Israel and Palestine

The History and Rage Behind the Deadly Protests in Gaza

Reports of violent encounters with Israeli forces are not exactly rare in the deeply contested Palestinian territory. But this time feels different.
Left Image: Israeli soldiers positioned alongside Gaza last week. Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images. Right Image: Protesters throwing rocks in response to the IDF intervention into Land Day Protests. Photo by Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Last Friday, Israeli soldiers opened fire on a gathering of thousands near the border between Gaza and Israel, ultimately killing 18 Palestinians and reportedly wounding some 700 more. The demonstration was organized to mark "Land Day," an annual commemoration of Palestinian civil resistance, and video evidence has since emerged indicating that at least some of the protestors gunned down from a distance on Friday were either carrying no weapons or actively fleeing—or both.


The incident has drawn pointed criticism from NGOs like Human Rights Watch—which called them "unlawful" and "calculated"—and American politicians like Bernie Sanders, who tweeted, "The killing of Palestinian demonstrators by Israeli forces in Gaza is tragic. It is the right of all people to protest for a better future without a violent response."

The Israeli government has tried to assert it was acting in self defense, claiming protestors had links to Hamas and that activists were throwing molotov cocktails and stones, among other projectiles. The Foreign Affairs Director of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party, Eli Hazan, went so far as to assert that "all 30,000" of the protestors were "legitimate targets." Still, even before last Friday's protests, an officer in the Israeli military tweeted what critics suggested was a damning video in anticipation of Land Day featuring images of Israeli soldiers loading and firing sniper rifles along with Arabic captions warning Palestinians to stay away from the border.

Because of the deadly violence, "Land Day" protests made a brief appearance in western press coverage of the this decades-old conflict, but to Palestinians they represent a celebration of a rich history of civil resistance and protest. To get some perspective on the origins of this occasion, as well as the historical significance of some of the worst violence in this conflict in years, we talked to Noura Erakat, a Palestinian-American human rights lawyer and assistant professor at George Mason University. She is also the author of the upcoming book tentatively titled Justice for Some: Law as Politics in the Question of Palestine.


Can you talk a bit about the circumstances that led to the original Land Day protests, which aren't exactly unique to 2018?
You have to go back to the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and what Israel orchestrated at the time. Eighty percent of the native Palestinian population is removed forcibly from what becomes Israel, and then are denied re-entry and rehabilitation. Israel defines itself as needing to constitute a decisive Jewish demographic majority [and] thereafter describes all those Palestinian refugees as constituting an existential threat. Those Palestinians who were not expelled—there are about 160,000 that remained within Israel—were internally displaced under a military law regime for 18 years, between 1948 and 1966. Under that framework, even though they were not a demographic threat, they were seen as a threat to Israel's claim that the Jewish sovereignty that was established there was temporally and spatially contiguous—and to do that you have to be able to diminish, deny, and erase the existence of a native population that had claims to sovereignty beforehand.

Various legal justifications were used to seize private land between 1948 and the original Land Day protests within what is now considered Israel, right?
Under the framework of the martial law regime, Israel instituted a land revocation program that was executed in four primary stages so that, by 1960, about two million dunums of private Palestinian land were confiscated without compensation and were marked for Jewish settlement, either explicitly under the auspices of the Jewish National Fund or less explicitly under the Israel Land Authority through what they call the administration of state land.


After 18 years under martial law, Palestinians inside Israel were technically granted Israeli citizenship, and formed political parties. Is that what led to the modern version of the protests?
In 1976, Abnaa’ al Balad (Sons of The Land)—a political party that as a matter of its politics refuses to recognize Israel—declared Land Day to protest the confiscation of their land to build yet another Jewish settlement, within Israel. On the day of that protest, six unarmed protestors—who were citizens of the state—are executed, shot to death. That is what has been commemorated every single year.

What is the meaning of Land Day now, though, given the brutal blockade of Gaza by both Israel and Egypt and the economic deprivation there?
Land Day is one of many days of extreme violence, but it also represents the fact that Palestinians do not recognize these arbitrary demarcations that Israel tries to establish, distinguishing the West Bank, Gaza, the refugees, and the citizens of Israel. As far as Palestinians are concerned, we are one nation, and these are violent fragmentations. But within all those fragmentations, Israel's policy towards Palestinians is predicated on erasure, dispossession and containment, so if they can't remove them, they will concentrate them into very small areas—that's certainly very obvious in the West Bank.

They're also obvious in the Gaza strip, which is the largest concentration, but if you look within Israel, those concentrations exist as well. You can see them now very clearly as Israel is forcibly removing the Palestinian population in the Negev desert, the Bedouin population there, and they are trying to concentrate them into urban townships. And the largest concentration of Palestinians within Israel is in the north in the Galilee.


What made the protests this year so ripe for unusual conflict?
This year, Palestinians in Gaza—as a part of a grassroots effort—decided that they would stage great marches of return that span from March 30 to May 15. From commemorating the 1976 Land Day to also commemorating the Nakba or the Palestinian catastrophe on May 15, 1948.* That's the context for what's happening—this didn't come out of nowhere. Palestinians have this protest every year all over the world, [but] this one was different because, one, of its massive scale—30,000 people—and two, the fact that that massive organization is happening in Gaza, which Israel has completely securitized and placed under a land siege and a naval blockade.

The Israeli Government is refusing to admit wrongdoing in the killings despite overwhelming evidence that most protestors were unarmed. They're pointing to the role of Hamas in organizing the protests, however. Do those justifications track at all?
The only way any of Israel's [government] discourse makes sense is if you accept that Palestinians, by virtue of existing, are being violent. Any other sane person watching that cannot accept that any of this. it's like trying to fit a square into a circle—it just doesn't fit, there was no lethal harm, there was no threat to any Israelis. This was a grassroots movement that was co-opted by the political parties, but who maintained its nonviolent framework because they have much more to lose than they have to gain if this becomes violent.


The media has covered the violence—to its credit—but much of the context is missing, no?
The mainstream media cycle is not equipped to be able to respond, or to understand instances of mass civil protests, because it only employs a discourse of violence. It's especially hard to distinguish legitimate and illegitimate violence in the question of Palestine now, because we aren't in a moment of anti-colonial fervor. It stands out as one of the last standing, not the only, but one of the last standing colonies and it's been subsumed within the framework of the global war on terror, which obscures this incredibly rich, long, history that provides a context of the Palestinian struggle as a struggle against settler colonialism.

Israeli officials have maintained Gaza is not besieged—a key point of contention looming over this whole saga, right?
Look, it's very obvious: There are five points of ingress and egress in the Gaza strip, and there is also the Mediterranean shoreline. Israel controls four out of those five points, as well as the entire shore, and maintains that Palestinians can't swim out beyond three nautical miles. Egypt controls the only other point, which is the Rafah border, but it controls that in collusion with Israel. Since 2007, there has been a complete closure of all of those points of ingress and egress, as well as the shoreline, so you have a land siege as well as a naval blockade where Israel literally controls everything that goes in and goes out—so much so that it can regulate and administer the number of calories [about 2000] that Palestinians can consume just above starvation.

If that is not a land and a navel siege, I would like to know what it is. That's like saying up is down and down is up and war is peace.

*Correction 04/04/2018: A previous version of this interview suggested Israeli Independence Day was also on May 15 when in fact it is traditionally marked on May 14. We regret the error.

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