This is not a regular conflict, and one cannot measure it just by the number of victims. Still, as we write this article, only a few hours from the start of the incidents on the border that confines the Gaza Strip, there are already 15 dead and hundreds injured [editor’s note: 16 have been confirmed dead].
Already in recent weeks, the tension was palpable and ever growing: the various demonstrations planned were given one common name, “the March of Return,” which shook Israel to the core, meaning as it does the return of the Palestinian refugees.
It stands for the return of those who were chased away from their homes or decided to flee in 1948. The 1967 war changed the territorial reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the territorial issue at that point presented—and maybe it still does—the opportunity to reach a historic agreement between the two peoples, and between two movements that have both grown since the end of the 19th century.
On one hand, Zionism promised the Jews “the return to their land after the expulsion” nearly 2,000 years ago. On the other side was Palestinian nationalism, which began to manifest and define itself in its confrontation with Zionism. Since 1948, the idea of “the return to their land after the expulsion” has been part of the essence of what it is to be Palestinian.
The non-existent peace process after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli extremist in 1995 offers, theoretically, the possibility of an agreement based on a territorial partitioning: the territories occupied in 1967 would be the basis for a Palestinian state, the much awaited “return” would be limited to those areas, and—perhaps—a certain amount of territory would otherwise be ceded to what is now Israel.
The other possibility, of a single state covering all the territories currently occupied by Israel, opens the door to two possibilities: an apartheid regime under Israeli rule, or a democratic state without the current Jewish-Zionist cast.
The 343-square-kilometer Gaza Strip, in which two million Palestinians live in poverty and on the threshold of an enormous humanitarian crisis, is surrounded by a closed-off military zone, which is not, however, airtight, and some Palestinians often manage to cross it. But in recent weeks, the nervousness of the Israelis had grown to a fever pitch, as everyone feared what would happen when a mass of Palestinians would engage in a peaceful march to try to create a visual representation of what the “return” would mean.
What would happen? Would the Israelis have to repress them by force, and would the world accuse them of crimes against civilians? The panic created by this possible “return” touched the deepest anxieties of the Israelis. It would also happen on Land Day—the very day on which, in 1976, the confiscation of Palestinian land in Israel led to bloody clashes, and Israeli police murdered six Palestinian who were both Arab and Israeli citizens.
Saturday, in one of the most impressive demonstrations of the Palestinian resistance, thousands of people protested along the border of the Gaza Strip. Tension ran high amongst Israeli troops, who feared they might cross the border and “threaten the Israeli State.” It was not long before the first victims were reported.
This was, after all, “expected.” Facing a symbolic act evoking the idea of return, the use of force by Israel sends a clear message: anyone who wants to cross the border will not do so alive. Strength is on our side, watch out!
All this belongs to a narrative that the Israeli right can no longer afford: the panic created by “the return” is an overreaction clearly resulting from having to face up to the need to arrive at a peace process while avoiding a worsening of the whole situation.
After a long period of “near silence” throughout the world, during which only sporadic protests were there to remind the Israelis that they cannot continue to rule by force over millions of Palestinians without rights, violence has now erupted on the border.
Today is a new Land Day, and the bloodshed is a warning of severe consequences to come, unless the Israelis choose a different path.