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Popular resistance has always been one of the struggle means of peoples under colonialism, without giving up their right to use armed resistance. Also, the return marches to mark 70 years of Nakbah in Gaza Strip (GS) were to face an 11-year siege, a consensus issue for Palestinians of various political affiliations.

The crises facing the Palestine issue, including the failing peace process and the weakening of resistance, in addition to the Arab and Islamic preoccupation with other issues, were all additional factors that encouraged such marches.

There are three possible scenarios for these marches: Either they would fully succeed and expand to include the West Bank (WB), the Palestinians inside the 1948 territories and neighboring countries; or stop at the peak reached in mid-May 2018 without achieving any clear objective; or they would partially succeed by easing the GS siege.

First: Historical Background of Popular Resistance

Return marches that marked the Land Day on 30/3/2018, were the beginning of series of events to commemorate 70 years of Nakbah, and are part of a century-long Palestinian struggle. In 1917–1929, the Palestinian National Movement focused on peaceful resistance against the British Mandate of Palestine. The uprising of al-Quds or Mawsim al-Nabi Musa (Prophet Moses Season) was the first popular uprising in 1920, and many uprisings occurred afterwards, many of which turned into armed resistance later on.

One of the most prominent images of the popular resistance was the 178-day major strike that paralyzed public life throughout Palestine in 1936. It was the longest strike in history conducted by the entire Palestinian people. They demanded a halt to Jewish immigration, preventing the sale of land to Jews and establishing a responsible Palestinian government before an elected parliament.

Also, one of the events of popular resistance against the Israeli occupation, was the popular uprising on 30/3/1976—which is now known as the Land Day—against the Israeli plan to expropriate thousands of dunams of land in Galilee.

Then, the Palestinian struggle continued where the Palestinian Intifadah (uprising) in 1987 was the beginning of a new revolutionary wave. Popular resistance spread on a large scale, featuring demonstrations, strikes and field clashes with the occupation, where stones were largely used, thus naming it the Intifadah of Stones.

In 2000–2005, al-Aqsa Intifadah erupted following Likud leader Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to al-Aqsa Mosque. The Intifadah was thus characterized by broad popular participation especially in its first two years.

Now, 70 years after the Nakbah, Palestinian people continue to resist, and despite the change in form and tools, their goal remains one: to expel the occupation and return to Palestine. There are always attempts to discourage and instill a sense of despair in the hearts of the Palestinian people, however, the people continue to be creative in their resistance. The Lions’ Gate uprising (Habbat al-Asbat) in Jerusalem in 2017 forced the Israeli occupation to remove all electronic gates and cameras and cancel the measures it has taken concerning al-Aqsa Mosque. There is another bright picture of resistance in the villages of Bil‘in and Ni‘lin, where people continue to resist the Separation Wall, defending their right to their land in many creative ways.

Second: Marches of Return

The Palestine issue is passing through one of its most difficult stages, and the peace process has reached a deadlock, leaving behind a feeble Palestinian Authority (PA), which cannot abandon its security and economic commitments to Israel, without being able to serve the Palestinian people. Also, the Palestinian resistance project is suffering from siege in GS and is persecuted in WB. Thus, resistance cannot be practiced despite having the legitimacy to exist.

Hence, the idea of return marches began with a youth initiative, then it was adopted by the Palestinian factions in GS. They would mark 70 years of Nakbah, beginning with the anniversary of the Land Day on 30/3/2018, and then escalating every Friday to reach their peak on the Nakbah Day, on 15/5/2018. Then, Palestinian factions adopted the idea of expanding it geographically to include abroad. Since its inception, hundreds of thousands have participated in consecutive Fridays. These marches culminated in GS on 14/5/2018, where 62 Palestinians were killed and about 3,200 were injured. Thus, the total casualties of GS marches were 104 dead and 11 thousand injured, including 3,500 were injured by live ammunition.

The regional interaction varied in size and quality: In GS, the marches were central and basic for many factions, while in WB the marches were limited and had clashed with the Israeli occupation. Palestinians in the 1948 occupied territories organized marches commemorating Land Day and expressed their solidarity with those killed in GS. In Jordan, marches were organized on several Fridays in Amman, culminating in a huge march to the area of Suweima near the border with Israel, on 11/5/2018.

