The author in Cairo. (Ali Abunimah)
It was another eventful day here in Cairo at the inaugural Gaza Freedom March (GFM). On Tuesday night, organizers informed the 1,362-strong delegation that only 100 of them had been selected to travel to Gaza yesterday morning, Wednesday 30 December. After several hours of heated debate with organizers over whether this was an appropriate strategy, the meeting concluded without a consensus.
As of Tuesday night, only the South African, French, Canadian and Swedish delegations had decided to boycott the 100-person convoy. Although an incredibly tough decision to make, the groups adopted this principled stance because they felt that the offer was divisive and betrayed the very aim of the march — to break the siege imposed on Gaza.
These delegations refused to further legitimize and reinforce the Egyptian government’s policy of occasionally allowing small aid convoys into the besieged Gaza Strip. They view the Gaza Freedom March as a political, rather than humanitarian effort, designed to pressure the Egyptian government into opening the Rafah crossing permanently.
The groups saw the acceptance of this offer by organizers as a betrayal to the original mission statement, and a dangerous compromise with the Egyptian government, allowing it to only perpetuate its inhumane policy of closure at the Rafah border with Gaza.
There was also the fear that the Egyptian government would use this 100-person convoy as a public relations ploy, deflecting attention from the fact that the siege on Gaza is only tightening, as evidenced by recent reports of the construction of an underground steel wall, designed to block Gaza’s only lifeline to the outside world — its underground system of tunnels.
As the 100 delegates boarded their busses in downtown Cairo yesterday morning, 85-year-old Hedy Epstein, a Holocaust survivor and participant in the march, arrived and made an unexpected announcement. Echoing the sentiments of the dissenting delegations, she also publicly rejected an offer to join the convoy. “This is one of the most difficult decisions I’ve made in my life. But 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the massacre in Gaza last year, and all 1,400 of us need to go” she said.
Shortly thereafter, local march organizers in the Gaza Strip also reversed their initial support for the convoy. In a letter addressed to the Gaza Freedom March steering committee and participants, Dr. Haider Eid and Omar Barghouti — two of the main organizers — called on supporters to “boycott the deal reached with the Egyptian government.”
“We are unambiguous in perceiving this compromise as too heavy, too divisive and too destructive to our future work and networking with various solidarity movements around the world,” they said.
After news of these two crucial statements spread, some of the 100 delegates got off the busses and decided against going to Gaza. Those present at the bus depot reported that Egyptian police began reloading these individuals’ luggage and attempting to force them back onto the busses.
Rumors circulated throughout the day that only 40 people ended up departing Cairo for Gaza. Late on Wednesday evening however, CODEPINK, one of the main organizers, reported that 87 persons had reached the Rafah crossing and were waiting to be processed.
Following these events, the Gaza Freedom March international steering committee also issued a press release on Wednesday officially rejecting Egypt’s proposal. “We flatly reject Egypt’s offer of a token gesture. We refuse to whitewash the siege of Gaza. Our group will continue working to get all 1,362 marchers into Gaza as one step towards the ultimate goal for the complete end of the siege and the liberation of Palestine” said Ziyaad Lunat, a member of the march’s steering committee.
However, there remained the awkward situation where the organizers had sent 87 delegates to Gaza, while hours later “rejecting” Egypt’s offer.
Separately on Wednesday, the South African delegation spearheaded a joint international effort to hammer out the beginnings of a universal anti-apartheid declaration aimed at reinvigorating the global Palestine solidarity movement.
The document, which is still under construction, aims to identify practical steps, including the endorsement of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS), which global civil society can utilize to pressure Israel to abide by international law and respect Palestinian human rights.
The document is undergoing tweaks, and once endorsed by Palestinian civil society, will be issued as a joint declaration by the various nations who were represented at the Gaza Freedom March.
Thursday, 31 December
This morning, Thursday 31 December, hundreds of Gaza Freedom March participants left their various protest sites across Cairo and converged outside the Egyptian Museum of National History, one of the city’s most visible and central landmarks.
To avoid the detention and harassment experienced at the hands of Egyptian security forces over the last few days, delegates travelled clandestinely to the venue in small groups and pretended to be tourists. Despite these efforts, a hotel housing a large contingent of the march participants was barricaded early this morning by Egyptian police. Nobody was allowed to leave for several hours, causing many to miss the protest.
Outside the Egyptian National Museum, the hundreds of small groups waited for a secret signal and instantly swarmed together, forming one large group, and began marching down the road. This tactic had to be adopted because any large gathering of people before the march would have been broken up by police.
After marching for approximately 20 meters, hundreds of Egyptian riot police rushed toward the crowd and encircled them. In an effort to peacefully hold their ground, marchers sat on the ground. In what was a surprisingly heavy-handed response to foreigners, the police began pulling, beating and kicking protestors to get them out of the road.
While rows of riot police shoved the group from behind, police at the front and sides pushed back, causing panic and hundreds of individuals to fall to the ground. Several women were punched, kicked and dragged out of the road, while many elderly persons were pinned beneath others who had fallen on top of them. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries beyond a few bloody noses and people who had sustained cuts and bruises.
After approximately 15 minutes of this, police managed to corral the entire group into an area just off the road, where the protest continued peacefully for the rest of the day. Although unable to march, the group held a loud and emotional protest in support of those besieged in the Gaza Strip.
The crowd sang, chanted, hung flags and banners from trees and called on the Egyptian government to end its complicity in the siege imposed on the people of Gaza. Representatives of each of the dozens of countries present gave short but moving speeches, demonstrating the truly international show of solidarity for the people of Gaza in this march.
Haroon Wadee, an organizer of the South African delegation, highlighted the similarities between the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and the current struggle of the Palestinian people for their freedom and liberation. He recalled the famous quote of former South African President Nelson Mandela who said that “South Africa is not free until Palestine is free.”
While it was deeply disappointing for the nearly 1,400 delegates who came from 43 countries that they could not physically be in Gaza today, this was a momentous and historic gathering of justice-loving people from every corner of the globe, united by their common desire to see Gaza free. On the eve of a new year, the crowd vowed to do everything in their power to make 2010 the year that the siege of Gaza is finally and forever broken.
Sayed Dhansay is a South African human rights activist and independent freelance writer. He volunteered for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in 2006 and is an organizer of the South African delegation for the Gaza Freedom March. He blogs at http://sayeddhansay.wordpress.com.