When the world watched thousands of Gazans take to the Israeli border last year in massive demonstrations, very few, including the march’s organizers, could have imagined that people would still be protesting one year later.
The demonstrations, thousands strong, became known as the Great March of Return.
Palestinians of all ages, genders, and backgrounds gathered from across Gaza on March 30, 2018, and peacefully marched to Israel’s security fence.
Their demands were simple: An end to the now 12-year siege on Gaza, and the ability for refugees, which make up more than 70% of Gaza’s population, be allowed to return to their homes.
What started off as non-violent demonstrations were quickly and violently suppressed by Israeli forces. As the months went on and protests continued, the death toll rose into the hundreds.
Now, one year and thousands of casualties later, Gazans are planning to return back to the borders in massive numbers on March 30th to mark the anniversary of the movement that has shaped their lives for the past year.
Hundreds dead, thousands injured
Over the course of one year, scores of Gazans, mostly young men, have been shot and killed, or severely injured, by Israeli snipers stationed along Gaza’s eastern border with Israel.
On the opening day of the protests last year, Israeli troops killed 14 Palestinians. A month and a half later, on May 14, the day the US opened its Embassy in Jerusalem, Israeli snipers gunned down dozens of protesters, killing 68.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that as of March 22, 2019, 195 Palestinians, including 41 children had been killed, while close to 29,000 people have been injured.
But the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza has placed the death toll as of March 29, 2019 much higher, at 266, including 50 children, three medics, and two journalists.
The ministry also reported the number of injuries to be upwards of 30,000. Among those hospitalized for serious injuries, the ministry said in a statement, were over 3,000 children.
They added that more than 6,000 protesters have been injured with live ammunition.
Doctors in Gaza have expressed concern that protesters have been targeted in the legs by Israeli live fire, noting Israel’s use of expanding or explosive bullets, that tear through soft tissue and make injuries extremely difficult to treat.
As a result, the ministry has reported 136 cases of amputations, including 122 in the lower limbs.
Israeli army accused of war crimes
Since the Great March of Return began, Israel’s approach to the demonstrations have been characterized by the disproportionate use of lethal force against largely unarmed protesters.
The United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) published a fiery report last month, condemning the actions of Israeli forces’ in suppressing the Great March of Return protests.
The commission accused Israeli soldiers of deliberately shooting civilians, killing and maiming protesters – including children, as well as journalists and medics.
“The demonstrations were civilian in nature, with clearly stated political aims,” the group said, rejecting Israeli claims that armed Palestinian groups were conducting “terror activities” during the protests.
While the COI acknowledged “acts of significant violence” from demonstrators, some of who threw stones and molotov cocktails at the border fence — which separated them and Israeli troops hundreds of meters behind it — the panel made clear that such actions “did not amount to combat or military campaigns,” and did not warrant the amount of force deployed by Israeli forces.
Investigators also stated they have reason to believe that Israeli troops had killed and injured Palestinians “who were neither directly participating in hostilities, nor posing an imminent threat.”
“These serious human rights and humanitarian law violations may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity,” the COI said.
The Israeli response to criticisms of its forces’ actions in Gaza have largely centered around one main narrative: the Great March of Return protests are a front for Hamas “terrorists” attempting to “infiltrate” Israeli territory.
Most of those shot and killed, the Israelis maintain, have been “terrorists.”
But investigators have presented vastly different findings. The UN COI said that they estimated around 29 of those killed were “members of Palestinian organized armed groups.”
Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said that out of 254 identified slain protesters, only 90 were said to be “participating in hostilities,” which in most cases, was stone-throwing.
Stakes high as as elections draw closer
The anniversary of the Great March of Return is coming at a tense time in the Gaza Strip. The past week has seen an escalation between Hamas and Israeli air forces, following several incidents of rocket fire coming from Gaza into Israeli territory.
Israeli forces conducted scores of airstrikes across the besieged territory, targeting dozens of buildings allegedly belonging to the military wing of Hamas.
Ma’an News Agency reported that the airstrikes, however, completely destroyed 30 residential structures, and at least 500 others were partially damaged.
The latest reports from Israeli media on Friday evening said that Palestinian factions in Gaza had agreed to quell anniversary protests scheduled for Saturday in return for an easing of the siege.
Citing a senior member of one of the factions, Haaretz reported that Hamas would “prevent protesters from approaching the fence separating Israel from Gaza, while Israel responds with restraint and avoids hurting civilians.”
“The Egyptians have been working to convince Hamas leaders to ensure the protests don’t spiral out control by taking steps such as deploying security forces to oversee events and preventing protesters from approaching the fence,” Haaretz reported.
Should Hamas be successful in suppressing the protests, the alleged agreement would see a re-opening of border crossings between Gaza and Israel, an easing of import and export restrictions, an expansion of the Israel-designated fishing zone in Gaza, and the entry of millions of dollars of Qatari aid that the Israelis have been preventing for months.
Despite the alleged talks between Israel and Hamas, Israeli forces have deployed heavily to the borders with Gaza, with Haaretz reporting that the number of troops has been doubled, while some 200 snipers have been deployed.
With Israeli elections due for April 9th, and much of the campaign discourse centered on the which candidate can best “provide security for Israelis,” it would be in Netanyahu’s best interest to maintain quiet in Gaza and avoid an escalation in violence that could spiral out of his control.