By Yousuf Abdelfatah
A Palestinian journalist died this Saturday in Gaza after being shot in the abdomen by Israeli forces while documenting the protests in the besieged Palestinian enclave. Yaser Murtaja was the 29th Palestinian killed in the week-long protests that mark some of the bloodiest confrontations the Strip has seen since 2014.
This is the second Friday in a row that Palestinians in the Gaza strip have protested. The first Friday, March 31st, resulted in the death of 20 Palestinians, with hundreds more injured. The protests are part of the “Great Return March,” a series of protests scheduled to continue until May 15 where residents of Gaza demand the right of return to their family homes which were lost during Israel’s founding in 1948. May 15 is known is Palestine as Nakba (“The Great Disaster”) Day, commemorating the mass exodus of Palestinians and the loss of their land during Israel’s founding. The first Friday saw some 30,000 people attend the demonstrations. This past Friday had fewer people, but the high profile killing of Yaser Murtaja and the international attention it has received will likely invigorate Gazans for next week’s protest.
Almost 2 million Palestinians live in the tiny coastal strip located between Israel and Egypt that is just 25 miles long and 4 miles wide- making it one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Compounding the issue of population density is the fact that the tiny polity has been suffering under years of blockade, leaving Gazans trapped in what is essentially an open air prison with an incredibly limited amount of food, polluted water sources, and a lack of electricity. They feel ignored, or perhaps worse, forgotten by both the Arab states and the broader international community. In fact, Egypt is an active participant in the blockade against them. As one Gaza based Palestinian journalist put it, “We can accept that we all must eventually die; in Gaza, the tragedy is that we don’t get to live.”
The protests have been organized by Hamas, who Israel accuses of stirring up tensions and conflict under the semblance of protests. They have been mostly peaceful on the Palestinian side and represent a serious political victory for the group and a serious problem for the Israelis. Regional politics and issues with the Palestinian Authority has left Hamas in a significantly weakened position with little external support. At the same time the dire conditions in Gaza have caused support for Hamas to wane. These protests allow Hamas to “rechannel” grievances against the occupation while uniting Palestinians and demonstrating that they are still an effective political entity. Additionally, their support for a nonviolent movement shows ideological growth within the organization, which has historically advocated for more direct conflict.
Meanwhile, Israel’s violent response to the protests has earned it international backlash. Protesters who approached the buffer zone between Gaza and Israel were shot at by Israeli soldiers. The Israeli military claims that it has no choice due to security concerns about a rush on the border fence, but the fact remains that gunfire is being targeted against unarmed peaceful protesters. Additionally, violent repression is a counterproductive strategy for Israel, as it is likely to galvanize the protesters and increase Hamas’s internal popularity.
How the remaining protests will play out and if Hamas will be able to sustain this wave of nonviolent demonstration remains to be seen. What is certain however is if the protests continue to remain peaceful than Israel cannot continue to meet them with such force. Such a strategy is counterproductive, morally reprehensible, and (one would hope) can not be tolerated by the international community.
Yousuf Abdelfatah is a senior at Rutgers University where he studies Economics and Political Science.