Contrary to media claims, Great Return March is not ‘peaceful’ in practice or in spirit

The only difference between Hamas and Ahmad Abu Artema, the Great Return March chief organiser, is that Hamas is a terror group founded on the idea that Israel has no right to exist, and Abu Artema is a "non-violent" activist dedicated to the idea that Israel has no right to exist.

Written by Aron White

Over the past weeks, there has been significant British media coverage of protests at the Gaza border. Last week, UKMW focused on how the ‘peaceful’ protests have featured violence, and amongst the dead were known Hamas terrorists, facts which have often been omitted from reports on the border clashes.

But there are also two crucial points that are missing in the overall framing of the story. Until now, the story has been framed almost exclusively in typical terms – Israeli oppression of Palestinian rights, and a peaceful Palestinian protest met with excessive Israeli force.  However, there are two key pieces of framing that are missing at the moment from media coverage.

  1. This mass Palestinian uprising has a radical ideology, implicitly calling for the end of the Jewish state.

Much focus has been given to the fact that the original organisers of the march expressed their wish for the protests to be peaceful. However, this does not make their aims peaceful. Here is a section from the official Facebook page of the protest, the Great Return March.  

“The Palestinian refugees issue is the core of the Palestinian cause. It is the issue of the expulsion of a nation from its original land 70 years ago using terrorism, to be replaced by a nation who denies the existence of the expelled indigenous nation………

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from their homes and forced to leave their properties to become refugees in various surrounding Arab countries and around the world. A new foreign entity was established on the ruins of their societies and homeland known as ‘Israel’……

The GRM adopts the following general principles:

It is a sustained and cumulative struggle, not a seasonal or a one-day event.

It will only end with the actual return of Palestinian refugees and the sit-in may last for weeks or months.

Essentially, the organisers of this march do not believe Israel has a right to exist, as a Jewish state, within any borders. It is a foreign entity, something to be named only in quotation marks.

Great Return March logo

The ideology of this movement is clear – Israel has no legitimacy, and two million Gazans should ‘return’ to a land that belongs to the Palestinians, not the Jews. Nowhere does the movement talk about working with Israel, negotiating an agreement, or anything other than a maximalist position. In the worldview of the organisers, Israel kicked out Palestinians decades ago, and all their millions of descendants have an inalienable right to return to the land that is really theirs.

On the spectrum of political views, this is hardly a moderate or peaceful view. Recognition of Israel’s right to exist is surely a basic tenet that reasonable actors are expected to hold when discussing the Israel-Palestinian conflict. But this radical ideology of the organisers is being totally overlooked – the media is celebrating their stated aim of engaging in ‘peaceful’ protests , and ignoring the ideology infusing their movement.

Time for peaceful resistance, says Gaza’s new movement reads the Guardian headline.

“………Hamas, a militant group founded on the idea that Israel has no right to exist.

Yet Ahmad Abu Artema, who claims no Hamas affiliation, holds an ideology more often attributed to that of Israel’s president: he says he wants to see Palestinians and Israelis living in one country as equal citizens.”

This is twisting their ideology on its head. What Abu Artema is saying is he wants to see the end of the state of Israel, if admittedly not through a violent war. This is sugar-coated with the idyllic sounding image of Palestinians living in one country as equal citizens – but it is quite clear that that country Abu Artema imagines would not be Israel. A more accurate way of framing the difference between Hamas and Abu Artema, is that Hamas is a militant group, founded on the idea that Israel has no right to exist, and Abu Artema has organised peaceful protests, founded on the idea that Israel has no right to exist.

Moreover, as Financial Times correspondent Mehul Srivastava detailed in a recent report, (Hamas steers Gaza protests away from activists’ peaceful vision, April 6th) whatever the intent of organisers, the protests “slipped out of their hands” and was eventually taken over by Hamas, thus turning violent.

The protests…quickly slipped out of their hands, and into the grasp of the most powerful force in Gaza — Hamas…Mr Artema freely admitted that Hamas was no interloper — he and his colleagues, mostly penniless, disorganised and inexperienced, invited the Islamist movement in, hoping for logistics, some media coverage and moral support.

They got more than that: Hamas ordered its civilian employees to join the march, shipped in food and water and set up tents. Like everything else in Gaza, the march belonged to Hamas, and threatened to trigger a new bout of confrontation between the militants and Israeli forces.

The result of Hamas’s take-over has been clear: rock throwing, the use of hundreds of Molotov cocktails, the planting of explosive devices at the fence and at least one shooting incident. 

  1. These protests represent a legitimate threat to the security of Israel

Gaza is an enemy state vis-a-vis Israel. It is ruled by a Hamas government whose charter swears it to the murder of Jews and the violent destruction of Israel, and has fired thousands of rockets at Israel since their violent coup in 2007.  There are Israeli communities situated right near the Gazan border, and Gaza is in fact less than 50 miles away from both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Currently, there is the following scenario. Tens of thousands of people have been amassing by the fence that divides Gaza from Israel, clamouring to enter Israel to ‘return’ to ‘their homes’.  Though many of the protesters, it is argued, are unarmed, let us imagine that the Israeli army would allow thousands of Gazans to enter Israel.  Terrorists, bombers, kidnappers and all manner of violence could be unleashed, both by terrorists coming in the initial wave of people coming over the border, and by those who could follow through the broken fence. And this is by no means an Israeli overreaction or an unfounded fear – Gaza is not just full of terrorists, but governed by them.

Therefore, Israel, in the interests of its security, maintains a policy that no-one is allowed to come too close to the border, a fact that protesting Gazans are repeatedly warned about. Naturally, Israel must maintain its obligations under international law and the Fourth Geneva convention, and distinguish between protesters who pose a threat and those who don’t. But in the current scenario, there’s murkiness about who is and who is not a threat. If a person is running towards the border, trying to breach the border fence, is it always obvious they are unarmed? What if the soldier cannot tell if they are armed or not? What if it is a group of tens, or hundreds of thousands of people rush the fence at once? What about fast-moving situations, under the smoke screen of burning tires?

These are not simple questions, and they are not simple answers. But in much of the media, the answers to these complex legal and ethical questions have already been decided.  There is no serious reckoning with Hamas’s role in fomenting violence within the protests or the security threat posed by attempts to infiltrate the border.  The force used by Israel has been framed as “excessive” without considering the genuine security threats faced by the IDF.

To more fairly frame the protests, careful attention must be paid to the radical ideology infusing them, and to seriously acknowledge that the attempt of thousands of Gazans to cross into Israel represents a serious security challenge. Israel should always be held to high standards, and is not above criticism. But Palestinian protesters, and Hamas extremists who took over the march, are not above criticism either, and their goals and tactics must be critically scrutinised by journalists with the same level of intensity. 


Aron White has a BSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of London (Lead College: LSE), and is a graduate of the Jewish Statesmanship Center in Jerusalem. His writings have been published at the Jerusalem Post, JNS, The Daily Caller and the Algemeiner.

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