March 22, 2018 Special Dispatch No. 7395

Gaza Strip Initiative, In Collaboration With Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, And Supporters Of Fatah's Muhammad Dahlan: Masses Will Throng To Border With Israel To Demand Right Of Return

March 22, 2018
Palestinians | Special Dispatch No. 7395

In recent weeks, there have been reports of an initiative launched by social activists in the Gaza Strip, in collaboration with Hamas and the Palestinian factions, for Palestinian refugees in all areas bordering on Israel, to march en masse towards the border, erect there "Return Encampments," "nonviolently breach" the border into Israeli territory, and demand to actualize the Palestinian right of return. The organizers of the initiative, dubbed "The Great Return March," have called it a nonviolent move for implementing the Palestinian refugees' right of return, as part of a general initiative in countries bordering Israel. However, some have raised questions about the usefulness of these mass marches, because other, similar campaigns in the past have failed to achieve results.

The leading factions involved in the initiative are Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and supporters of former senior Fatah official Muhammad Dahlan, who in 2011 was expelled from Fatah because he was a rival of Palestinian Authority (PA) President and Fatah leader Mahmoud 'Abbas. To date, there have been no official PA or Fatah announcements about this initiative.

Great Return March Facebook page; as of this writing, the page has some 6,000 followers (, February 22, 2018.)

Hamas and the Palestinian factions have clarified that this initiative is part of the "popular intifada" in the struggle against Israel, which is an additional form of struggle. This is the first time that Hamas and the factions, which traditionally have based their activity on the principle of armed struggle and have been harshly critical of Fatah and the PA for engaging in political activity, have been willing to diversify their methods and include such forms of allegedly nonviolent political struggle.

This paper will review reports on the Great Return March, and the discussion about it in online newspapers and social media. 

Gaza Strip Activists: "The Campaign Proves That The Descendants Of The Refugees Still Cling To Their Right Of Return"

On February 8, 2018, the Gaza daily Filastin reported that social activists in the Gaza Strip were promoting the Great Return March initiative. A leading activist behind the initiative Ahmad Abu Ratima explained: "The idea for the march came together in light of [U.S. President Donald Trump's] statements about the 'Deal of the Century'... and the American plans and statements aspiring to eradicate the role of UNRWA and eliminate the problem of the refugees...[1] This is the imminent danger threatening the Palestinian cause, and it must be tackled with an assertive, extraordinary message [coming] from the refugees, to be expressed in an extensive nonviolent demonstration at the separation fence, in which the demonstrators will emphasize their right of return and their refusal to submit to the [political] arrangements aimed at eliminating the [refugee] problem...

"The current deterioration in the economic situation in the Gaza Strip is [also] one of the primary reasons pushing the activists towards the idea of organizing this march of return... [The march] may begin in the coming weeks, with the completion of the mobilization stage and in coordination with all elements of society...  There are several recruitment initiatives aimed at refugees where they reside, mostly in the Gaza Strip. This proves that the descendants of the refugees still cling to their right of return that is anchored in international law and in UN resolutions... All the activity on the ground that will soon be carried out near the separation fence will be in the framework of the stage of recruitment, organization, and stirring up the atmosphere before zero hour – which will be determined on the ground... Recruitment is going well, against the backdrop of a positive atmosphere fostered by all the [political] forces."[2]

On March 6, Abu Ratima said that the Great Return March activity would begin March 30, the 42nd Land Day.[3]

On its Facebook page, the initiative wrote that "the nonviolent and popular march of millions of Palestinians will set out from Gaza, from the West Bank, from Jerusalem, from Jordan, from Lebanon, from Syria, and from Egypt in the direction of the lands from which the Palestinians were expelled in 1948. The aim of the Return March is to implement the right of return of the Palestinian people to its land from which it was expelled, in accordance with UN resolutions concerning the Palestinian right of return, including Resolution 194."[4]

The march coordinating committee wrote, also on the Great Return March Facebook page: "Our Palestinian people has decided to singlehandedly restore its rights and nonviolently return to its land and its home, armed with the international resolutions,  international law, human rights principles, and the support of the free peoples in the world. It has decided to set out towards Palestine in nonviolent, mass, and popular marches comprising men, women, and children, in throngs of refugees from all their temporary places of residence, with the aim of returning, and nothing but returning, waving the flag of Palestine and UN Resolution 194."[5]

