This article has been updated.
RAFAH, Gaza — The seed that grew into Gaza’s Great Return March was planted Dec. 9, just a few days after President Trump announced he would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Palestinians long have held onto the dream of Jerusalem as our own capital, or at least as a shared capital in a country that offers equal rights to everyone. The feeling of betrayal and distress in Gaza was palpable. To clear my head, my friend Hasan and I took a walk along the border, which we do every now and again.
“There lies our land,” I said to Hasan, as I looked at the trees on the other side of the barbed-wire fence that confines us. “It’s just a few kilometers away from here.” And yet, because of that fence and the soldiers who guard it, it is so far away. Most people my age have never been permitted to leave Gaza, since Egypt controls the southern land exit and Israel restricts access to the north — as well as forbids use of our sea and airport (or at least what’s left of it after three wars).
That thought led to a wish expressed on Facebook. And it struck such a chord with people in Gaza that it set off a movement that culminated in the historic protests that have taken place over the last month. Tragically, Israel reacted even more brutally than I expected — and I’ve lived through three of its wars. The latest estimate of the number of protesters killed is 104; more than 50 died just on Monday. Thousands more have been injured. But our voices needed to be heard, and they have been.
My hatred of borders is both universal — in the sense that all Palestinians suffer from them — and very personal. My grandparents and their grandparents were born and raised in the town of Ramla, in the center of what is now Israel. On my walks, I imagined my family’s ancestral land.
But I also have experienced the destructive impact of borders more personally. I was born in 1984, two years after Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula, dividing my city, Rafah, between Gaza and Egypt. The core of the city was razed by Israel and Egypt to create a buffer zone, separating families, including mine, with barbed wire. My mother’s family lived on the Egyptian side and Rafah’s division ended in the separation of my parents. Although my mother lived a stone’s throw away, it was 19 years before I saw her again.
On that day in December, as I watched the birds fly over the border I could not cross, I found myself thinking how much smarter birds and animals are than people; they harmonize with nature instead of erecting walls. Later that day, I wondered on Facebook what would happen if a man acted like a bird and crossed that fence. “Why would Israeli soldiers shoot at him as if he is committing a crime?” I wrote. My only thought was to reach the trees, sit there and then come back.
I couldn’t let go of that thought. A month later, I wrote another post. “Thank you, Israel, for opening our eyes. If the occupation opened the crossing points, and allowed people to live a normal life and created jobs for young people, we could wait for a few generations,” I wrote. “We are forced to choose between confrontations or between life.” I ended the post with the hashtag GreatReturnMarch.
Young people in Gaza reacted to my post immediately, sharing it and adding their own ideas. Just a week later, it seemed as if hundreds of people were talking about it. We established a youth committee and met with local agencies and institutions. We also met with the national political parties: We wanted to offer all sectors of society in Gaza the opportunity to be involved.
What has happened since we started the Great Return March is both what I hoped and expected — and not. It was not a surprise that Israel responded to our march with deadly violence. But I had not expected this level of cruelty. On the other hand, I was heartened by the commitment to nonviolence among most of my own people.
A couple of years ago, people here would have dismissed the idea that peaceful demonstrations could achieve anything significant. After all, every other form of resistance has produced nothing concrete. What amazes me is the transformation we are seeing in the way we resist. Our struggle previously was between armed Palestinian fighters and Israeli snipers, tanks and F-16s. Now, it is a struggle between the occupation and peaceful protesters — men and women, young and old.
The Great Return March reminds the world about the origin of the conflict — our uprooting from our lands and our lives, beginning in 1948 and sustained since then. We have chosen May 15 as the culmination of our protests because that is the day that Palestinians mark the “nakba,” the Arabic word for catastrophe, which is what we call the expulsions from our homes 70 years ago. Whatever solution we negotiate in the future to allow our two peoples to live together peacefully and equally must start with a recognition of this wrong.
Still, despite the response from Israeli snipers, I continue to be committed to nonviolence, as are all of the other people “coordinating” this march. I use quotation marks because when a movement becomes this large — attracting what we estimate to be as many as 200,000 people on Fridays — it cannot be completely controlled. We discouraged the burning of Israeli flags and the attachment of Molotov cocktails to kites. We want peaceful, equal coexistence to be our message.
We have also tried to discourage protesters from attempting to cross into Israel. However, we can’t stop them. It is the action of an imprisoned people yearning for freedom, one of the strongest motivations in human nature. Likewise, the people won’t go away on May 15. We are intent on continuing our struggle until Israel recognizes our right to return to our homes and land from which we were expelled.
Desperation fuels this new generation. We are not going back to our subhuman existence. We will keep knocking at the doors of international organizations and our Israeli jailers until we see concrete steps to end the blockade of Gaza.
Update: The byline on this essay has been changed to reflect the author’s preferred transliteration, Ahmed Abu Artema, instead of Ahmed Abu Ratima.
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