The Great March (Gaza, ep. 1)

American and Israeli politicians, religious leaders, and dignitaries met in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018 to mark the United States moving its embassy there. While they celebrated with songs about peace, thousands of Palestinians assembled at the fence that separates Israel from the Gaza Strip for the Great March of Return. This mass demonstration was originally planned to last six weeks, but has continued to this day. How did it all begin, and who are the protestors that continue to risk their lives to participate?

In the first episode of Gaza, a series from Unsettled, we hear about the Great March of Return from one of its organizers and two young participants.

This episode was edited and produced by Ilana Levinson, with help from Asaf Calderon and Sophie Edelhart. Music from Blue Dot Sessions. Unsettled theme music by Nat Rosenzweig. Artwork for our Gaza series by Marguerite Dabaie.

Photo credit: Issam Adwan


Isam Hammad is an engineer, graduate from Waterford Institute of Technology, wishing to see the world living in peace and free from hatred and wars. My dream is to return back to Sarafand, the little town we were displaced from by the act of war in 1948.


Ahmed Alnaouq, 24, graduated from Al-Azhar University in Gaza City, with a bachelor's degree in English literature. Born in the middle Gaza community of Deir Albalah, he says his dream is to advance the cause of Palestinian human rights and to expose the “human face” of the Israeli occupation. He serves as project manager for the Gaza team of We Are Not Numbers. He also is a freelance journalist and writer for a number of international media outlets.


Zahra Shaikhah is studying English literature at the Islamic University of Gaza and is in her senior year. Unlike many students, Zahra actually likes researching English literature and wants to eventually become a university professor. When she is not studying, reading and writing are her passions in life. Zahra uses reading to "heal my soul" and writing as a way of fighting back. Philosophy, psychology and fiction are her reading interests. She also likes going to the beach; it's her main refuge in Gaza. Finally, having a cup of coffee with a friend and a deep conversation make her the happiest creature on the planet!


Tareq Baconi is the International Crisis Group’s Analyst for Israel/Palestine and Economics of Conflict. His book, Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance, was published by Stanford University Press in 2018. His writing has appeared in Arabic in Al-Ghad and Al-Quds al-Arabi, and in English in The New York Review Daily, The Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, The Guardian, The Nation, The Daily Star (Lebanon), and al-Jazeera. He has provided analysis for print and broadcast media, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, BBC, National Public Radio, and Democracy Now!



ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to begin our ceremony.

ILANA LEVINSON: On May 14th 2018, American and Israeli politicians, religious leaders and dignitaries met in Jerusalem to bring into effect the unprecedented decision made by U.S. President Donald Trump the previous December.

DONALD TRUMP: The United States finally and officially recognized Jerusalem as the true capital of Israel. Today we follow through on this recognition and open our embassy in the historic and sacred land of Jerusalem.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: We have no better friends in the world. You stand for Israel and you stand for Jerusalem. Thank you.

SINGER: [singing] Peace will come upon us. Peace will come upon us. Peace will come upon us and everyone.

ILANA: While the Americans and the Israelis celebrated with songs about peace and shared their hopes for a brighter future, just fifty miles away…

[Sound: sirens, voices of protestors]

ILANA: Thousands of Gazans assembled at the fence that separates Israel from the Gaza Strip for what would turn into the bloodiest day of the Great March of Return.

And despite the risks, people from Gaza would continue to participate in the Great March, week after week, for months. Who are they? What are they hoping to accomplish? And what can we learn about life in Gaza from their demands?

I’m Ilana Levinson and you’re listening to "Gaza: a series from Unsettled.  

[Music: Unsettled theme]

ILANA: This is the first of eight episodes in our series on Gaza. But before we dive into our story, I want to give you a little bit more information about why we’re doing this series.   

Last spring, our team at Unsettled watched as thousands of Gazans took part in the Great March of Return. And we realized: only one episode of Unsettled is about life in Gaza. That’s in part because Gaza and the people who live there are hard to access. It’s close to impossible for ordinary Gazans to get in or out of the Gaza Strip. And - until recently - Gaza was getting less than five hours of electricity a day. So it’s not easy to have a Skype call with someone living there.

