In the aftermath of Trump’s Jerusalem declaration, some commentators predicted a pivotal change in the general Palestinian mood from peaceful civil resistance towards a return to armed struggle. The massacre of 17 Palestinians and the injuries of over 1200 more by Israeli military snipers and drones in the Great March of Return in Gaza, however, has put non-violent, unarmed resistance back at the center of the Palestinian struggle for freedom against the Israeli occupation, apartheid politics, and its settler-colonial project in Palestine.
Indeed, the turnout at the Great March of Return (35000-40000 people by some estimates) far exceeded the number of people who went out to protest Trump’s anti-Palestinian politics on Jerusalem and UNRWA. Just like Walter Benjamin’s “Angel of History,” the Great March of Return struck back out of nowhere with vengeance, speaking louder than the sound of bullets and drones against injustice, military blockade and siege, the ongoing Nakba, and the attempt at liquidating the Palestinian cause.
Back to Hasbara talking points: Violence and Terrorism
In response to the massive turnout at the Great March of Return, Israeli politicians and hasbara trolls quickly reverted to their hackneyed and pocket size propaganda. They demonized the march and protestors, by vilifying them as “violent riots” and linking them with terrorism especially, with Hamas which they consider a terrorist organization hell bent on destroying the state of Israel.
In their tweets war, the Israeli military first described the march as “violent riots,” in which 17,000 Palestinians were “rioting in 5 locations along the Gaza Strip security fence.” They added that the rioters were “rolling burning tires and hurling firebombs & rocks at the security fence & IDF troops, who are responding with riot dispersal means and firing towards main instigators.” Reporters at the scene dispute these accounts.
Other tweets demonizing the march as terrorism followed. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, for one, stated in no equivocal terms that Hamas is risking the lives of Gaza residents. At the emergency UN Security Council meeting, moreover, the Israeli ambassador to the UN Danny Danon called this march a “well-organized and violent terror-gathering,” blaming Hamas for “exploiting civilians as they sent children to the fence with Israel, intentionally endangering their lives.” According to CNN, an Israeli official went so far as to claim that two “known terrorists” and Hamas members were among the casualties of the Israeli live fire.
The pro-Zionist American propaganda machine did not fall behind in linking the march to terrorism and recycled the same talking points of the Israeli hasbara. On his part, the United States’ delegate at the Security Council meeting accused “bad actors who use protests as a cover to incite violence endanger innocent lives,” failing to mention Hamas by name. Jason Greenblatt, the US envoy to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, pulled no punches, tweeting that “Hamas is encouraging a hostile march on the Israel-Gaza border,” and accusing it of “inciting violence against Israel.”
These claims are meant to blur the line between civilians and terrorists, in order to justify these wanton killings. They also hide the meticulously premeditated nature of the massacre of these unarmed civilians. Indeed, the Israeli military stated in a now deleted tweet that they “arrived prepared and with precise enforcements” and that “nothing was carried out uncontrolled; everything was accurate and measured, and we know where every bullet landed.” Only the Israeli military is responsible for these murders.
Freedom not Factionalism
Naturally, Israeli hasbara trolls and their American cheerleaders deliberately distort the fact that this march was not carried out under the aegis of any faction or party, but erupted spontaneously for, and in the name of, freedom for all Palestinians. First, the march is the brainchild of several Palestinian civil society organizations and no Palestinian faction, organization, or group can claim this march as its own. Hamas was simply riding the wave.
Second, the date of the march was meant to coincide with the forty-second anniversary of Land Day, a non-violent civil disobedience campaign that Palestinians in Israel have been organizing to protest Israeli policy of land expropriation. Moreover, the march was intended to kick off a six-week sit-in demonstration, in commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the Ongoing Nakba that began with the dispossession of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and lands.
As a collective non-violent campaign, the novelty of the Great March of Return in the current political scene clearly took media pundits, including many Palestinian commentators, by surprise. Ibrahim Elmadhoun, for one, explains that the march transformed the scattered energy of the Palestinians into a “collective and spontaneous” rally. In this march, he added, “factions, elites, authorities, personalities, and individual acts of heroism” melted into each other and were molded to express a “state of collective salvation that transcended all the details and the differences” among the Palestinians.
The Divine Violence of the March
The importance of the Great March of Return lies in the way it staged a raw and unmediated confrontation between the brute high-tech power of one of the most powerful armies in the world and the bare life of thousands of unarmed people in their humanity and dignity. To adapt the terms that the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin uses, the march staged the “mythical violence” of the colonial-apartheid state against the “divine violence” of the disposable Palestinians.
The mythical violence of the Zionist settler-colonial project and its apartheid state politics serves as an instrument of secular and/ or “sacred dispatch.” Its violence is carried out in the name of some mythical and metaphysical force, be it Yahweh, the “chosen people,” or some ideological project. In contrast, the divine violence of the disposable Palestinians functions merely as a “sign and a seal.”
In his book, Violence, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek explains that divine violence is a “sign without meaning” and a “means without end,” not in the direct way at least, since “it is just the sign of the injustice in the world, of the world being ethically ‘out of joint’.” That is, there is neither clear and definite political program here nor practical solutions to intractable political issues in the march. Rather, the march forcefully places an ethical demand on the global community to end the suffering of the disposable Palestinians and find a way out of the current impasse.
Two main implications can be drawn from this discussion about the Great March of Return. First, the march erupted spontaneously without the guarantee or support of any Big White Hope or expectation from other international or regional governments, institutions, or conventions. The marchers knew they were on their own here in the face of the brute Israeli military behemoth. Second, the message of the march reframes the right of return and freedom not only within international human rights law, but also within an emancipatory and utopian future for all. It refuses to flip the message of brute and raw violence of the Israeli military and the Zionist history of ethnic cleansing in Palestine back to its sender. Instead, it realigns oppressor and oppressed around a more fundamental antagonism, allowing them to transform the coordinates of the system altogether. This is indeed the true meaning of its violence.
Residents of Gaza are among the worst off disposable people in the world today, but no power on the face of earth can simply root out their existence and their will to continue on living. In one of his critiques of the circularity and banality of Foucault’s theory of power, the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said wrote: “In human history there is always something beyond the reach of dominating systems, no matter how deeply they saturate society, and this is obviously what makes change possible, limits power in Foucault’s sense, and hobbles that theory of power.”
Whether this something is Schopenhauer’s “formless will to live” or the “the principle of pure life,” as he suggested in a different context, Said was not clear. For the Israeli establishment and hasbara machinery, however, this “something beyond” is the true horror, because it clears a space for repeating the march and restaging it everywhere in Palestine—outside every city, camp, and settlement. The sooner the Israeli establishment and the Israeli people internalize this truth, the sooner Palestinians and Israelis can find a way out of the current political impasse and the devastating direction to which it is leading.