"What if 200,000 Palestinians headed peacefully to cross the border [into their ancestral home, now called Israel], while raising a poster that says they only want to go back to their land? What would happen?''
It all started in 2011 with that Facebook post, the dream of a 33-year-old man in Gaza named Ahmed Abu Ratima. Gazing at a tree on the other side of the barbed fence that separates the Strip from the land now known as Israel, Abu Ratima thought, “Why can't I go and sit under that tree just for a while, like a free bird?”
As the Arab Spring swept the region, Abu Ratima and his friends issued a statement titled “The Palestinian Refugees Revolution,” calling all Palestinian refugees to peacefully gather at the nearest point by the Israeli border to call for their rights. however, at that time, they were considered crazy. But they didn’t forget. And this year, Abu Rteima and his friends found encouragement.
"People are ready for this idea now more than at any other time,” explains Abu Ratima, whose family originally lived in Ramle (now in central Israel).
The Great March of Return will start on Land Day, March 30, and will continue for six weeks until May 15, which commemorates the Nakba (catastrophe), when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced from their homes to make way or the creation of Israel. Palestinian refugees living in Gaza will set up tents near the border and move gradually—and peacefully—closer.
Muthana al-Najjar, a journalist whose family is originally from Salamah (just east of Jaffa), was the first to set up a tent near the border, when he has spent more than 40 of his days to date.
"You may think only a crazy one would think of something like this,” he says. “But it’s a dream that moves something inside us, that others have tried to make us forget—our right to return.”
In his tent, al-Najjar gathers with elders from the nearby town and listens to them tell stories about their ancestral land.
Why is now the right time?
The situation in Gaza today is at its worst in recent history.
"The streets are full of beggars," says Hasan Ahmed (who asked that his last name not be used), a member of the coordinating committee for the Great Return March "Our goal is to put the crises of Palestinians on the table for everyone to see, and we will do so by the gathering of tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees close to the border line."
According to a January report of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor:
- 97 percent of Gaza water is unfit for human consumption.
- 45 percent of medicines are absent from the warehouses of the Gaza Ministry of Health, along with 28 percent of needed medical equipment.
- 50 percent of Palestinian children need psychological counseling.
- Only 54 percent of requested medical transfers to outside hospitals in 2017 were approved—the lowest since 2006.
- 44 percent of the adult Gaza population is unemployed. Among youth, it’s 62 percent and among those with disabilities, it’s 90 percent.
- 65 percent of families live in poverty (95 percent among fishermen) and more than 72 percent don’t have enough food.
Despite the Israeli government’s threats of drone-dropped teargas bombs and live ammunition shot at anyone who tries to cross out of Gaza, activists believe it is the only vehicle Palestinians have after trying endless negotiations that produce nothing and resorting to violent confrontations.
"Palestinians in the Gaza Strip don’t have a lot of choices; we are cornered. We either risk our lives to take a stand or we slowly die while we wait for our rights,” explains Abu Ratima.
Some pundits have proposed combining Gazans with the Sinai for a Palestinian state. But this option is refused totally by Palestinians. With all other refugees, such as Syrians and Africans who reach Israel, the international community’s preferred action is to send them back to their homeland. Why are Palestinians treated differently?
"We are not trying to go to other countries; in fact, we are attempting to return to our ancestral lands, which were stolen from us 70 years ago,” explains Abu Ratima. “This right was guaranteed for us through UN Resolution 194. How is it fair or logical for Israel to allow in millions of people from different nationalities, like Russians, while the original residents of the land are forced to live here in a prison?”
However, although named the Great Return March, the action is more than a call for the right for Palestinians to be in their homeland. The organizers also hope Israelis will participate and envision a time when both peoples can live together in one state.
"We don’t accept or agree on the two-state solution, for it is a discriminating one. Instead, we work toward one state with both Palestinians and Jewish people who will be under a government we all elect," he adds.
And finally, the march is designed to back the Israeli government into a corner. Israel claims that it only defends itself against "weaponized" Palestinians who threaten the security and safety of its Jewish residents.
"Will Israel kill civilians who march forward in peaceful groups? We don’t have any weapons in our hands, so what excuse will Israel use this time?" al-Najjar asks.