Over the past eighteen years, Palestinian citizens of Israel have gathered to walk in the March of Return. For these Palestinians, the march has become the core of yawm al-nakba (al-Nakba Day/“day of catastrophe”), which commemorates the mass expulsion of Palestinians and the destruction of their villages/towns by Zionist forces during the 1947-1949 war.
Some 750,000 Palestinians became refugees as a result of the war and Israel’s subsequent establishment. Every year in April/May, while Zionists celebrate Israel’s creation, Palestinians mourn the loss of their homeland.
The March of Return is organized annually by The Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced in Israel (ADRID) and attracts Palestinian lawmakers, activists, and representatives from (Palestinian) organizations throughout the country. It is launched every year from the site of a destroyed Palestinian village/town. This year, organizers are planning to start from the remains of al-Kabri, a village near ‘Akka, which was depopulated in May 1948.
Israeli police are refusing to issue permits for the upcoming march. They claim they are unable to provide the personnel necessary to secure the event, which is expected to attract 25,000 people. Organizers believe, however, that the decision is a result of political pressure, as the planned route and all other necessary approvals were given weeks ago.
Indeed, it is difficult not to see this as a political move to appease Israel’s powerful right-wing. Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power in 2009 marked the culmination of the steady political rise of Israel’s “unmasked,” right-wing extremists. Their entrenchment in state institutions has created an increasingly hostile atmosphere towards NGOs and human rights organizations, particularly those promoting BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions), protesting the Israeli occupation, and/or championing Palestinian rights.
The Israeli far-right is committed to “creating a new political reality,” where dissent is silenced and the national discourse omits mention of the nakba, occupation, or apartheid. Against this backdrop, it becomes clear why the March of Return is being targeted.
First, while the march’s stated purpose is to highlight the ongoing nakba and draw attention to the issue of Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons, it is also an opportunity for Palestinians to craft a coherent national/political strategy. Most (if not all) institutions organizing and participating in the event, such as ADRID, are proponents of BDS and seek to mobilize Palestinians around this goal (that is, to apply boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel until it ends its occupation of Arab land, recognizes the fundamental rights of Palestinian citizens, and respects the Palestinian right of return). Recently, Israeli officials stepped up their offensive against BDS activists, by passing legislation forbidding visas and residency rights to boycotters, pushing for the creation of a database on Israeli activists, and arresting Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the BDS movement. The refusal to legally permit the march is part of this campaign.
Second, denying permission for the march is part of an ongoing crackdown on Palestinian political mobilization, more generally. In November 2015, the Israeli Security Cabinet outlawed the northern branch of the Islamic Movement based on a flimsy pretext and without going through standard legal proceedings. Over the past several years, Israeli legislators have also targeted their Palestinian counterparts, particularly representatives from Balad, an outspoken and prominent political party, who have consistently been in Israel’s crosshairs. In March 2014, the Knesset passed the Governance Law raising the electoral threshold from 2% to 3.25%, while in July 2016, a bill was enacted allowing for the expulsion (from parliament) of legislators “inciting” against the state. Both bills are widely seen as an effort to undermine Palestinian political representation.
The March of Return is a grassroots effort. As such, it empowers Palestinian organizations, as well as emerging activists and local leaders, at a time when civil society is leading the way on the issue of Palestinian rights. It is certainly in Israel’s strategic interest to disrupt this process.