Gaza City—The sniper bullets don’t come in quick succession. It’s not a barrage of fire. It is methodical, patient, precise. A single shot rings out and someone falls. You wait a few minutes. The crosshairs settle on the next target. Another shot, another body drops. Again and again and again. It goes on for hours.
This is how the Israeli military shot more than 1,350 Palestinians in Gaza on a single day, on May 14. Slowly.
As at least 60 people were being killed and over 2,700 wounded, White House officials clinked champagne glasses with their Israeli counterparts 50 miles away in Jerusalem to celebrate the transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv. Most people in Gaza have never been to Jerusalem. They can’t go. They can’t really go anywhere. Many have spent their lives trapped inside the 25-mile-long enclave, forbidden from crossing its borders. So they decided to march to the borders, to protest the US decision on Jerusalem, to demand their right of return, to push their bodies up against the limits of their confinement.
The grassroots movement, dubbed the Great Return March, began on March 30, which marks Land Day in Palestine (an annual commemoration for six Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in demonstrations in 1976 over land confiscations). The plan had been brewing for months. Activists, writers, and civil-society groups all began to organize around the idea of a protest at Gaza’s borders. The tactic of confronting the border is not a new one in Palestine; there have been numerous actions in the past. But this was the first time that it would coalesce into a broad-based, mass movement.
“The idea of the return marches was to do something collectively—that everyone together approaches the lands occupied in 1948,” said Mohamed Sherafi, a member of the Progressive Student Work Front, known as Taqadomi. “After a span of time, there was an agreement on the shape and form that we now have.”
Fourteen organizing committees were formed, comprising a broad swath of Palestinian society, including youth groups, women’s groups, nongovernmental organizations, legal-rights bodies, worker syndicates, and cultural associations. Their groundwork led to the formation of a Higher National Committee for the Return Marches, which included all the main political factions, with parties like Hamas, Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Islamic Jihad, and others joining forces.
In the Western media, Gaza is usually equated with Hamas, relegating all of the Strip’s diversity and political richness, all of its civil society and grassroots agency, to the background. And so it was with the return marches: The protests were widely characterized as being a Hamas operation. While Hamas is the ruling power in Gaza, and its participation was key in mobilization and funding efforts, the concept originated outside of the group and was driven and led by all sectors of society.