Six Months On: Gaza's Great March of Return

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More than six months have passed since the “Great March of Return” protests started in the Gaza Strip on 30 March.

Their calls for Israeli authorities to lift their 11-year illegal blockade on Gaza and to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their villages and towns have not been met.

According to the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, since the start of the protests, over 150 Palestinians have been killed in the demonstrations. At least 10,000 others have been injured, including 1,849 children, 424 women, 115 paramedics and 115 journalists. Of those injured, 5,814 were hit by live ammunition. According to Israeli media, one soldier was moderately injured due to shrapnel from a grenade thrown by a Palestinian from inside Gaza and one Israeli soldier was killed by Palestinian sniper fire near the fence that separates Gaza and Israel outside of the context of the protests.

H.S. - Palestinian protester from the Gaza Strip
How many people have to be killed in order for the [Gaza] blockade to be lifted and for us to have a normal life?

Why are Palestinians demonstrating?

This year has marked 11 years since Israel imposed a land, air and sea blockade on the Gaza Strip. The United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), among others, have characterized Israel’s closure policy as “collective punishment” and called for Israel to lift its closure. Under Israel’s illegal blockade, movement of people and goods is severely restricted and the majority of exports and imports of raw materials have been banned. Travel through the Erez Crossing, Gaza’s passenger crossing to Israel, the West Bank, and the outside world, is limited to what the Israeli military calls “exceptional humanitarian cases”, meaning mainly those with significant health issues and their companions, and prominent businesspeople. Meanwhile, since 2013, Egypt has imposed tight restrictions on the Rafah crossing, keeping it closed most of this time.

Over the last 11 years, civilians in the Gaza Strip, 70% of whom are registered refugees from areas that now constitute Israel, have suffered the devastating consequences of Israel’s illegal blockade in addition to three wars that have also taken a heavy toll on essential infrastructure and further debilitated Gaza’s health system and economy. As a result, Gaza’s economy has sharply declined, leaving its population almost entirely dependent on international aid. Gaza now has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world at 44%. Four years after the 2014 conflict, some 22,000 people remain internally displaced, and thousands suffer from significant health problems that require urgent medical treatment outside of the Gaza Strip. However, Israel often denies or delays issuing permits to those seeking vital medical care outside Gaza, while hospitals inside the Strip lack adequate resources and face chronic shortages of fuel, electricity and medical supplies caused mainly by Israel’s illegal blockade.

The protests were launched to demand the right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees to their villages and towns in what is now Israel, and to call for an end to Israel’s blockade. They culminated on 14 May, on the day of the US embassy’s move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the eve of the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, when Palestinians commemorate the displacement and dispossession of hundreds of thousands in 1948-9 during the conflict following the creation of the state of Israel. On that day alone, Israeli forces killed 59 Palestinians, in a horrifying example of use of excessive force and live ammunition against protesters who did not pose an imminent threat to life.

The organizers of the “Great March of Return” have repeatedly stated that the protests are intended to be peaceful, and they have largely involved demonstrators protesting near the fence that separates the Gaza Strip from Israel. Despite this, the Israeli army reinforced its forces – deploying tanks, military vehicles and soldiers, including snipers, along the Gaza/Israel fence – and gave orders to shoot anyone within several hundred metres of the fence.

While some protesters have engaged in some forms of violence including by burning tyres, flying incendiary kites or throwing stones and Molotov cocktails in the direction of Israeli soldiers, social media videos, as well as eyewitness testimonies gathered by Amnesty International, Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups show that Israeli soldiers shot unarmed protesters, bystanders, journalists and medical staff approximately 150-400m from the fence, where they did not pose any threat.

Nature of injuries

The devastating toll on civilian lives in Gaza should not be measured solely by the number of Palestinians killed, but also by the number of injuries. Doctors in Gaza have told Amnesty International that many of the serious injuries they have witnessed are to the lower limbs, including the knees, which are typical of war wounds that they have not observed since the 2014 Gaza conflict. Many have suffered extreme bone and tissue damage, as well as large exit wounds measuring between 10 and 15mm, and will likely face further complications, infections and some form of physical disability, such as paralysis or amputation. According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, during the six months of demonstrations at least 76 Palestinian demonstrators have had their lower or upper limbs amputated. Reports of the high number of injuries to the knees, which increase the probability of bullet fragmentation, are particularly disturbing. If true, they would suggest that the Israeli army is intentionally intending to inflict life-changing injuries.

According to military experts as well as a forensic pathologist who reviewed photographs of injuries obtained by Amnesty International, many of the wounds observed by doctors in Gaza are consistent with those caused by high-velocity Israeli-manufactured Tavor rifles using 5.56mm military ammunition. Other wounds bear the hallmarks of US-manufactured M24 Remington sniper rifles shooting 7.62mm hunting ammunition, which expand and mushroom inside the body.

