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Children participate in the Great Return March, Gaza, 31 March 2018 (image via @GreatReturnMa).

On "Land Day" (31 March), the Palestinians began six weeks of peaceful protests in Gaza, which have already resulted in 16 deaths and hundreds injured. Dr Ibrahim Natil reports.

ON 30 MARCH, Palestinians from all different political and social spectrum began promoting and engaging in peaceful national and grassroots activities to protest the Israeli occupation.

Various ranges of events and marches in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank have been organised. The "Great Return March", however, is considered the most important event commencing six weeks of Palestinian protests in the Gaza Strip.

This event also coincides with the day the Palestinians commemorate "Land Day". Land Day marks the first act of collective disobedience on 30 March 1976, when Palestinians protested an Israeli decision to expropriate 2,000 hectares of land as a part of a plan to "Judaise the Galilee". 

Palestinians commemorate this annual sad occasion when six Palestinian men and women died and the state of Israel was established, creating the question of Palestinian refugees — a question that has been recognised by UN resolutions since 1949.

The creation of Israel – and its forced expulsion of more than 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and land – redefined the map of the Middle East in 1948. These Palestinians became refugees in different locations including the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. It is estimated that the indigenous population of the Gaza Strip was between 60,000 and 80,000 people before the establishment of Israel.

The defeat of the Arabs and the metamorphosis of historic Palestine contributed to the development of a new form of national identity for the indigenous people who had lost both their homes and lands in 1948. Many Palestinians now lived as refugees in camps set up by the United Nations. These became operational on 1 May 1950, to relieve the humanitarian crisis and that was being generated in neighbouring countries by the influx of refugees who were fleeing Israel. The defeat and displacement of thousands of inhabitants to different locations did not alter their fundamental Palestinian identity and still believe they will return to their historical homes after 70 years.

The right to live in their homeland is shared by successive generations who automatically inherit their Palestinian identity and refugee status through their parents; this inheritance occurs regardless of whether they are born on Palestinian land, or form part of the Palestinian diaspora in the region or across the globe.

Meanwhile, Israel does everything to ensure they never do return: it assumes that its efforts will succeed in time because the old will die and the young will forget. Gaza’s demographics, for example, highlight the importance of heeding people’s beliefs and activities. Palestinian refugees, registered as stateless, make up over 70 per cent of the population in the Gaza Strip according to UNRWA — which promotes the right of return for all Palestinian refugees.

Despite its great contribution and support according to United Nations mandate, UNRWA has been facing the most difficult financial circumstances since its establishment in 1949 after U.S. President Donald Trump dramatically reduced funding to by $300 million. President Trump cut the aid to the Palestinians including UNRWA because they rejected his "Proclamation on Jerusalem".

The U.S. has been the largest donor – responsible for nearly a third of the budget – to UNRWA, which works to help Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, providing food, medical and education aid to more than 4,000,000 Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. UNRWA has been dealing with "the most severe crisis" ever faced.

Pierre Krähenbühl, Commissioner-general of (UNRWA), said:

‘With the remaining funds that will cover Palestinian refugees until May ... the need for global mobilisation and action in searchfor a solution is now more crucial than ever.' 

On March 21, in preparation for the Great Return March commencing on March 30, olive saplings were planted in the border area to raise awareness for the Palestinians' wish to return to their homeland. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are going to demand their right of return on this day. They have installed tenets, carrying the names of their historical villages.

The Israeli chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot warned his forces would be authorised to open fire ahead of mass protests on the Gaza border. Israeli forces had shot and injured four Palestinian protesters during clashes along the border of the besieged Gaza Strip on 23 March 2108.

On the first day of the Great Return March (31 March) 16 Palestinians were killed and hundreds wounded as Israeli forces claimed the protesters were rioting. 

Palestinian refugees have suffered ongoing Israeli aggression and collective punishment in the form of restrictions on their movements, the expansion of settlements in Palestinian land and the siege of the Gaza Strip. Their right to freedom and the right to form an independent Palestinian state have also been denied.

Dr Ibrahim Natil is a Fellow at the Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction at Dublin City UniversityHe is a human rights campaigner and was a nominee for the Tällberg Foundation Global Leadership Prize, 2016. You can follow Dr Natil on Twitter @Natilibrahim.

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