The Gaza “Great March of Return”: Regional and International Reactions

What is Land Day?

On March 30, 1976, Palestinian citizens of Israel declared a national strike to protest the Israeli government’s official plan calling for the arbitrary expropriation of large tracts of Arab-owned land. Israel’s aim was to expand Jewish settlements in the northern part of the country through a program dubbed the “Judaization of Galilee.” The openly racist and discriminatory plan antagonized the besieged Palestinian minority in Israel and prompted peaceful marches in various Arab cities and towns.

The rare uprising by Arab citizens surprised the Israeli government and prompted military security and police forces to use excessive violence against the civilian demonstrators. The crackdown resulted in six deaths, dozens of injuries, and hundreds of arrests. Called Land Day, the event subsequently became an annual rallying cry celebrated worldwide by Palestinians in defense of their land and their civil and political rights. This year marks the 42nd Land Day, with the clear expectation that peaceful demonstrations would be organized throughout Palestine and Israel to commemorate that occasion, as is done every year.

Enter Gaza

In anticipation of this year’s Land Day, there were spontaneous public appeals in Gaza to put a new spin on this year’s commemoration. Various political activists and NGOs throughout the Gaza Strip, including those affiliated with Hamas, floated the suggestion of turning the event into a highly publicized mass rally—a “Great March of Return”—to extend until Nakba Day on May 15. The proposed rally was designed to achieve three main objectives, according to its organizers:1

  1. To portray Israel before the world community as an occupying power and refocus attention on the long-ignored fact that “Israel proper” is the ancestral homeland of millions of Palestinian refugees who are entitled and determined to exercise their sacred right of return according to international law.
  2. To highlight Israel’s continued siege of Gaza, which turned the Strip into an ungovernable and unlivable territory, despite Israel’s highly publicized disengagement from Gaza in 2005. As far as most Gazans are concerned, Israel has never left Gaza and remains in control of the Strip through its inhumane land, air, and sea blockade.
  3. To challenge and potentially derail the “Deal of the Century” being touted by the Trump Administration as a potential peace plan between Israel and the Arabs, which is viewed by an overwhelming majority of Palestinians as an attempt to disrupt their lives and “liquidate their cause.” Indeed, 88 percent of Palestinians view the United States as biased in favor of Israel, and 65 percent oppose the resumption of Palestinian contacts with the Trump Administration.

The Hamas leadership in Gaza welcomed the proposal as a win-win option and took immediate ownership of the event and assumed logistical responsibility for its implementation. Clearly, all three objectives of the March of Return were in harmony with Hamas’s political agenda and its current strategy to isolate and overpower its rival, Fatah, in the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh expressed his upbeat assessment that “The Palestinian people have proved time after time that they can take the initiative and do great things.” “This march,” he added, “is the beginning of the return to all of Palestine.”

The Israeli Reaction

Based on extensive military intelligence presence inside and surrounding the Gaza Strip, the Israeli government anticipated a larger than usual march on Land Day in various locations adjacent to the Israeli border with Gaza. The Israeli Foreign Ministry and the army sought way in advance to discredit the event and prevent Hamas from taking credit for its potential success. The Foreign Ministry, for example, distributed detailed guidelines to its diplomats and supporters worldwide on questioning the peaceful nature of the march and accusing Hamas of “a deliberate attempt to provoke a violent confrontation with Israel.”

Essentially, the hasbara (official Israeli propaganda) campaign accused Palestinian organizers of engaging in “dangerous, premeditated provocation,” insisted on Israel’s “right to defend its borders,” and blamed Hamas specifically for exploiting civilians as “human shields” in its relentless goal “to destroy Israel.” Israeli army spokesperson Ronen Manelis did not mince words by describing the March of Return as “a violent, terrorist demonstration,” implying that the 30,000 Palestinian participants were essentially “terrorists” and would be treated as such.

In its public pronouncements, the Netanyahu government insisted on its right to defend its sovereign territory against any illegal infiltration and placed full responsibility with Hamas for any potential violent clashes that might erupt. Indeed, Israel’s ambassador at the United Nations, Danny Danon, went much further by condemning the Palestinian leadership, as a whole, for inflaming tensions and instigating violence. He stated, “Israel condemns the Palestinian leadership’s dangerous attempt to inflame tensions and instigate violence and expects all United Nations personnel to refrain from planning, supporting, or participating in these activities.”