The nature of these injuries shows that Israeli soldiers are using high-velocity military weapons designed to cause maximum harm to Palestinian protesters who do not pose an imminent threat to them. These apparently deliberate attempts to kill and maim are deeply disturbing, not to mention completely illegal. Some of these cases appear to amount to wilful killing, a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and a war crime.

Alaa al-Dali, 21, a cyclist who was shot and injured during the “Great March of Return” protests, who subsequently lost his right leg. Alaa has been training as a cyclist for the last six years. His dream is to leave Gaza to travel abroad to attend the Asian Games and raise the Palestinian flag.

Paramedics

Three medical workers have been shot and killed while working during the demonstrations. At least 115 paramedics and medical workers have been injured by live ammunition or tear gas inhalation.

On 1 June, 21-year-old Razan al-Najjar, Palestinian paramedic, was shot in the chest and killed by Israeli sniper fire while providing first aid to injured protesters at the Gaza/Israel fence east of Khan Younis, in southern Gaza. Razan was wearing her white coat, clearly identifiable as a medic.

On 10 August, Israeli forces fired live ammunition towards the protesters east of Rafah, fatally injuring a volunteer paramedic Abdallah Sabri al-Qatati, 22, who was shot in the back while he was about 100m away from the fence, and was pronounced dead in hospital less than an hour after being shot.


Children

According to local Palestinian human rights organizations in Gaza, at least 31 children have been killed while protesting during the six months of demonstrations.

Several videos posted on social media have shown unarmed protesters – men, women and children – being shot by the Israeli army. In some cases, people were shot while waving the Palestinian flag or running away from the fence. For example, video footage widely circulated on social media showed Ahmed Masabah Abu Tuyur, aged 16, being shot on 7 September as he was waving his hands at a great distance from the Gaza/Israel fence, east of Rafah. He was shot in the chest and died. On Friday 14 September, 12-year-old Shadi Abdul Aal was also killed by a gunshot wound to in the head. 

On Friday 28 September, Mohamed Naiyf al-Houm, 14, was shot and killed by Israeli live ammunition, which struck him from behind in the abdomen, east of al-Boreij refugee camp while attending the 27th “Great March of Return” demonstration.

On the same day, Nasser Azmi Mosbeh, 12, was shot in the head and killed by Israeli live ammunition in eastern Khan Younis. He was immediately taken to the European Gaza Hospital where he was pronounced dead an hour later. Nasser had been attending the “Great March of Return” demonstrations since they started on 30 March. Both of his sisters are volunteer paramedics in Khan Younis and were colleagues of Razan al-Najjar.

Amnesty International spoke to Nasser’s mother, who said, “I wish I could grieve but I’ll forever know Nasser was killed unjustly. There needs to be accountability. If not, who will stop the killing of other children? How can this stop?”



Nasser Azmi Mosbeh, 12, was shot in the head and killed by Israeli live ammunition in eastern Khan Younis.

Women

One woman has been killed and at least 424 have sustained injuries from live ammunition and tear gas inhalation since 30 March.

Asmaa Abu Daqqa, 24, a Palestinian mother of three, 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 “Great March of Return” protest on 14 May. The bullet that injured Asmaa entered and exited her right leg, which caused multiple fractures and damaged the blood vessels as well.

“Day after day, the effects of the siege imposed on Gaza increases. In the last 11 years of blockade I lost my future: I was 18 when the siege started, I spent my youth under blockade and restrictions. As a Palestinian female, I have the right to participate in demonstrations to prove to the world that I exist. And just like every one of you is living happily and peacefully, we have the right to live. Enough is enough, we are fed up,” Asmaa Abu Daqqa told Amnesty International.

Journalists

Two journalists have been shot dead, despite both wearing protective vests that clearly identified them as members of the press, while at least 115 others have been injured during the six months of demonstrations.

In one case documented by Amnesty International, 20-year-old journalist Yousef al-Kronz was shot by an Israeli sniper bullet that penetrated both of his legs while he was covering the demonstrations east of al-Boreij refugee camp. Yousef had his left leg amputated after Israeli authorities denied him permission to travel to Ramallah in the occupied West Bank for urgent medical treatment. He was eventually allowed to leave for an operation to save his other leg following legal intervention by human rights groups.

“The past six months have been more than a nightmare. I would have never imagined I would see people shattered into pieces. Bullets flew over my head and I suffocated from tear gas every time I went to work. Every time I went to work, I prayed I would go back home safe to my family and friends. Despite all of the danger, what made us continue to cover the demonstrations was to show to the world that Palestinians have the right to live a better life,” Hind Khoudary, 23, a Palestinian journalist, told Amnesty International.

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