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Lessons from the Gaza Freedom March

January 8, 2010

Photo: Laura DurkayPhoto: Laura Durkay

When I traveled to Cairo to participate in the Gaza Freedom March, I hoped to enter Gaza to contribute toward ending the siege and preventing future air assaults and invasions, such as the 22-day Operation Cast Lead that Israel launched against Gaza at the close of 2008.

I was also keenly looking forward to meeting a young Gazan who had greatly assisted my co-workers on a Voices delegation to Gaza during last year’s Operation Cast Lead. At considerable risk to himself, this young man met members of Voices at the border, arranged housing, translated, and assisted in bearing witness to the devastation caused by the Israeli military assault. Due to the callousness of the Egyptian authorities, I was not able to meet this man or deliver much needed material aid to his community. Early this morning, my co-workers and I received an email from our friend in Gaza, saying that the Israeli military is once again bombing near the Rafah border. One Palestinian was killed and others were injured.

Given Israel’s continuing siege and bombardment of Gaza, I am eager to learn lessons from our experience in the Gaza Freedom March, regroup and continue in the struggle to end the siege and occupation. Here are several of the lessons which I think are most important to communicate to the wider U.S. public.

The first is that the United States and Egyptian governments have been actively colluding with the Israeli government to maintain the siege of Gaza. All three are working together and they do not plan to stop imposing collective punishment on Gazans any time soon. This punishment is carried out through forbidding Gazans to exchange goods or travel outside of Gaza. What’s more, all three governments are complicit in promulgating Israel’s greater program of apartheid and displacement of the Palestinians. The second lesson is that the worldwide movement in solidarity with Palestine is alive and growing. The movement is at a critical point where we must apply pressure on all three governments through a variety of nonviolent tactics.

In reference to the complicity of the U.S., Israeli and Egyptian governments, I do not use the word apartheid lightly. I think this word sometimes polarizes people and causes them to self-censor information about the issue being discussed. That being said, I think that the broader international community nevertheless bears responsibility to recognize the plight of the Palestinian people and work to end Israel’s oppression. Throughout the Gaza Freedom March presence in Cairo, our sisters and brothers from the South African delegation dynamically articulated the connections between injuries that indigenous Africans suffered under the white supremacist regime in Pretoria and the inequalities that Palestinians now face at the hands of the Israeli government.

The delegation informed us that just as blacks in South Africa were forced to live in Bantustans and provide cheap labor for industry controlled by whites, so the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are caged in smaller and smaller areas controlled by Israeli military checkpoints. The economic livelihood of the Palestinians is reliant upon free movement through these checkpoints and Israel often only grants access for Palestinians when it is financially useful for Israel. Similar to the situation in South Africa, Israel controls all the beneficial natural resources and siphons the productivity and profit of the resources away from the people of Palestine.

The state of Israel has not only exploited Palestinian labor, it has often attempted to forcibly relocate Palestinians in its quest to annex Palestinian lands. Palestinian resistance and international public opinion have thwarted Israel from successfully achieving its goal to appropriate all of Palestine. But given Israel’s persistent thrusts for expansion and defense of illegal settlements, most Palestinians doubt Israel’s commitment to an actual “peace process.”

When analyzing the history of the conflict, The Israeli government’s practice of apartheid and displacement of Palestinians seems almost too sinister to be true. But to further understand the situation, U.S. citizens might look to an analogy from our own history. The indigenous people of North America were first considered by colonizers to have great potential as slaves, but when the Europeans realized that the Native American tribes were not easily subjugated, they moved swiftly into a national policy of relocation and, at times, annihilation. Our supposed national heroes like Andrew Jackson practiced ethnic cleansing with a belief that they acted in the name of God and country. When seen in this light, the ideologies of Manifest Destiny and Zionism look like two sides of the same coin. For the United States, the endless “peace process” of double-crossing treaties was not considered complete until the indigenous peoples were either banished to a reservation, safely out of sight and out of mind, or killed outright.

Many people who study and discuss issues related to Palestine are aware of the South African and North American analogies, but the general public in the United States doesn’t seem to notice that we are subsidizing these bloody policies with 3.5 billion dollars of military aid per year. Just last year, the Israeli government killed approximately 1,400 Palestinians in one campaign waged against Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, using weapons supplied by the United States. And according to the UN Humanitarian Monitor, food insecurity in Gaza this year has spiked to over 60 percent. So it’s likely that more Gazans have died as a result of the heightened blockade that has been imposed by Israel and Egypt since the attack. Now Egypt and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers are building a massive underground metal wall to prevent Palestinian access to tunnels under the Rafah border with Egypt, a last resort for importing much needed aid and commodities.

