Gaza City—The sniper bullets don’t come in quick succession. It’s not a barrage of fire. It is methodical, patient, precise. A single shot rings out and someone falls. You wait a few minutes. The crosshairs settle on the next target. Another shot, another body drops. Again and again and again. It goes on for hours.
This is how the Israeli military shot more than 1,350 Palestinians in Gaza on a single day, on May 14. Slowly.
As at least 60 people were being killed and over 2,700 wounded, White House officials clinked champagne glasses with their Israeli counterparts 50 miles away in Jerusalem to celebrate the transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv. Most people in Gaza have never been to Jerusalem. They can’t go. They can’t really go anywhere. Many have spent their lives trapped inside the 25-mile-long enclave, forbidden from crossing its borders. So they decided to march to the borders, to protest the US decision on Jerusalem, to demand their right of return, to push their bodies up against the limits of their confinement.
The grassroots movement, dubbed the Great Return March, began on March 30, which marks Land Day in Palestine (an annual commemoration for six Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in demonstrations in 1976 over land confiscations). The plan had been brewing for months. Activists, writers, and civil-society groups all began to organize around the idea of a protest at Gaza’s borders. The tactic of confronting the border is not a new one in Palestine; there have been numerous actions in the past. But this was the first time that it would coalesce into a broad-based, mass movement.
“The idea of the return marches was to do something collectively—that everyone together approaches the lands occupied in 1948,” said Mohamed Sherafi, a member of the Progressive Student Work Front, known as Taqadomi. “After a span of time, there was an agreement on the shape and form that we now have.”
Fourteen organizing committees were formed, comprising a broad swath of Palestinian society, including youth groups, women’s groups, nongovernmental organizations, legal-rights bodies, worker syndicates, and cultural associations. Their groundwork led to the formation of a Higher National Committee for the Return Marches, which included all the main political factions, with parties like Hamas, Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Islamic Jihad, and others joining forces.
In the Western media, Gaza is usually equated with Hamas, relegating all of the Strip’s diversity and political richness, all of its civil society and grassroots agency, to the background. And so it was with the return marches: The protests were widely characterized as being a Hamas operation. While Hamas is the ruling power in Gaza, and its participation was key in mobilization and funding efforts, the concept originated outside of the group and was driven and led by all sectors of society.
“Hamas unfortunately is viewed by a number of sides as a terrorist organization, so Israel is trying to tie the marches to Hamas to demonize this movement because it is peaceful and grassroots and popular,” said Hamas media spokesperson Hazem Kassem. “Everyone is taking part. Hamas participates, supports, mobilizes.”
After much debate, the organizers of the return marches settled on a number of key guidelines regarding tactics: no arms, no military uniforms, no party flags—just the Palestinian flag. People could try to cross the border fence if they wished.
“The goal of this is not an invasion. We want to break out of this prison. This is our right, this is our land,” said Salah Abdel Aaty, a rights lawyer and member of the Higher National Committee.
For the past 11 years—ever since Hamas took control of Gaza, after having won democratic elections in 2006—Israel has imposed a harsh blockade on the Strip. During Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza in 2014, the primary demand of Gazans was the lifting of Israel’s blockade. Living conditions have steadily deteriorated since then, and are now among the worst in the world. In 2012, the United Nations forecast that Gaza would be “unlivable” by 2020. A new UN report last yearfound that conditions are deteriorating even “further and faster” than they had predicted. A year ago, in a bid to force Hamas to hand over power to the Palestinian Authority, PA President Mahmoud Abbas imposed further sanctions on Gaza, making the economic and humanitarian situation even more intolerable.
And yet, while the demands of the return marches include the lifting of the siege, at its heart is something higher: the right of return, the right of Palestinians to reclaim the homes they were forcibly displaced from in 1948, the very essence of the Palestinian liberation struggle.
“We had to reclaim the Palestinian cause,” Abdel Aaty said. “As Palestinians, we now find ourselves facing unprecedented threats to our national rights.”
President Trump’s decision last December to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to transfer the US embassy there seemed like a first step in the so-called “deal of the century” to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. Different versions of the plan have been leaked, but all indications point to an abandonment of the right of return and the creation of a kind of quasi-state, without sovereignty for the Palestinians and without Jerusalem as their capital. “If you remove Jerusalem and the refugees, what do you have? There’s nothing left. That’s it, the entire national project has ended,” said Monzer al-Hayak, the Fatah information commissioner for western Gaza.
Similar proposals have been floated in years past, but this time the domestic and regional context has been in an unprecedented state of political decline. The Palestinian leadership remains fiercely divided, with the latest reconciliation efforts between Fatah and Hamas falling apart; and neighboring Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt—once supporters of the Palestinian struggle—are now more closely aligned with Israel than ever before.
The first return march took place on March 30, and the mass mobilizations continued on each succeeding Friday, culminating after nearly seven weeks on May 14, to mark the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem, and May 15, to mark the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, or catastrophe, which is how Palestinians refer to the forced expulsion from their homeland and the founding of the state of Israel.
The turnout on the first day was massive. “When we went down on March 30, we didn’t expect those numbers,” said Iktimal Hamad, the head of the women’s committee. “We didn’t expect it, then we built on it.”
Tens of thousands descended on five designated protest sites along the border, one in each of Gaza’s governorates, spanning the length of the Strip, from north to south: Beit Hanoun, Gaza City, al-Bureij, Khan Younis, and Rafah. Camps were set up with food carts, and held celebrations of Palestinian art, music, and cultural heritage. There was a festive atmosphere.
