Last week’s demonstrations along the Israel-Gaza border spurred a number of conflicting narratives. Between 30,000 and 35,000 Palestinians showed up at the Gaza border for an event dubbed “The Great March of Return,” facing down an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) position on the other side. When the dust settled, 18 Palestinians were dead and hundreds more injured. The Palestinians claimed a cold-blooded massacre had taken place, while Israel insists the protest was a cover for violent activity directed at its military and border infrastructure.

This explainer seeks to clarify the basis for recent events along the Israel-Gaza border, as well as likely future events as protests are set to continue into mid-May.

The Great March of Return is how Palestinians are terming a series of weekly demonstrations on the Israel-Gaza border, to be held starting from last week (Land Day, marking protests against the 1976 appropriation of Arab Israeli land by Israeli authorities and the attendant killing of six Arab Israeli protesters by security forces) and going on until May 15. May 15 is significant on a number of counts: it is Naqba Day for Palestinians, commemorating their defeat in the First Arab-Israeli War (Israelis mark their independence, coinciding with the same events, on the Hebrew calendar anniversary, not the Gregorian date, May 14). May 15 is also the day after the United States Embassy to Israel will open in Jerusalem, following a move by President Donald Trump that was roundly opposed across the Palestinian political spectrum. The event’s original organizer, the Coordinating Committee for the Great Return March (hereafter CCGRM) first publicly announced its plan in February. In the weeks leading up to last Friday, activists also erected tent cities along the border both to support the massive gathering that commenced at the end of March and as a symbol of Palestinian refugeehood. Palestinian journalist Muthana al Najjar set up the first tent, and has lived there now for over 40 days. During the protest, most demonstrators remained around the tent sites, and friction primarily occurred in close proximity to the border. There are now five main tent cities, spanning from Rafah in the south to the Erez Border Crossing in the north. The purpose of the tents, some of which feature cultural activities, is to attract a broader segment of the Palestinian population – not just young men, but women, children, and families too.

According to the march organizers, the demonstrations’ objective is to approach (and, on May 15, cross) the Israel-Gaza border fence while demanding the “right of return,” referring to the demand that Palestinian refugees (including their descendants) who were dispossessed or fled in the 1948-49 conflict be able to return to their ancestral homes inside modern-day sovereign Israel. March organizers hoped their action would coincide with comparable events in the West Bank and among Palestinian citizens of Israel (Israeli Arabs), but such protests failed to materialize on the scale that the Gaza organizers envisioned them.

The idea of testing the fence carries added cachet given several recent successful breaches, including four in the week leading up to the protest. In the one incident, four Gaza men crossed the border and inflicted minor damage on Israeli military engineering vehicles involved in the construction of an underground barrier. A day later, three men made it more than 12 miles into Israeli territory from Gaza, ultimately being apprehended around the Tze’elim Army Base, near Kibbutz Tze’elim, where they were found armed with knives and grenades. Later in the week, Gaza Palestinians attempted to damage part of the fence, to which Israeli forces responded by attacking two Hamas observation posts in the northern part of the Strip.

While al Najjar’s initial tent protest was intended to be non-partisan and unaffiliated with a specific Palestinian political group, the CCGRM is comprised of a number of Palestinian parties, including terrorist organizations: this includes not only Hamas, but Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Palestinian People’s Party, and Fatah (itself the largest party in the P.L.O.).

At the actual protests, Hamas supplied SIM cards (for mobile Wi-Fi), food, and water. Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar also visited the tent cities set up near the border. Hamas also publicly echoed the CCGRM’s appeals to keep protests peaceful. However, such calls stand in stark contrast with the presence of armed agents of Hamas’s military arm, the Izz ad Din al Qassam Brigades, at last Friday’s events. In several cases, Palestinians attacked the Israeli border infrastructure.

The Great March of Return can be understood in the context of the Hamas-Fatah rivalry and the parallel Gaza-West Bank divide. Fatah, the party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the dominant faction in the P.L.O. umbrella, is represented in the CCGRM. However, Fatah and Hamas are perennial antagonists in Palestinian internal politics, meaning the former was forced to toe a careful line in responding to the protest. The West Bank-based Fatah actually demanded that its Gaza activists not participate in the Great March of Return, a directive that was clearly disobeyed: five Fatah operatives were killed by Israeli forces responding to the demonstration. It would be impossible for President Abbas and Fatah to ignore a demonstration of the scale of the Great Return March, even more so given the fatalities that have occurred. Ultimately, Abbas cast blame for the casualties on Israel. Even if the march was orchestrated by Fatah’s rival, Hamas, both the organizers’ mission and the casualties since last Friday will naturally garner sympathy among many Palestinians, including Fatah members, although that by no means implies it will spur any kind of serious rapprochement between the two parties.

The CCGRM and even Hamas publicly billed the protests as peaceful. There is no evidence that an overwhelming majority of demonstrators acted violently; however some did, including members of the very same organizations that promised a peaceful action.

