The main takeaway from the “Great March of Return Protest” – a 45-day event that began just after I left Gaza six weeks ago and Tuesday reached its most important moment – is that residents of Gaza will continue to protest regardless of the number of casualties they endure.
Why? Intuitively, one would think Gazans would have caved long ago. An answer lies in two core features of Gazan individual and collective psychology, which my colleagues and I have studied empirically and as I have come to observe them personally in now over two decades of regular stays in Gaza: being marginalized and dehumanized.
Any individuals, organizations and governments who are seriously interested in making life better for Gazans or in resolving the hostilities between Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel, with its ripple effects throughout the region, must understand why Gazans keep fighting back.
They must first understand, however, that in many ways, there is nothing actually new about this spate of protests. It’s true that the US Embassy’s opening in Jerusalem has inflamed tensions, but this protest was not geared around that. Moreover, Palestinians have been protesting regularly for over 70 years now.
Further, the Israeli military often responds to any contest from Palestinians with overwhelming and disproportionate force, by a stated policy called the “Dahiya doctrine.” According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 55 Palestinians in Gaza were killed and over 2,000 were injured on Monday. That brought the total casualties over the six weeks of protest to 97 Gazans killed and over 12,000 injured. The first report of any Israeli casualty over the weeks was the minor wounding of one soldier on Monday.
Tuesday morning, The Washington Post published new figures of 61 killed and over 2,700 injured Monday. The Post cited Gaza Health Ministry figures to report a total death count of at least 110 Gazans.
Tuesday the protests culminated in acknowledgment of the Nakba (catastrophe), how Palestinians refer to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians at the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. The casualty counts will likely rise.
Meanwhile, the Israeli government and military (along with the United States government) immediately scapegoated Hamas, which governs in Gaza and does not recognize Israel’s existence, as the terroristic instigator of such contests. This reaction obscures the lived reality of many Palestinians by effectively diverting domestic and international attention away from being able to understand their motives for protesting, which predate and go beyond the concerns of any one political faction. If people looked closely, they might see that the “Great March of Return” has long been a grassroots movement that Hamas (and other political factions) have come to support with the intent of keeping the protests as nonviolent as possible.
And yet Palestinians – Gazans, in this case – continue to resist, even when facing this lethal treatment on top of the dire water, electricity and medical conditions and travel restrictions they face.
From my earliest interviews in the late 1990s of first intifada youth – the adults present at the current Gaza protests, and the parents of the youth who are there – to last month in Gaza when a late teen told me that Gazans can handle the awful water, electricity and health situation, the theme of dehumanization has been deep-seated and constant. “The real effect of the occupation and siege is to make us feel ‘subhuman,’” he said.
To understand the sense of being dehumanized, a 2011 study I conducted with colleagues of several hundred middle-aged Gazans showed that, at the hands of Israeli forces, over the course of their lives: 80% have had their homes raided (which, according to the nearly 2,000 Palestinians my colleagues and I have interviewed over the years, typically occur in the early morning hours with squadrons of soldiers crashing down their doors and often very harshly treating family members); over 70% have witnessed someone close to them being humiliated; and over 60% have themselves been verbally abused. Our research, which shows similar findings for other Palestinian territories, also reveals that many have experienced all these events multiple times. (Given the numerous major points of conflict since 2011, the incidence of these would have only increased.) A quarter of men have been imprisoned at least once, with its incumbent severe treatment.
Behind this sense of dehumanization is a related, prevailing sense of being marginalized.
During the three days of my first stay in Gaza in 1995, I was captivated by one feature of Gazans’ “personality.” Beyond the stereotype-refuting humility and respectfulness, there was a deep sense of being ostracized. Even then, Gazans were aware of how they were viewed by most of the world, leading them – young and old, male and female – to repeatedly voice gratitude that I thought to come to their “little Gaza,” while simultaneously petitioning me repeatedly to consider returning someday.
In an hourlong discussion with a junior college classroom, I was asked the same pair of questions, verbatim, six times: “Do you like Gaza?” “Would you come again?” As if they could not be sated by my positive answers to both questions.
One high school boy pleaded that when I go home I tell Americans that “We are not all terrorists.”
The steady cascade of ruinous economic and political developments since then – whether sourced in actions and policy from Israel, Egypt or Palestinian interfactional divisions within Gaza – have only increased this sense of marginalization, with Gaza now completely set off from the West Bank and Jerusalem.
So, how to reconcile these deep-seated, deadening states of mind with the tenacity Gazans display to keep resisting?
A core Palestinian concept is sumud (steadfastness), or the determination to keep their land and build their country. It goes some distance in explaining Gazan’s persistence and long suffering, but not necessarily the intense, active resistance in the face of extreme risk, injury and death as is playing out in Gaza now.
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It is better explained by what the forces that marginalize and dehumanize specifically target: identity and dignity. We’ve learned that all forms of adversity experienced by the dominated don’t have the same impact. Gazans and all Palestinians can handle much, obviously. But it is the assault on their worthiness – as human beings – that inspires such defiance, as if there is a sacred boundary of humanity that cannot be crossed without instinctive rebellion.
That instinct will not be killed away.
This op-ed has been updated to reflect that the author’s research findings apply to multiple Palestinian territories, not only in Gaza.