I attended the Gaza Freedom March (GFM) in late December to generate publicity for the disastrous Western-led policies towards Palestine. 1400 people from 43 countries descended on Cairo on December 27 and aimed to travel into Gaza to “break the siege”.
Palestine has become a truly globalised issue and the diversity of participants — from America, Australia, Venezuela, Cameroon, France, Italy and many others — proved that civil society is leading an issue that Western governments are refusing to address.
I travelled to the Middle East as a Jew, human being and journalist.
It was soon clear that Egypt had no intention of allowing the group into Gaza and cited “security” concerns. The Mubarak regime, the recipient of more than $US2 billion annually from Washington, is fearful of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas.
Furthermore, Israel is indirectly negotiating with Hamas, via Egypt, over a prisoner swap deal that would see the release of captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit for up to 1000 Palestinian prisoners. This is the political context in which the GFM took place.
GFM organisers Code Pink, an American peace group dedicated to ending Washington’s militarism, were faced with the daunting task of organising protests, actions, hunger strikes and media appearances to condemn Cairo’s intransigence and Gaza’s plight.
Performing in a police state was no easy task. Egyptian thugs were in force wherever we appeared, from outside the US embassy to camping outside the French Embassy for five days. It was fascinating to observe the disparate groups trying to find consensus over the best course of action.
One of most moving moments for me was spending time with 85-year-old Jewish, anti-Zionist Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, a woman of remarkable strength and character. She embarked on a hunger strike in solidarity with the people of Gaza and generated global headlines for the cause and issued a humanitarian message.
Epstein told me that she had received great criticism from the organised American, Jewish community — “I’m regularly called an anti-Semite and Israel hater” — but she remained determined to criticise Israel along with other countries. “Why is it not possible to condemn Israeli actions?” she asked. She was a gentle woman who longed to visit Gaza and bring aid to its people.
The week culminated in an event on December 31, a “flash mob” in the centre of Cairo at Tahrir Square. About 500 of us gathered casually in the morning before rushing to a pre-determined position in front of the Egyptian Museum. It was a sight to behold, as traffic was stopped and the group started marching down the road. Security forces raced to break up the gathering but took time to encircle the crowd.
Plain-clothed, government thugs soon started violently kicking, shoving and dragging activists to the sidewalk. I was slightly hit on the back and legs but others were less lucky, with broken ribs and bloody noses. Within 20 minutes, the protest was a lead story on Al-Jazeera and across the world. Mission accomplished.
In many ways, the GFM was forced to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. Splits between American and European groups occurred — not helped by the decision of the Egyptian regime to allow a small group of protesters into Gaza — but overall the focus remained on Gaza.
The aim of the event was not simply to protest in the streets of Cairo but to take meaningful action back to our respective countries. The Cairo Declaration, led by a formidable South African delegation, was drafted and released to a welcoming crowd. Aside from highlighting Israeli “apartheid” in the occupied territories today, it offers concrete steps forward including a global tour to increase knowledge of South Africa’s pedigree in fighting racial discrimination and adapting those tactics against Israel.
“You’re platinum,” said Mick Napier, chairperson of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Committee to the South African delegates. “You don’t understand your prestige among activists and trade unions”.
Unsurprisingly, the GFM was filled with disagreements, in-fighting and pressure from Hamas on the handful who were eventually allowed by Egypt into Gaza, but these were minor compared to the achievement of generating global and regional headlines over Gaza and pressuring the international community over its failure to lift the suffocating siege on the Strip.
Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney journalist and author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution.