GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Four Palestinians were killed and 300 wounded during the "million-man return march" held March 30 in Gaza, yet even with those statistics, the event was considered relatively calm, against all odds and expectations.
Tens of thousands of people participated in the event marking the first anniversary of the start of the Great Return March, which was called for by the Higher National Commission for the Great Return March and Breaking of the Siege. According to Israeli estimates, more than 40,000 demonstrators took part in the march.
The relative calm came after a delegation of Egyptian negotiators stressed March 29 to Hamas the need to maintain calm during the march, amid Israeli pledges not to shoot at demonstrators and to ease the siege on the Gaza Strip based on a specific timetable.
The commission had instructed participants in the march not to resort to violence or approach the border fence.
Meanwhile, Israel ordered an increase in the number of snipers on the border and called for additional reserve forces to protect against any possible incursions.
Also, on March 28, the Israeli army had begun setting the stage for an organized evacuation of residents of the Karam Abu Salem crossing area, a first since 2014, amid concerns that some demonstrators might cross the border.
Alaa Salameh, who took part in the march, told Al-Monitor that the masses came from across Gaza despite the cold and rainy weather as they sought to defend their right to live in dignity and to claim the refugees’ right to return to their homes. Salameh said her parents were expelled from Jaffa in 1948. She said the march was peaceful, as people read poems and gave speeches.
Women also prepared traditional folk dishes during the march and distributed food to protesters to the rhythm of folk songs and the staccato of slogans calling for the right of return and for lifting the siege.
“It was like a national Palestinian wedding that brought together Palestinian families of all spectra,” Salameh said.
Nour Ahmed, who was with Salameh, took part in the protest to call for lifting the siege and to convey a message of defiance to Israel, which she said tried to discourage Palestinians from taking part in the protest by hacking the commission’s Facebook pages and WhatsApp groups.
According to Ahmed, Israel threw hundreds of gas bombs to intimidate demonstrators: “Gas was all over the place and everything seemed foggy."
She explained that the security services in the Gaza government tried to control the situation by beefing up their presence and preventing young rebels from approaching the border fence and risking their lives.
“We are entitled to peaceful protests by international law, and Israel can neither deprive us of such a right nor disperse us,” she said.
Ashraf Ramadan, another protester, told Al-Monitor that although the Israeli army used gas bombs and rubber and live bullets, the protest was calm and the least violent compared with previous marches.
Asked what prompted him to take part in the protest, Ramadan stressed that most demonstrators are calling for a dignified life and for the lifting of the Israeli siege. He pointed out that the activities were calm across Gaza and included poems and slogans calling for the right of return.
Issam Hammad, the vice president of the Great Return March International Coordinating Committee, told Al-Monitor that the participation of tens of thousands of people from Gaza in the march, one year into its launch, proves that Palestinians still believe the marches are a strategic option to resist Israel and claim their just rights.
Asked about the instructions of appeasement issued by the commission, he said, “Violent [tactics] are not part of the commission’s principles. They were resorted to by the young Gazan revolutionaries to claim their rights. They were used by young unemployed people who had nothing to lose.”
“Calls not to use such [tactics] were aimed at protecting the lives of demonstrators, especially considering that on the 70th anniversary of the Nakba [the mass exodus of Palestinians from their homes during the 1948 war] held May 14 [last year], dozens of martyrs were killed and thousands were injured,” he added.
He pointed out that demonstrators abided by the commission's instructions because they felt optimistic about the Egyptian delegation's commitment to have Israel ease the siege.
“We don't have authority over the youth, but protesters tend to show responsiveness whenever they feel optimistic,” Hammad said.
He stressed that the commission usually condemns violations committed by Israel against demonstrators and resorts to the Human Rights Council and the international courts in such cases. He pointed out that a military response to such violations can only be generated by the resistance factions, not the commission.
Hammad added that the marches will continue until all objectives have been achieved. He said the march coordinating committee will work on developing and improving the peaceful activities. The marches, he said, will gather momentum in the spring and summer as they seek to mobilize people around the world, not only in Gaza.
Talal Abu Zarifa, a member of the Higher National Commission for the Great Return March, told Al-Monitor that protesters have expressed unprecedentedly strong support for the marches, which have been going on for a year now. This conveys to Israel that they won’t compromise their human rights at any political price.
Violence was avoided by Palestinians this time, he said, to prevent the Israeli army from targeting demonstrators under the pretext that improper means were used. He called for an urgent investigation into Israel’s targeting of demonstrators.
On March 31, the Palestinian Ministry of Health announced that four citizens had been killed and more than 300 wounded during the march.
Talal Awkal, a political analyst and writer for Palestinian daily al-Ayyam, told Al-Monitor the Egyptian delegation stipulated that demonstrators must remain calm. The massive march, he said, was like a test for Palestinians, which they passed, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced March 31 that Israel was reopening the crossings and expanding the fishing zone in Gaza.
Awkal pointed out that, though people were killed, the understandings concluded between Hamas and Israel remained unaffected. He acknowledged some Palestinian demonstrators had tried to cross the fence despite the beefed-up security.
“Through the return marches, Hamas is engaged in a war of attrition with Israel, and it will cling to such marches until all Palestinian rights have been restored,” he said.
Maamoun Abu Amer, a Palestinian journalist focusing on Israeli affairs, told Al-Monitor that Israel understands that its failure to alleviate the humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip could lead to war.
He said Israel deployed its army on the border to reassure the Israeli people that the army would protect them against incursions, and also to show off Israel's equipment and machinery. Also, he concluded, it might have been motivated by concerns over the demonstrators’ potential non-compliance with the truce and by suspicions that Hamas wouldn't be able to control the large number of demonstrators.
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