The Great March of Return along the Israeli-Gaza border is an exemplary manifestation of the Palestinians’ desire for freedom. Over the past few days, a large number of Palestinians comprising of people from all walks of life, have come together to demand the right of return for the refugees. Despite the march being a peaceful one, the unarmed protesters have been subjected to live ammunition, open fire, tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets by the Israeli defence forces.
Gaza is home to a population of approximately 2 million residents, the majority of whom are refugees who were forced to flee their homes and lands that were captured by Israel during the war of 1948 which the Palestinians refer to as the ‘Nakba’. Gaza is governed by Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist political organisation and a militant group that was formed in 1987. Hamas won the parliamentary elections in 2006 and established its government in Gaza. Consequently, Israel imposed a siege on the Gaza Strip in 2007. The Hamas’ government is not recognised by Israel as it considers it to be a terrorist organisation which aims to replace Israel with a Palestinian state.
Eleven years since the blockade began in 2007, the lives of Gaza’s people have been nothing short of catastrophic. The economy is severely crippled. The level of unemployment has snowballed, resulting in extreme poverty, which in turn has led to crimes and suicide. Moreover, Gaza has been plunged into a state of darkness with little to no supply of electricity and clean drinking water. The civilians do not even have access to proper medical facilities. This compels them to seek treatment outside of Gaza in the neighbouring West Bank, which becomes extremely difficult due to the travel restrictions imposed by Israel. As a result, most patients lose their lives. The United Nations has issued a warning that Gaza will soon become uninhabitable. It has often been described as the ‘world’s largest open-air prison’.
In a state where merely sustaining one’s life becomes a struggle, the only aim of civilians is to emigrate. With the vision of returning to their homelands, the Palestinians have organised this March of Return, putting their lives at stake. So far, a large number of Palestinians have been either injured or killed in the march including Yaser Murtaja, a young Gazan journalist who succumbed to his wounds after he was shot by an Israeli sniper while covering the protests. Yasser was the father of a 2-year-old child. A fortnight before his death, he wrote on his Facebook page:
“I hope the day that I can take this image when I am in the sky instead of on the ground will come! My name is Yaser, I am 30 years old, live in Gaza City and I have never travelled before in my life!”
Like Yaser, a lot of civilians dream of travelling beyond the boundary of the Gaza Strip – to lead a dignified life free from oppression, humiliation and restrictions.
Israel has justified its use of live ammunition and bullets by calling the demonstration a Hamas-backed scheme. Israel’s defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said that there are “no innocent people in Gaza. Everyone is affiliated to Hamas.”
US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017 has also played a pivotal role in instigating these protests. In addition, the decision of US to cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which provides substantial aid to the Palestinian refugees has sparked the anger of the Palestinians.
The March of Return, which began on March 30, 2018, is expected to go on till May 15 which marks the 70th anniversary of the ‘Nakba’. Undeterred by the immense number of casualties, the Palestinians continue to protest. Through their resolve, they have proven that the desire to return to their homelands transcends their fear of death. For these people, home symbolises freedom, an uncorrupted haven, a sense of belonging. What remains to be seen is the outcome this Great Return March will yield. Will the Palestinians get back their lost territories for which they have been struggling so hard to regain? Or will these demonstrations only amount to more suffering and bloodshed in a world where, apparently, the value of human life is cheap?