The Great March of Return: One-Year Anniversary of Palestinian Nonviolent Resistance
Palestinian demonstrators at the fence separating Gaza and Israel during a protest Picture credit: Yosef Basam

The Great March of Return: One-Year Anniversary of Palestinian Nonviolent Resistance

Palestinian demonstrators at the fence separating Gaza and Israel during a protest
Picture credit: Yosef Basam
Palestinian demonstrators at the fence separating Gaza and Israel during a protest
Picture credit: Yosef Basam

Abstract

In this report, The Francophone Association for Human Rights (AFDH) documents the Human Rights violations committed by Israeli authorities, against peaceful Palestinian protesters participating in the March of Return in Gaza for the past year. The protests started as a response to the globally condemned decision by President Donald Trump in December 2017 to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. They began following a call to action by Palestinian journalist Ahmed Abu Artema in January 2018. He posted on Facebook an invitation for a peaceful demonstration, along with the hashtag #GreatMarchOfReturn, which refers to the desire of thousands of Palestinians to return to their homeland, after being displaced in 1948 during the founding of the state of Israel. Beginning on 30thMarch 2018, the weekly peaceful protests have continued to this day, completing their one-year anniversary. The report finds that Israel committed several human rights violations and may have also committed war crimes in their disproportionate response to the protests. 

Background

In July 2017, the United Nations issued a report on life in Gaza, 10 years after the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip had begun. The report concluded that the coastal enclave would be “unlivable” by 2020. In 2005, Israel withdrew its troops, but its military is still controlling all aspects of life in the Gaza Strip. In 2007, Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza Strip after Hamas won the legislative council election. Ever since, the people of Gaza have been suffering trying conditions in all aspects of life. The international community has described the blockade as a ‘crime against humanity’. Moreover, Gaza has witnessed three Israeli aggressions on the Strip, resulting in more than 3,000 deaths and a dozen thousands of injuries. In the last aggression, more than 250,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) demolished them. The UN affirmed in 2015 that Israel committed war crimes during the offensive due to its targeting of civilians’ areas.

While the population of the Gaza Strip has been growing fast, neither infrastructure nor economy has been able to keep up the pace. According to the UN report, the population of the Strip has grown from 1.6 million in 2012 to 2 million in 2017. However, the unemployment rate increased from 29% in 2012 to 42% in 2017.  The high unemployment rate is expected to only grow in the coming years, if the blockade continues.

2018 was reported to be the ‘harshest year’ for Palestinians in Gaza as they endured stifling health, education, and electricity problems. Power deficit reached 80% in 2018, wherein some periods, the people had electricity for only 2 hours a day. These power cuts affected nearly all aspects of life in Gaza. Sewage treatment plants were unable to operate and four medical centers and hospitals were forced to close due to the power shortage. To make matters worse, 97% of water in the Gaza Strip is unfit for human use. The Strip’s collective of charitable organizations said that more than 1,000 Palestinians died in 2018 as a result of the ongoing Israeli blockade on the coastal enclave.

The ongoing blockade and the economic crisis that struck Gaza ever since, has had an indelible impact on the mental health of the people living there, especially the youth population. In the immediate aftermath of the 2014 war, WHO estimated that up to 20% of the population might have developed mental health problems. According to UNICEF, more than 300,000 children in Gaza required some sort of psychosocial care. In 2017, the number of psychiatric patients visiting government-linked mental health clinics was up nearly 70% from the year before. The toll of youth suffering from mental health problems is the highest. According to the Euro-med human Rights Monitor, nearly 55% of Gaza residents suffer from depression. During the last few years, the numbers of Palestinians who attempted suicide rose to 80 cases a month. January and February 2016, alone saw an increase of 160% in suicide attempts compared to previous years.

Why Do Palestinians Protest?

More than 70% of the residents of the besieged Gaza Strip are refugees displaced from their ancestral homes in the occupied Palestinian territories in 1948. Ever since, they have been living in refugee camps all over Gaza Strip enduring shortages of electricity, clean water, and jobs. Ever since the start of the blockade, the humanitarian crisis for the Palestinians has only worsened.

The protests were initiated by a group of independent activists and soon gained traction amongst different Palestinian factions and local organizations. Ahmed Abu Artema, the founder of ‘March of Return’, said that the idea of starting the protest march cameto him after he visited the border area between the Gaza Strip and Israel. He wrote a post on Facebook discussing the idea of hundreds of Palestinians marching alongside the fence with Israel, demanding the right of return. The protests were planned to begin on the 30th of March 2018 and end on the 15th of May the same year demanding both the Right of Return and ending the siege. However, Palestinians have continued to participate in the March of Return for a year now.

