Over the past five weeks, at least 45 people have been killed by Israeli forces—and more than 5,500 wounded—during a sustained nonviolent protest. They were among tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza taking part in the Great Return March. We asked Jehad Abusalim, a scholar and policy analyst from Gaza, to tell us more about the history and purpose of the March.
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What's the history behind the March?
The Great Return March is a six-week-long protest action organized by a cross section of Palestinian civil society, grassroots activists, and political factions in Gaza to both highlight the impacts of the siege and occupation and to re-center the issue of refugee rights. The main goal of the March is to bring attention to the Palestinian Right of Return as enshrined in United Nations Resolution 194.
The March began on Friday, March 30, when Palestinians all over the world commemorated Land Day, marking the 42nd anniversary of the 1976 killing of six unarmed Palestinians who protested against the Israeli government’s decision to expropriate more Palestinian land.
The March was set to proceed with a series of creative protests, sit-ins, and events leading up to May 15. This date marks the 70th anniversary of the 1948 Nakba, when Israel was established and nearly 750,000 Palestinians were expelled or forced to flee from their homes in present-day Israel.
While the news of the March came as a surprise to many—even those who follow the situation in Palestine-Israel—the idea of marching toward the Israel-Gaza boundary fence was a topic of discussion in Gaza for several years. Intellectuals, social media activists, authors, and young activists have long been invested in realizing new and creative ways to challenge the decade-long blockade and address the roots of the tragedy of Gaza: Palestinians’ state of refuge. Given the declining hopes that Fatah-Hamas reconciliation efforts would help alleviate the deteriorating conditions in Gaza, and given the tightening of the blockade by Israel and Egypt, grassroots activists believed that it was about time to take their destiny into their own hands. The March, then, is a product of years of discussions in Gaza and beyond on how to challenge the blockade and shed light again on the outstanding need to address the rights of refugees.
Who is organizing the March?
The principles of the March first appeared in Arabic on the Great Return March’s Facebook page and multiple local media outlets. These principles were formulated by the “Great Return March coordination committee” which consists of civil society, human rights and legal activists, grassroots organizers, youth activists, artists, journalists, BDS activists, political faction representatives, and intellectuals.
It is worth noting here that the existence of a coordination committee of the March does not imply a centralized leadership of the current efforts. The large-scale and mass involvement of Palestinians in Gaza, which came in the form of a rapid response to the calls by organizers, occurred in ways that transcend local factional differences and agenda. Since its inception, the March has been characterized by calls for unity, raising of only a Palestinian flag, and slogans that focus on larger issues, away from factional agenda and internal Palestinian politics. Many consider the atmosphere the March provided as a new page in grassroots Palestinian organizing in Gaza, as the March re-centered mass popular mobilization and civil struggle beyond factional politics.
One of the promoters of the idea of the peaceful and nonviolent protest along the Gaza-Israel barrier is a young man named Ahmad Abu Rtemah who describes himself as an “independent Gaza-based writer, social-media activist, and one of the organizers of the Great Return March.” In an article he wrote for the Nation, Abu Rtemah describes what the March stands for, and the values of the various groups and individuals who are making it possible.
He delves deeply into its meaning for Palestinians in Gaza at this point in time, writing, “The Nakba is not a just a memory, it is an ongoing reality. We can accept that we all must eventually die; in Gaza, the tragedy is that we don’t get to live.”
What are the goals of the March organizers?
Much has been written about the March, but the voices of those who organized it remain largely unheard and ignored. AFSC is republishing the text below from the organizers' Facebook page so readers can hear directly from them.
Note that the positions outlined are not AFSC’s positions, but we are sharing this text and these materials to build understanding of why the March is happening and its importance.
General Principles of the Great Return March
Republished from The International Coordination Committee of the GRM
The Palestinian refugees issue is the core of the Palestinian cause. It is the issue of the expulsion of a nation from its original land 70 years ago using terrorism, to be replaced by a nation who denies the existence of the expelled indigenous nation. Ownership of the land was given to the replacing nation under the claim that “A land with no people for a people without land’. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from their homes and forced to leave their properties to become refugees in various surrounding Arab countries and around the world.
A new foreign entity was established on the ruins of their societies and homeland known as ‘Israel’. Despite the recognition of the international community of the right of Palestinian refugees to return and compensation, as guaranteed by the principles of the International law and international conventions and treaties and relevant United Nation’s resolutions, the International community has failed to enforce the relevant resolutions on the return of refugees. Despite the Palestinian refugees’ continuous struggle to secure their rights, the Israeli occupation continues to deny their right of return to their homelands which they were expelled from.
