My extra long and still not too well-informed account of the Gaza Freedom March

By Nada Elia, member US Campaign for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel

To my political family and friends.

I would like to share with you my own account of the Gaza Freedom March, based on my own reflections, but also on my obsessive following of just about every piece of info I could get my eyes on, these past few days, coming out of both Egypt and Palestine.

I need to make it clear, at the very beginning, that I did not travel to Cairo, and did not attempt to enter Gaza. Therefore, I do not write as someone who was there, and everything I "report" is second hand at best.

Having said that, I am also extremely involved in transnational Palestine activism. I am Palestinian myself, a third generation refugee (my grandparents were expelled in 1948), and I serve on the Organizing Committee of the US Campaign for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. I have made it my goal to free Palestine not in my own lifetime, but in my mother's, so I feel the urgency grow daily, because my mother is not getting any younger...

But enough about me, let me move on to the Gaza Freedom March.

Historical background

Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the entire world, home to 1.5 million Palestinians, 80% of whom are refugees, meaning Palestinians who have been expelled from their towns and villages, in two "waves," the first when Israel was created in 1948, and the second when it occupied more land in 1967. When the Palestinian people elected Hamas as their leaders in 2006, in elections that were internationally monitored and declared fraud free, Israel and the US did not like the results, and Israel has been engaging in collective punishment of the entire population of Gaza since then.

Israel has occupied Gaza since 1967, and besieged it for a little over two and a half years now, after removing the Israeli settlers and transferring them to the West Bank, which Israel also illegally occupies. When it launched its war on Gaza in December 2008, it was after Gaza had been sealed off for 18 months. The entire Gaza strip is surrounded by a tall concrete wall, with a handful of crossings, all but one of which are controlled by Israel. The Rafah crossing is controlled by Egypt. Israel controls Gaza's waters, preventing any vessels from reaching Gaza by sea, and it controls Gaza's air space--not that Gaza has an airport, anyway, but if one were to conceive of "food and aid drops," Israel would block that too.
Gaza's only access to food is through the tunnels it has built underground, into Egypt. Through these tunnels, the Palestinians bring in soap, flour, lentils, gas for cooking, medicine... A few of these tunnels are also used for smuggling in components of the home-made Qassam rockets some Palestinians occasionally launch into southern Israel.

Gaza has been desolate since Israel's attack last year, which utterly devastated the social infrastructure, and following which no repairs were possible, because of the siege.

The Gaza Freedom March

The siege, and the devastation after last year's war on Gaza, are the context for the Gaza Freedom March, which was timed a full year after Operation Cast Lead" and was meant to break the siege by letting hundreds of activists in, in an act of support and solidarity with the Palestinian people. I am very conscious of the term I use, an "act" of solidarity, not a show of solidarity. The time for symbolic marches is gone, this Gaza Freedom March was sending and seeking to act out a clear message: the borders must be open, anyone and everyone should be able to get in and out of Gaza, and bring in any (legal) supplies they want. As Dr. Haidar Eid, a Gaza-based member of the GFM steering committee explained in early December, the march was to be the first "concrete step" towards ending the siege. It was to be presented in the context of Palestine's long history of non-violent resistance, inspired by South Africa and Gandhi, along with the Palestinian call for a global, comprehensive BDS movement modeled upon South Africa's.
On the US-end, the march was organized by Code Pink, and I had reservations about it from the get-go. My reservations stemmed from two different factors. First is the fact that Code Pink is known for bullying and silencing local, grassroots activists, and for taking credit for successes either fully achieved by these local activists, or which could not have been achieved without the knowledge, experience, and labor of the local activists, who are ultimately tokenized as "our allies on the ground." Second is the choice of where the Gaza Freedom March was to enter Gaza from: Rafah, the one crossing controlled by Egypt, as opposed to any of the crossings controlled by Israel. I knew this would deflect the blame onto Egypt, making it look like the bad guy. But Egypt is a puppet, the puppet masters are Israel and the US, why Egypt? I met with Medea Benjamin of Code Pink in September, and asked her just that question, and she said it was because she thought Egypt could be pressured, "shamed" into letting the Marchers in, whereas there was little hope that Israel would give in. I told Medea that I thought it would be extremely useful to try and enter through Eretz (controlled by Israel), and once entry is denied, to shine the spotlight on Israel's criminality. "After we enter Gaza through Rafah, we will walk all the way to Eretz," was all Medea answered.

And so close to 1400 activists from a total of 43 countries decided to join the Gaza Freedom March, which was to enter Gaza through Rafah, bring in supplies, spend time with the Palestinians, and celebrate the New Year together, after breaking the siege.

