Was Great March of Return the best way to confront Israel ?

Some 60 Palestinians were killed and many more were injured when Israeli snipers attacked a Gaza protest on 14 May 2018 (Mahmoud Ajour - APA images)

Hamza Abu Eltarabesh

The Electronic Intifada  /  March 29, 2022

Recently, I changed.

I turned into someone who liked isolation. I didn’t eat or sleep as much as before.

Simply, I was not Hamza. Even my passion for writing and storytelling had become more chore than joy.

Luckily, I have a friend I could turn to for help.

Noor Siam is a psychiatrist. He helped me through my depression.

Some very difficult months have passed and I am beginning to live my life normally now.

But we did not see eye to eye on everything. Noor’s diagnosis was that I had suffered trauma during the major Israeli assault on Gaza of May 2021 and that caused my depression.

Now, I don’t want to minimize the May attack in any way. As it always does, the Israeli military attacked with the immense power at its disposal – and with the immense help of weapons supplied by the US and other Western countries.

Whole neighborhoods were flattened and entire families were obliterated. Israel killed more than 250 people over those 11 days and left 2,000 injured.

Many were women and children. Tens of thousands were left homeless.

It was traumatic for everyone.

But I did not find that this was the source of my own subsequent depression. Instead, I searched further back, looked deep into myself and found what I am convinced was my own breaking point.

That moment came almost four years ago. The date was 14 May 2018 – during the Great March of Return.

Even though I am still alive, I call 14 May 2018, “the day I died.”

Banging on our prison walls

I was a strong supporter of the March of Return, which began in late March 2018 – four years ago now.

I firmly believe in my family’s right to go home to al-Majdal Asqalan, the village we come from.

Today Ashkelon lies on its ruins. The village was seized by the Israeli military in November 1948, with its inhabitants expelled to Gaza.

My grandparents were among those expelled.

The weekly mass protests at Gaza’s boundary with Israel that started in March 2018 were led by ordinary people demanding their right of return. The protests were a true expression of the popular will.

They were a desperate yet organized attempt by Palestinians in Gaza, of whom two-thirds are refugees, to shine a light on their plight and demand, after 70 years, that they finally are treated equally. International law recognizes our right of return; we were demanding that the law be respected.

The Great March of Return was also aimed at breaking Israel’s draconian blockade on Gaza that has seen the area’s more than two million people sink ever deeper into poverty, with prospects for any kind of future undermined at every turn by an Israeli-imposed inability to build, trade or travel.

Gaza is a prison and its prisoners had enough.

The Great March of Return was also met by brutal force from Israel.

I witnessed that brutal force directly.

On 14 May 2018, I joined the Great March of Return in Malaka, an area east of Gaza City.

Malaka was where most people would gather for the protests. There, protesters would divide into three groups.

The first group included older people. It would venture within around 800 meters of the fence. The role of this group was to chant slogans demanding our rights.

The second group was the main one. It would go a bit further toward the fence and stop around 500 meters from it.

That group would hold up posters and chant slogans. Their slogans would emphasize that protesters were unarmed.

“Death distance”

The final group took the biggest risks. It went close to the fence – between 200 and 50 meters from it.

In Gaza such proximity is known as the “death distance.” Everyone in the final group could be shot by Israel’s snipers.

On 14 May 2018, I was in that group.

I had walked slowly until I was about 200 meters from the fence. Then I sat down, alone.

There, I observed young protesters approaching the area I had reached.

On the Israeli side of the fence, I could see at least 12 tents, set up on dunes. Each tent had four snipers in it.

I had been sitting down for around an hour when suddenly, people started running toward the boundary fence.

A huge number of people.

I, too, started to run towards the fence.

Very soon – within a minute – I heard the sound of gunfire. It was immediately apparent that Israel’s snipers were killing people, even though there was a cloud of dust from all the bullets coming in our direction.

The dust disappeared after a few minutes. And I knew that I had witnessed a massacre.

There were 10 dead bodies near me. And more than 100 people who had been injured.

One man had his leg blown off.

A child had a bullet in his chest. He was dying.

A woman was screaming.

I was in a state of deep shock. I tried to think about what I should do next.

Should I run toward the fence and confront the snipers? Or should I help the paramedics?

I did nothing. I stood there, doing nothing.

Just crying like a baby.

I felt helpless.

Constructive criticism

Some 60 people were killed by Israel on 14 May 2018.

It was also the last time I took part in the Great March of Return.

