Ahmad Abu Artema is a Gaza-based writer and one of the organizers of the Great March of Return.
A year ago, alongside a group of other Palestinian organizers, I launched the Great March of Return, a weekly grass-roots protest in Gaza calling for Palestinian freedom from Israel’s crippling blockade and the right of refugees to return to our former homes.
I first had the idea to march after President Trump moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, breaking with the international consensus and almost seven decades of U.S. policy. In Gaza, many of us were deeply alarmed by Trump’s announcement and its implications for the sovereignty of Jerusalem and its holy sites, which are central to Palestinian identity.
One day, as I walked through Gaza just before sunset, I was struck watching the birds fly freely from tree to tree over the fence that separated us from Israel. I wondered aloud why I couldn’t move freely without being stopped by walls, guns and checkpoints.
I shared these thoughts with friends on Facebook, and soon excitement for the march took flight. People in Gaza were craving an outlet, a way to reach out to the world. The march gave them a platform and enabled young people to feel more connected to the land they long to return to.
Today, thousands of Palestinians continue to brave Israeli sniper fire to march peacefully every Friday. They have paid a heavy price. Israeli snipers have reportedly killed 195 people — including children — and injured tens of thousands of others. But I cannot regret the impact of my words and the movement they catalyzed.
For more than a decade, Palestinians in Gaza have been isolated in a huge, open-air prison. We cannot leave to study, visit family or friends, travel and see the world — and, except at brief intervals, the world has generally ignored our suffering.
As virtual prisoners living behind walls and fences, we cannot help but shake the bars of our prison, regardless of the price we may pay. Starved of our freedom and the ability to live a normal life, we march to retain a sense of agency and remind the world of our plight and demand for freedom.
As we approach the first anniversary of the Great March of Return, the factors that motivated us to protest have not changed. Our food is running out. Approximately 97 percent of our fresh water is undrinkable and facilities for treating water are limited. Cancer patients are forced to delay life-saving treatments after being denied travel permits by Israel. Gaza receives only a few hours of electricity each day, and our economy is in shambles. Tragically, young Palestinians — who have the highest unemployment rate in the world — feel there is no hope, and are deprived of the opportunity to work, find housing and set the groundwork to marry and start families.
A U.N. report has found that Gaza may be uninhabitable by 2020, which is just months away. Many say we’ve already passed that point. This is no way to live. We have nothing to lose, so we must keep struggling for the better world we know is possible.
I’m one of the lucky few in Gaza who have experienced the taste of freedom. After many failed attempts, I was given a permit to travel at the invitation of the American Friends Service Committee and recently toured the United States to raise awareness of our plight in Gaza. Each day, I met people from different cultures living side by side, struggling together for a better, more just America and a better world. These activists saw our struggle as their struggle. With raised voices and persistent action, they have shared this message with members Congress, who are beginning to speak out in support of Palestinian rights.
During my tour, I visited the First Church of the Brethren in Chicago, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had an office. As I stood in the room where my hero once stood, I thought of King’s famous "I Have a Dream" speech and how much he sacrificed to achieve something remarkable for humanity. We in Gaza are left with the legacy of this shared dream of freedom. We will carry on in King’s footsteps until the walls of separation fall and justice prevails.
But justice requires accountability. A report recently released by U.N. Commission of Inquiry concerning Israel’s crackdown after the Great March of Return offers a glimmer of hope that the impunity Israeli leaders currently enjoy will one day end. It found evidence that Israeli forces may have committed war crimes, including injuring and killing protesters. For this report to have a real effect on Palestinian lives, Israel and its leaders must be held accountable by the United States and the international community.
I dream of a future in which Israelis and Palestinians live together in freedom and equality, so that our children may realize their full potential in shared safety. This is a dream worth realizing but, for it to succeed, those who believe in freedom and justice need to speak out against Israeli leaders who have callously disregarded our rights. Let us stand together on the right side of history.