+972 Magazine’s story of the year for 2018 is the protest movements that managed to beat the odds by forcing governments to revisit and even change their policies. The story of African refugees stopping their deportation from Israel, and Gazans using popular protests to make sure the world doesn’t forget about them.
By Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man
The global rise of nationalist and right-wing governments has not been particularly good for progressive movements over the past year. But two grassroots movements in Israel and Palestine, respectively, managed to push back against oppressive policies and, at least temporarily, achieve real victories on the ground. These stories are not only impressive, against-the-odds wins — they are also a reminder that the work of organizers and activists on the ground does stand a chance facing down governments, armies, and immensely powerful economic interests.
The first victory took place in Israel, but like most stories these days, it played out in cities, statehouses, and street corners across the globe.
Israel has been trying to quietly deport African refugees for almost as long as they have been arriving in the country. In the first few years, those efforts mostly consisted of refusing to examine asylum claims of would-be refugees, primarily those fleeing Sudan and Eritrea.
Because Israel could not deport them directly back to their home countries, it had a long-standing policy of making their lives miserable, hoping that would drive them to leave voluntarily and seek refuge elsewhere. Often, there was a few thousand dollars available to anyone willing to leave on their own. Uganda and Rwanda were quietly offered as destinations. But the asylum seekers had to agree to leave, even if that consent was given under duress.
All that changed early this year when Israeli officials announced they had struck a deal with two unnamed African countries they said had agreed to take in the refugees, even if they were deported against their will. It was a game changer. It didn’t take long for a coalition of refugee rights activists and organizations, at times led by asylum seekers themselves, to begin organizing. With little chance of convincing the Israeli government to change its long-standing policy of driving out African refugees, the activists set their sights on a target that gave them better odds.
There was a reason that Israel’s agreements with Uganda and Rwanda — or “the first third country and the second third country,” as Israeli officials referred to them — were being kept secret, the activists understood. Playing a direct role in the forcible deportation of refugees would make those governments very unpopular, both at home as well as in the eyes of the international community.
So the coalition of grassroots organizations, asylum seekers, and activists went to work. They held massive protests in Israel, including outside the Ugandan embassy, and organized other protests outside Ugandan and Rwandan diplomatic missions in cities around the world. Activists and progressive lawmakers went on fact-finding missions to the two African countries to try and disprove the Israeli government’s tales of how deported asylum seekers were being treated there. Court cases were filed in Israel. The pressure began to work; both Rwanda and Uganda published statements denying that they had agreed to take in deported refugees from Israel. Israel’s High Court, which had given its approval to the deportation plan presented to it in closed chambers, appeared perturbed by the denials and issued an injunction. Within a few weeks, Israel officially scrapped the deportation plan.
The story could have ended there and been chalked off as an astounding success. A group of refugees, activists, and a small number of rights groups managed to scuttle what seemed to be a looming mass deportation and the devastating consequences it would pose for the refugees. But it didn’t stop there.
The activists and their campaign, by pushing the Rwandan and Ugandan governments to disavow their part in the deportation, forced the Israeli government to reconcile itself with the fact that its policy needed rethinking. And it did just that. On April 2, Israel’s prime minister and interior minister announced a different plan: the UN would help resettle tens of thousands of asylum seekers in Western countries, and somewhat astoundingly, Israel would, at least partially, integrate tens of thousands of asylum seekers throughout the country.
That plan was scuttled just hours later due to pressure from the right-wing voter base and far-right politicians. Yet even the fact that asylum seekers are right back where they started should not take away from the victory that refugees and their allies (including a groundbreaking coalition with Israeli residents of south Tel Aviv) notched this year in stopping the mass deportation, which would have put tens of thousands of people’s lives at risk. It was a victory of regular people, some of them the weakest members of society, coming together to change the course of history, at least temporarily, and succeeding.
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The second victory took place in Gaza, and is a very different story of refugees taking on seemingly immovable forces. It is the story of a group of activists who sought to challenge the siege that for the past decade has suffocated Gaza’s economy and drained the hope from the lifeblood of Gaza’s future: its youth. It is the story of regular folks telling their political leaders that their way of doing things just isn’t going to cut it anymore, and that political divisions and an endless cycle of violence is no longer acceptable to them. It was an attempt to reach across a 71-year-old “border” and send a humanitarian message, or perhaps a plea, to the regular folks on the other side.
