From Sharpeville to Selma, the history of marches for civil and political rights is long and bloody.
This mass mobilization around the core principles of Palestinian liberation — arising from civil society independently of discredited political leaderships — holds immense power to disrupt the status quo. Whether this movement, from East Jerusalem to Gaza, Israel to the West Bank, eventually bends toward justice depends on whether the international community will tolerate Israel’s capacity to deny an entire people their basic rights and rob them of a future because they are not Jewish. The past record is not encouraging, but something new has started.
“The battle against infiltration in the border areas at all times of day and night will be carried out mainly by opening fire, without giving warning, on any individual or group that cannot be identified from afar by our troops as Israeli citizens and who are, at the moment they are spotted, [infiltrating] into Israeli territory.”
This was the order issued in 1953 by Israel’s Fifth Giv’ati Brigade in response to the hundreds of Palestinian refugees who sought to return to homes and lands from which they had been expelled in 1948. For years after the war, the recently displaced braved mines and bullets from border kibbutzim and risked harsh reprisals from Israel’s army to reclaim their property. The reprisals included raids on refugee camps and villages that often killed civilians, as the Israeli historian Benny Morris and others have laid out. Still, refugees persisted in their attempts to return, and Israel persisted in viewing these attempts as “infiltration.”
Over the past six weeks, Israeli soldiers have killed some forty Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the majority of them unarmed civilians, and injured more than five thousand protesters. As the US relocated its embassy to Jerusalem Monday, the violence escalated alarmingly. Israeli forces shot dead at least another fifty Palestinians and injured more than 2,400, making it by far the bloodiest day yet in the current round of protests in Gaza.
Like their grandparents, these Palestinians are seeking justice and redress for their families’ expulsion from their land. Unlike the house-to-house reprisal attacks of the 1950s, however, today’s killings are carried out from a distance. Israeli snipers are positioned on raised berms just beyond the sophisticated fence and expansive buffer zone that separate Gaza from Israel. From this safe perch, soldiers aim their rifles and shoot Palestinian protesters; according to Amnesty International, the targeting includes “what appear to be deliberately inflicted life-changing injuries.” Yesh Gvul, the movement founded in 1982 by Israeli combat veterans who refused to serve in the war in Lebanon, has publicly endorsed the call by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem urging these soldiers to disobey a patently illegal order.
Yet the shootings continue. As in the 1950s, Israeli officials justify the army’s use of overwhelming lethal force as a necessary security deterrent. Calling the protests a “March of Terror,” Israel’s Minister of Defense, Avigdor Lieberman, noted that the army will not “hesitate to use everything [it] has” to stop them.