Great Return March Facebook page: "A nonviolent, popular march of millions of Palestinians" (, February 5, 2018)

It should be noted that some Palestinians are skeptical about the effectiveness of such initiatives. For example, writer Dia Khalil called them "enthusiasm with dubious political achievements" and noted that a similar initiative, in 2011, jointly with Hizbullah, had achieved nothing. He wrote: "The idea was born out of the precedent of Hizbullah in Lebanon, on Nakba Day 2011, when an enthused public gathered next to the fence and teen boys and girls tried to cross the fence into the occupied territories. Several were killed and wounded, and there was no political reaction on the part of the movement [Hizbullah]... [This time too] it can be expected that the occupation forces will respond to the plan by opening fire, if it [the plan] is implemented on the borders."[6]

Palestinian Islamic Jihad Spokesman: We Will Assure Protection For The Demonstrators

The Great Return March initiative is in coordination with Hamas and the Palestinian factions because of their political power and their recruitment, outreach, and education networks.[7] Abu Ratima noted this coordination in a post on his Facebook page: "I met today with [Palestinian] Legislative Council member and senior Fatah official Ashraf Juma'a, at his invitation. He expressed great enthusiasm for the idea, and willingness to help recruit for and participate in [the march]. We agreed that there was a need for all the factions and political forces to participate under a single flag – the flag of Palestine. There will be a meeting with the leaders of Hamas, the national factions, and the civil society institutions to discuss this idea.

"Today I was called on by the civil society institutions to participate in a workshop for the discussion of this idea and how to implement it. Many writers, journalists, and national figures agreed to support this initiative, and for this they should be praised. Many young people and activists in the occupied [West] Bank, in the 'interior' of Palestine [i.e. Israel], and in Lebanon have expressed enthusiasm for participating in the march, and in recruiting friends locally [to participate]."[8]

The Palestinian factions announced their full support for the initiative, and added it to their agenda. Following the February 17 explosion at the Israeli border with Gaza,[9] the factions called on the Palestinian people to participate "in all activities for Jerusalem and for the undisputed national rights and principles of our people, headed by our right to return and to reparations."[10] Earlier, on March 7, Islamic Jihad senior official Khaled Al-Batsh announced the establishment of the National Supreme Committee for the March for Return and for Breaking the Siege, with the participation of representatives of all the Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip, with an emphasis on Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the PFLP, and followers of Muhammad Dahlan.

Hamas official Isma'il Radwan said that the march activity would begin March 30, and would reach its peak on May 15, Nakba Day.[11] He stressed that this activity "should take place without clashes [with Israel] in order to protect the young people... The national and Islamic forces are thinking seriously about activity that may force the Zionist occupation and the international community to end the suffering of our people in the Gaza Strip, [by means of] removing the siege and opening the crossings... The current plan of action focuses on organizing a march hundreds of thousands strong towards the border in order to pressure the occupation."[12]

Islamic Jihad spokesman Daoud Shihab said: "The resistance forces are currently prioritizing the popular measures... The Palestinian factions have discussed holding the marches... and ensuring protection for the demonstrators who will be facing arbitrary force on the part of the Israeli occupation." He added that Islamic Jihad had formed popular committees for conducting clashes in the border regions in each of the Gaza Strip provinces beginning "in the first week of the struggle against Trump's announcement [that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel]."[13] Shihab added that the Palestinian intellectual elite was behind the idea, the main point of which was to "pressure the occupation and send warning and resistance messages about the continuation of the current [difficult] circumstances in the Gaza Strip." He called for "continuing the intifada and maintaining the escalation, in order to confront the Israeli occupation and thwart the American plans concerning Jerusalem and the issue of the refugees."[14]