The organizers of the march stated on many occasions that the demonstrations are intended to be peaceful. Since day one of the protests, the Israeli army in a disproportionate response reinforced its forces along the fence and brought in hundreds of snipers to the fence to face the protesters. On the first day of the protest, i.e. 30th of March 2018, the Israeli army killed 17 protesters with live ammunition. On the 14th of May, the Israeli soldiers killed 59 protesters. The Palestinian protesters have ever since been gathering at the border area alongside the fence every Friday. Protesters at the camps are engaged in a sit-in protest organized around their tents. Each tent is labeled with the town or village from which its occupants were expelled.

However, Israel countered these protests with lethal force in blatant disregard for International Law. More than 250 Palestinians have been shot dead while participating peacefully in the March of Return protests, including 50 children. 11 protesters are still held in prison by Israelis authorities. More than 15,234protesters have so far been wounded, including 3318 children, 171 paramedics, 148 journalists and 7,750 protesters have been injured with live ammunition.

The Israeli army justified killing the Palestinians with claims that they are not peaceful, however, according to observer Human Rights organizations, the protests are peaceful. According to the UN commission of inquiry, the IDF soldiers may have committed war crimes shooting Palestinian children, journalists, medics, and women. According to the report, the vast majority of Gaza protesters who were killed by Israeli forces i.e. 154 out of 183 people had been unarmed, and “did not pose an imminent threat of death or serious injury to others when they were shot, nor were they directly participating in hostilities.”

The commission concluded that there were “reasonable grounds” that Israeli security forces violated international law, and recommended that UN members consider imposing individual sanctions, such as a travel ban or an assets freeze, on those identified as responsible by the commission. In response to these findings, on 27th April 2018, Amnesty International called for a worldwide arms embargo on Israel for its “disproportionate response” to the protests. Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East director, said, “this is a violation of international standards, with Israeli forces in some instances committing what appear to be willful killings constituting war crimes.”

Protesters in Gaza are demanding their Right of Return and the lifting of the blockade
Picture credit: Yosef Basam


Human Rights Violations

Over the course of the past year, there have been documented human rights violations committed by Israeli forces against the participants of the March of Return. Some of these violations may amount to war crimes according to the International Humanitarian Law and the Fourth Geneva Convention. These human rights violations vary from targeting civilians who pose no imminent threat to the lives of the Israeli forces, non-discriminating of the protected persons, the use of excessive and unlawful force against a peaceful march and the use of internationally prohibited weapons, including the ‘butterfly bullet, explosive bullets and poisonous gas’.

Article 48 of the 1977 Additional Protocol I states: “In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between civilian objects and military objectives”. According to the Commission of Inquiry that investigated the demonstrations held in Gaza between 30thMarch and 31st December 2018, “the Commission found reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli snipers shot at journalists, health workers, children and persons with disabilities, knowing they were clearly recognizable as such.”

“There can be no justification for killing and injuring journalists, medics, and persons who pose no imminent threat of death or serious injury to those around them. Particularly alarming is the targeting of children and persons with disabilities,” said Sara Hossain, head of the UN Commission to the Gaza protests. “Many young persons’ lives have been altered forever. 122 people have had a limb amputated since 30thMarch last year. Twenty of these amputees are children.”

Nature of Injuries

So far the Great March of Return has taken a heavy toll on protestors, one year on 266 people have been killed with a staggering 30,398 injured by Israeli forces.

Doctors in Gaza have said that the injuries they have been dealing with during the March of Return are same as those that they dealt with during the last war. The injuries vary from bone and tissue damage to large exit wounds measuring between 10 to 15mm.

According to the doctors, such injuries are not treated easily and many of the wounded persons need to be transferred to hospitals outside the Strip. Otherwise, the victims suffer certain complications, infections, and physical disabilities. Many cases have either led to an amputation or even death of the wounded.

During the first six months of the protests, more than 75 Palestinian protesters lost their lower or upper limbs. Doctors found that Israeli snipers targeted, in high numbers, the demonstrators’ knees, which left the victims in a permanent disability. These kinds of injuries also have complications like the probability of bullet fragmentations. According to International Law, life-changing injuries are a grave human rights violation. The nature of these injuries indicates that the Israeli army intentionally intended to kill or maim the Palestinian protesters, a violation of the Geneva Conventions and a war crime.

According to Cihan Bisiso, executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Lebanon, “the number of wounded who were treated by the organization within two months after the start of the return march is much more than the wounded who were treated during the Israeli war on Gaza in 2014”, She noted that in many cases that the MSF staff has dealt with in Gaza during the recent protests, the bullets fired by the Israeli army reached the bones of the victims, causing multiple fractures, which means that the bones literally turn to dust.