The complicity of these major world powers became very clear to those of us who participated in the Gaza Freedom March. The Egyptian government, most certainly with an arm twisted by the Israeli and U.S. governments, did not welcome us into their country as they initially indicated they would. (Next to Israel, Egypt is the second largest recipient of US military aid. So maybe this factored into their decision.) Within one week of the March’s scheduled start date, Egyptian authorities notified us not to come.. When we arrived anyway, we were frequently detained. Our meetings were spied on and infiltrated. The vast majority of us were denied entry to Gaza. When we sought support at the U.S. Embassy, Egyptian police forcibly corralled us into a penned area outside the Embassy. U.S. officials in the embassy reiterated that we should not have come to march in solidarity with the Palestinians. When we decided to march in spite of this, we were met with riot cops, barricades and scores of secret police. Many of us were assaulted and a few suffered serious injuries.

This treatment was only a small taste of the Palestinian experience. The daily suffering caused by the separation of Palestinian families was highlighted by the drama of having persons from the Palestinian Diaspora with us on the march. Because of the siege, many of these Palestinian marchers, now relocated to other countries, had been separated from their families for great lengths of time and others had not even been able to meet their relatives living in Palestine. It was heart wrenching to see

Additionally, Palestinian activists in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem risk indefinite incarceration for organizing non-violent demonstrations and resistance activities. Many are arrested on trumped charges, like Abdallah Abu Rahmah, an organizer for the “Stop the Wall” campaign. Abdallah has been incarcerated and charged with weapons possession for collecting used tear gas canisters shot at him by the Israeli Defense Forces during a peaceful protest. Many others like Mohammad Othman, have been held for months without charges being brought at all. Mohammad was arrested while returning from addressing the Norwegian national pension fund about divestment from Elbit Systems, a major Israeli military contractor. Beyond detentions, Palestinians regularly face extra-judicial killings from air strikes, similar to last night’s attacks near the Rafah border, carried out by the Israeli Air Force.

The Gaza Freedom March also gave us a sense of the Egyptian political experience. It’s quite farcical for the United States and Israel to talk of advancing human rights in the region when they are allied with Hosni Mubarack’s regime in Egypt. We witnessed first hand how the Egyptian government treats freedom of speech and assembly, especially when it comes to Egyptian citizens. Many Egyptian activists joined us in our demonstrations and they were singled out by plain-clothes police officers and forcefully made to leave. Often times they were followed home.

On one occasion, a young Egyptian-Palestinian woman was pulled out of our meeting by a senior officer who sent an undercover policeman after her. We formed a group to accompany her and made sure she made it home safely and without harassment. Every Egyptian activist I spoke with assured us if that had it not been for the international presence and attention around the Gaza Freedom March, they would have immediately been arrested, taken to a secured center and likely tortured for publicly demonstrating in support of Palestine. Still, Egyptians were eager to organize and wanted to hold meetings about how to further the movement. Much of the content of these clandestine meetings centered around forming a campaign of direct action to stop the underground wall being built between Egypt and Gaza. As a first step, international members of the march signed on as plaintiffs in a lawsuit with our Egyptian counterparts to challenge the legality of the underground wall.

With all the difficult decisions and unexpected frustrations surrounding the march, I was still very encouraged by the project. I found strength in Cairo among the marchers and the international movement they represented. The worldwide movement in solidarity with Palestinians is obviously alive and growing. Roughly 1300 delegates from 43 countries participated in the march, and those whom I met were some of the finest and most dedicated people I’ve come across. Not only that, I know the participants were only a fraction of the people from their communities concerned about Gaza who were not able to make it to the march. Each delegation brought its strengths. It was exciting to see the different organizing tactics employed, such as the French contingent’s decision to hold an encampment for nearly one week in front of their embassy.

The Cairo declaration was formed and the South African group gave us insight to further focus the Boycott Divestment Sanctions Movement (BDS) through “campaigns to encourage divestment of trade union and other pension funds from companies directly implicated in the Occupation and/or the Israeli military industries.” They suggested very specifically targeting companies in our areas that both enable and profit from the occupation. For instance, Boeing, based in Chicago, exports Apache helicopters and F16 Eagle fighter planes to Israel that are regularly used in Israeli military operations in the Occupied Territories. Tactically, it makes a lot more senses to focus a campaign on Boeing than to randomly avoid an Israeli product at a supermarket, though you may want to do that too.

This siege may not have been broken on December 31st, but this year started much differently for the people of Gaza when contrasted with the devastation of last year’s Operation Cast Lead. Organizers, activists and people in Gaza expressed their gratitude for the efforts of the Gaza Freedom March. International attention was focused on Gaza and there were solidarity marches all around the world.

With this attention, the international community has reached a critical point to put pressure on the U.S, Egyptian and Israeli governments to stop the siege. Despite being embarrassed by the bad press, Egypt and the United States are going ahead with construction of the underground the wall. Furthermore, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is threatening to launch more operations like Cast Lead. The attacks launched this morning lend ominous credibility to these threats. Our friend in Gaza has said in the past that he longs for a chance to live a normal life, unencumbered by siege and constant fear of bombings. He understandably believes that there is very little chance that his voice will be heard in the halls of powerful governing bodies. But we can and must join our voices with his. Our urgent task is to widely announce the Cairo Declaration’s call for BDS and to steadily build a stronger worldwide movement of non-violent direct action, inclusive of civil disobedience, to end the siege and occupation.