Hamas, Palestinian Factions: The Return March Is A Form Of Resistance

Hamas is promoting the Great Return March initiative as an aspect of the struggle against Israel, in addition to the armed struggle. Hamas political bureau head Isma'il Haniya called for participating in the march, while political bureau member Khalil Al-Haya said that Hamas is "at the heart" of the march.[15] Another political bureau member, Moussa Abu Marzouq, tweeted from his personal account, with the initiative's hashtag: "Those besieging Gaza must know that the Gaza residents will not break, and that their eyes are still [directed at the return] to their land, either peacefully or belligerently. The separation fence is no obstacle for them. The #Great Return March that is advancing towards our land is the path to victory and return."[16]

Abu Marzouq's tweet: "The Great March... is the path to victory and return." (, February 7, 2018)

On February 6, the Great Return March Facebook page posted an excerpt from an article by Hamas refugee department director 'Issam Adwan defining the march as a form of resistance.[17] It stated: "Palestinians across the world have no weapons, except for in the Gaza Strip. [But] lack of weapons absolutely does not mean refraining from resistance to the enemy occupying their land for 68 years... The enemy can be resisted by various means, and the peoples who have fallen under the rule of colonialism are experienced in these. Some of these means are nonviolent and others are violent. All are legal, accessible, and feasible, and all have an impact...

"Until the Palestinian people obtains weapons to regain its occupied land, it must act in light of what is accessible, practical, and feasible... The Palestinians have a tremendous human presence that surrounds the occupying enemy state from all directions, and that is estimated in the millions of people. Among them are a million Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon who suffer under the harshest and most grave conditions, to the point where dozens of them take the risk of [attempting] to cross the sea [to Europe] in search of a better life, despite the recurring drownings.

"Here a legitimate question arises... Why not breach the borders set up by the enemy in order to prevent their return to their occupied land? The arrival of thousands of families at these borders will shame the occupation, attract media sympathy for our people's cause, expose the nakedness of our enemy, arouse the region, and encourage our people to dare against the occupying enemy. What have our people to lose from such an attempt, except for the poverty and misery in which they currently suffer in the lands of refuge?

"Our people's [political] forces and all its factions support, help, welcome, and praise the demonstrators from among our people [who are already taking action] near the border [with Israel], both on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. Every day, more of them are killed and wounded, and no one mocks this 'nonviolent resistance,' despite its limited impact on the enemy. Will the march [to the border] by thousands of families, men, women, and children, carrying their luggage and belongings, singing about the return to the lands – the registration papers for which they still hold, and the right of return to which is guaranteed by international law and human rights principles – not have a greater impact than the [current] demonstrations at the border? Some of the resistance forces are planning the liberation of Palestine – all of Palestine – and drawing up strategic plans of action for achieving this supreme goal. Is it not more worthwhile for these forces to push their people to begin nonviolent resistance in a march of return that is less dangerous, less costly, and more accepted by the international community [than liberating all of Palestine].

"The march of return of thousands of Palestinians, particularly those families harmed by the abandoned war in Syria, and by the harsh conditions in Lebanon... is necessary, possible, legitimate, and legal... Planning this march well is the duty of all the Palestinian forces, without exempting families and individuals of the responsibility to join it... just as those who launched the Al-Quds intifada did when they set out and stormed the border fences without asking anyone's permission and without giving an accounting to anyone. Thus are heroes made."[18]

In 2012, Adwan said that "all forms of the resistance, headed by the armed resistance, will remain the genuine option to regain the land and the holy places and to actualize the liberation and return."[19] Drawing up a strategy for an asymmetrical struggle against Israel combining various forms of resistance that he referred to as "controlled conflict," he called on Hamas and the Palestinian factions to strike limited military blows and to respond with great restraint to Israel's counterattacks. This strategy, he said, "will place Gaza and its needs on the agenda of the international media and will motivate all the international, regional, and local forces to find solutions for the new circumstances created by the resistance." The impact of demonstrations by young Palestinians at the Israeli border would, he said, be minimal "unless tens of thousands of them take part in this activity."[20]

In another article, Adwan wrote that the Return March "is one of the most important forms of resistance, that is no less important than the armed struggle, which is the most serious form of resistance and the shortest way to return and liberation... There is no doubt that Land Day, March 30, must be the day to begin this global march, which will turn the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, in mid-May, into the starting point of the return to Palestine, and to the crucial stage of ending forever the game of negotiations and the marches for the false peace."[21]

Writer For Hamas Mouthpiece: The Barrier The Occupation Is Building Will Not Protect It From The March Of Thousands

Concurrently with the preparations for the Great Return March, several incidents occurred that intensified the tension between Israel and Hamas, including the February 10, 2018 Israeli airstrike in Syria in response to the infiltration of an Iranian drone into its airspace, and the February 17, 2018 Israeli attack in Gaza in response to the planting of an IED on the Gaza-Israel border. The Hamas-affiliated press addressed the march both explicitly and implicitly, including in articles discussing violent confrontation with Israel.

