East of Gaza City – In the early hours of Friday, 85-year-old Umm Khattab Dolah and her grandsons headed towards Gaza’s eastern border with Israel.
Once there, they joined masses of Palestinians who set up tents along the border, looking out at the other side, where the Israeli army was deployed.
At least 70 percent of the two million people in the Gaza Strip live in refugee camps just a few kilometres away from their original homes and villages across the border, where Zionist armed groups forcibly displaced them seven decades earlier.
Dolah, who lives in Shati refugee camp along the northern coast of the Gaza Strip, said she was forced to flee along with her family from the city of Jaffa in 1948, during what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, or “catastrophe”.
“I came here today to call for my right of return,” Dolah told Al Jazeera.
“I want to return back to Jaffa. I was witness to when our lands were granted to Israelis by the British Mandate [1917-1948], and then I witnessed the Nakba in 1948 and experienced the ugliness of displacement.”
Thousands of men, women and children on Friday made their way to the makeshift tent camps erected 700 metres away from the border with Israel.
Protesters gathered along different points of Gaza’s border, which included areas east of Khan Younis, Rafah and al-Breij, opposite the highly-fortified fence between Israel and Gaza.
Dolah said a sense of optimism pervaded the atmosphere, initially.
Young girls were dressed in traditional embroidered dresses, while women sang Palestinian national songs and prepared lunch for their families and children.
The participants performed the Friday noon prayers, and then some played a football match amid a cheering crowd.
The organisers of the demonstration, dubbed the Great Return March, affirmed that the movement is unarmed.
The Israeli army, however, responded with live ammunition, tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets, killing at least 15 Palestinians and injuring more than 1,400.
The idea for the Great March of Return was floated around several months ago. The main goal was for refugees to demonstrate their Right of Return, based on United Nations Resolution 194 adopted in December 1948.
The resolution states that Palestinian refugees “wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date”.
Ahmad Abu Artema, the main organiser behind the campaign, says he came up with the idea about the March of Return when he visited the border with Israel.
“When I saw the beauty of our stolen lands, the trees and the picturesque nature of it all, I wondered: why are we trapped here in a coop?” he told Al Jazeera.
Abu Artema then posted a message on his Facebook page asking people whether they would be interested in a peaceful border protest.
The majority of responses applauded the idea, which quickly gained traction and received the backing of Palestinian political parties in the Strip, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah and leftist parties.
Asad Abu Sharekh, spokesperson for the campaign, told Al Jazeera that the march is meant to send a message to the international community to actively support the right of Palestinians to return to their lands.
“The international community has approved many resolutions, and it is time to approve the rights of the Palestinian people,” Abu Sharekh said.
“Palestinian intellectuals, academics, civil society organisations, students and women all embraced the concept of the march as a peaceful movement, similar to Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement,” he continued.
Friday’s protest initiates the first day of a six-week sit-in demonstration along the border, leading up to the commemoration of the 70th year since the Nakba on May 15.
The march was also planned to coincide with Land Day. On March 30, 1976, six unarmed Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed by the Israeli army while protesting against the confiscation of massive tracts of Palestinian land.
“I live in a 70-metre apartment with my wife, children and my grandsons in poverty,” Abu Ezzat al-Burai, a 58-year-old protester who lives in Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza, told Al Jazeera.
“We don’t have a future in Gaza – our future is in our original lands.”
The Gaza Strip has been under an Israeli land, sea and air blockade for more than a decade.
Some 80 percent of the population is dependent on humanitarian assistance, while the Strip experiences regular power outages and high unemployment. It has been dubbed as the largest open-air prison, with Palestinians needing Israeli army permits to enter and exit the Strip.
“We do not need negotiations or aid from the UN. The path is clear. We want to return back peacefully to our lands without bloodshed, tanks or bombs,” al-Burai said.
“Today I determined the right path. It is there,” he said, pointing towards the border with Israel.