Adham Amara, 17; Tamer Abu al-Kheir, 17; Mohammed Saad, 21; Bilal Abogamous, 17.
Those are the names and ages of the four Palestinian youths killed Friday by Israeli snipers during the protests at the border lines between Gaza and the Jewish state, on the date of the first anniversary of the Great March of Return.
Many commentators seem to have breathed a sigh of relief about the “low” number of dead and injured at the end of the day. Everyone expected a massacre as bloody as last May, when—just as Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner were in Jerusalem celebrating the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the Holy City—no less than 60 Palestinians were killed in Gaza in just a few hours.
True, there was no repeat of such bloodshed—but still, four young men lost their lives, and they are not mere numbers. The same must be stressed for the dozens who have been wounded by sniper fire, eight of whom are in critical condition.
Likewise, the participation of at least 40,000 Palestinians in the one-year anniversary of the March cannot be reduced to mere numbers. These tens of thousands of people who have gone to the eastern border of Gaza have shown an extraordinary determination, born of desperation and the fact that they have nothing to lose.
“We will continue to protest against the Israeli siege every Friday, as we have been doing for a year,” 50-year-old Tamer told us Saturday. He had gone together with his sons to Malaka, east of Gaza City, the largest of the five camps set up for Great March of Return. “They cannot stop us,” he added. “We haven’t gotten anything from them yet, but we will only agree to stop when we will see the end of the siege and we will be free.”
We heard similar comments from the other participants in the protests that we interviewed, old and young. Salah Abdel Ati—a theorist of popular struggle against the occupation and one of the activists of the “National Committee to Break the Siege,” which brought together political parties and civil associations in Gaza and came up with the idea of the March at the start of 2018—was sorrowful about the death of the four young men, and at the same time pleased about how the protests went on Friday.
“Every week, we are forced to add more and more victims to the list of the dead, but we must keep moving forward,” he stressed when we asked him to tell us about what has been achieved during the last year of protests. “The road ahead is long,” he said, “our goals are still out of reach, yet we will not lose our faith and conviction we can liberate Gaza from the siege. The most bitter part is the fact that the international community has not intervened as much as we were expecting in support of the cause of the people of Gaza, who have the right to liberty and a dignified life.”
Abdel Ati is certain that the Great March of Return will go on. That is also what the leaders of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar, and one of the leaders of Islamic Jihad, Khaled al Batch, are saying, all of whom were present yesterday among the crowd of protesters, a few hundred meters from the Israeli lines. Haniyeh has said that the protests will not stop even if there was a successful outcome of the mediation process managed by Egypt, aimed at reaching a truce between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza.
However, the protests may continue in a mostly symbolic form, if—according to some of the points in a draft long-term ceasefire agreement—Hamas would agree to put an end to, or contain, the “friction” along the border barriers, in addition to guaranteeing that rockets would no longer be launched towards Israeli territory. It is clear that those who will have the last word on the future of the Great March of Return will be the leadership of the Islamic movement, despite the insistence of many in Gaza that Hamas is not controlling the protests.
At the end of the day on Friday, Israeli military commanders were quick to point out that the protests had not turned into a bloodbath also thanks to Hamas’s work of containing the actions of the protesters. This assessment is in fact accurate: there was a very large presence of plainclothes agents of the police and security services among the protesters on Friday. The Islamic movement has thus given the “Israeli enemy” some proof of its reliability as a negotiating partner and its ability to effectively control the situation in Gaza. This is what Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh has been emphasizing during telephone conversations with the foreign minister of Qatar, Mohammed bin Abdel Rahman al Thani, and the deputy head of Egyptian intelligence, Amro Hanafi.
However, there’s no guarantee this can convince Netanyahu to endorse a ceasefire. The Israeli Prime Minister once again played the hardliner on security on Friday, complimenting the military for how they had “handled” the situation in Gaza.
It’s quite possible that Hamas’s hopes—and, most importantly, those of the Palestinian population—will end up disappointed, as the head of the Israeli government is unlikely to soften his positions in the run-up to the coming elections for the Israeli Knesset. He is being criticized by hardliners from his own government coalition about his supposed too-soft approach to the Gaza question.