But there’s something else.

Gaza is a really hard conversation to have within the Jewish community. In my experience, emotions run high and people respond viscerally. For instance, if you bring up the blockade, you'll be accused of not caring about the Israelis in the south who live in fear of Hamas rockets. And If you as far as acknowledge the existence of refugees who wish to return, you'll be told that you seek the end of Israel.

These conversations get so heated because the stakes feel so high. But the stakes are even higher for the people of Gaza.

The Gaza Strip has a population of nearly 2 million people living in just 139 square miles. It's governed by Hamas, which is locked in a seemingly never-ending cycle of violence with Israel. The UN counts 70% of the population as refugees from cities and towns within Israel. And many have hopes of returning to those places - an aspiration that a lot of Israelis see as an existential threat. And though Israel officially pulled out all of its military and settlements from Gaza in 2005, it still controls everything that goes in and out of the Gaza Strip - leaving it economically strangled.

These issues are complicated - and it doesn't help that young Jews aren't likely to learn about them from their schools, families, or communities. Mainstream news outlets aren’t much help either - they tend to speak about Gaza only in terms of buzzwords and body counts. And that makes it hard to engage.

But this year, it’s been impossible to look away.

In the spring of 2018, thousands of Gazan protesters came to the fence that separates the Gaza Strip from Israel for the Great March of Return. The protests were originally planned to last six weeks. Instead, they’ve continued until today.

After the first few Fridays of the Great March of Return, I heard a lot of people trying to paint the protesters as violent militants by pointing to the few who threw rocks and burned tires. But the vast majority of the Gazans at the Great Return March were there peacefully demonstrating for their rights. And in this episode, we’ll talk to two of them.

But first, a few notes about why we chose to start our series with the Great March of Return. One, because the protests have captivated an international audience. But beyond that - when you look at the demonstrations for what they are, and not with the intent to label protestors as either victims or aggressors, you find a window into Gazan culture, history, the conditions they’re protesting, and the barriers they face - both inside and outside of Gaza. We’ll jump in --with how it all got started.

ISAM HAMMAD: Why do I participate? [laughing] You know why I am laughing? I am one of the people who started the Great Return March on January 8th of January 2018. This is why I am laughing.

ILANA: We actually didn’t intend to talk to Isam Hammad about the Great March of Return. Our producer Asaf, was talking to him for the episode you’ll hear after this one, when he just so happened to mention he was one of the organizers of the March.

He said it all started with an article from the writer Ahmed Abu Artema. Isam had never heard of him before reading his article last January.

ISAM: But when he wrote in the magazine Arabi21 in his article that he is dreaming that all the Palestinians could march returning peacefully to their lands, I went and I searched for Ahmed Abu Artema, and then I got his contact, I spoke to him on Messenger, and I told him I want to meet you.

ILANA: Isam manages a medical equipment company in Gaza City. He’s also the founder of a political group in Gaza called National Appeal, which focuses on local issues, like infrastructure, waste and water. National Appeal was set to run candidates in the 2017 Palestinian local elections, but the elections  fell through because of clashes between the rival factions. But Isam continues to dedicate much of his time to political activism. So when he heard the news about the United States moving its embassy to Jerusalem last December, he felt that it was an affront to the Palestinian people. For so long he’d heard the United States lecture Palestinians not to make unilateral moves - and now here they were, doing exactly that.

ISAM: I felt that we have to do something… we have to do something.

ILANA: After he contacted the author of the article, Ahmed Abu Artema, through Facebook Messenger, they made a plan to get together a couple days later. The first planning meeting for the Great March of Return was just a couple people sitting in one of the organizer’s homes. But as the group started to promote the idea, more and more people quickly came on board, and not just people in Gaza.

ISAM: So we had some guys from Turkey, some guys from Malaysia, some guys from London. We created something called the International Committee for the Great Return March. And then we started the meeting over Skype every few days in order to organize ourselves and this is how it started.

So we started talking to to everybody we could talk to. Me and Ahmed, we started visiting a nongovernmental organization to talk to the heads. We started to appear on TV.