Instances of violence included lobbing of Molotov cocktails, burning tires, and stone-throwing. Some militants were armed with AK-47s and hand grenades, and at least two Palestinian gunmen fired across the border fence into Israel. It is undeniable that there is an uneven power dynamic between the IDF and the Palestinians, including those engaged in the aforementioned behaviors, but there is no way that even stone throwing can be construed as non-violent. Moreover, both violent and non-violent actions occurred with the aim of approaching the border fence, and, in some cases, breaching it.


With mass protests set to resume on Friday, Gaza Palestinians are collecting tires that they plan to burn along the border. According to the Palestinian side, the ensuing smokescreen will shield protesters from IDF snipers, while the Israelis assert such action will protect potential terrorist activity.

While many of the tens of thousands of demonstrators will continue to eschew violence, some will not, amplifying the opportunity for a forceful Israeli military response. With protests set to continue, the IDF uncovered a bag of prepared Molotov cocktails at the border. The Israeli government presents this as further evidence that marchers behaved and will behave violently and that such aggression was premeditated.

The IDF prepared for several weeks leading up to last Friday, predicting as many as 100,000 people would show up on the Palestinian side of the Gaza border. By the time the Great March of Return commenced, Israel had positioned tanks and soldiers, including 100 snipers, along the border. Israeli troops were equipped with both lethal ammunition and rubber bullets. Drones were also dispatched to the scene to dispense tear gas.

The IDF’s worst-case scenario involved a mass-breach of the border fence by a large group, numbering as many as 100,000. While the CCGRM was only able to recruit 30-35,000 people to the protest, a sudden entry into Israel by even part of that group would overwhelm the surrounding civilian communities. For context, the population of the Israeli municipalities (regional councils) immediately abbuting the Gaza Strip is a little under 45,000. With this in mind, the IDF cautioned ahead of the Land Day protests that it would fire on anyone who attempted to violate or dismantle the border fence. In advance of the demonstrations, the IDF dropped leaflets with warnings to that effect, admonishing Palestinians to remain at least 300 meters from the border fence or risk being shot.

During the actual Great March events, IDF fire killed 18 people. Gaza Palestinian officials claim over 1,000 injured, while the IDF claims only several dozen. In either case, it is unclear how many injuries are the result of live fire. Medical professionals in Gaza reported that two-thirds of those wounded suffered leg injuries. The number of deaths may have been exacerbated by the inability of medical responders to enter the area Israel designated as a buffer without risking being shot themselves.

Of the 18 Palestinians killed by IDF fire, five were members of the Hamas military wing, a claim mutually confirmed by Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group. Hamas disputes that its dead members were armed, although the demonstrations featured instances of participants shooting AK-47s across the border fence. Other fatalities include a member of the Fatah-affiliated al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and at least two members of PIJ.

Not all of the casualties of IDF fire were members of terrorist organizations – innocent people have been harmed, including a Palestinian man who was killed on his farm in the southern Gaza Strip town of Khan Younis in shelling by Israeli tanks. Early on in the demonstrations, the IDF’s English language Twitter account issued an unsupportable claim that it knew where every single bullet its troops fired had landed. The tweet has since been deleted.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has asserted that the IDF’s rules of engagement for the Gaza border area will not change. Responding to criticism of IDF conduct, Liberman asserted that there will be no investigations into Israeli military action along the border. This statement will likely carry little actual weight, as the IDF leadership has already expressed its intention to carry out an internal investigation into last week’s events, particularly the context surrounding deaths and injuries on the Palestinian side.

In the coming weeks, demonstrations, including both violent and non-violent elements, will continue along Gaza border. The start of each week will tend to be relatively quiet with protests intensifying each Friday. On this upcoming Friday (April 6) in particular, the Israeli military projects that demonstrations will attract as many as 50,000 participants. Notably, the IDF overestimated on the first round of protests, predicting 100,000 versus 30-35,000 who actually turned out; nevertheless. An increase is highly possible.

March participants are collecting massive supplies of tires (roughly 10,000) to burn along the border. The Israeli Coordinator of Government Affairs in the Territories (COGAT) has cautioned that the tire-burning could produce an environmental crisis.


Palestinian demonstrators say they are seeking to use the burning tires as a smokescreen, along with mirrors, to disorient Israeli snipers aiming at Great March participants. The Israeli government insists these efforts will shield militants.

The next round of demonstrations could be increasingly violent. Last week saw another illicit border crossing, with the IDF arresting two men who crossed the fence from Gaza into Israel. Ahead of this Friday’s demonstrations, Hamas’s Gaza-based Prime Minister Yahya Sinwar threatened that Palestinians would burn IDF equipment and snipe at Israeli positions.

The march organizers intend for the weekly demonstrations to culminate on May 15, Palestinian Naqba Day and a day after the planned opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem and Israel’s seventieth independence anniversary. However, the actions of Israel, Hamas, and other Palestinian factions in the intervening weeks could dramatically change what happens in the middle of next month.

Hamas is the de facto government of the Gaza Strip, a party represented in the CCGRM, and an organizer of the Great March of Return. Thus, the organization can heavily influence the direction of future border demonstrations, including the degree of unnecessary physical risk it exposes its constituents to. However, Israel, which blockades Gaza’s seacoast, controls the Strip’s airspace and its northern and eastern land-crossings. Accordingly, Israel also shares significant responsibility for the Strip’s status including its present humanitarian crisis.