At the same time, Israel did not conceal its intentions in advance to respond violently against those attempting to cross the border. Ofir Gendelman, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s spokesman, tweeted, “Would it not be a shame? That’s what will happen to those who will try to cross the border between Gaza and Israel. As every Palestinian in Gaza knows, Hamas does not sent [sic] its leaders to the border and it knows very well why.” The Israeli official spokesmen added, “You’ve been warned.”

Gendelman’s words were not an empty threat. He knew very well that the Israeli army already called up military reinforcements, including dozens of snipers, to control the demonstrations. Furthermore, Israeli Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot characterized the situation in Gaza as “highly explosive.” He stated in an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth, “We have deployed more than 100 sharpshooters who were called up from all of the military’s units, primarily from the special forces.” He added, “If lives are in jeopardy, there is permission to open fire.”

On March 30, explicit threats perceived by many in Israel and abroad as psychological warfare, which were aimed at scaring the Palestinian public from participating in the demonstrations, ended up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. The excessively violent response by the Israeli army resulted in at least 16 Palestinian deaths and more than 1,000 injuries on the first day of the 15-day planned series of events. Netanyahu thanked Israeli troops for “guarding the country’s borders” and praised them for a job “well done.” Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman went a step further claiming, “From the standpoint of the Israeli soldiers, they did what had to be done. I think that all of our troops deserve praise, and there won’t be any inquiry.” Lieberman insisted that Israeli soldiers performed their duties exceptionally well with determination and professionalism.

Regional and International Reactions

The backlash to Israel’s handling of the demonstrations was swift and widely critical. The first condemnation of unjustified Israeli violence against the Palestinian demonstrators came, unsurprisingly, from Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority (PA) called for international intervention against Israel. Although Fatah and the PA had no major role in initiating or organizing the March of Return in Gaza, Deputy Chairman of Fatah Mahmoud al-Aloul claimed that the demonstrations in the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Hebron, and Nablus, as well as in Gaza underscored Palestinian support for the PA leadership “in face of the pressure and conspiracies concocted against our cause.” PLO Executive Committee Member Hanan Ashrawi issued a formal statement on March 31, condemning Israel’s brutal measures against the unarmed protesters. She said, “The Israeli army used unbridled violence, unleashing more than 100 snipers and firing live ammunition, teargas and rubber-coated steel bullets … before the very eyes of the entire international community.” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called on the United Nations to provide protection for the “defenseless” Palestinian demonstrators and declared March 31 a national day of mourning in Palestine.

The League of Arab States, speaking on behalf of its 22 member states, held Israel “entirely responsible” for what it deemed as “crimes against the Palestinian people,” and condemned its use of “weapons against unarmed people, which led to the death of 17 and the injury of some 1,500 others.” Secretary-General Ahmad Aboul Gheit appealed to the UN Security Council to investigate these crimes by Israel. Similar statements of condemnation were issued by individual Arab states including Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Tunis, Yemen and others.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed his deep concern for the events unfolding in Gaza and called for an independent inquiry into the violence. In a typically generic statement, Guterres declared, “This tragedy underlines the urgency of revitalizing the peace process aiming at creating the conditions for a return to meaningful negotiations for a peaceful solution that will allow Palestinians and Israelis to live side by side peacefully and in security.” Subsequently, the United Nations Security Council convened in an emergency meeting in New York at the request of the State of Kuwait, but failed to adopt any meaningful statement due to stiff opposition by the United States and the United Kingdom.

In general, the Europeans were more forthcoming than their American allies. EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini followed in the footsteps of UN Secretary-General Guterres by calling for an “independent and transparent investigation into the use of disproportionate force by the Israeli military during ongoing demonstrations on the Gaza-Israel border.” In her official statement, Mogherini added, “Freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are fundamental rights that must be respected.”

France also urged Israel to show restraint and reminded the Netanyahu government of its “duty to protect civilians” and to respect “the Palestinians’ right to peacefully demonstrate.” The Vatican added its moral voice as Pope Francis called, in his Easter Sunday address, for “reconciliation for the Holy Land,” adding, “the wounds of ongoing conflict” on the Gaza-Israel border “do not spare the defenseless.”