The Great Return March started as an idea by a couple of activists who decided that the idea of fences keeping people imprisoned in a hopeless state of poverty and oppression just didn’t make sense. “I wondered on Facebook what would happen if a man acted like a bird and crossed that fence,” Ahmed Abu Artema, one of the principle organizers of the Great Return March, later recalled. “Why would Israeli soldiers shoot at him as if he is committing a crime?” A series of Facebook posts posing similar questions led to the formation of a committee of relatively young Palestinians from across the political spectrum in Gaza, who began planning a series of nonviolent actions to challenge the established paradigm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Amos Gilad, the former head of policy at Israel’s Defense Ministry, once famously said that the Israeli army “doesn’t do Gandhi very well.” Even an army as well versed in controlling a native civilian population as the Israeli military doesn’t know how to deal with tens of thousands of people nonviolently marching on a checkpoint, border, or carrying out any form of sustained civil disobedience. Gilad’s statement is less an indictment of the Israeli army and more a testament to the power of nonviolence. There simply is no way for an army to turn its guns against a nonviolent movement marching toward it and not lose the moral high ground.
But that is not why the Great Return March in Gaza was a victory. The organizers and marchers didn’t try to overcome Israeli troops and their goal wasn’t to claim the moral high ground. They won because they challenged the downward spiral of war and poverty that their own governments, both Fatah and Hamas, the Israeli government, and even Egypt, has kept them in for the better part of a decade. They were directly challenging Hamas’ strategy of violent resistance, which hasn’t exactly ended the siege or made things better for the people of Gaza. They were demanding that the world — and people in Israel — take a fresh look at the humanitarian disaster that is Gaza, and for once, to look the people of Gaza in the eyes, and to see them as refugees.
To say only that it worked would be a bit too simple, and to call it a success would be disrespectful to the 180 people who were killed, the thousands of others who were maimed for life, and to disregard the millions still living under siege. But if we look at the Great Return March through an activist, grassroots organizing lens, it was a huge victory.
The first victory of the Great Return March was convincing the political parties and armed groups in Gaza, particularly Hamas, not particularly known for its tolerance of grassroots organizing, to give it a chance. In reality, it looked even more astounding: not only did Hamas lend its full logistical support to the organizers behind the Great Return March, it also didn’t fire any rockets into Israel during the marches. From February 18 through May 29, the entire duration of the Return March, Palestinian groups didn’t fire a single rocket or mortar shell into Israel.
It was that lack of violence on the part of the organizers — and the organizers readily admit that not all of the hundreds of thousands of participants bought into their nonviolent ethos — that really caught the world’s attention. Of course, the marches wouldn’t have made headlines across the world if Israel hadn’t responded with a massacre, killing so many, including medics, journalists, and protesters with disabilities. But the nonviolent message, and the desperation of a seemingly endless number of people willing to risk being shot just to be seen and heard, forced the world to look.
The world’s attention isn’t enough, but along with the pressure it put on Israel to ever-so-slightly ease the siege — most importantly by increasing the supply of electricity and allowing Qatar to pay civil servants in Gaza, some for the first time in years — and Egypt’s decision to open the Rafah border crossing, it made a difference. Donor conferences and minor relief will never be enough, but in this case the achievements represented a reversal of course from what seemed to be the previous trend — forgetting about the suffering in Gaza altogether.
In addition to pushing Hamas to give nonviolence a chance, the two months of mass marches also made Israel reevaluate its policy toward Gaza and take seriously some policy initiatives it would normally dismiss out of hand. The international pressure over the wanton killings of protesters surely played a role, but perhaps more significant was the message the protests sent: the people of Gaza want to live, the siege has not achieved its goal of fomenting regime change in Gaza, and the suffering and devastation it inflicts is reaching its limit. The result was that for the first time ever, Israel engaged in cease-fire negotiations with Hamas when no rockets and missiles were flying back and forth.
The following months were not as simple. When the Great Return March officially ended on May 15, Hamas kept the protests going, and the power of a mass, nonviolent movement was replaced by a few hundred youths throwing stones and launching incendiary kites and birthday balloons across the border on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. It took an almost-war for the two sides to reach any sort of cease fire, one that is a far cry from what most were hoping for earlier in the year. Today, a growing number of Gaza’s youth simply want to leave and find a better life.
Yet the protests changed things, and in more ways than even the tangibles of civil servants being paid and desperately needed electricity coming into Gazan homes. “[E]ven Hamas understands our achievement, and I believe that they understand the power of unarmed, popular resistance,” Hasan al-Kurd, one of the march’s organizers told +972 shortly after the deadliest day of protests in late May. “The fact is that they weren’t dragged into fighting by Israel. Now the entire world is talking about Gaza and the siege. Even Egypt finally opened Rafah crossing. All of a sudden young people who have grown desperate have found a reason to live.”
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It is also worth mentioning the victory achieved by grassroots organizing in and around Khan al-Ahmar and the role that played in Israel calling off, at least temporarily, the destruction and forcible displacement of the small Palestinian village. The on-the-ground activism, both in the village and around the world, no doubt played a significant role in ratcheting up international pressure — most importantly, from the International Criminal Court — which eventually made the Israeli government reconsider its policy. That is no small feat.