For Gaza’s peaceful protesters, power is all about perception

Israeli forces fire tear gas at protesters from Gaza. EPA/Atef Safadi

On the 70th anniversary of the Nakba – the displacement of Palestinians when the state of Israel was founded – the people of Gaza, who have been under Israeli blockade and the rule of Hamas for more than a decade, mobilised in their largest civil resistance demonstrations since the early 2000s. Since the protests began on March 30, the Gazans have been met with tear gas and sniper fire. Thousands have been injured, and more than 100 killed.

The world’s media quickly responded with an array of conflicting reports. The debate over the protests, which have been dubbed the Great Return March, is really an argument about the extent to which the protests were violent actions orchestrated by Hamas – and, by extension, the extent to which Israel was justified in using lethal force against the demonstrators. The demonstrators have a critical stake in this debate.

Some outsiders portray the protesters as a violent danger to Israeli soldiers and citizens – and thereby justify the Israeli response as a matter of security. Similarly, when they attribute the organisation and conduct of the demonstrations to Hamas, Israel’s own security rhetoric comes to the fore. That in turn provides a significant boost to Hamas’s dwindling support in Gaza itself. But other coverage of the demonstrations portrays the protesters as peaceful activists unaffiliated with Hamas – meaning Israel can be said to have used excessive and unlawful force.

For Gaza’s peaceful activists, the competition between these different representations is everything. The power of civil resistance, also known as non-violent struggle, lies partly in the spectacle it creates of unarmed civilians under attack by armed authorities. If the wrong spectacle is created, the power of protest is squandered.

The use of violent measures against unarmed protesters often backfires – sympathy is elicited, awareness is raised and support is galvanised. Citizens may withdraw support for their government, and soldiers or the police unwilling to follow violent commands may refuse to act. The Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem has called on Israeli soldiers to refuse to shoot at protesters who do not “pose mortal danger”. But if civil demonstrations turn violent and pose a physical threat, then a violent response can be justified, both morally and legally.

Understanding the origins and nature of these demonstrations is therefore paramount.

Taking over the narrative

The Nakba day demonstrations were originally conceived by Gaza journalist and activist Ahmed Abu Artema, who wrote a viral Facebook post wondering: “What if 200,000 Palestinians came out in a peaceful march … entered our occupied territories for a few kilometres, raised the flag of Palestine and the keys of return … and insisted on staying there peacefully without any form of violence?” As his idea gained traction, youth committees were set up in Gaza, local organisations were consulted, and political factions were invited to involve themselves.

As 20 organisers called on participants to use non-violent methods of resistance, informal camps began to pop up on the border. Muthana al-Najjar, a journalist, was the first to set up a tent 700 metres from the fence that separates Gaza from Israel. Others were erected alongside it, each named after a village from which Palestinians had been expelled. The demonstrators held reading chains and “pray-ins”. They planted olive saplings near the fence – and some dressed as characters from Avatar, a film where a powerful corporation occupies a planet and violently oppresses its indigenous inhabitants. Different organisations, such as the Waed Society for Prisoners and Ex-Prisoners, used the opportunity to highlight their particular causes.

But despite the protests’ non-violent origins and goals, events unfolded rather differently. As is common in civil resistance movements, a violent fringe emerged.

Palestinian protesters set fire to tyres at the Gaza border. EPA/Atef Safadi

Ahead of the demonstrations, Israel warned the protesters that it would shoot anyone who came within 300 metres of the fence. Hamas duly took the opportunity to stake its claim on the protests, giving its workers time off to join the largest demonstrations on May 14 and 15. Young men affiliated with Hamas set tyres alight, threw stones and Molotov cocktails, and tried to breach the fence. These actions combined with Hamas’s specific involvement gave Israel justification for the use of force.

As the dust settles from the resulting violence, further investigations can determine who exactly was killed by the Israeli army, under what immediate circumstances, and how and when the balance between violent and non-violent methods shifted. It’s all part of the same old game: the fate of the peaceful protesters’ cause depends how these demonstrations are framed, and therefore, on who is able to take control of the narrative.