By Nancy Murray
On February 26, the journalist and poet Ahmed Abu Artema was warmly welcomed to Harvard Law School by a standing-room-only audience. The Alliance for Water Justice in Palestine was a co-sponsor of ‘The Power of the People: A Conversation with Ahmed Abu Artema, Leader and Organizer of The Gaza March of Return.’
Artema described what led him last year to write a Facebook post suggesting that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians gather peacefully near the fence that was keeping them imprisoned to demand a life with dignity and a return to their lands and homes from which Israel had expelled them 70 years ago.
“In this post I said we are a people who want life, and nothing but life! We die in our besieged narrow strip, so why don’t we move before we all die? I ended this post with a proposed hashtag: the Great March of Return.”
Why has the Great March that began on March 30, 2018 endured for nearly a year, despite the brutal repression by the Israeli army that has to date killed more than 260 unarmed Palestinians and caused 26,000 injuries?
“The Great March represents a scream for life,” Artema stated, “and a knock on the walls of the prison after these besieged prisoners decided not to accept the continuation of slow death.”
And why has Israeli repression been so intense?
“We know why the Israeli army kills civilian protesters. It doesn’t kill them because its soldiers are in danger. It kills them because it wants to target the will to live, the will to resist the occupation in the spirit of the Palestinian people. The Return march has given a big headache to Israel, not because the protesters were carrying arms, but because they carried their rights.”
Artema’s visit to Cambridge coincided with the publication of a report compiled on the Great March by a commission appointed by the UN Human Rights Council. Because Israel barred the entry of the three-person commission, they relied on some 8,000 documents, countless videos and hundreds of interviews to conclude that Israel may have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity in gunning down unarmed protesters.
The commission found no evidence that armed groups were coordinating the demonstrations which were “civilian in nature.” With the exception of one incident on May 14 that could have constituted an “imminent threat” to Israeli security forces, the commission found “reasonable grounds to believe that, in all other cases, the use of live ammunition by Israeli security forces against demonstrators was unlawful.”
So what happens now?
Among its recommendations the Commission urges Israel to stop using lethal force against civilians and to lift the blockade on Gaza “with immediate effect” and ensure that the wounded are able to receive medical treatment. It also recommends that individuals identified as responsible for the carnage face sanctions such as a travel ban and asset freeze, and arrest by State Parties to the Geneva Convention.
Judging from past efforts to induce Israel to end the collective punishment of over 2 million people in the Gaza Strip, none of this seems likely to happen in the short term.
But Ahmed Abu Artema is at the beginning of a tour that will take him to nine American cities, and the enthusiastic reception he received at Harvard gives reason to hope that by the time his tour ends a great many people will be fired up to respond to his call:
“Let us all work together for the sake of making our world a better, more stable, more prosperous world for all people. Let us raise our voices high and say farewell to regimes that continue military occupation and racial discrimination. Let’s start an era of equality and human rights for all, and build democratic states that give equal rights to all of its citizens. Let us say it loud, that the 3.8 billion dollars that are taken from American taxpayers every year to fund military aid to Israel are funds that continue the oppression and occupation of the Palestinian people.”