During my visit to Gaza in July last year, six months after Israel’s devastating assault, I was constantly struck by the resilient nature of its people. Despite 1400 lives lost, including those of many civilians, I found little hatred towards Jews. Instead, I encountered bewilderment that the world has seemingly forgotten the 1.5 million individuals living under Western-backed collective punishment.
Unemployment remains close to 80 percent. I lost count of the number of men who told me their wives begged them every day to leave the house. “Fifteen hundred people were killed during the war,” Nafez al Dabba, a local resident, said. “But more babies than that have been born since, because there is nothing else to do.”
The Gaza Freedom March (GFM), organized by American peace group Code Pink, was a response to this desperate reality. Code Pink are best known for protesting Washington’s militarism across the globe and at home, and the organization led many delegations into Gaza in 2009 to allow average Americans the chance to witness for themselves the situation there.
The GFM aimed to take an international group into Gaza just after the one-year anniversary of Israel’s assault, to join an estimated 50,000 Palestinians inside Gaza on 31 December and demand a lifting of the suffocating siege. It was to be a Gandhi-style response to an intolerable situation: it falls to civil society to alleviate suffering when the political elites fail to behave humanely.
I decided to join the GFM as a human being, a Jew, and an author and journalist. I see myself as neither anti-Israel nor pro-Palestinian, but committed to the human rights of both peoples.
The best-laid plans for the GFM inevitably changed. Close to 1400 international visitors from 42 countries as diverse as America, Britain, Venezuela, Australia, Libya, Japan and the Philippines descended on Cairo on 27 December to leave for the Egyptian/Gaza border the next day. Participants included leading US legal advocate Michael Ratner and European members of parliament.
The US-backed Mubarak regime at the last minute refused to give permission for the journey and ordered the group to disperse. We were told there were “security” concerns and the Rafah crossing would be closed until the New Year.
A few Australians were granted a meeting with their ambassador, Stephanie Shwabsky, who told them she found the situation in Gaza “utterly tragic” but could offer little concrete support.
Egypt’s stalling needed to be protested but the country is undemocratic, with the public meeting of more than a few people considered an illegal act. Perhaps surprisingly, the Egyptian press, both in English and Arabic, extensively covered the public agitations.
It was inspiring and brave during the flying visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to see Egyptian journalists at a rally shouting “Down with Mubarak,” “Boycott Israel” and “Free Egypt,” in the presence of international protestors.
Code Pink initiated massive public meetings and events and began daily discussions with the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, the United Nations, various embassies and the global media. Permission was eventually granted for a few freedom marchers to enter Gaza.
Riot police met us at every turn, mostly young men with small moustaches and bad teeth, looking a little nervous and unsure what to think when asked about their views on Palestine. I remember speaking to many Egyptians in 2007 and finding almost universal condemnation of Cairo’s peace treaty with Israel. More than one man told me that he wished Egypt would attack Israel again.
Egypt’s role in the Gaza crisis was automatically a focus of attention. Egypt isolates Hamas, builds an underground wall on the Egyptian/Gaza border, and enforces the siege. “There is a defect in the Egyptian policy,” said Salama Ahmed Salama, editor of the independent Egyptian daily Al Shorouk, “which lead to the brothers becoming the enemy and to treating our enemy as brothers should be treated.”
On 31 December, around 400 internationals “flash mobbed” in a major square in Cairo, and were met with state brutality. I was dragged and violently pushed and some activists received broken ribs and bloody noses. We were protesting peacefully, alongside thousands in Gaza itself and on the Israeli side of the border.
For myself personally, it was important to show to the world that some Jews are appalled by the behavior of Israel and do not share the ideas of Zionist chauvinism and exclusion.
I was particularly moved during the hunger strikes, including one started by 85-year-old Jewish, anti-Zionist Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, which demonstrated how the issue of justice for Palestine has become truly internationalized. Epstein told me that it was her duty as a Jew, especially with her background, to not “remain silent in the face of Israeli atrocities.”
Hearing South African trade unionists, many at the forefront of ending apartheid in their country, discuss tactics to end “apartheid Israel” was representative of the growing global movement of isolating Israel.
Gandhi would have been proud.
Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney journalist and the author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution