The Palestinian “Great Return March” is in its second week, and blood continues to run. On Friday March 30, 2018, to commemorate Land Day, the first mass protests were organized along the unilaterally imposed Israeli buffer zone separating the Gaza Strip from “Israel proper.” That weekend, Israeli live fire left seventeen civilians dead and roughly 1,400 injured. This past weekend, thousands gathered once again along the buffer zone, and were similarly met with bullets.
Thirty-one Palestinians have been killed with over 2,000 injured since the march was launched, according to Palestinian medical sources. The demonstrations are planned to continue throughout April and early May, until the 70th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba on May 15.
According to march organizers, the objective is to gather tens of thousands of unarmed Gazans and set up protest camps near the Israeli-imposed buffer zone. Efforts are being made to attract more and more people to the initiative over the coming weeks. In doing so, organizers and participants hope to remind the world of the Palestinian refugee situation (roughly 70% of Gazans are descended from or are themselves refugees driven from their homes in what became Israel), ease, if not end, the devastating eleven-year-old blockade of the Strip, and demand international recognition of the Palestinian right of return.
This method of protest is not without precedent. In 2011, thousands of refugees from Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank marched towards Israeli military positions to mark the anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba. According to Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, organizers of and participants in the Great Return March, including Hamas, are embracing this method of protest as part of a broader tactical shift towards non-violent resistance in Gaza, and to generate greater international pressure on Israel.
Indeed, this tactical shift, and Israel’s devastating response to it, represents a real test for international institutions and observers, as evidence of war crimes is already mounting. This past Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman declared on Israeli radio that there are “no innocents in Gaza” and that the protestors are Hamas activists, all in order to justify the use of brutal force against civilians. Alongside other Israeli politicians, he has openly encouraged soldiers to shoot anybody approaching the Gaza fence, without discrimination, by expressing unconditional support for such actions.
According to rights organizations, events over the past two weeks amount to a calculated massacre of unarmed demonstrators. Gaza journalist Yaser Murtaja of ‘Ain Media, for example, was one of six journalists shot over the weekend. Although wearing a helmet and flak jacket that clearly identified him as “PRESS,” he was targeted on Friday merely for using a drone to capture footage of the protests.
While the United States protects Israel from potential action at the UN Security Council, on April 8, the International Criminal Court (ICC) released a limited yet promising statement. The office of Fatou Bensouda, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, stated:
I remind all parties that the situation in Palestine is under preliminary examination by my office. While a preliminary examination is not an investigation, any new alleged crime committed in the context of the situation in Palestine may be subjected to my office’s scrutiny. This applies to the events of the past weeks and to any future incident.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) recognized the ICC’s jurisdiction in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) in 2014; the PA formally attained membership with the Court in 2015. The ICC has launched “preliminary examinations” in the oPt to determine “whether there is a reasonable basis to proceed” with an official war crimes investigation, specifically relating to settlement construction and Israel’s bombing of Gaza in 2014. According to Bensouda, “significant progress” has already been made towards that end. While Israel is not a party to the ICC’s governing Rome Statute, which is the legal treaty binding all Court members, Israeli nationals could still potentially be tried, if they have committed war crimes on Palestinian territory.
To be sure, an official ICC investigation is far from guaranteed, and could even potentially backfire on Palestinian leaders, who would also be subject to investigation. But, it would be a welcome (and long overdue) intervention on the side of justice in Israel/Palestine by an international institution.