Tommy Sheppard

MP for Edinburgh East

The Great Return March Protests


Since the 30th March Palestinians in Gaza have been peacefully protesting. They will continue until the 15th May - the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, the name Palestinians have for the events that displaced them from their homes when Israel was created.

The protests are billed as the “Great Return March” to make the point that it’s time to leave Gaza and go back to where they came from. But try that and they will be shot. As of April 15th, 35 have already been killed and 1300 injured as Israeli soldiers fire live ammunition into unarmed demonstrators.

This is all happening on the Eastern edge of the Mediterranean. Only four hours away by plane – near places many of us have been on holiday. And the deaths and injuries are being caused, not by mistake, but by military instructions to soldiers who serve a country that wishes to be seen as a modern democracy.

Israeli army snipers do not always wait for young men to pick up stones before they shoot - journalists and children are amongst the dead. The use of live ammunition against unarmed protesters is both disproportionate and illegal.

The Israeli government blames Hamas for the demonstration and claims only Hamas supporters are being shot. Conveniently ignoring the fact that the protests were organised by young Gazans not affiliated to any party and that Hamas opposed them to start with.

And remember that the last time there were free elections Hamas won – so it’s hardly exceptional to be a Hamas supporter. I might not agree with them but supporting their political wing is certainly not justification for execution.

It appals me that this happens and the world ignores it. As Gideon Levy put it in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz “…How can we absolve ourselves, putting everything on Hamas and not be shocked for a moment at the sight of the blood of innocents…? This time the protest is not violent. Israel doesn’t see this either. It doesn’t see the whites of the protesters’ eyes, it doesn’t see them as human beings, it doesn’t see their despair; it doesn’t see the bitterness of their fate.”

And what is their fate? Two million people live in Gaza – a thin strip of land barely seven miles wide and 32 long. 80% are refugees or the family of refugees. From Gaza City many can see the towns of Ashkelon and Ashdod where some still have the keys to the houses they were born in.  They are angry - as anyone would be. But the demonstration along the fence is intended as - and mainly still is - a non-violent protest to attract the world's attention to their plight.

Since the Israelis ended their occupation of Gaza over ten years ago they have laid siege to it. An illegal Israeli blockade controls who and what can get in or out – and not much does.

Now the Gaza strip resembles a vast open-air prison. Food and medical supplies are low. Electricity is sparse. The infrastructure remains in ruins after 60 days of bombardment in 2014. Almost all of the drinking water is contaminated. The area is teetering on the verge of a terrible humanitarian crisis.

To draw attention to their plight, to ask the world for help, Gazans have protested at the fence which contains them. They have been killed for it and the world has stayed silent.

The siege on Gaza has to end. Israel should also end its military occupation and begin to negotiate a lasting settlement. This not only offers justice to the people of Palestine but it will ultimately be the thing that guarantees the security of Israel itself.

Written for Edinburgh Evening News 26th April 2018

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