For example, Ibrahim Al-Madhoun, a columnist for Hamas's mouthpiece Al-Risala, addressed the topic in the context of the barrier that Israel is constructing on the Gaza-Israel border to thwart the threat of Hamas's attack tunnels. He wrote: "The occupation will be surprised to discover that the barrier does not protect its soldiers when hundreds of thousands of Gaza's residents spontaneously march on the border and cross it, returning to their homes and their property, in a major operation. The preparations and calls for this operation are increasing from day to day, due to the suffocating siege."[22] Fayez Abu Shamalah, a Hamas-affiliated columnist, wrote on the Filastin daily: "Will the people of Gaza rise up against the resistance [i.e., Hamas], or will they march, along with Hamas, to the border of the Zionist state, in a ferocious mass-procession and demand the right to return to Palestine, as well as action by the international community to implement [UN] Resolution 181 [sic] The coming days will provide the answer."[23]  'Imad Al-'Afana, the former secretary-general of Hamas's faction in the Palestinian Legislative Council, wrote in his Al-Risala column: "Our people's resistance factions and active forces perhaps have no choice but... to formulate plans for the practical realization of the right of return, considering the relative porousness of the [Zionist] entity's borders these days." [24] 

In an article devoted in its entirety to the Great March of Return, Ibrahim Al-Madhoun wrote: "The Great Return March is the best way to make the Palestinians' voice heard and to realize the aspiration of return... Only this civilized march will tip the scales and provide the Palestinian people with a highly effective weapon, without spilling a single drop of blood... The idea of the large-scale popular march is one of the Palestinians' most powerful weapons and we must prepare and plan for it well, and recruit [participants]... It will not be surprising if the [Palestinian] factions rally around the call to stage riots in light of the deepening crisis, for silence and calm mean [nothing but] a slow death... What do we have to lose in Gaza except crises, chaos, anxiety and economic deterioration bordering on collapse? Why not consider a collective march of return in which everyone will participate – young and old, weak and strong, man and woman, leader and soldier? The faction leaders and elites shall lead us. We shall raise the Palestinian banner and unite our efforts."[25]

Great Return March Spokesman: The Is A Non-Violent Struggle In The Style Of Nelson Mandela And Martin Luther King

The march organizers and Gaza journalists made sure to stress that two coordinated and complementary struggles are taking place simultaneously on the Gaza border: an armed struggle and an unarmed one, both of which are legitimate. They added that Israel is trying to blur the distinction between the two in order to undermine and criminalize the non-violent struggle.

In response to the February 17 IED incident, Abu Ratima wrote on his Facebook page: "The version [of the incident provided] by the occupation army, [purporting that Palestinians] used a Palestine flag placed on the Gaza border in order to carry out a violent operation, is a dangerous and loaded version. It aims to create a political and media climate [conducive to] intensifying Israel's violence against the non-violent operations in the future, on the pretext that [these operations] serve as a cover for armed activity. I find it hard to believe that the timing of the incident was innocent, for it came simultaneously with the call for increasing the refugee protests and for a non-violent march of return. However, the fact that the occupation tasked its most senior spokesman with marketing its version [of the incident] shows that the occupation is taking the scenario of the Great Return March very seriously and is already preparing ways to contend with it. The armed factions must recognize the seriousness of the current period, and understand that the Great Return March is a completely non-violent action, and that mixing it with any other aspect of the resistance will harm it. The goal of the Great Return March is more important than the killing or wounding of a few soldiers... The march will begin with a demonstration unrestricted in time at least 700 meters from the separation fence, and it does not aim to reach the fence at this stage."[26]    

