of Return is feasible.

The Palestinian Right of Return is the reddest of red lines in the Palestinian conflict. Ironically for a nation built on the idea that a return to one’s homeland can be nourished for millennia, then fulfilled in practice, Israel holds that Palestinians have no right to the lands they lost in 1948 and 1967, nor to live in the towns and villages from which they were forcibly displaced.

But is return possible? Yes. As Tom Pessah writes (translated by the irreplacible +972Mag):

Palestinian geographer Salman Abu-Sita, whom Avnery mentions in his article, discovered that 85 percent of Israeli territory where refugees aspire to resettle is sparsely populated. Most of the 400 or so villages destroyed during and after the Nakba have been turned into national parks or converted into agricultural land, including villages whose former residents are today internally displaced refugees with Israeli citizenship. A survey conducted by the Smith Institute, shows that a quarter of the Jewish residents of the Galilee would welcome the return of refugees on the condition that they do not return to areas populated by Jews.

Only a minority of refugees seek to return to urban areas densely populated by Jews. In most of these areas the original houses have been destroyed, and there is no obstacle to having refugees live anywhere in nearby areas — much in the same way that Jews and Arabs live together today in cities like Haifa. As for the small minority of cases in which the original houses remain intact, the Israeli organization Zochrot teamed up with Palestinian NGO Badil to formulate a joint legal framework document, which provides a guide for current residents and original owners to reach a joint agreement.

Furthermore, Zochrot, in collaboration with Baldana, the Arab Association for Human Rights, and the Council for Internally Displaced Refugees have developed different planning models for return. This is not “suicide,” to borrow Avnery’s phrase, but rather practical planning projects that provide housing solutions without generating further displacement. In other words, they offer hope.

Palestinians returning to their homes are regarded publicly as a “demographic threat,” who as they give birth and live their lives “negate the Jewish character of Israel.”  Letting them in would be “national suicide.” As someone with Ashkenazi Jewish ancestors, I’ve always regarded the language of population management Israelis use regarding the Palestinians as a horrifying betrayal, an aping of concepts of race, nation and citizenship that once nearly wiped us out. As a person of color in the United States, I see the fears of a coming Palestinian majority in the combined lands of Israel and Palestine as a familiar, if lethally dangerous, fear. Either way, you can’t fear a demographic threat without denying people a safe home and ultimately without coming to hate their children.

3. Throwing stones at tanks, border walls, and armed soldiers is an easily understood form of protest.

Since the 1987 beginning of the First Intifada, Palestinian protest tactics have been familiar and iconic. The simultaneous protest movement under South Africa’s state of emergency used the same tactics: general strikes and street confrontations pitting stone-throwing youth against armored vehicles and armed soldiers. Palestinian stone throwing inspired debates about activism and political passivity across the Arab world.

StoneTank-Saif Dahlah(AFP-Getty)
Photo by Saif Dahlah (AFP/Getty Images)

In the twenty-first century, waves of protest against neoliberal globalization policies, undemocratic governments, and austerity have followed similar tactical patterns. Palestinian tactics could just as easily be those of Oaxaca, Cairo, Athens, Port au Prince, or Jakarta. Not to mention Stonewall, the GM sit-down strike, and the Boston Tea Party.

Yet there is a way of thinking that claims that while marches and self-sacrificial protests carry meaning, clashes and property destruction are incomprehensible. If this way of thinking tempts you, here are two simple alternatives: One, listen to what protesters say out loud about what they are doing. Two, read destructive acts as wishes to destroy the system being attacked and ineffective but visible ways of fighting as a refusal to surrender. That’s really all you need to know.

4. The Israeli government has been exceptionally open about its use of violence.

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