Therefore, the refugees decided to take the initiative through peaceful movements and through the Great Return March. This comes as a continuation of the struggle of the Palestinian people for their right of return, the most important of which was the Return March in 2011, the Global March to Jerusalem (GMJ) in 2012 and the Palestinians’ marches in the areas occupied in 1948 on the 19th of April each year.
Definition of the Great Return March (GRM):
It is an organised public action, based on legitimate legal foundations and clear humanitarian principles, in which the masses of refugees embark on peaceful marches to implement paragraph 11 of UN Resolution 194 and to achieve the return of the refugees who were displaced in 1948 to their land, homes and properties. They are armed with firm faith that rights are not lost if pursued and that rights do not diminish with time. They base their movement on the legitimacy of the UN resolution 194 and their right to its application as officially registered refugees in the international organisation. The GRM adopts the following general principles:
- It is a sustained and cumulative struggle, not a seasonal or a one-day event. It will only end with the actual return of Palestinian refugees and the sit-in may last for weeks or months.
- It is a national march in which Palestinians of all ages and various political and social groups and their supporters from the free world meet around the universal issue of the return of refugees and their compensation as a national consensus.
- It is a humanitarian march calling for the human right of the return of refugees, failure to achieve that right is a justification to continue the march regardless of how long it takes. It has nothing to do with any political deals or offers from any side.
- It is a legal march based on international resolutions, most notably paragraph 11 from the UN Resolution 194, which explicitly calls for the return of Palestinian refugees as soon as possible to their villages and towns from which they were forcibly displaced and to be compensated.
- It includes the various locations of Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jerusalem, the areas occupied in 1948, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and other countries around the world. It aims to peacefully protest at the nearest points to their homes which they were forcibly displaced from.
- Participants will be from all components of the Palestinian civil society and all political parties or factions that believe in peaceful public resistance as an effective way to contribute to achieving peace and justice based on the restoration of the national rights of Palestinians, foremost of which is the right of return.
- It is a fully peaceful march from the beginning to the end. It adopts the style of open sit-ins, gradual progress, the construction of tents and the establishment of a normal life near the separation fence with their lands, homes and properties which they were forcibly removed from in 1948. The organisers are keen to invite international media to cover their message to all the world and are keen on the participation of international and human rights organisations to monitor and ensure the march is peaceful.
- The organisers are keen to spread the culture of public resistance through the peaceful nature of the march and all accompanying events both inside and outside Palestine, and affirm that it is a new form of resistance different to confrontations and throwing stones. To ensure that the march does not deviate from its mission and to prevent any pretexts from stopping it, it is prohibited for the participating individuals and organisations to carry out any acts that violate the law. In Gaza Strip, as a central arena of the movement, it is preferable to start a sit-in 700 meters away from the separation fence to prevent the clash of young people with the occupation forces. Progress will be gradual and in accordance with the discretion of the committees and national bodies in charge, which can be done in stages to prolong the duration of internal and external mobilisation.
- The civilian bodies supervising the management of the march are decentralised units established in each location/country appropriately. The various units in all locations should coordinate to ensure the success of the project.
- The only flag to be raised during the march is the Palestinian flag with no partisan slogans, in addition to the UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and humanitarian slogans explaining the just cause of refugees in Arabic, English and Hebrew.
- Refugees are the responsibility of the United Nations. Therefore, human rights organisations have the task of contacting the United Nations and its international institutions to request their supervision for the marches and to send warning messages to the occupation not to target them.
- Communication should be made with various activists and solidarity organisations supporting Palestinian rights around the world to create global support for the initiative of the Great Return March. All media, political, legal and solidarity efforts should be mobilised to protect the march from the potential Israeli violence.
Where can we get more up-to-date and accurate information about the March and Gaza?
We recommend check out these online resources:
- Gaza protests: All the latest updates (Al Jazeera)
- #GreatReturnMarch on Twitter
- The Electronic Intifada
- Follow the hashtags: #GazaReturnMarch and #GreatMarchOfReturn
Jehad Abusalim was a speaker at AFSC’s “Gaza Unlocked: Hearing in the Heartland” in April. You can watch a video recording of the event on our Gaza Unlocked website.