ILANA: By the end of January, everyone in Gaza was talking about the Great March of Return. Isam even set up a Great March of Return radio program to reach Palestinians all over the world.

[Sound: Great March of Return radio]

ILANA: The International Committee for the Great March of Return was ready to take the idea to Palestinian political leaders. Thirteen Palestinian factions hold a joint weekly meeting in Gaza. So Isam and other Great March of Return organizers went, prepared with a press release.

ISAM: [paper shuffling] Yes, this is the first press release. We published many of it and we started approaching people. This is it.

ILANA: While we were talking, Isam found the press release on his office desk and held it up to the camera so I could see it. I’ll read you some of the English translation. Quote: “the refugees’ lands, villages and towns beckon their return; some of them were never inhabited since the Nakba. So why can’t they exercise their right when they still possess the deeds to their lands and keys to their homes?”

ISAM: We prepared this long before we published it because we were talking at that time with the Palestinian factions to take a decision whether they want to join or we will go ahead. So they were late giving us the answer so we published. We went ahead. [laughing] After we published the press release they immediately answered.

ILANA: All thirteen of the political factions at the meeting eventually backed the idea. So they set out to create a unified message for the Great March of Return through a set of principles.

ISAM: We have written in the principles that we want to remain in peaceful manner. That we will not shoot a bullet; we will not throw a stone; we will not fight with anybody. We will only walk with bare feet on the table towards our land. This is it. This is it. Peacefully, absolutely peacefully.

ILANA: And Isam worked to spread that message. He even went on TV hoping to reach the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu.

ISAM: Telling him that there is no point of opposing this movement. There is no point. Palestinian people have decided to return back according to international resolutions. They are not doing something opposite to the law. They are not. They are doing something with the law so we want to cross.

ILANA: The international resolution Isam is talking about is UN Resolution 194, which says: “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.”

ISAM: The vision we had is that we are... we the Palestinians are armed with international resolutions. So if we try to be violent then the international community will criticize our violence. But we do not want to be violent. We just want to walk down cross. We want to go back to our land, to our homes, to our farms that we were uprooted from.

ILANA: Finally, on March 30, 2018, Isam set out in the morning to attend the first day of the Great March of Return.

ISAM: When I reached the the camp there at ten past ten, I didn't believe was what's happening. I thought there's nobody when I saw the scene. There was nobody in Gaza in his home. Everybody was in... in the camp. I didn't believe the numbers. People did not believe that somebody could make their dream to return back to their homes and lands that they were uprooted from become a reality.

So if everybody went to the marching camps to be there for that historical moment, I myself could not believe my eyes. Honest to God, I could not believe my eyes.

ILANA: Thirty thousand demonstrators came out to participate on the first day and many thousands more have come out to the weekly events that followed.

In the summer of 2018, we talked to two young members of the organization We Are Not Numbers to hear what the marches looked and felt like from their point of view. We Are Not Numbers tells stories of Palestinian youth from their own perspective.

AHMED ALNAOUQ: My name is Ahmed Alnaouq, I’m 24 years old, and I was raised up in Dir Al Baleh in the center of the Gaza Strip.

ILANA: Ahmed first went to the Great March on the second day, and he went back many times after.

ZAHRA SHAIKHAH: My name is Zahra Shaikhah. I am 21 years old. I live in the middle area in Gaza Strip, in a particular place called Al Bureij.

ILANA: Zahra went once, on April 6th. Zahra, like Ahmed, went to the march as a participant and to document the experience.

ZAHRA: So I was a little bit scared or afraid because it’s a new thing and couldn’t expect what could happen. This was my first time to go to a protest.

AHMED: When I heard about the idea, I didn’t get excited for it actually because I thought people would… this will never work. People will not protest for one month and a half. This is me being honest. When I went there and saw that amount of people, numerous amount of people, I was shocked. I was amazed like, all these people do not want hatred; they want peace, they want to coexist with Israel, they simply want to go back to their homes and lands, that’s it.