In clear contrast with the broad international condemnation, the US response to the violence in Gaza was biased and quite indifferent to the loss of human life on the Palestinian side. From day one, the Trump Administration fell for the Israeli position, hook, line, and sinker. Trump’s Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt did not even wait for the march to begin before denouncing it. He tweeted on March 29 that “Hamas is encouraging a hostile march on the Israel-Gaza border. Hamas should focus on desperately needed improvements to the lives of Palestinians in Gaza instead of inciting violence against Israel.” It took Greenblatt a whole week to update his statement in the face of mounting criticism from the media and human rights groups. On April 5, without any reference to Israel’s excessive use of force, he urged the Palestinians to march peacefully and remain outside the 500-meter “buffer zone.” Greenblatt condemned the Palestinian “leaders and protestors who call for violence or who send protestors—including children—to the fence.”

As stated earlier, when the issue was raised at the UN Security Council on March 31, the United States blocked international attempts to adopt a draft statement essentially expressing concern about the situation in Gaza, urging restraint, holding an “independent and transparent investigation,” and reaffirming the right to peaceful protest. Echoing the Israeli official position regarding the Gaza march, the advisor to the United Nations’ US mission, Walter Miller, declared that “bad actors” were using the “protests as a cover to incite violence” and “endanger innocent lives.”

Although the White House itself has not made any serious public statements since the events unfolded in Gaza, Acting Under Secretary of State Heather Nauert tweeted that the United States is “deeply saddened by loss of life in Gaza” and urged “those involved to take steps to lower tensions.” The White House’s silence on Gaza was matched by similar ambivalence on Capitol Hill. Only a handful of conscientious members of Congress spoke out, including Senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy, and on the House side, Representatives Betty McCollum and Barbara Lee.

Despite the fact that the Israeli army’s handling of demonstrators on the Gaza border generated a substantive debate in Israel, it was met with relative political ambivalence and disinterest from the American public at large—even with the significant cost in human lives. The demonstration held in Tel Aviv-Jaffa to protest the Israeli army’s use of excessive force on March 30, although attended by a mere 250 people, did not inspire a similar event in Washington or New York. The timing of the Gaza march on Friday might have reduced the nature and size of the public reaction in the United States; however, human rights groups, campus groups, and the liberal left were the exception to this rule, including those within the American Jewish community where a dynamic debate continues to reverberate.

Conclusion

From a Palestinian perspective, the Great March of Return was a resounding success, particularly for the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas). Living on the “planet” of Gaza tends to dampen one’s expectations, but not necessarily one’s enthusiasm. First and foremost, the public response was quite significant as 30,000 Gazans (almost 1.5 percent of the population of the Gaza Strip) participated on the first day. The US equivalent would be a demonstration involving 4.89 million Americans, a number exceeding the overall population of states like Alabama, Louisiana, Kentucky, Oregon, and 24 other smaller states.

Second, the March of Return might be quite limited and symbolic in its gains; however, Hamas has succeeded, for the first time since 2006, to project Gaza back onto the world’s radar screen. Amos Harel wrote in Haaretz, “Forget rockets and tunnels—Hamas found a more effective way to agitate the Israeli army.” He added, “With mass rallies on the border, Hamas succeeds in bringing Gaza to the world’s attention while distracting the Israeli army.”

Third, by controlling the march, Hamas reaped a significant public relations victory at home and abroad. Domestically, it has outmaneuvered Fatah and the Ramallah-based PA by taking the initiative from a government that is quite paralyzed in the face of mounting diplomatic challenges and confused about its future options. The march restored the center of gravity in Palestinian politics back to Gaza, after it had largely ceded control to Fatah over the past several years.

On the international scene, the demonstrators, particularly those who sadly paid with their own lives, earned Hamas worldwide attention that it could not even dream of acquiring on its own. Consider the extensive media coverage, particularly the editorials by such outlets as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, Haaretz, and many others, which were generally critical of Israel’s overreaction, excessive use of violence, and relentless mistreatment of Palestinians in Gaza and beyond. Countries much larger and richer than the impoverished Gaza Strip often pay hundreds of millions of dollars for such a public relations bonanza.

Khalil E. Jahshan is the Executive Director of Arab Center Washington DC.

1 Source is in Arabic.