In the days leading up to the culmination of the Great Return March, in which organizers expect masses to breach the Gaza border fence, we speak with three Gazans about what the protests have accomplished, what hope they carry, and where they have disappointed.
By Meron Rapoport
The organizers of the Great March of Return say they expect protesters will attempt to reach or breach the border fence with Israel during protests marking the moving of the U.S. Embassy and Nakba Day on Monday. Not everyone in Gaza supports the march, especially because it has yet win any tangible gains, but everyone is appreciative that Gazans are finally are standing up for their rights.
Since the first protests, which began March 30, Land Day, with tens of thousands of protesters, the number of participants in the weekly Great Return March has gradually decreased. The number of Palestinians killed by the IDF during the Return March protests was 49 at the time of writing.
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In the days leading up to the Great Return March’s culmination this week, I spoke with three Gazans to hear what people think of the protests, if they achieved their goals, and what mistakes were made. I spoke with Hassan al-Kurd, one of the Great Return March organizers; Omer Shaaban, associate director of PalThink, a think tank; and Mohammed Arafat, an independent journalist.
Hassan al-Kurd, how do you feel right now?
For us, everything continues as normal. Though the protest has been a bit weaker in the last couple of weeks, everything is going to change soon. On Monday, we will attempt to cross the fence. It’s important for us to note that we are still planning to do this in a nonviolent way — women, children, and the elderly, entire families are going to try to cross.
What about the earlier attempts to cross the fence?
Until now, there have been a few attempts to cross the fence, mainly by young men between the ages of 15-25, of their own initiative. In preparation for the protest, there’s talk of the youth tying each other together, one to the other, and trying to cross together.
Israeli snipers have shot protesters even when they weren’t trying to cross the fence. You don’t worry that there will be an escalation in violence by the Israelis?
What difference does it make? We’re dying slowly in Gaza anyway. It is better to die on the fence in an attempt to be free.
What’s the feeling after a little over a month since the protests started?
Honestly? We feared that after the first week people would have already left and the whole thing would be over. But what actually happened was incredible: young people here are really living here Friday to Friday, and that’s despite the ongoing protest activities during the week in the Return March camp. What’s happened here is new and positive, in spite of all the casualties and the violence by the Israelis. We are continuing to call on our youth to show restraint and demonstrate nonviolently.
What do you think has changed among the public in Gaza? How do people feel?
People in Gaza were on the brink of explosion. We could not bear the situation any longer. Our protest gave people purpose and a reason to live, which is why you see so many young people who come to us [the protests]. Even if they get shot by snipers, they prefer to take the risk and feel a sense of purpose and hope for a better life.
But like we’ve said, young men are the Israeli snipers’ primary target.
Correct, and you see this in the number of victims. But still, they’re not going anywhere.
What have the protests changed from a political perspective? After all, you are calling for nonviolent protest. Last week, Hamas reportedly called for a ceasefire with Israel. Are other Palestinian political groups, movements like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, beginning to adopt the idea of nonviolent resistance?
The protests changed a ton. I don’t know about the reports about Hamas, but we are seeing how [Hamas] is supporting our youth to show restraint and not respond with violence to Israeli violence. Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad see the splash we’re are making in the media and how the whole world is talking about Gaza. They understand that, in the long-run, this is the way forward: to continue to show restraint and resist nonviolently.
Despite everything, despite all of the suffering we’ve experienced, we continue to call on the Israeli public to resist the crimes of its government, to understand that it is responsible for our total despair. This protest is not going anywhere, we promise. And we promise that we still want to live in peace with Israelis, despite everything.
Ahmed Shaaban, how has the public in Gaza responded to the Great Return March protests? With support, encouragement, opposition?
People are talking about it a lot. You need to understand that after 11 years of siege, social problems here have gotten more serious, people lack hope, there is no progress. The protests touch not only those who participate, but also others. They send the message that change must come. The international community does not understand the situation here.
Have the protests provided a sense of hope?
There is more hope, more attention from the international community, the media. People feel that. It is very important not only for the international community, but for the people themselves.
The protest organizers have attempted to describe them as nonviolent. Do you think they’ve succeeded?
The fact that there is an effort to protest nonviolently should give encouragement to every Palestinian like me, who believes in the nonviolent path. In my opinion, most of the Palestinians support nonviolent protests. We must not give a justification for the use of violence against the Palestinians.
Mohammed Arafat, what do you think the protests have done to date?
The media prefers to present Gaza as a conflict zone. But the first thing the people of Gaza need is for the world to hear them. Our first message is to end the siege. I do not think that a return to our homes is on the agenda. The second message is reconciliation between Gaza and the West Bank. In the meantime, that hasn’t really happened.
What do you think of the way the protests have been carried out?
I think there were some mistakes, like the setting of fields on fire. I think it wasn’t organized well enough. People go there without fear, people no longer care. People have two options – to die or live with respect. They have no work; some of them have no homes.
What does the public in Gaza think of the protests? Have they achieved their goals?
My estimate is that more than 60 percent of the people support the protests, but there are also people who don’t. There are people who say the protests won’t achieve anything. I have no doubt that emotionally these protests are very important. People in Gaza feel that finally they can stand up and demand their rights. This hasn’t happened since 2000, which is why there are expectations that something will happen.
What do you think about the demonstrations planned for Nakba Day, will they bring out hundreds of thousands as planned?
This is what we’re hearing, but, of course, no can predict exactly what will happen. People believe that it will be a day of change. In addition to the decision to move the [U.S.] embassy, change must come.
The protest organizers have described them as nonviolent. Is the idea of nonviolence gaining support among the public in Gaza?
I think change is possible only if the protests are nonviolent. The protests began nonviolently but when people were killed, did this change?
Do you worry that the international media will lose interest in the events in Gaza because of what’s happening in Iran and Syria?
Yes, I said to my friends that the moment Trump withdraws from the nuclear agreement, the media will focus on that and ignore what is happening here. There was also a hope in Gaza that something would happen in the West Bank, but so far there’s been nothing.
What’s your opinion on reports that Hamas is seeking a long-term ceasefire with Israel in exchange for a lifting of the siege? Is it possible that the goal of the protests was simply to ease the conditions of the siege?
It is possible that was the goal, to lift the siege. We, civilians, don’t know. The politicians make their own calculations. We just pray that people will be able to live and demand their rights. The siege is a nightmare for everyone.
Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and an editor for Local Call, where a version of this article was first published in Hebrew. Read it here.