In the streets of the Gaza Strip, the month of Ramadan begins in an atmosphere of sorrow. Everyone is talking about the loss of souls, and the number of casualties caused by the Israeli forces shooting on protestors on 14 May 2018.
A week earlier, preparations in Gaza had begun to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Al Nakba, the day when Palestinians commemorate their displacement in 1948. Mosques urged people through speakers to march to the borders and demand Palestinian rights in front of the world. In particular, they wanted to see an end to the siege imposed on the Gaza Strip for 11 years by Israel.
The Great Return March, thought up in December last year, began on 30 March 2018. Its organisers describe it as a peaceful march by Palestinians back to the land they were displaced from. The protestors also wanted to show their opposition to Israeli punitive measures against the Gaza Strip, which include the border closures, the destruction of the only electricity plant in 2014, the prevention of many basic materials into Gaza, and the siege itself.
Israel has launched fullscale attacks on Gaza in 2008, 2012 and 2014. The latter was the most destructive, and its negative impacts are still felt today.
By the beginning of 2018, the Gaza Strip was experiencing the worst humanitarian conditions since Al Nakba. According to the Israeli non-profit Gisha, 95 per cent of water is polluted, due to the electricity cuts and the halt of water desalination plants. There are only four electricity hours per day. More than of 45 per cent of people in the Gaza are unemployed. The travel restrictions enforced by Israel mean that two million people are effectively jailed in the Gaza Strip.
Nor could the people of Gaza rely on Palestinian solidarity. Reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas government of Gaza seemed unlikely: despite agreements signed in 2011, 2014, and 2017, there is still a rift between the two Palestinian governments.
For the youth in Gaza, the situation felt hopeless. Then US president Donald Trump decided to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the US embassy there. It created a focus for their outrage.
“Since our early childhood we have learned by heart that Jerusalem in the capital of Palestine, and the whole world is fully aware of this, even Trump himself,” says Baraa’ Mohamed, 26. The young people decided to join the March of Great Return. “This is our land, culture, and history,” says Mohamed.
For many, the Great Return March is their last hope to make the international world address Palestinian rights and force the Israeli occupation to lift the siege imposed on the Gaza Strip. Any hope that the US could be a mediator in the peace process has fallen by the wayside, especially since the election of Trump.
Amany Fayad, 50, tells me: “I do not understand how the Americans elected a president who has attacked Muslims as part of his election campaign. How he could say America is first, neglecting the Native Americans who were there before his ancestors?” Fayad can list the name of ten forefathers who lived in the Al Majdal village, 52 km from the Gaza Strip (called Ashkol by Israel). “Jerusalem is our land and capital, the same as Washington is his capital,” Fayad continues. “We are here to call for our rights, and we are not afraid.”
Ahmed Majed, 25, by contrast, voices the frustration of youth with an uncertain future. “The occupation kills our dreams and tries to show the world that we are terrorists,” he says. “We call for our rights by peaceful means. I grew up deprived of my basic rights, I cannot travel, I have witnessed three wars. Today, I protest to have my say and ask for justice.”
Then he adds: “I grew up and I am young and I cannot travel, and I have seen scenes of Israeli destruction since my childhood. There are millions of oppressed Palestinians.”