Israel responds to land protests with a massacre

April 4, 2018

The U.S. government is helping Israel evade responsibility for yet another massacre perpetrated against the people of Gaza, explains Sumaya A..

SEVENTY YEARS ago this coming May, Israeli militias began a campaign of ethnic cleansing that massacred hundreds of Palestinians and forcibly displaced more than 700,000 people, creating one of the world's largest refugee populations.

On March 30 of this year, as thousands of Palestinians in Gaza mobilized for the Great Return March--to demand their right to return to their homes throughout historic Palestine--Israel chose to commit another massacre, killing at least 16 Palestinians and injuring an astonishing 1,500.

Seven hundred of the more than 1,500 Palestinians injured were shot by live sniper fire. As the head of the ICU at a hospital in Gaza said of the wounds he treated after the massacre: "This shows that Israeli forces were shooting to kill or to cause disabilities."

One of the tens of thousands of Palestinian marchers was 29-year-old Mohammed Sabbagh, who was there with his family to take part in the demonstrations. As he and his 20-year-old brother Badr Sabbagh watched the march, Badr asked him for a cigarette.

Medics rush to treat a Palestinian woman wounded by Israeli snipers during demonstrations in Gaza
Medics rush to treat a Palestinian woman wounded by Israeli snipers during demonstrations in Gaza

"I gave it to him," Mohammed told the Washington Post. "He had two puffs, and then he was shot in the head."

Some 30,000 Palestinians participated in the marches, which commemorated the anniversary of the Land Day strikes of 1976, when Israel expropriated thousands more acres of Palestinian land. Entire families marched, erected tents and hung the names of their former villages next to rows of Palestinian flags. It was one of the largest popular Palestinian protests in recent history.

Calls by the United Nations Security Council for investigations into Israel's massacre fell on deaf ears. Israeli Defense Minister Lieberman refused to engage with the question, instead stating, "I think all our soldiers deserve a medal" for their actions.

The following day, a resolution was introduced in the UN Security Council demanding independent investigations into the massacre. Predictably, the U.S. used its veto power to block the resolution.

LEADING UP to the Land Day events, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) put in place 100 snipers, protected by an electric fence along the border. The IDF knew full well that Palestinians planned to protest peacefully, and that entire families, including children, would participate.

In addition to deploying snipers on an already heavily militarized border, Israel also chose to experiment with newly developed drone technology that effectively rains tear gas on protesters from the sky. Before March 30, this new technology had only been tested on the outskirts of Palestinian villages and farms.

The Palestinian march was planned well over a month in advance of March 30. A tent city was erected near the militarized Israeli border. Israel continues to refer to its border with Gaza as a "border fence" when this buffer zone stretches well into Gaza's territory, rendering nearly 30 percent of its farmland useless.

Once a vibrant Palestinian sea hub, Gaza today is, in effect, a open-air, maximum-security prison housing 2 million Palestinians who have been besieged by land, sea and air for more than a decade.

Gaza's northern border is surrounded with heavy artillery, mines and tanks. To the west is the Mediterranean Sea, which is guarded by Israeli gunboats that keep Gazans from utilizing the sea for commerce and travel. Israeli attacks on fishermen are not uncommon. Just a month ago, 18-year-old fisherman Ismail Saleh Abu Riyala died from a bullet to the head while fishing with his brother off the coast of Gaza.

The conditions of life for Gazans are devastating. Gaza has suffered multiple Israeli land and air bombardments, including Operation First Rain in 2005, when Israel removed all illegal Jewish settlements from the area under the guise of "disengagement."

A few months after Jewish settlers were resettled in the occupied West Bank and Israel, Operation First Rain commenced with a barrage of missiles. Israeli military assaults on Gaza continued over the next decade, each one rivaling the former in aggression. During Israel's 51-day war on Gaza in 2014, more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed, 495 of them children.

The periodic assaults on Gaza, coupled with the ongoing siege, have destroyed Gaza's infrastructure and economy, leaving scant resources and no secure way to leave or re-enter.

With unemployment levels exceeding 40 percent, it's no surprise that the majority of Gazans live below the poverty line. For the large youth demographic--50 percent of the population is under the age of 25--the prospect of a better future is a distant fantasy.

Israel has spent the last decade encircling Palestinians in Gaza, squeezing every ounce of hope from their besieged lives. A study conducted among youth in 2016 found that 80 suicides per month were reported in January and February 2016.

Understanding the conditions in Gaza is crucial for debunking the official Israeli narrative that the tens of thousands of Palestinians participating in the Great Return March were "terrorist demonstrators."

Israeli authorities claim their forces opened fire "only when necessary," and yet 16 Palestinians, the youngest only 16 years old, were shot dead. They weren't there to commit "acts of terror," but to demand dignity and their inalienable rights to their land and property.

Videos of some of the shootings clearly depict unarmed Palestinians running away from Israeli forces--and being shot in the head by Israeli snipers.

THE MARCH of return commemorated the Land Day Massacre of 1976, when Palestinians organized demonstrations and a nationwide strike against Israel's plan to expropriate large swaths of Palestinian land for Jewish-only settlements. Six Palestinians were killed.

