The “Great March of Return” was originally planned to be a six-week non-violent protest campaign by Palestinians at the Gaza border fence with Israel to express their desire to return to the lands they claimed their ancestors had lost or been driven from. Originally conceived in 2011 by Gaza journalist and activist Ahmed Abu Ratima, the idea did not gain popular support until 2018. After a viral Facebook post by Ratima, wondering “what would happen if 200,000 peaceful protesters broke through the barbed wire…raised the Palestinian flag and pitched tents a few kilometers into our own occupied territory,” community activists began planning what they referred to as the “Great March of Return.”
The protest was planned for Fridays beginning on “Land Day” on March 30, and ending on May 15, when Palestinians commemorate what they refer to as the Nakba, the “catastrophe” of Israel becoming an independent state. By early March 2018, word of the planned protest reached Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. These Palestinian terror organizations endorsed the march and sought to co-opt the protests to serve their own means.
The march was directed at Hamas’s rivals as well as Israel. Hamas wanted to send a message to the Palestinian Authority, which we learned from the “Palestinian Papers” was prepared to compromise on the demand that five million Palestinian refugees be given the opportunity to return to “their homes.” Palestinian negotiators know that Israel will never agree to allow millions of Palestinians who claim to be refugees to flood Israel. Hamas, however, insists the refugee issue is non-negotiable. “The [Palestinian] right of return is a national interest and no one in a position of authority will forgo it,” said Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.
To further emphasize the uncompromising goal of Hamas, senior military leader Yahya Sinwar declared, “The March of Return will continue… until we remove this transient border.” The protests “mark the beginning of a new phase in the Palestinian national struggle on the road to liberation and ‘return’… Our people can’t give up one inch of the land of Palestine.”