ILANA: If you’ve been following the news about the Great March of Return, you might not picture a joyous cultural celebration. The coverage around it has focused mainly on the violence and bloodshed. Zahra and Ahmed will talk about that, too, at the location they describe as “the front of the march.” But at the “back of the march,” far away from the fence and the Israeli snipers...

[Sound: singing “Al Yom”]

AHMED: You would go there and you would find like close to an Arab market. Lots of vendors, maybe restaurants who are on vans, you know. Where people buy things, eat things, enjoying. You would find like entire families: fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, even kids, infants, even very old men and old women. They were all gathering there buying ice cream.

ZAHRA: It was like a festival, literally a festival, because there were trolleys that selling sandwiches, drinks. The people, most of the people at the back, they were enjoying actually, they were laughing, talking, taking pictures.

[Sound: singing]  

AHMED: There are some cultural events happening in the March of Return, like dancing dabke, folklore, and the people are starting to doing some creative things.

[Sound: clowns performing]

ILANA: Like a group of clowns in bright colored overalls, painted faces, and big floppy hats performing for children. There were also jugglers and acrobats putting on shows for the crowds.

But it wasn’t all fun and games at the back of the march. People were there protesting too.

[Sound: women chanting]

AHMED: But when I went closer to the fence, these gestures of life started to disappear a little.

[Sound: sirens and shouting]

ILANA: Before the march had even begun, the Israeli Defense Forces announced that its snipers had been ordered to shoot live fire at anyone who tried to breach the fence.

AHMED: The more I get close to the fence the more I saw ambulances, and camps for doctors, the sounds of bullets.

When I went close to the fence, I was like 300 meters away from the fence, and I would see other entire world, lots of people raging against the occupation, dozens of people throwing stones at the Israeli soldiers but they were like 1 meter away from the Israelis you could say. The Israeli soldiers hid behind like hills, only you could see their rifles and their helmets from behind the sand.

ILANA: Zahra also went close to the front, to document the march for We Are Not Numbers.

ZAHRA: There was a good distance between our spot and the front lines and the Israeli snipers. But it was close enough.

ILANA: She was with her closest friend Hanin. They were looking for a good place to shoot a video when the soldiers started firing in their direction.

ZAHRA: We were walking forward, getting closer to the fence and the burning tires. And then all of a sudden we saw a man running backwards. And couldn’t recognize at my mind that they are shooting, the snipers, the Israeli snipers they are shooting. Until I heard a voice. I heard someone saying, “run, girls.”  

I didn’t, I didn’t actually look back to see if he was a real man or it’s an imaginary voice in my head. And I started running. Hanin was next to me. We had no escape, only but to run. And even running at that specific moment wasn’t assuming, wasn’t assuring that you’re going to live in the next moment.

ILANA: Once they did get to a safe place, Zahra noticed her friend Hanin was crying.

ZAHRA: I went, I held her, told her that we didn’t die. It’s OK, we are alive. After she settled in and got her balance back, I started laughing. It was a hysterical laugh, I couldn’t just control myself. I only laughed because - for god’s sake, what we… what just happened a few seconds ago?

After Hanin got her balance back and stopped crying, she asked me a question, she asked me, “Is my eyeliner OK? My eyeliner, is it OK?” So I was laughing and telling her, “For God’s sake! This is not the time for makeup.”

ILANA: Thankfully, Zahra and Hanin survived. But not everyone did.

AHMED: And the more you stay there the more you stay there, the more you see people getting shot, getting killed. And I never forget that kid - he was ten, twelve years old and he got a bullet in his belly and he died instantly. And even the people who are not throwing stones, some of them are eating ice cream and they get shot. For doing nothing.

ILANA: For Isam, as an organizer, seeing all the the violence from the very first day made him want to end the march right then and there.

ISAM: And then at eleven o'clock we started to have casualties. Eleven o'clock, only forty minutes. It was a Friday and then I went to a friend of mine, one of the factions, I think the People's Party. I asked them, “We have to stop it.” He said, “Why?”

I said, “In the in the first day, we wanted to send a message. I think the message has been received. We don't want people to die.” So at eleven o'clock I was calling to end this day to start the next day with a sit-ins. But unfortunately there was no way to control people at all.