The (Dis)Agreement

The international activists all gathered in Cairo, while negotiators from Code Pink tried to pressure Egypt into letting them enter Gaza. But Egypt would not budge in its refusal to lift the siege. The activists assumed that Code Pink had a "Plan B," should Egypt deny them entry, but apparently that was not the case! All Code Pink could negotiate, after a meeting with Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the president-for-life, and director of the Red Crescent (equivalent of Red Cross in Muslim countries), was for a convoy of two buses, carrying a total of 100 Marchers, to enter and deliver humanitarian aid. Code Pink agreed to this, without consulting the marchers, and announced to the huge crowds that they had reached an agreement...

Chaos ensued amongst the marchers, who rose up in spontaneous rebellion against this "agreement," saying they had not come all the way to stay in Cairo, while a handpicked few were approved for a symbolic humanitarian mission. The whole point of the Gaza Freedom March was to break the siege, not to deliver a few band-aids, literally, when the Gaza Strip is starving, hemorrhaging, chocking, dying. Even before Operation Cast Lead (Israel's codename for its Dec 08-Jan 09 assault), the situation in Gaza had been described as "a prelude to genocide," and matters had only gotten worse, much worse. One convoy of two buses entering and delivering band-aids would be damage control for Egypt, while failing to improve the situation. The activists refused Code Pink's compromise. Some of the people who had gotten on the two buses before they fully grasped what was going on immediately got off, when they realized they were part of a select few, approved by the Egyptian authorities. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry's statement, that the 100 who would be let in were "on a humanitarian mission," whereas the rest were troublemakers, only added fuel to the fire. The Palestinian civilian leaders Code Pink had been coordinating with (the "local activists" they usually mention, to validate their own leadership) actually sent urgent messages asking the activists not to agree to the symbolic compromise, the two bus convoy. In an interview with Radio Intifada, one of those Palestinian activists, Rami Almeghari (under siege in Gaza), said the GFM has been subverted and hijacked. The folks in Gaza, including the organizers, were furious, and ultimately boycotted the march in Gaza that was taken over by the authorities.

Eventually, a total of 87 entered Gaza. According to Code Pink's website, they were primarily "journalists who had come to report on the conditions in Gaza, Palestinians who would be reunited with family they had not seen in years, and some members of the team who were committed to delivering the aid that had been collected." The rest, the over 1200 who stayed behind, issued the Cairo Declaration, which calls for a renewed push for a global, comprehensive, Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.

This is the text of the Cairo Declaration:

http://www.indypendent.org/2010/01/01/gaza-freedom-march-full-text-of-cairo-declaration/

Eventually, as I communicated with allies both here and in Cairo, I heard that the local/grassroots activists were indeed bullied by Code Pink, and told what to do for days, until they finally said "enough, we can make our own decisions." For example, the activists wanted to reach out to Egyptian groups, and build networks with them, for future actions, but Code Pink totally discouraged them from doing so. When they started chanting songs about solidarity with Lebanon, Code Pink supposedly hushed them down. I also heard that the activists wanted to demonstrate at the Israeli embassy in Cairo, but again, Code Pink wouldn't let them. They went there anyway, after Code Pink accepted to send only two buses in, and the spontaneous revolt against Code Pink that happened when this decision was announced. Viral reports are still circulating at a maddening pace, giving different accounts of the chaos in Cairo, but certain facts are certain: the Palestinian leaders of the GFM urged against the "100 good activists, two-bus convoy" compromise, but Code Pink went ahead with it anyway, and 87 people eventually entered Gaza, on two buses approved by the Egyptian authorities.

The Outcome

So, in the final analysis, as one correspondent put it, "it's harder to get into Gaza than it is to get into a high security prison." But the Gaza Freedom March, even though it did not enter Gaza, accomplished much, as the 1300-plus activists learned indeed about grassroots organizing, about genuine leadership as distinct from detrimental compromises, and about the importance of keeping up the struggle.

Palestine will be free. It will take all of us saying no to Israel's impunity, no to scapegoating, no to symbolic solidarity, no to apartheid, no to slow calculated genocide.

And we have the means, a historically proven successful strategy: Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. Historically, the BDS movement has brought about freedom, dignity, human rights, equality. The boycott movement ended official apartheid in South Africa. The Montgomery bus boycott ended official segregation in the US South. A boycott of Israel is the non-violent resistance we can all engage in. It is what the Palestinian civilian leadership has called for, and what the activists who refused to compromise embraced, in their Cairo Declaration.

The Palestinian-led BDS movement's website is http://www.bdsmovement.net

Here is the link to the US group I work with: the US Campaign for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. http://www.usacbi.org

And in case you were wondering: yes, we do take our leadership from Palestine, we formed in response to a call from the Palestinian campaign for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, http://www.pacbi.org