A Palestinian child holds a sign on Land Day.
For the past six weeks, Gaza has been in the news as residents have been protesting near the barbed wire fence and free-fire “no-go” zone that traps them under Israel’s siege and blockade of the impoverished territory.
The protests began on March 30, commemorated by Palestinians as “Land Day” annually since 1976, when six unarmed Palestinian citizens of Israel (including three women) protesting government confiscation of their lands for Jewish-only settlements in the Arab-majority Galilee area were shot dead by the Israeli army and police, who were not punished.
In Gaza and elsewhere this “Great March of Return” demonstration by all factions and sectors of Palestinian society asserts their international legal right to return to the villages and towns Israel expelled them from in 1948 – lands that for Gazans lie just a few miles away on the other side of the barbed wire, and to which they have been forbidden to return solely because they are not Jewish. The demonstrations are set to culminate on May 15, Nakba (Catastrophe) Day, when Palestinians protest their ongoing dispossession by Israel and the western powers.
In the early hours of March 30, before any demonstrations had started, Israeli soldiers fired a tank shell at two farmers “acting suspiciously” in their fields, blowing one to pieces and injuring the other. Later that day, snipers Israel had placed behind earthworks along the fence with openly-declared shoot-to-kill orders began firing on the unarmed protesters. At least 18 were killed and more than 1400 injured that first day. As of this writing, the death toll stands at over 50, including five children and two journalists. Over 6,000 have been injured, with hundreds suffering devastating injuries caused by exploding bullets that rip through flesh and bone according to Doctors without Borders. No Israelis have been injured.
Amnesty International has demanded Israel “stop the use of lethal and other excessive force,” calling for a world-wide arms embargo on Israel. Human Rights Watch called the killings “unlawful” and “calculated,” saying Israeli officials green-lighted the killing of unarmed demonstrators and deploring “the longstanding culture of impunity within the Israeli army.” (Israel responded by ordering the expulsion of HRW’s Jerusalem office director Omar Shakir.)
U.S. taxpayers annually give Israel $3.8 billion in military aid. The made-in-the-USA tear gas they use is the same used in “riot control” in poor American cities like Ferguson, MO. Amnesty International believes many exploding bullet injuries “bear the hallmarks of US-manufactured M24 Remington sniper rifles shooting 7.62mm hunting ammunition, which expand and mushroom inside the body.”
The “Leahy Law” is supposed to prohibit these weapons from being used to commit human rights abuses. In reality most of the American political class from the President on down ignores the law and chooses impunity over accountability for Israel every time.
A few, including Senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy, have spoken out. Rep. Mark Pocan has called on Israel to “exercise utmost restraint in the use of deadly force and to fully comply with international law.” It is especially urgent that Senator Tammy Baldwin and others in Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation follow Pocan’s lead as we get closer to May 15, the day after Trump officially moves the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in a deliberate provocation to all Palestinians that risks greater and wider bloodshed.
Veteran Israeli peace activist Amoz Gvirtz wrote that this “popular unarmed civil struggle” by Palestinians “demanding an end to the siege and justice for themselves, without endangering our lives or our security” must be supported.
Tell your representatives that Palestinian lives do matter. Ask them to speak out, to investigate Israel’s actions in Gaza, and to enforce the Leahy Law against impunity for human rights violators. Then take action yourself in support of the growing nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to hold Israel accountable for these abuses.
Samir El-Omari and Barbara Olson are members of the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project.