The Great March of Return is a six-week long continuous non-violent protest that began on March 30, which marked the 42nd anniversary of Palestine Land Day, and is expected to reach its pinnacle on May 15, which is the 70th anniversary of Al Nakba, the Palestinian day of catastrophe that produced 750,000 Palestinian refugees who are still demanding their right to return.
The protest, organised by the Higher National Commission for the March of Return and Breaking the Siege, is a multi-party organisation that is committed to carrying out peaceful unarmed protests. Hamas which, contrary to Israeli reports, is not behind the protest, has in fact provided technical and administrative support, including helping pave the location of protestors’ tents and providing campers with toilets, water and other needs.
For non-violent protests to work, a number of basic conditions are required. Commitment to non-violence is an obvious one, but also much organisation and training is needed, flexibility and the ability to make quick changes and having a stamina for a long-protracted effort that would most likely include a high cost of human life.
Israel had been aware of the six-week long protest and was bracing for a potential sea of Palestinians at a certain point storming the Israeli-built fence — no one can explain why Israel did not build a wall in Gaza on the international borders of Israel.
For Israel, the key answer to the unarmed protest is stopping it before it builds momentum. This is why Israel reacted so brutally on the first day of the protest, even though no Israeli was injured and the lives of Israelis were never even remotely in danger. Shooting at unarmed civilians when soldiers’ lives are not in danger is a violation of Israel’s own guidelines for crowd control. More importantly, it is a violation of international law and a war crime according to international humanitarian law.
The Israeli violations can and should be investigated by Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Fatou Bensouda, a jurist from the west African country of Gambia.
The ICC requires that individuals, whether political, military or paramilitary, must be charged individually and not collectively. In this regard Human Rights, Watch (HRW) made a strong argument that the actions of the Israeli security forces, including snipers, soldiers and tank battalions, were not simply an exaggerated response, but clearly a calculated act ordered from top Israeli civilian and military leaders. To make their point even clearer, the HRW quoted both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman threatening Palestinians with dire response if they go ahead with their planned protests. The HRW considered the public statements of these officials enough evidence to begin proceedings to the clear allegation that a war crime was committed upon orders of the two Israelis leaders.
For Palestinians, however, the cost on the first day was very high in death and injury. The aim of Israel is based on the “deterrence” concept, which requires one side to cause so much injury and pain to the other side to persuade them to stop their current and future action. However, over the years, this brutal and inhumane practice has failed in deterring Palestinians, just as destroying Palestinian homes or putting travel restrictions have not caused a Palestinian retraction.
What happens when Israel carry out such brutality is that when the other side, the Palestinians, find enough guts to stand up to this set of punishment, the Israelis go back to their brutal cutting board and start planning a yet more murderous set of punishments again, hoping that this time it would work. Israel has been making this effort for years, always raising the bar and placing unbearable punishment on the Palestinian civilian population only to find out that the other side is not ready to surrender and is alive and kicking for yet another day of protests.
Naturally, a more sane and humane policy would be to stop this vicious one-sided punishment and do what all strategies do in such a situation. Think of political solutions and not simply military and security ones.
The Great March of Return will no doubt take a few days to recoup and will be ready again next Friday for another round of protests. Israel would do much better if it decides on a change on a policy that attempts to engage Palestinians in a serious way rather than in a paternalistic way or in the ever-continuous attempts at diverting attention to everything other than their own actions.
The non-violence strategy is a brutal, tough and difficult strategy that requires perseverance, patience and, ultimately, the willingness to make sacrifices for what one believes in. Palestinian steadfastness is important, even though it is missing an important ingredient: the national unity of people and purpose. Gaza should not be doing this alone and the Ramallah leadership should put everything in support of the people of Gaza, including the rolling back of some administrative decisions that affect salaries, electricity and water. The priority for national unity is more important now than any time in the past.