ILANA: Isam couldn’t stop the protesters from getting close to the fence, so he tried his best to get a message to the Israeli snipers on the other side of it, through an Israeli television correspondent he believed was working with Israeli intelligence. She called him on May 12, and he said:

ISAM: “Please advise the intelligence to let the people cross. They will cross for a few hours and then they will return. Don't shoot at them. The worst is that they will sit in in one of their cities beside the fence for one day, for two days. And even if they stayed, let them feel that they have done something. Don't kill them.    

ILANA: Since the first day of the march, at least 175 protesters have been killed, according to an Associated Press report from December 2018. Both Hamas and Israel have claimed a large portion of those killed by snipers were Hamas militants. But among the dead have been kids as young as 11, medics, and journalists.

Local Human Rights Watch director Omar Shakir told the AP that the protestors’ affiliation with a militant group doesn’t make a difference; what matters is that they were unarmed.

A staggering number of protesters have also been wounded at the march. In a November 2018 report, the World Health Organization counted over 24,000 injured. Doctors in Gaza have reported especially severe gunshot wounds; by December, 94 protesters had needed amputations.

AHMED: So many protesters at the March of Return were athletes. One of my friends was the best actually soccer player in the Gaza Strip and he was shot in both knees and he can never play soccer again - he lost his future. So many Palestinians from the protest are now are now without limbs because they only participate in this peaceful approach. And what’s their only fault? Because they were born on the other side of the fence.

ILANA: Ahmed remembers seeing an Israeli soldier high-five the person next to her after shooting one of the protesters. It made him wonder if the soldiers on the other side of the fence even saw him as human.

AHMED: We have feelings and we love, we cry, we die, and we have families that grieve for us when we get shot and when we are killed.

ILANA: Zahra and Ahmed are two of the many thousands of peaceful protestors who participated in the Great March of Return - the vast majority of whom were there singing songs, waving flags, and using other nonviolent efforts to send the message to the world that the people of Gaza demand their freedom.

That might come as a surprise to those who’ve only heard about those protestors who were throwing Molotov cocktails and flying burning kites over the fence. The Great March of Return has been characterized by so many as a violent Hamas-led effort to break into Israel in order to harm Israeli Jews. 

And it’s not that Hamas has had no involvement in the Great March of Return.

TAREQ BACONI: Hamas understood the power of the Great March of Return.

ILANA: That’s Tareq Baconi, author of the new book Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance.

TAREQ: The Great March of Return was able to do what Hamas had believed only its rocket fire could, which was to negotiate with Israel and to pressure Israel and to bring Gaza back into the fold and the agenda of the international community. Civil society was able to do that through a popular resistance movement.

ILANA: You’re going to hear more from Tareq later in the series: about what Hamas is and how it came to govern the Gaza Strip. But for now, here’s what he said about Hamas’s role in the Great March of Return:

TAREQ: There were instances of people, particularly Hamas members, either using Molotov cocktails or trying to break into fences. But by and large - we're talking about thousands of people here. By and large, these were nonviolent movements that Israel used clearly violent means to try to suppress.

ILANA: Tareq is referring specifically to the six weeks that the Great March was originally planned for: from March 30 until May 15, when Palestinians mark the anniversary of the Nakba. And there was no rocket fire from the Gaza Strip during this six-week period. However, burning kites were sent over the fence, which caused forest fires in southern Israel, and rockets were fired starting on May 29. Still, thousands of protestors maintained nonviolence. How was that possible?

TAREQ: For me personally, this is the power of mass mobilization. This is the power of of peaceful peaceful resistance.

And the way that Hamas dealt with that was initially to come out as the party that was supporting the protests. So they would provide the infrastructure for the protest; they would bus people to the fence; they would provide entertainment at the fence; food; organize. So it became the fabric of the civil movement.

The irony is that Israel began calling it a Hamas movement before the protests had even begun. The protest was meant to begin on the first Friday of March 30, and Israel began the propaganda of calling this a Hamas movement on the Wednesday. So there was already an effort to conflate the two. And it was an effort that was very much put forward by the Israelis and which Hamas very much jumped on the bandwagon of. I think Hamas needed to maintain its legitimacy as the government or the movement that is in charge of securing Palestinian rights in the Gaza Strip so it very rapidly hijacked the movement.

