Gaza Freedom March
On the anniversary of the "Cast Lead" massacre, 1362 international delegates from more than 40 countries intended to break the siege of Gaza in a nonviolent march against the ongoing blockade, which forces the already oppressed 1.5 million inhabitants into abject misery at the mercy of their inexorable neighbor states – one of them, the primary responsible state of Israel. The other is Egypt; the designated departure point for the marchers through the Rafah border crossing. This was to be the historic Gaza Freedom March accompanied by Irish Nobel Laureate Mairead Corrigan-Maguire, Filipino senator and activist Walden Bello, American-Palestinian activist Ali Abunimah, writer Alice Walker, 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein and hundreds of politicians, writers, artists and concerned citizens from all over the world.
Little did we know about the Egyptian decision to forbid our trip. The organizers had been in contact with Egyptian government officials since September ’09 clearly stating our purposes and carefully meeting every demand. The Egyptian government “declined to grant permission” to enter through the Rafah crossing and called off all rights to assemble in different locations. Our buses were cancelled at the outskirts of Cairo. Protesters who succeeded to catch regular or renegade buses were stopped halfway; put in “house arrest” in hotel rooms in Al-Arish or deported back to Cairo in a “security-led” hunt for the activists by Egyptian police. Subsequently every meeting was infiltrated by secret police; every demonstration, candle-light vigil and small protest was barricaded, contained and broken up.
Capitulation or Capitalization
Bewildered and frustrated we decided to besiege our embassies. Hunger strikes started beginning with Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein. In full riot gear and military trucks carrying water-cannons the special Egyptian units invaded our crowds. The most vigilant and courageous three day siege was conducted by the well-organized French delegation in front of their embassy – 300 strong. After a rally at the UN Offices in front of the World Trade Center and heated negotiations with officials in Cairo the government relented. Some would say the organizers capitulated. The compromise (or a “typical Egyptian solution” in the words of Uri Avnery) was brokered by Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne Mubarak.
Out of 1362 marchers including 300 French individuals from a movement called EuroPalestine one hundred were allowed to cross into Gaza. Code Pink (the main organizers) had agreed to the so-called “generous offer” and allowed each country to choose a representative. Panic began to emerge as each country had but a few minutes to selflessly pick their delegates. The movement from the very top-down was now divided and the people frustrated and angry with both the offer and the decision to take it without consultation. At the very last minute I was one of the delegates who were allowed to go to Gaza.
At 8.00 am December 30th the delegation including Ali Abunimah, Amira Hass and Walden Bello sat in the bus near Tahrir (Liberation) Square ready to leave for Gaza. According to Bello it was “to good to be true.” Indeed the divided movement now consisted of those ready to get into the bus and those who protested against the representatives for leaving without the rest of the 1262 marchers. A “naive” and “misguided” belief was that staying behind in Cairo would pressure the dictator into letting more people to go. A propagandistic Egyptian statement from the Foreign Ministry had appeared in the press that morning describing the 100 delegates as the only “good elements” while the rest constituted a threat. That very same statement had coaxed the Palestinian organizers Haidar Eid and Omar Barghouti into boycutting the march, because it was “divisive” – (incidentally it’s a remarkable testament to the prediction of the brainchild Norman Finkelstein who resigned months ago declaring the “political context” of the march itself as “divisive”). Out of the prominent members of the delegation only Amira Hass stayed on the bus, even though Abunimah speaking on the phone with the Palestinian organizers declared the utter stupidity of letting one Egyptian statement decide the narrative of the mission.
The leadership collapsed and now it was agreed that no longer would the delegation represent the Gaza Freedom March. The people on the bus went as individuals. This was a cause of deep concern for me. At first I was happy to be freed from the so-called “political context” but at the same time we had lost our power in numbers. My decision to go anyway became selfish by default deciding to capitalize on a rash decision made by the organizers. There was no guarantee that the Egyptian government would allow all to go. As people jumped off the bus I worked hard to convince others to join while being called a “traitor” and a “sell-out”. Finally all three Danish delegates decided to join representing solidarity between the Danes and the people of Gaza, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Palestinian refugees.
On the 31st the remaining marchers in Cairo relentlessly carried out demonstrations catching the attention of the international media. Indeed, with the international demonstrations including Israeli citizens at the Eretz border the mission succeeded to show that the world hadn't forgot the atrocities last year. However, with Egyptian propaganda about their "generous offer" already in motion the Cairo police brutally mishandled several protesters at different locations. The authoritarian state exposed its complicity and thereby disowning its own diss of the socalled "hooligans" in Cairo in widely circulated misinformation.
Sitting next to Amira Hass on our way to Gaza was a great relief for my initial concerns about the trip. She spoke elegantly as always and I felt blessed to be on a convoy with a journalist from whom I learn a great deal on a regular basis in Ha'aretz. Talking to her made me realize why I came in the first place: to break the siege!
