London, March 19—Last year, Israeli soldiers on the perimeter fence with Gaza killed 189 unarmed participants in the “Great March of Return” (GMR), and injured more than 7,500 more, many of them seriously.
In connection with the GMR protests, four Israelis (all of them serving soldiers) were reported injured. None were killed. And now, the Israeli government and its propaganda trolls are trying to accuse the Palestinian movement Hamas of using undue violence!
The continuation of the GMR protests and the support the protestors have received from around the world have clearly touched a raw nerve in Israel. Israel’s worldwide propaganda machine has gone into overdrive with a blizzard of rallies, propaganda films, and social-media posts that peddle a few simplistic arguments. The GMR protests are all “organized by Hamas!” they claim. Hamas “uses mobs as a human weapon.” It “exploits children as human shields,” and so on. One short film the Israeli foreign minister posted on social media spells out these arguments against a background of swirling black smoke and fierce-looking Hamas guys with rockets…
This is what I call the “But Khamas!” ploy. It’s a maneuver the Israelis and their propagandists frequently use. They try to shut down any discussion of the actual plight of Gaza’s two million people and their own responsibility for causing it by invoking (and often, deliberately mispronouncing) Hamas’s name, betting that this all sounds very scary to people in the West.
Their argument is flawed, on both scores. Firstly, the GMR is not a creation or tool of Hamas. And second, Hamas is nowhere near as scary—as mindlessly militant, oppressive, and anti-Semitic– as those Israeli propagandists have worked for decades to portray them.
Last year, the UN Human Rights Council established a three-person Commission of Inquiry, headed by Santiago Canton of Argentina, to investigate the ongoing GMR protests. In late February, the commission issued a preliminary report that noted that the original idea for the GMR had come from 34-year-old Gaza poet Ahmed Abu Artema. (He has recently been touring the United States, describing the difficulties of life in Gaza and the whole GMR project to enthralled audiences.)
In early 2018, Abu Artema worked with colleagues to form a committee to plan and oversee the protests. Its members, as the UN report confirmed, “came from all sectors of Palestinian society, including civil society, cultural and social organizations, student unions, women’s groups, eminent persons and members of clans. Representatives of several political parties…were also members (the armed wings of these parties were not represented on the committee).”
Hamas and Fateh were two of the five participating political parties listed in the report. The report confirmed that all the movements represented on the organizing committee signed on to the principles that the march should be “fully peaceful from beginning to the end,” and that participants would be unarmed.
For the past 71 years, the Israeli government has been hostile to the idea that the United Nations has any right to monitor its behavior, and that hostility has grown in recent years. It did not allow the Commission of Inquiry’s members to visit either Israel or Gaza, so the commission based its reporting on plentiful evidence (including video evidence) that it gathered from on-the-ground civil-society organizations and representatives of other international organizations deployed in the area.
One key matter of contention between the commission and the Israeli government has been over whether the GMR protests are a form of action that is distinct, both operationally and geographically, from the (overwhelmingly defensive) military activities and preparations that most of the political organizations in Gaza also maintain, in addition to their civilian political activities. As noted above, one of the Israeli government’s key talking points been that the GMR protests are no more than a vehicle for Hamas (“Khamas!”), designed to provide some sort of human-shield “cover” for its military activities.
The UN commission’s report refuted this claim. It noted that “episodes of hostilities” between Israel and the Palestinian armed groups in Gaza have indeed continued, including “Israeli airstrikes and incursions into Gaza, and indiscriminate rocket or mortar fire by Palestinian armed groups towards Israel.” But it reported clearly that, “these events occurred outside the time and place of the [GMR] demonstration.”
Hamas and the other political organizations in Gaza had evidently worked hard, within the confines of Gaza’s tight geography, to keep a clear separation between whatever military activities their armed wings may have been pursuing and the participation of their civilian and other noncombatant supporters in the GMR activities. “Non-combatant” is a key term in international law that includes both civilians and persons who may be off-duty fighters—like, for example, Israeli reservists when they take off their uniforms and leave their bases to go home for longer or shorter periods of leave (or Hamas people who may at times be fighters and at times take off their uniforms, lay down their arms, and go to take part in the GMR protests…)
Deliberately nonviolent mass protests and other nonviolent actions are by no means new to the Palestinian liberation movement. In the mid-1980s, after the PLO’s military forces were defeated in Lebanon and were scattered to places far distant from Palestine, the Palestinians still resident inside the homeland took an increasing role in the movement. They built many kinds of civilian networks across Gaza and the West Bank: women’s movements, labor unions, agricultural cooperatives, mobile health clinics, and more. In late 1987, the seemingly random killing of four Palestinian laborers in Gaza by an Israeli military jeep spurred the eruption of the sustained, nonviolent citizen protest movement known as the First Intifada.
One of the great advantages of nonviolent civilian mass actions is that they allow—indeed encourage—the participation of all segments of society, including women, youths, older people, and people with disabilities who may not be able easily to take part in military activities. And in doing this, they can lay the basis for building a better, more inclusive and caring, society in the future.
Supporters of Hamas, both male and female, participated in a wide range of such actions during the First Intifada, as they have done in the numerous other civilian mass actions undertaken since then, in places like Bil’in or Nabi Saleh. In January 2006, when Hamas (at the urging of the Israelis and Americans) took part in the Palestinian legislative elections held throughout the West Bank and Gaza, several of the candidates on its electoral lists were women; and six Hamas women ended up winning their contests.
Shortly thereafter, during a reporting trip to Gaza I was able to meet and interview Hamas women working in a wide variety range of roles. One of those, the recently elected legislator Jamila Shanty, told me that Hamas’s founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin had always stressed the need for women to be active outside the home, as well as within it.
The original plan was that the protests would start last March 30 (a date that Palestinians observe as “Land Day”) and would then be held every Friday until May 14, the date on which a high-ranking American delegation was scheduled to open the United States’ new embassy in Jerusalem. In a very real way, the GMR protests were the Gaza Palestinians’ “response” to President Trump’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
On March 30, the Israelis showed what their response to the GMR would be. That day, Israeli sharpshooters deployed to raised berms that were specially built around Gaza’s perimeter fence killed 19 protestors and injured scores more. The GMR participants were undeterred. Over the Fridays that followed, they continued to stage mass, unarmed protests that included numerous cultural activities along with meetings and speeches… and the Israelis continued to kill and wound participants.
On May 14, there was a massacre. That day, the IDF snipers killed over 60 protestors, ranging from 13 to 58 years old, and injured many hundreds more.
The organizing committee decided to keep the protests going for at least a year, running through this coming March 30.