“I looked up at the birds in the sky, flying through the trees on both sides of the barbed wire fence without being stopped. What is simpler than this? The birds decide to fly so they fly.”
On a dirt berm overlooking the Gaza-Israel border, Ahmad Abu Artema reads a poem he penned and used to inspire a popular uprising. “Why do we complicate simple matters?” reads Abu Artema.
A rattle of Israeli gunfire in the distance punctuates his verses.
“Is it not the right of people to move freely like birds as they wish?”
The 33-year-old writer, activist and self-described dreamer has mobilized tens of thousands of Gazans with a simple idea for this region – nonviolent resistance.
“I refuse outright the principle that walls and fences should separate people from each other. I believe people of different cultures and backgrounds should live together peacefully, without borders,” he said.
Abu Artema is the organizer of the “Great March of Return” movement, whose declared aim is to highlight the Palestinian right to return to homes and villages lost by their ancestors in the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war.
Every Friday since March 30, Palestinians have amassed at the Gaza border fence to demonstrate. At least 100 have died during the protests, according to a CNN count based on Palestinian Health Ministry figures.
Dozens of Palestinian were killed in Gaza on Monday during protests called to mark the official unveiling Monday of the new US Embassy in Jerusalem.
President Donald Trump’s decision to relocate the embassy from Tel Aviv to the contested city has upended decades of US foreign policy in the region, enraging the Palestinians and many Arab countries.
Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, and other Islamist factions have backed the movement. Hamas leader Yahya al-Sinwar has spoken at one of the protests, applauding protesters who have faced “the enemy who besieges us.”
Abu Artema says he holds no political affiliations and denies the movement has any ties to Hamas, a group considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, and the European Union.
Israel insists this protest movement is orchestrated by Hamas. It has described the attacks on the fence as terrorism, and says children are deliberately being placed in harm’s way.
“They (protests) are designed to bring about the destruction of Israel,” Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, told CNN. “They are designed to break through the fence and kill Israelis and we have to proceed with that assumption. Our soldiers have prevented it, so [in] that way it’s a success.”
The weekly march to the border culminates on Tuesday – Palestinian Nakba Day, or “Day of Catastrophe,” which commemorates the more than 700,000 Palestinians who were either were expelled from or fled their homes during Israel’s creation. Thousands are expected to attend Tuesday’s demonstration.
“I have always believed in non-violence, and I am happy to see this change, to see people in Gaza accepting this more than before,” Abu Artema said. “Many here now believe that their goals can be fulfilled by this method more than by violent resistance,” he adds.
A more than decade-long air, land, and sea blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt has deteriorated basic services, contributed to high unemployment, and placed huge restrictions on Gazans’ freedom to leave the small coastal enclave.