Although I fully support the objectives of these protests, the horror I had witnessed meant I could no longer attend them. It was abundantly clear that Israel is willing to kill Palestinians en masse even when we engage in unarmed protest.

Four years on from the date when the Great March of Return began, I think it is important to discuss these protests objectively.

Ahmed Abu Artema, a key organizer of the protests, takes constructive criticism seriously. He has written an article, which indicates that he agrees with some of my criticisms.

The first criticism I have is that there was not sufficient strategic planning for the Great March of Return. The events of 14 May 2018 proved that.

Expectations were high on that date.

It was the eve of Nakba Day, which commemorates the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine. There was a determination to assert our right of return to the homes from which we and our families had been expelled by Zionist forces.

Yet the protest had not been properly planned. Young people ran toward the fence impulsively and, as we know, the Israeli response proved lethal for so many.

Another mistake was that Hamas was too prominent in the Great March of Return, particularly in the media activities surrounding it. That placed pressure on Hamas – pressure for which it was not really prepared.

As the protests involved unarmed resistance, I think they would have been more effective if they were truly independent of political factions.

Creativity

One positive development of recent years is that Palestinians have shown greater creativity in how they resist the Israeli occupation.

The Great March of Return has contributed to that creativity. For example, the tactic of “night confusions” was inspired by these protests.

In June 2018 – one month after witnessing the massacre – I spent an evening with a man who calls himself Barq. He is a leading player in the use of “night confusions.”

There are two stages in a “night confusion.”

The first takes place about an hour before sunset when young men attach an incendiary device to a helium-filled balloon. Provided the wind is blowing from the west to the east, the young men will then release the balloon into the sky.

That means the balloon should be carried into Israel.

The second stage takes place roughly four hours later. It consists of letting off fireworks.

There are nine groups of young men in northern Gaza who have used the tactic of “night confusions.” Barq leads two of these groups.

Barq told me that the “night confusions” are planned in detail. He and his comrades discuss arrangements with armed resistance groups.

The plan is to inflict damage on Israeli agricultural land. So Barq and his comrades gather information about such matters as the season when crops are planted and harvested.

“We know exactly when to attack,” he said. “This activity is meant to disturb people who live next to the Gaza Strip. We launch the balloons with the aim that Israeli farmers will put pressure on the Israeli government.”

The tactic of “night confusions” has been used for a few years now.

As soon as a ceasefire ended Israel’s major 11-day assault on Gaza in May 2021, the attention of the world’s media shifted away from Gaza. By flying incendiary balloons after the attack, groups of young men brought Gaza back into the news.

And these “night confusions” are not confined to Gaza. Similar tactics have been employed by residents of Beita in the occupied West Bank.

The people of Beita have repeatedly thwarted efforts by Israeli settlers to establish an “outpost” on Palestinian land. An “outpost” is a colony which has not yet been officially approved by the Israeli authorities.

High cost

It is likely that we will continue to see protests of some form near Gaza’s boundary with Israel – now marked by a wall with a great deal of surveillance technology attached.

The costs of the protests will continue to be high in human terms.

In August last year, my friend Osama Dueij was shot by an Israeli sniper during a protest near the boundary. A few days later, Osama died from his injuries.

Osama had only been married to Duaa al-Outol for 29 days before his death.

Duaa is pregnant with his child. She has vowed to name the baby Osama.

“I am still in shock,” Duaa told me. “But I have begun to accept this shock. I have begun to accept that I will live with a new Osama. The new Osama will be my son, not my husband.”

Little more than a week after Osama died, Israel killed a neighbor of mine, Ahmad Musleh.

Ahmad was involved in a “night confusions” exercise when he was shot by an Israeli sniper.

Mahmoud Abu al-Aish, a close friend of Ahmad, was with him when he was killed.

“We were lying on the ground,” Mahmoud said. “Ahmad took out a lighter to light a cigarette. Suddenly, I found him drenched in blood and groaning with pain. Two minutes later, he died.”

The deaths of Osama and Ahmad once again illustrated that Palestinians put themselves in great danger when they confront our oppressors.

It is important that we discuss what tactics we should use frankly. I have thought long and hard on these matters and I believe that “night confusions” involving relatively small groups are preferable to the mass protests we saw during the Great March of Return.

“Night confusions” are, in my view, a greater nuisance for Israel. And that can only be a good thing.

Hamza Abu Eltarabesh is a journalist based in Gaza