ILANA: Here’s Isam again:

ISAM: We from the beginning have made a deal with Hamas not to be the main player. We want the people to do but we are living in poverty. Who is going to pay for the buses? Who is going to pay for the logistics? Who is going to move the people? To be quite honest. So we do understand: if if Hamas did not come to do this, they would have no Great Return March. This is the reality.

ILANA: Then, there were some non-militants who breached the fence for other reasons. Isam explained:  

ISAM: Some of the people, believe it or not, want to go to the fence in order to die. We have seen things like this. I am honest. I have seen people who prepare their statements on Facebook and they prepare videos and they go there to end their lives, to die.

This is it. When you look at people in a prison and their home and let them live in absolute misery - no electricity, no pure water to drink, no jobs, no crossing points to leave - this is what you are left with.

ILANA: I asked Isam how he feels about the March, looking back.

ISAM: Look, I have mixed feelings. I will speak now with honest. I have mixed feelings. First of all, I’m very very proud that we have moved the Palestinian issue now and everybody is talking about. But the other thing also is that I feel very sorry for the people who have been injured in the Great Return March, and some of them have actually incurred permanent disability.

ILANA: Ahmed and Zahra, on the other hand, do not have mixed feelings, however difficult the experience was.

ZAHRA:  Going to the march is a good thing. Even if you stayed at the back of the march, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you went. You had the courage to go there. It caused me a trauma. I couldn’t imagine like - the idea of running from the live bullets is scary in itself. But I’m not regretting going to the march. I mean, after going to the march I just sat with myself and started to think, what did I gain from going to the march? Did I really feel that it’s something good to go there? Did it add any good things to my personality? At that time I couldn’t figure out, but now I can say yes, I am a new person now. And running from the live bullets made me stronger and I think there will be no hardship destroying me in the future, because for God’s sake, I faced death.   

AHMED:  Yes, it’s worth it. I think it is. We have to get rid of our chains, or we do not deserve life actually. If you go through the whole history, you will see every time there are oppressors and oppressed people the oppressed people never agree to surrender. Look for example, at the Indian people, led by Gandhi. So many of them got killed. The Algerian people lost more than one million in their fight against the French occupation and the French colonization, but they never give up. They kept on fighting until they get their freedom. We might be at risk, we might lose our lives. But the next generation will live on. And the next generation might have a chance to live free.

[Sound: singing “Al Yom”]

ILANA: During the fall of 2018, violence escalated between Hamas and Israel, with Hamas rockets followed by Israeli air raids and an Israeli ground offensive. One Israeli civilian and five Palestinians died in November as a result.

To this day, nonviolent demonstrations are still happening at the fence in Gaza, and they are still violently suppressed by Israel. At the time of recording, the last Gazan protester who died was twenty six year old Karam Fayyad, on December 28.  

[Music: “Sunset at Sandy Isle”]

ILANA: If you’re here, at the end of the episode, and you have more questions than answers - I’m with you. We'll be diving deeper into some of the topics raised in this episode throughout our series on Gaza. Next up, we'll hear again from Isam, this time in conversation with his father about what it mean to be a refugee in Gaza. Stay tuned.

ISAM HAMMAD: I used to listen to the old men of Sarafand and listen to the stories: how the life was, how beautiful the life was in Sarafand.

HILMI HAMMAD: It is impossible to forget your birthplace. Impossible.

[Music: Unsettled theme]

ILANA: This episode was produced  and edited by me, Ilana Levinson, with help from Asaf Calderon and Sophie Edelhart. Fact checking by Asaf Calderon. Music in this episode from Blue Dot Sessions. Special thanks to Ali Abusheikh, Issam Adwan, and Rushdi Seraj.

Unsettled is produced by Emily Bell, Asaf Calderon, Max Freedman, Yoshi Fields, and me, Ilana Levinson.

Our theme music is by Nat Rosenzweig. Original art for our Gaza series by Marguerite Dabaie - check out her work at

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