On our way to the crossing we stopped at the Egyptian Red Crescent. Young Egyptian volunteers entered our bus with roses and chocolate. It was a gift from the First Lady. The chocolate was bitter and the rose was pure plastic.
When we finally arrived after many hours completely exhausted and hungry we were greeted by Hamas officials and the Minister of Higher Education. He welcomed us all including the three rabbis from Naturei Karta, explaining that this conflict had nothing to do with religion.
Apparently we were "guests of honor" as we were lodged into the nicest hotel which I have ever stayed in, in my life. The 5 star Commodore hotel in Gaza city with a view of the Mediterranean Sea. Not what you expect to see after having read report after report about the misery inflicted on the civil society. The contradiction between bombed buildings and this hotel made me uneasy. I didn’t come to be a tourist. Our visist had been hijacked. Amira wasn't allowed to visit her friend in Gaza and other delegates too were denied to leave the premises without Hamas bodyguards. The reason was that of security because of "bad elements" inside Gaza.
We were instantly told that the march would be led by Hamas. The next day many decided not to participate watching from the sideline. Again a tough decision was on my shoulders. We wanted to march with civil society but we were surprised to see that only somewhere around 200-600 people had showed up. Only men were there – mostly around 15-40 years of age. Without thinking much about it I participated in the march. It was peaceful, no militant slogans were chanted and I was interviewed by several self-declared journalists without press cards (including Press TV in my native Farsi language).
In the very back of the march a bus full of women were following us. The female internationals heatedly negotiated with Hamas to let them join. Finally they were allowed to march with us. We gave them Code Pink banners saying: "Women say Free Gaza." It was beautiful. I tried to convince people on the side line to join. My argument was, that if our very own movement consisted of communists, liberals, conservatives and so on, why should we then be hypocritical about joining Hamas in the very narrow common denominator that had brought us all together: breaking the siege. To me, everything else at this point was extraneous to our mission.
After the march our tightly planned schedule involved a so-called "devastation tour." We went on the bus with Hamas tour-guides who drove us around the city where US-made bombs and shells had been fired including the American School. It was, true to its name, a view of complete devastation. No explanation is really needed even the smell was horrible; dead fish on the shore line and empty shells everywhere. The tour however was a complete farce. We were only allowed to go out and take pictures once and we met no one to speak to at all. The guides were so ignorant about the facts that even though they tried to exaggerate them, they sometimes ended up understating them. For example "18.000" had been left homeless after the massacre contrary to Human Rights reports stating 50.000 and more based on extensive field work.
The day ended with a candle-light vigil in commemoration of the 1400 victims and a small hip hop concert at the "Gallery" to celebrate New Years Eve. I was so tired and disappointed with the handling of our presence and precious 48 hour limit that I went home to the comfortable hotel instead.
Complaining vigorously to Hamas about this they finally let some people go out at their own risk. Some went to visit family members and friends and others went on more daring missions to see the tunnels into Egypt. One group went to the Shifa Hospital and on fishing boats to test the Israeli naval ships. Our group went to the refugee camp of the Sammone family which lost 19 members including three babies. This was a sight that will haunt me for the rest of my life. Small beautiful children everywhere approached us in numbers desperate for some contact. I held them, I spoke to them and I played with them never wanting to let them go. Small tents constituted the homes of large families. They had absolutely nothing, yet they smiled at our arrival and invited us to come inside. I couldn't help myself from crying as one father told us about the loss of children and family members in such a strong and collected manner. Not once did they ask for money or desperately needed goods. They wanted us to take pictures and videotape their misery so we could report it. I sensed the insufficiency of our mission to the point that I felt guilty of my privileges in my adopted state of Denmark. Leaving them was devastating.
The joyous mood on our way to see people was replaced by silence on our way to an orphanage. This was our next stop. Here we had lunch with the children, we played basketball with them and shared stories. The staff showed a short video they had made in memory of a child lost during the war. The brother of this child was watching the video with us. It was a horrifying and macabre show. All the bloody images were displayed in front of us and the children were watching this without the flicker of an eyebrow. They had become used to these terrible facts of life that are so hard for us to see. Again, holding back my tears was an impossible task.
All of a sudden after one short hour at the orphanage, Hamas called us to the bus. We had to leave instantly as the Al Jazeera (not the TV Station) football team was awaiting us for a friendly game. We went there and the whole thing was packed with journalists and Hamas officials who wanted to take pictures with us. Government propaganda is equally revolting in all societies – we spent three hours playing soccer with these guys. One hour spent at the orphanage and three hours in a disgusting self serving display of us playing football at the stadium alongside Hamas officials. The girls weren't allow to play.
On the last day a great many decided to stay in Gaza even though Egypt had only allowed a 48 hour visit. Hamas didn't let us stay, saying that it was too dangerous. The rabbis were the only ones who were allowed to stay till sunset because it was Sabbath. Some stayed anyway but were forced on buses when they were apprehended.
We broke the siege shortly only to do it again as soon as possible!