The spokesperson for the Palestinian Ministry of Health in the Gaza Strip, Ashraf al-Qadra, said that the Israeli army uses a new type of live bullet called “butterfly”, causing serious injury to the body and health damage, often leading to death. The bullets used by the snipers of the occupying forces, cause erosion in the tissues and bones and a direct cut in the veins and arteries, adding that all injuries caused by explosive bullets lost the patient a large area of bones between 6 to 15 cm, as well as large blocks of meat and tissue.

The Palestinian Independent Commission for the Investigation of Israeli Crimes documented that the Israeli occupation army used “strange and unknown” weapons and gases during the suppression of the demonstrators near the Gaza Strip border and that a number of the injured suffered hysterics and fits of violent tremors. The Commissioner-General of the Independent Commission for Human Rights, Issam Younis, said in a previous statement that “all information indicates that the occupation forces used internationally prohibited weapons against demonstrators participating in the return marches, such as explosive bullets, with the aim of causing the greatest number of disabilities among the demonstrators”.

Appendix shows a breakdown of the number of peaceful protesters injured and/or killed by the Israeli occupation forces in one year of the March of Return, as reported by the Ministry of Health, Gaza.

Targeting Journalists

Journalists are provided with an international immunity during conflicts and wartime; however, the Israeli occupation forces have directly targeted journalists at the Great March of Return. This provides additional evidence that the Israeli occupation adopts a policy of removing media outlets and journalists from the scene and preventing them from conveying a true picture of what is happening during the protests. Many journalists have been killed or grievously injured during the protests.

Journalist Yaser Murtaja was shot and killed while he was about 350 meters away from the border fence. Murtaja, who was wearing a helmet and bullet proof vest with a press badge, was shot by an Israeli sniper who fired an explosive bullet at the bottom left side of Murtaja’s waist, aiming for the unprotected area of the bulletproof vest. The bullet came out of the right side of the waist after rupturing many internal organs, causing significant blood loss. Doctors were forced to provide him with 16 units of blood while trying to save his life. He died about 10 hours after being shot.

In similar circumstances, Israeli occupation soldiers killed journalist Ahmed Abu Hussein while he was about 300 meters away from the border fence while he was also wearing a press outfit. He was shot in the left side of his waist while covering the return march east of Jabalya. He underwent multiple surgeries in several hospitals in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel, but the doctors were unable to save his life and he died 12 days after being shot.

At the end of February 2019, the number of journalists injured by the occupying forces, while reporting about the Great March of Return protests had reached 300. By the end of December 2018, the number of those injured was 281, distributed as follows:

  • 84 due to live and explosive bullets and bullet fragments
  • 126 due to suction and gas fainting
  • 71 due to direct gas bomb injuries resulting in burns, wounds, and fractures
  • 14 due to rubber-coated bullets
  • And 39 journalists were injured by bullets, gas bombs, suffocation, and fainting

Targeting Paramedics

The Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (1949) provides for special protection for the evacuation and removal of wounded persons from the field and provides special protection to persons in charge of providing physical and moral care, especially to medical personnel. Thus, targeting the medical staff is a breach of International Law.

Since the beginning of the March of Return, there have been documented cases of the Israeli forces intentionally targeting medical workers and paramedics with live ammunition and tear gas canisters. The Israeli forces also targeted ambulances, medical points and field clinics in the camps of the March of Return. According to the Ministry of Health, at least 3 medical workers were killed with live ammunition while performing their work in the March of Return. And there were at least 643 wounded, and at least 102 ambulances were partially damaged.

One of the three victims was Razan Alnajjar, who was shot in the chest while providing first aid to one of the injured. Although the 21-year-old volunteer paramedic wore the white coat and was identified as a medic, an Israeli sniper shot her in a clear violation of the Fourth Geneva convention. ‘Abdullah Sabri’ Atiyya al-Qatti, 22, was also targeted with a live bullet in the back, and the medic of the Civil Defense, Musa Jabr Abdel Salam Abu Hassanein, 34 years old, with a live bullet in the chest.

Moreover, the Israeli occupation authorities prevented the entry of protective equipment and gas masks to the Gaza Strip, which resulted in more danger to the work of the medics. Targeting the medical workers, according to some human rights groups, was done during daylight and while these medics were wearing their white coats.

Female protesters participating in the Great March of Return
Picture credit: Mohammed Zaanoun
Female protesters participating in the Great March of Return
Picture credit: Mohammed Zaanoun

Women and Children

Women and children have constituted an integral part of the March of Return, and they have stood beside young people in every protest over the past year. Even though vulnerable groups enjoy special protection under International Law, the Israeli forces have consistently targeted women and children protesters. According to the Ministry of Health, Gaza, at least 970 women were injured while demonstrating since March 30th 2018 and 6 women were killed.