For years, Israel has imposed a buffer zone hundreds of yards wide along Gaza’s borders, regularly shooting at farmers and residents in the area and eating into the Strip’s already cramped territory. Thus the presence of the camps inside the buffer zone, in addition to being a protest, was also a reclamation of land.
Holes were dug in the ground for cover and to store caches of used tires. Young men and boys would set them alight and sprint to the front dragging the burning rubber behind them; once in place, the huge plumes of black smoke helped to block the snipers’ view. Paper kites fashioned with burning rags and bottles filled with gasoline were precariously flown over the border, occasionally setting Israeli crops on fire. Protesters hooked bent rods of rebar onto the barbed wire laid near the fence and hauled it away in repeated attempts to chip away at the barriers that penned them in. They confronted different areas of the fence, to divide Israeli troops. They planted the Palestinian flag on the mesh.
Some managed to cut through and briefly walk on the other side, saying they were implementing the right of return themselves before being forced back. Others did it out of sheer despair. The majority of people just stood and faced the border; thousands gathered side by side, all looking in the same direction.
The response was bullets. Slow and steady, yet incessant.
Israeli snipers positioned on sand dunes several yards away from the fence picked people off at will. Dozens were shot, then hundreds, then thousands—nearly 6,500 since March 30.
People were shot everywhere. I saw a woman hit as she walked up close to the barbed wire. I saw a teenager struck in the knee as he whirred a rock-filled sling. I saw a man shot in the foot while standing far back—some 200 yards—from the fence, away from the smoke and the chaos. People who did cross the fence were often shot at point-blank range. Methodical, patient, precise.
There was a constant stream of bloodied bodies being carried on stretchers to ambulances parked farther back, the wail of their sirens unending. On May 14, the Palestinian Red Crescent deployed 58 ambulances in Gaza. It was not enough, so they began using their administrative cars to ferry the wounded away.
Israeli soldiers used high-velocity weapons designed to cause maximum harm. In addition, multiple doctors in Gaza said the bullets were exploding upon impact. Amnesty International foundthat some wounds “bear the hallmarks of US-manufactured M24 Remington sniper rifles shooting 7.62mm hunting ammunition, which expand and mushroom inside the body.”
The vast majority of the gunshot wounds were to the legs. In the orthopedic ward of Shifa hospital, wails of anguish filled the hallway. Young men everywhere hobbled on crutches, wincing in pain. Most lay on cots, their shattered legs held together with rods and pins protruding at awkward angles. There have been nearly 30 amputations.
“The bullets leave fist-sized holes. We are seeing exposed bones, lacerations of soft tissue, severe damage to arteries, muscles, and tendons. It is common to see pulverized bones,” Dr. Mohammed Abu Mughaiseeb, the medical referent for Doctors Without Borders in Gaza, said. “A significant percentage of those wounded will suffer all their life from some form of disability.”
In the first intifada, which lasted from December 1987 to the early 1990s, soldiers broke the arms of stone-throwing youth. Three decades later, they are taking out the legs of Palestinians walking toward the border.
“You’re basically creating a new generation of cripples,” said Dr. Ghassan Abu-Sitta, of the UK-based charity Medical Aid for Palestinians.
People shot in the torso rarely survived. The ones shot in the head were killed instantly.
In addition to the bullets there was the tear gas. It came in three ways. The most frequent was multiple rounds of five or six canisters at a time, fired from launchers mounted atop army jeeps stationed near the snipers. Their range was short and the wind was mostly blowing east, typically sending the waves of gas away from the protesters and back across the border. The second was the more traditional hand-held rifle launcher, which has a much longer range but shoots only one canister at a time. The third method of delivery was new: a small drone that is able to fly over the crowds and drop seven or eight canisters at once, directly on the people below. The Israeli military had first experimented with the technology in Gaza in March, two weeks before the return marches began. The occupied territories have long been a laboratory for “live-testing” of Israeli weapons on the bodies of Palestinians.
On May 14, the bloodiest day in Gaza since the 2014 war, Shifa hospital was on the verge of collapse, unable to cope with the influx of hundreds upon hundreds of gunshot wounds. A janitor was kept busy mopping the blood off the floor. “I’ve worked here for 17 years, and I have never seen a day like this,” said Dr. Ali Ouda, a surgeon.
The wounded were being discharged too soon, in order to make room for those still awaiting treatment. There was a list of up to 30 patients waiting for surgery. After 11 years of siege, the hospital is woefully undersupplied, with shortages of antibiotics, IV fluids, bandages, beds, and wheelchairs.
On May 15, the anniversary of the Nakba, the gatherings at the border were much smaller. Funerals were being held across Gaza and the wounded were being tended to.
The youngest victim was 8-month-old Laila al-Ghandour. Her uncle was carrying her a hundred yards away from the fence when a drone dropped tear gas all around them, according to two family members. Laila turned blue and died of suffocation shortly after being rushed to the hospital. The next day screams of grief filled the family home as her father carried her tiny body wrapped in a Palestinian flag. “Why is the world silent? What are they waiting for?” her aunt, Wafaa al-Ghandour, said through tears.
In a nearby neighborhood, a few dozen gathered in a mourning tent on the street with the family of Yazan al-Tobasi. A 24-year-old father of one, Yazan had been going to the protests every Friday. His family says he was standing back, away from the fence, when a sniper shot him in the eye, killing him instantly. “He just went to express himself. He wasn’t even throwing stones,” his father said. “He just wanted to send a message to the world that we have rights.”
Overall, 112 Palestinians have been killed and more than 13,000 injured since the protests began on March 30.