In Lebanon, events were held in refugee camps, and the marches did not head towards the border because Lebanese authorities did not want any escalation with Israel that could lead to a war. However, Palestinian factions and Lebanese parties marched to Beaufort Castle, which is considered a symbolic place of resistance. Participants exceeded twenty thousand from various refugee camps and gatherings in Lebanon.

Third: Motivating Factors For the Return Marches

1. The continuation of Israeli siege of GS, in all its forms, and the participation of Palestinian, Arab and international parties in the attempt to subdue GS, which made the suffering of Gazans increase.

2. US bias in favor of Israel, and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem.

3. Marches are a consensus issue to all Palestinians and to Palestinian national and Islamic factions.

4. Broad Arab, Islamic and international popular support for the right of Palestinian people to return.

5. Failure of the peace process, continuation of GS siege, continuation of the Judaization project, and the continuous Israeli change of facts on the ground.

6. The marches enjoy international and humanitarian legitimacy, and are far from being classified as “terrorist” marches.

7. Palestinian people in GS, WB and the Diaspora, are eager to realize their right of return to Palestine, guaranteed by international resolutions.

8. The marches’ human losses are limited compared to the open armed confrontations with the Israeli occupation.

9. The marches embarrassed some Arab countries that are rushing to normalize with Israel.

10. The marches are a barrier to attempts of uprooting the Palestinian resistance.

11. The marches showed the real face of Israel, which targets demonstrators, children, women and elderly, with live bullets, killing them. Leaked videos of Israeli soldiers showed they were “enjoying” the murder of innocent Palestinians.

Fourth: Demotivating Factors For the Return Marches

1. US–Israeli pressure on the PA to stop all kinds of resistance.

2. The submission of some Arab states to US and Israeli wishes, their rush towards normalization, and the consequent obligations that would pressure Palestinian people and their resistance to stop the return marches.

3. Security coordination has become a lifeline for Israel, especially in WB. Under the banner of security coordination, it has gained the “legitimacy” to suppress demonstrations in WB, and stop resistance against the Israeli occupation. As if the PA has become a policeman who protects the occupation.

4. The weak financial and media support, which is essential for the continuation of the resistance project in all its forms, including the return marches.

Fifth: Future Scenarios

First Scenario: Marches would continue as part of the popular resistance and would spread to include WB, Jerusalem and the 1948 occupied territories, and it would even penetrate the GS border with Israel. However, the continued PA security coordination with Israel forms a stumbling block to such a development.

Second Scenario: The marches would stop at the borders reached in mid-May 2018, and their momentum would decline with time without achievements to ignite the enthusiasm of the public, or without any escalation in WB or the 1948 occupied territories. Frustration would return, and in such a situation, the possibility of explosion in different directions is back to its former state.

Third Scenario: There would be a partial success, by reaching an agreement (albeit implicitly) to ease the GS siege in exchange for a halt to the marches. This scenario may occur if the marches succeeded in pressuring Israel, and thus it would provide political and economic benefits to the Palestinian people.

Sixth: Most Likely Scenario

It is difficult for these marches, which were originally planned to be held for a limited time in GS, to achieve strategic goals, unless they became permanent and expanded to other parts of Palestine, and marches from outside would reach the borders with Israel. However, continuous or seasonal escalation might occur, and this might ease the siege and modify the conduct of the PA.

Seventh: Recommendations

1. Marches of return must become a part of the resistance against the occupation.

2. The objectives of the marches must be explained to the Palestinian people, so that they would contribute effectively to the following:

a. Lifting or easing the siege.

b. To thwart the plan to “blow up GS” and to direct the frustration to “blow up” in Israel’s direction.

c. To promote the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes they had fled.

d. Hindering the normalization project and the project of liquidating the Palestine issue.

e. To get the Palestine issue back to its previous status and strengthen its political presence amidst the turmoil in the region.

f. Strengthening the popular resistance culture.

3. Preparing a political and media strategy to accompany the marches of return.

4. National consensus on marches must continue, and the marches must remain peaceful while avoiding the attempts to “demonize” or isolate them.

* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr. Wael Sa‘ad and Muhammad al-Jamal for authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based.

The Arabic version of this Assessment was published on 16/5/2018