Since March 30, demonstrators have gathered every week by the fence with Israel, calling for the right of return for Palestinian refugees to their lands, under UN Resolution 194, and demanding an end to the 12-year Israeli blockade.
But peaceful protesting has come at a heavy cost. At least 140 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces since the Friday protests began. More than 16,000 others have been wounded.
On May 14, Israeli snipers killed at least 60 Palestinians in a single day, and since then the demonstrations have dwindled, with some 5,000 protesters dispersed at several locations throughout the Strip.
Lately, incendiary kites and balloons were introduced, scorching Israeli land on the other side of the fence.
Israel is warning that if protesters continue to send the burning balloons and kites over the fence, its military will retaliate. Last week, it led to the biggest escalation in Gaza since Israel’s military assault in 2014.
Israel also closed Gaza’s sole commercial crossing, Kerem Shalom, as a punitive measure, in a move denounced as collective punishment of the Strip’s two million population. Threats of another major military assault on Gaza linger as Israel has made it clear that if the flaming kites continue it will increase its military action.
Seventeen weeks after the start of the protests, Al Jazeera met a spokesperson for the Great March of Return campaign, as well as two participants to hear their opinions about the movement and how they view Gaza’s future.
Al Jazeera: Critics say the Right of Return isn’t realistic because there are more than seven million Palestinian refugees – one of the largest displaced populations in the world. What’s your response?
Issam Hammad: Did Israel agree, in the first place, to the refugees’ return in 1950 when the figure was much lower? It did not. Israel rejected that principle from the very beginning.
On the contrary, it evicted more than 400,000 of 1948 Palestinians [Palestinians living in today’s Israel] to the north [Syria, Lebanon, Jordan] in 1967. Therefore, this state formed itself based on the principle of segregation and replacement.
Personally, I call for the return of refugees and living in peace with the Israelis. We are in the age of technology, knowledge, love, harmony and peace, not an age of fighting nations; we can create life together.
The Gaza Strip is 365 square kilometres and it accommodates now two million people. The current state of Israel can withstand tens of times the population it now has.
All problems have a solution, but there must be an intention from Israel to recognise the Palestinians’ right to exist and to live in freedom and dignity.
I cannot believe that North Korea and America have stepped to create peace despite the nuclear power that they have, despite the hatred over the years. Yet, here we are still fighting.
Whether it’s a one-state or two-state solution, there must be a real intention from Israel to resolve and renounce their idea of a purely Jewish state.
We are not in the age of religions. We are in an age of knowledge and globalisation … Man is the foundation of society, not religion or race.
Al Jazeera: Israeli politicians have called for a full-blown military offensive to stop the incendiary kites and balloons flown from Gaza. What’s your opinion on the kites?
Hammad: In a meeting with the committee today, I called for urging the kids who fly these kites to stop this phenomenon, which Israel may take as an excuse to start a war that we can’t afford.
It’s not an action the March Committee adopts or approves of. Go back to the March of Return Committee and you won’t find a single release or announcement that approves such activities.
Although I cannot condemn it, I think it should be stopped to avoid the collapse of the march in case a war erupted.
Al Jazeera: Although details of the so-called US deal of the century for Israeli-Palestinian peace have not been officially announced, some of its reported proposals have been leaked in the press. Among them is the idea to build industrial projects in the Sinai and employ Palestinian workers to alleviate the unemployment in Gaza. What do you think about such proposals?
Rana Shubair: I believe that trying to enforce these things on the ground will only deteriorate the situation on the ground. The people of Gaza have been protesting to demand their right of return and to call for ending the 12-year-old blockade.
And then there is now talk about the “deal of the century” which basically tells us: Jerusalem is no longer Palestinian, forget about your right of return and we will revive your deplorable living conditions by building you businesses in another continent [Egyptian Sinai in Africa].
I don’t think any person in their right mind – and no matter how desperate their living conditions may be – would ever accept such a humiliating end to our 70 year-long catastrophe.
I witnessed people who had just had their homes demolished or family members killed during the last Israeli aggression on Gaza saying that, “We’re not backing down, even if they kill the last one of us. This is our land and we have the right to live in dignity and peace”.
Al Jazeera: There has been a lot of alarming news coming from Gaza about the deteriorating situation. What are the primary concerns for Palestinians in Gaza at the moment?
Shubair: The Palestinian people of the Gaza Strip are fed up with promises and talks. By taking to the bordering areas across the Gaza Strip, they want to convey a clear message that 70 years of humiliation and living on international relief aid must end.
Again, even the UNRWA [UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees], who was established for the purpose of providing service for the Israeli-made refugee crises, is now threatening to cut off these relief aids because the US is withholding more than half of the budget earmarked for the UNRWA. Today, 400 UNRWA employees are threatened of having their contracts suspended due to these cuts.
People are losing their already impoverished livelihoods. The US has the expectation that the people will rise in face of Hamas, but the people here have learned all the desperate Israeli-American tactics.
The Hamas card has failed and the Palestinians know who is besieging them inside the biggest open-air prison. They also know that the Great Return March has succeeded in unifying all political factions on the ground when political talks have failed over and over.
Al Jazeera: What do you think of the incendiary kites?
Shubair: The incendiary kites, which have killed absolutely no one, are the work of young people who are fed up with the 12-year-old blockade.
The inhuman living conditions which continue to exacerbate day by day are leading to an explosion and the Israeli occupation are fuelling the situation by banning material from entering Gaza which means going back to the early days of when the blockade was imposed and repeating the process over and over.
This form of collective punishment is illegal, the blockade is illegal, killing protesters is illegal, bombing public parks and killing children is illegal – yet the media keep focusing on the flaming kites.
Under the unlivable conditions which are deteriorating day-by-day, how does the Israeli occupation expect the two million people who are locked up in this open-air prison to behave? No one can expect this volcano we’re boiling in to stay suppressed forever.
Al Jazeera: How satisfied are you with the March of Great Return?
Ali Abusheikh: Some things got even worse after the march [started]. We now see people on crutches wherever we go; it’s very common right now on the streets. We’re still living under a blockade and it got worse for many people who were injured, who will now live the rest of their life with a disability.
The March of Great Return wasn’t organised by any political party and that’s one of the reasons why I participated in it – because it’s not political. I hate all political parties.
I disagree with any violent actions in the March of Return, including the flaming kites. It gives the other side an excuse to bomb us and say that we are still savage and not civilised.
The main message that [Palestinians in Gaza] are sending to the world is that they want to live. They want a decent, normal life … It would be a dream for us to have electricity for just half the day.
Al Jazeera: A Jewish Israeli has sent in a question. He would like to know whether Palestinians in Gaza would accept living together with Israelis in one state. What do you think?
Abusheikh: For me personally, I am very accepting. I have a dream of having a secular state where Jews, Muslims and Christians can live together in holy Palestine.
This land is for all – for Jews, Muslims and Christians. When I say Jews, I don’t mean Zionists, to be clear.
I would like us to live together but we both have to live an equal, decent life; the same for both.