Since the beginning of April, thousands of Palestinians have been marching largely peacefully at the Eastern borders of Gaza Strip – demanding their rightful and legal human rights to live in peace, dignity and free of will. In Gaza, the protests are called the “Great March of Return”. Some, but not all, of the protesters threw stones; they were met with live bullets, air strikes, and gas fired from drones.
In the middle of last month, on the 70th Anniversary Day of the 1948 Palestinian “Nakba” (The day Palestinians call the “Catastrophe”), Israeli forces opened fire on protest marchers near the Israel-Gaza border fence, killing at least 60 and injuring more than 2,700 more. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas described it on the television from Ramallah: “On this day, the Israeli massacre continues against our people”.
I was there, and I witnessed the deaths of two people and saw hundreds more injuries at the Rafah borders, in the Southern area of the Gaza Strip. Since the protests began on 30 March 2018, Israeli forces have killed at least 109 Palestinians in the coastal enclave, and wounded about 12,000 people, according to the Palestinian ministry of health.
Palestinians are demanding the right to return their homes, from where their grandparents were forcibly expelled on Nakba day in 1948. This claim relies on UN resolution 194, article 11, which confirms the right of refugees to return to their homes and villages. Some marchers walked to the eastern borders of Gaza Strip, while others simply protested near it; many armed with nothing but their bodies and souls; ready to sacrifice both for their cause in the face of one of the most heavily-equipped armies in the world.
The violence perpetrated against them by the Israeli soldiers abrogated not merely the freedom of innocent protesters, but also the freedom of the press as well as the protection of medical staff, all of whom were wearing clothing that clearly indicated that they were working in the field. At least seven Palestinian journalists were injured by Israeli gunfire on Monday, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
I have been working in the field during the protests to translate news reports from English to Arabic, and vice versa. As press, I’m supposed to have been safe from being targeted by Israeli sniper-fire. But my life has been in danger so many times I have lost count. My constant thought is “am I next?”.
In Gaza, if you do not die by bullets or gas, you die by experiencing the death of someone you love. My friend, Yasser Murtaja, a 30-year-old photographer and cameraman, was killed near Khan Yunis on April 6, on the second Friday of the “Great Return March” protests. He was wearing a flak-jacket marked with the word “press”. Yasser was talking to me just an hour before he was murdered by Israeli snipers. We were laughing at his silly jokes.
Now he is gone, as are scores of other Palestinians.
Every Friday is a long story to tell. Friday is the day of prayers and rest in Gaza. Since the beginning of the Great Return March protests this year, it has become the busiest day of the week for hospital staff here. “All week we wait for Friday, wondering how it will go and preparing for the worst,” a nurse said.
Khalil Abo Athra is another name, another friend, and the victim of another war-crime. The same day that Yasser was shot, Khalil was standing by my side almost four kilometres from the border with Israel, but still he was shot in the leg with what the doctors who treated him told me had been an exploding bullet, meaning ammunition with an explosive or a high-explosive-incendiary filling.
Thankfully, Khalil did not die; but he may lose his leg due to the lock-down by Israeli authorities of medical resources in Gaza and the refusal of the Israeli administration to transfer him to West Bank hospitals, which could have saved his leg. These are breaches of the Geneva Convention, which assures the protection for media personnel as well as medical staffs, and these violations are considered war crimes.
“We have drones 24 hours, seven days,” Mohammed Shahen, a 24-year-old Gaza-based journalist with Palestinian Voice, says. “Being a Gazan-journalist is never normal. It’s like carrying your soul, that you may lose any moment.” Anas Dahode, a journalist for Al-Aqsa TV, also based in Gaza, tells me: “Being a journalist in Gaza only means death.”
Since 1948, the Palestinians have faced horrific violations of all international norms of human rights. But the world is still turning a blind eye and deaf ear to the Israeli massacres here. Gaza has faced three deadly wars that resulted in hundreds of deaths and tens of thousands of injuries. The Israeli narrative, claiming “most” of the Palestinians protesters at the border were “terrorists” has been unquestioningly repeated by large segments of the Western media.
Even uglier than the killing of innocent protesters, including children, women and elders, from a long distance with a sniper rifle, is the excuse the Israeli forces have given for doing so. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesperson for the Israeli military, issued a statement on Twitter claiming that 50 of the protesters were members of Hamas group. He was quoting a senior Hamas figure, Salah al-Bardawil, from an interview on a local TV station where al-Bardawil made that same claim.
But Conricus ignored the context of this interview. Al-Bardawil, speaking on a local news channel, was likely exaggerating the involvement of Hamas in the protest in order to bolster its reputation as a political force as a claim against their rival party, Fatah. Certainly, despite his claims, he was speaking in a personal, not official, capacity, and with a certain amount of boastfulness. The Palestinian ministry of health spokesman Dr. Ashraf al-Qedra, who does speak in an official capacity, has reported that among the dead are six children under the age of 18; including a 15-year-old girl, Wessal Sheikh Khalil, and an eight-month-old infant, Leila Al-Ghandour. Others have not yet been identified.
In his report, al-Qedra included a statement regarding the deliberate targeting and wounding of 17 medical staff; another was killed and five ambulances were hit. He also reported the injury of 12 media personnel. These do not seem like the result of a targeted attack on a terrorist group, but a blanket application of violence. Even if the protesters, as is being claimed, are mostly Hamas, this cannot justify the deliberate targeting of women and children, media and medical staff.
Apart from anything else, it remains dishonest for the Israelis to claim that anyone with any links to Hamas in Gaza are “terrorists”. Part of the group’s stated aims are the overthrow of the Israeli regime as a movement of resisting the occupation, true, but they are also the ruling political party in Gaza since the elections in 2006, meaning that most of the population interact with them in one way or another. That does not justify their slaughter, nor the slaughter of children, nor the killing of journalists and medics in contravention of the Geneva convention.
Israel justifies its use of live ammunition as only being used to stop those crossing the fence. It also claims that for the most part they used only tear gas and rubber bullets. But this is belied by the hundred deaths and thousands of injuries. The bullet that took my friend Yasser’s life, and the bullet that took my friend Khalil’s leg, were not made of rubber.
It’s been 70 years for the Palestinian people; seven decades of suffering from pain and hurt, killing and destruction. It’s been 70 years of this land not knowing the meaning of peace. The Palestinians are deprived of their own basic human right to live in peace. Gaza has been rightly called “the world’s largest open-air prison”. The latest degradation came when US President Donald Trump announced the US was recognising the holy city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, ignoring the right of the Arabic inhabitants, which raised tensions and became one of the triggers for the Great Return March.
Since the beginning of the protests there have been no reported deaths of Israeli soldiers. But more than a hundred people are dead and thousands more are injured among the Palestinians, including children and women. The global community is still ignorant of the scale of the injustice they are experiencing. They still do not recognise their right to resist the occupation and the deprivation of their rights.
Take 15 seconds to imagine that your beloved was slaughtered. A minute to imagine that you are deprived of your right to live in dignity and peace, expelled from your home and with no right to resist even in the simple ways, and after all that, imagine being called a “terrorist”. Some media outlets are called the recent march a “conflict”, but it’s not. A conflict is between two parties who have a balance in power. The best word to describe what happened in Palestine is “massacre”.
Issam A. Adwan is a freelance journalist and translator in Rafah, south Gaze, currently working as an English teacher.