Abu Ratima's Facebook post following the February 17, 2018 IED incident on the border

Radwan Al-Akhras, writer for the Qatari daily Al-Arabi Al-Jadeed, noted that the February 17 explosion on the border was a message to Israel from Hamas and the armed factions not to harm Palestinians demonstrating near the fence or participants in events such as the Great Return March: "The resistance has warned, more than once in recent months... that it will not remain silent about the occupation's siege and recurring attacks [on the Gaza Strip], about the assassinations [there], or about the repression of demonstrators. Perhaps this explosion came in this framework, and it may be connected to the upcoming period, now in planning and preparation, for bringing together great crowds near the border under the motto of return, or of breaking the siege, and perhaps as part of this message they wanted to say that attacking [these] gatherings will be an unexpected spark that will ignite everything [into a situation] that the Zionists fear, and they are unprepared for this. The occupation wants to take advantage of this explosion against its soldiers in order to intimidate the [Great Return March] demonstrators so that they will stay away from the border, by spreading a story that links the demonstrations with the explosion."[27] 

Journalist Jibril 'Odeh wrote in the Filastin daily that the armed operations of Hamas and the factions should not be criticized, even for the sake of defending the non-violent struggle: "Some people went too far in their negative interpretation of the 'flag ambush' [i.e., the IED incident] and even linked it to a future event, namely to the Great Return March, stating that the operation had been meant to sabotage the march. That is an unwise and dangerous statement, which harms the resistance of the Palestinians everywhere... Perhaps we must warn those who carry out sincere national operations and initiatives against falling into this shameful pattern of behavior... We must not  forget the importance of military action in the war for independence, just as we should not underestimate the importance of political, popular, media and cultural [action] that is committed to the homeland and defends the rights of our people. What happened in eastern Khan Younis [the IED incident] was a heroic act that expressed the enduring spirit of resistance burning in the hearts of the Palestinians, [an act] that complements the resistance [activity in the] arenas of Jerusalem, Nablus, Jenin, Hebron and all the Palestinian cities. The resistance is one entity, and a gunshot fired in Jenin is no different from an explosive charge in Khan Younis."[28]

In an article he published on the website, which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, Abu Ratima warned against potential flaws in the initiative, in light of the failure of past initiatives of this kind. He wrote: "Although the Palestinian people of Gaza are [usually] inclined towards the armed varieties of resistance, this time they accepted the idea of the Great Return March with enthusiasm that did not escape the notice of anyone who follows social media... Today this idea has a greater chance of succeeding, now that the number of people who believe in it has grown, but the effectiveness of the idea does not automatically guarantee its success if we do not take care to consider several factors. First, this is a completely non-violent march... which [must not] involve armed action of any kind whatsoever... Second, the success of the idea depends on the ability to recruit [enough people]... Hence, the factions must make the effort to recruit at least 100,000 Gazans... Third,... this non-violent action, of unlimited duration, [is meant]... to exhaust the occupation on the security, political and media levels.

"Fourth, the involvement of the factions is crucial in recruiting [participants] and in logistical support. The Great Return March will not succeed without the active involvement of the factions. At the same time, it is crucial to stress... the popular character of the march and to raise the banner of Palestine and of [UN] Resolution 194. Furthermore, figures known for their links to armed resistance must not lead the marchers... Fifth, the discourse must focus at this time on the non-violent revolution of an entire people that is opposing the elimination of its [national] rights in order to escape the slow death awaiting it in the Gaza Strip... Therefore we must highlight [the participation of] families and let the women, children and elderly people lead [the march]... Sixth, the march must [initially] take place in a safe area, relatively far from the separation fence, for... this plan is not aimed at bloodshed but at actualizing [the right of] return, and this will not be possible until a sufficiently large number of refugees gather and then march forth as one towards the homeland.