These protests and strikes against Israel's colonial-settler strategy marked the first Land Day in Palestine and the first collective act of civil disobedience by Palestinians within Israel since the 1948 Nakba.

Today, what continues to drive the annual Land Day protests is the Palestinian call to exercise their right of return, which is a right enshrined in international law. Palestinian refugees in Gaza, who make up 70 percent of the population, have an especially strong case because many of them live within just a few miles of their former villages.

The tents erected on the border serve as the backbone of a six-week protest encampment along the Israeli border. Each tent is named after a former Palestinian village now occupied by settlers or cordoned off in the so-called buffer zone.

The six-week protest culminates with mass mobilizations planned for May 15, which marks 70 years since the ethnic cleansing and Israeli colonization of Palestine began in 1948.

As is typical when Israel massacres Palestinians, the mainstream media have either ignored the March 30 massacre or implied that blame lies with Palestinians themselves, characterizing the peaceful marchers as "rioters" and "violent protesters."

Israeli officials including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman praised the soldiers for their actions, claiming they had done what was necessary to protect the sovereignty of Israel.

As the Electronic Intifada's Ali Abunimah pointed out, the IDF actually posted--and then deleted--a statement defending the massacre and taking responsibility for it, asserting that "everything was accurate and measured, and we know where every bullet landed."

The deletion of the statement is an implicit acknowledgment that Israeli officials had blundered in admitting to the commission of war crimes. "Israeli army takes full responsibility for the killing of all unarmed protesters and the injuring of hundreds with live ammunition," tweeted Sarit Michaeli, the international advocacy officer for the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, in response to the IDF statement.

In another statement, Lieberman made clear that if Palestinians attempted to march back to their homes, Israeli forces would unleash yet another military operation against Gaza's 2 million inhabitants.

Echoing the U.S. right wing's fabrications about "paid protesters," both Lieberman and Netanyahu made statements asserting that "90 percent of protesters, and their families, were paid by Hamas."

Netanyahu and Lieberman also echo the U.S. political establishment in using Islamophobia to disparage any and all resistance, asserting that any protesters are by definition "terrorists" linked to the Islamic Hamas party, which rules Gaza.

In the U.S., emergency rallies across the country were held on March 30 in solidarity with Gaza. On CNN, Sen. Bernie Sanders defended the Palestinian right to protest and challenged Israel's description of peaceful protesters as rioters, saying, "Tens and tens of thousands of people were engaged in nonviolent protest."

This is an important statement by Sanders in condemnation of Israel's aggression and support of nonviolent resistance. Hopefully, Sanders will reconsider his opposition to one of the most successful forms of nonviolent Palestinian protest--the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

DEMONSTRATIONS WILL continue near the border, and unless Israeli forces destroy the encampment, the tent city will remain standing until the May 15 Nakba commemorations begin. These mobilizations mark a significant uptick in Palestinian resistance at a time of increasing aggression and intimidation by the Israeli apartheid state.

Attacks and night raids on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank have doubled in the first two months of 2018 alone.

Entire Palestinian villages in northern Israel are threatened with demolition. The 350 residents of the village of Umm Al-Hiran in the Naqab have had eviction notices posted on their doors. In its place, Israel plans to build an illegal Jewish-only settlement.

The case of Ahed Tamimi--who is now serving eight months in military prison for standing up to her occupiers after Israeli forces shot her 15-year-old cousin in the head--is yet another example of the ruthlessness and cruelty of the Zionist project. While Ahed serves time, Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier who shot an incapacitated Palestinian man point-blank in the head, had his sentence cut by a third.

One of the main triggers of both the increased aggression and uptick in protest this year is Trump's decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Trump's move emboldened Israel to fast-track plans to expand settlement projects in the West Bank and continue the erasure of Palestinian identity. In March, Israel waived a series of permits and bureaucratic steps needed to begin work on the embassy building in Jerusalem, which is set to open on May 15.

The March 30 protest in Gaza was a point of departure and an attempt to reassert Palestinian resistance in the narrative of occupation--to mark years of occupation but also a revival of defiance and the first of many steps toward return.

"[A] few hundred meters away from those soldiers' eyes, I would emphasize my right and the whole Palestinian people's right to return home after 70 years of displacement," said 23-year-old Alaa Shahin, as he and his wife celebrated their marriage ceremony, which they held amidst the crowds at the March 30 action. "We will not wait another 70!"

What happens next in Gaza depends partially on how the Israeli government chooses to respond to sustained protest. There is no doubt that mass mobilizations and protests will occur throughout the West Bank and Gaza to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Nakba.

Although the spread of the BDS movement has certainly threatened Israel, the growth and strength of counterrevolutionary forces in the Middle East has made popular protest and solidarity more difficult.

We must continue to call for an end to occupation and for the right of return for all Palestinians. Exposing the ties between Israeli settler colonialism and U.S. imperialism and Islamophobia is key in fighting for the liberation of Palestinians, in both occupied Palestine and in the diaspora.

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