By first light yesterday Palestinian preparations for the Gaza “Return March” seemed well underway: tents were being pitched all along the Gaza buffer zone and old men were arriving with banners proclaiming the names of their villages, from which they were expelled as children 70 years ago, never to return.
Palestinian factions in Gaza, including the ruling Hamas, had ordered that the demonstration be peaceful, insisting marchers to keep well back from Israel’s barrier wall.
With 100 snipers positioned on the barrier, however, Israel’s preparations were a show of brute force and soon after dawn an Israeli tank shell had killed Omar Samour, a Palestinian farmer with land near the buffer zone – the first Return March martyr but certainly not the last.
Israel’s ruthless response to the Gaza’s peaceful Return March should come as no surprise. The Israeli military justified the show of force on the grounds that Hamas might exploit the event in some way with acts of violence. But Israel’s real fear of the “return marchers” runs far deeper. Nothing has ever frightened Israel more than the demands of Palestinian refugees for a right to return to their pre-1948 homes. And no group of refugees has a stronger case than those of Gaza who live within a few miles of their former villages.
The Arab-Israeli 1948 war, which brought the Jewish state into being, also brought about the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from lands they had lived on for hundreds of years. The Palestinians call this loss of land their “Nakba” or catastrophe. Of those expelled more than 200,000 fled to Gaza.
These refugees came from villages in the Gaza area, close to what is now the Gaza barrier wall.
In 1948 the United Nations passed Resolution 194 agreeing that the refugees should have a right to return to their villages, but Israel always refused. From the first days any who tried to get back – to harvest their lands or to bring belongings – were shot as infiltrators or locked up as terrorists. As the years passed the refugees’ claims were set aside as unresolvable and David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, expressed the hope that “the old would die and the young would forget”.
The refugees, however, have never forgotten, as the Return March protest demonstrates.
In view of Gaza’s daily struggles, living under siege, it might seem surprising that they have time to think of the past. Since Hamas took power in Gaza in 2007, the two million people here have lived under economic blockade, imprisoned by a barrier wall. The Palestinians here have also lived through three wars. The last in 2014 killed more than 2,500, destroyed many thousands of homes and crippled infrastructure.
But it is precisely because of the recent wars that memories of 1948 have been revived. Such was the destruction of 2014 that Gazans spoke of “’a second Nakba”. And the deprivations of living under siege have only reminded the people here of what they had as self-sufficient farmers in the villages they inhabited before 1948.
Whether the Return March explodes in more bloodshed, or plays out peacefully as the participants hope, is hard to predict.
As Hamas arranged for buses to take people from the mosques after Friday prayers, the numbers swelled. The intention is to maintain the protest until 15 May – Nakba Day, when the 70th anniversary commemoration will reach a pitch. If Hamas can keep the peace on its side of the buffer zone, the case for the right of return will be heard, perhaps louder and clearer than it has for many years.
The refugees’ despair is also fuelled by Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. This has driven many in Gaza to the belief they now have nothing to lose but rise up and join the march. With no realistic peace deal now on the table, many in Gaza believe the only way to resolve the conflict is to return to the root cause – and that means to address their right of return.
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