One of such cases is of Asmaa Abu Daqqa, 24, a Palestinian mother of three, who was injured by live ammunition by Israeli forces when she approached the Gaza/Israel fence near Khan Younis to help a young girl during the March of Return protest on 14thMay 2018.

There is proof in the form of several videos in which it is evident that the Israeli forces have been targeting women and children who are away from the fence and pose no threat to the Israeli forces. In many cases those who were shot, men, women and children, were only waving the Palestinian flags and shouting slogans of freedom.

One of the videos posted on social media shows 16-year-old Ahmed Abu Tuyor being shot dead while waving his hands at a distance from the Israeli soldiers. On 28th September 2018, both Mohamed al-Houm, 14, and Nassaer Mosbeh, 12, were shot and killed by the Israelis forces while demonstrating in the March of Return.

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territory found that Israeli security forces used lethal force against children who did not pose an imminent threat of death or serious injury to its soldiers. Four of the children were shot as they walked or ran away from the fence. The Commission also concluded that, in several cases, Israeli snipers shot these children intentionally, knowing very well that they were children.

Conclusion

The above report clearly demonstrates that the weekly protests under the March of Return at the fence between Gaza and Israel are nonviolent. Which makes the disproportionate response of the Israeli forces a matter of concern, for which the Government of Israel should be held accountable. The tenacity with which the protestors in Gaza have carried on their nonviolent resistance for a year, despite the loss of life and lifelong injuries of many protestors shows the oppressive nature of the illegal blockade of Gaza by Israel. We at AFDH believe that certain measures must be undertaken by the global community to address the grave violation of Human Rights by Israeli authorities in Gaza during the March of Return protests. They are as follows:

  • We call upon the United Nations and the Security Council to hold Israel accountable for the action of their armed forces and ensure respect for International Humanitarian Law and Geneva Conventions.
  • We call upon Israel to immediately stop violating the human rights of Palestinian protestors and violating the international conventions that it is a part of.
  • We call upon Israel to respect the Palestinians’ right to civil dissent and refrain using lethal power against the Palestinian civilian demonstrators.
  • We urge the State Members of the United Nations to prevent Israel from committing more crimes and impose sanctions on individuals found to have committed war crimes in the Palestinian territories.
  • We urge Israel to allow access to medical services and permit medical workers to fulfill their medical duties during the protests.
  • We call upon Israel to end the illegal and inhumane blockade on the Gaza Strip.
  • We call on the Israeli government to hold fair investigations on the killings of the Palestinian civilians during their weekly protests.

Appendix

As reported by the Ministry of Health, Gaza, below is the breakdown of the number of peaceful protesters injured and/or killed by the Israeli occupation forces in one year of the March of Return:

• 266 killed and 30,398 different wounded, of which 16027 were transferred to hospitals.

Killed:

  • 50 children
  • 6 females
  • 1 elderly

• Injured individuals treated at hospitals:

  • 3175 children
  • 1008 women

Types of Injuries:

  • 536 Serious
  • 6834 Medium
  • 8266 Minor

Classification of Injuries:

  • 6857 live lead
  • 844 metal coated with rubber
  • 2331 gas suffocation
  • 1989 fragments and various injuries

Place of injury in the body:

  • 1503 head and neck
  • 732 chest and back
  • 624 abdomen and pelvis
  • 2232 upper limbs
  • 7731 lower limbs
  • 2831 multiple places

Amputations – Overall 136 cases:

  • 122 lower limbs
  • 14 upper limbs

• Targeting Paramedics:

Total targeting of medical personnel led to 3 deaths and 665 different injuries.

Those killed:

  • Musa Abu Hassanin
  • Al-Shahida Al-Massa’fah Razan Al-Najjar
  • Abdullah Al-Qatati

Partially damaged in 112 ambulances.

• Targeting Journalists:

Total targeting of journalists led to two deaths and 347 different infections.

Those killed:

  • Yasser Murtaja
  • Ahmed Abu Hussein

Download Report : Here

About the author

Ahmed Alnaouq, 25, graduated from Al-Azhar University in Gaza City, with a Bachelor’s degree in English literature. Born in the middle Gaza community of Deir Albalah, his dream is to advance the cause of Palestinian human rights and to show the world the “human face” of the Israeli occupation. In his multiple roles, he is a Project Manager for the Gaza team of ‘We Are Not Numbers’, a writer and a freelance journalist

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