Seventh, the current international climate will help the Palestinians in this non-violent activity, because several years ago Europe opened its gates to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. So if Israel claims to be part of Western civilization, it cannot kill unarmed refugees that are demanding the implementation of the UN resolution about [their right of] return... Eighth, once the plan is ripe, the [events on] the ground will determine the next step. If the Gazan Palestinians manage to recruit 100,000 non-violent protesters, and the other areas manage to recruit tens of thousands, the occupation will be hard put to deal with these mass marches. Even if some people are killed during the actual breaching [of the border]... but thanks to [their sacrifice] the Palestinians manage to cross the separation fence and reach their land that was occupied in 1948, it will be a reasonable price to pay. Thousands of victims have fallen in the wars without [achieving] any political results... This time, deaths will be justified and will be for the sake of making a significant national achievement."[29] 

In another article on the same website, Abu Ratima focused on the rationale behind the initiative: "The Palestinians have gained more confidence in the 'soft power' they can wield... These non-violent protests will largely neutralize the vast arsenal available to the occupation state... It will not be able to confront this human flood using the principles of warfare [used in] war. The option of force can be useful when confronting 5,000 protesters, but it loses much of its power when facing 200,000 protesters, on more than one front... The return marches have a moral transparency that increases their chance of success. They call for the return of the refugees to their homes in a non-violent manner, and do not espouse the call to throw the Israelis into the sea. The occupation state's objection to these marches does not rest upon convincing foundations.  It is a racist objection, aimed at maintaining the supremacy of the Jewish race in the occupation state, and this is a position that goes against the march of history. The world is no longer tolerant of regimes like the South African apartheid regime, and the values of citizenship and equality are now dominant. For this reason, the return marches will force the occupation state into a difficult confrontation: a confrontation between humanistic values that call for justice and rights [on the one hand] and values of racist discrimination and genocidal crimes [on the other].

"The marches of return are based on the philosophy of rights, not on the philosophy of liberation. Liberation means eliminating Israel and throwing its people into the sea, whereas the struggle for rights, in the format [created by] Nelson Mandela, aims at eliminating the racist settlement enterprise and realizing the oppressed Palestinians' [right of] return and self-determination. Following this, it does not matter whether the Israelis remain [in the country] as individuals, or leave."[30] 

In a post on his Facebook page, Abu Ratima wrote: "Question: What is the next step after the success of the #Great Return March and the entry of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees into Palestine that has been occupied since 1948? Answer: We will insist on remaining 'inside' [i.e., in the 1948 territories] as a demographically significant [sector] and a non-violent movement of struggle, along with the 'inside' Arabs [i.e., Israeli Arabs], so as to attain our civil rights, the way Martin Luther King did in the U.S."[31]

Abu Ratima's Facebook post


[1] See more reactions by representatives of the Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip to the U.S. decision to cut aid to UNRWA in MEMRI TV Clip 6385, Spokesman For Gaza Refugees Hassan Jibril Following Cut Of U.S. Funding For UNRWA: American And Israeli Interests In The Region Will Be Affected By This, January 18, 2018.

[2], February 8, 2018.

[3], March 6, 2018. Land Day is an annual protest day by the Israeli Arabs society and a symbol of  struggle for equality and rights. It commemorates the March 30, 1976 protests against the Israeli government's decision to seize lands belonging to Arabs in the Galilee, which turned violent and ended in the killing of six Arab civilians by the Israeli security forces.

[4], February 5, 2018.

[5], February 12, 2018.

[8], January 14, 2018.

[9] On February 17, 2018, four  IDF soldiers were  severely wounded by an IED near Khan Younis. The soldiers approached the border fence to remove a Palestine flag that had been pinned to it during a demonstration that had taken place there, and were wounded when the explosive charge was detonated by remote control.

[10], February 18, 2018.

[11], March 7, 2018.

[12], February 6, 2018.

[13], February 6, 2018

[14] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), February 7, 2018.

[15], March 1, 2018;, March 7, 2018.

[16], February 7, 2018.

[17], February 6, 2018.

[18], January 12, 2016.

[20], June 10, 2017.

[21], March 7, 2018.

[22], February 1, 2018.

[23] Felesteen (Gaza), February 5, 2018.

[24], February 21, 2018.

[25], February 19, 2018.

[26], February 18, 2018.

[27], February 19, 2017.

[28], February 20, 2018.

[29], February 7, 2018.

[30], February 23, 2018.

[31], February 8, 2018.

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