Gaza Freedom March Marches in Cairo against Blockade

The international delegation of the Gaza Freedom March had originally planned to arrive in Gaza on 29 December 2009 to join a march against the Israeli blockade together with residents of Gaza on 31 December. Instead, most of its delegates remained in Cairo, having been blocked from going to the Rafah border by the Egyptian government, and found itself marching against the Egyptian blockade on Gaza instead.

The Gaza Freedom March sought to highlight the plight of the 1.5 million residents of Gaza on the first anniversary of the Israeli invasion of the densely-populated Palestinian territory by entering Gaza with humanitarian aid for water purification, school materials, medicines, and other much needed supplies. After Israel tightened its blockade on Gaza after the election of a Hamas majority in the elections of January 2006, Egypt has refused to give open permission for foreign citizens to enter Gaza through Rafah until the last minute. Organizers of the Gaza Freedom March had been hopeful of obtaining permission, but were disappointed when Egypt closed the Rafah border in December 2009 under intense pressure from Israel.

The French ambassador to Egypt, Jean Félix-Paganon, told members of the French delegation of the Gaza Freedom March that the Egyptian government was preparing to grant permission for the March to proceed to Gaza until the deal was rejected by Israel. With 1,360 delegates from 43 countries converging on Cairo, Egypt revoked the permit to hold a large meeting in Cairo and the permits for buses to take them to the Rafah border via El-Arish.

Protesting the Egyptian Blockade

In response, the Gaza Freedom March launched protests in the streets of Cairo on 27 December 2009. The day began with a silent action, tying letter cards expressing solidarity to the people of Gaza to the railings of the Qasr el-Nil Bridge. Many Egyptian passersby stopped to add their own messages of friendship to the people of Gaza and Palestine. When police finally broke up the vigil, they ripped the cards off, leaving only the strings by which they were attached.

In the late afternoon, a plan to sail in dozens of feluccas (traditional Nile sailboats) was aborted by police, who closed off an entire section of the Cornish el-Nil where the feluccas are docked. The purpose of going onto the Nile River was to float 1,400 candles in biodegradable cups in memory of the Palestinians who died in the Israel assault one year ago. Gaza Freedom March delegates held their candlelight vigil anyway along the busy Cornish el-Nil street.

The more than 300-strong French delegation had gathered in front of the French Embassy in Giza, expecting to board buses for El-Arish. When the buses failed to arrive because their permits had been pulled, the delegates in a courageous act of defiance sat down in the busy four northbound lanes of Murad Street and set up tents. Hundreds of riot police from the Central Security Force were mobilized to enclose the protesters and move them onto the footpath in front of the French Embassy. Not knowing what the police would ultimately do, there was a great deal of fear at the beginning of the action. At one point the security force cordon increased to three layers. However, the French ambassador was apparently supportive, discouraging Egyptian authorities from using force and pressing for permits to travel to Gaza. Towards the end, the security cordon was relaxed, allowing anyone to freely enter and exit the encampment. The encampment lasted continuously for four days.

French delegate, Amar Aknouche, said he decided to join the Gaza Freedom March because of the injustice in Palestine. He noted, “Israel is the only ‘democracy’ which goes and kills children and erects an apartheid wall. I came here to express my solidarity with Gaza.”

Other large delegations – U.S., Canadian, British, Italian, etc. — approached their own embassies to appeal for support in pressuring the Egyptian government to open the Gaza border. The U.S. and Canadian embassies were particularly unhelpful because their governments had taken an official position of not dealing with Gaza because they classify Hamas as a “terrorist” organization. An additional special delegation went to the offices of the Arab League to seek its intervention.

Non-violent Civil Disobedience

Meanwhile, other Gaza Freedom March participants defied the lack of permits to travel to El-Arish. Thirty arrived successfully and checked into a hotel, after which they were placed under house arrest. After diplomatic negotiations, they were allowed out of the hotel, but blocked from going to the Rafah border. Over several days another fifty delegates boarded commercial buses at different times in Cairo and successfully passed through the multiple checkpoints outside of Cairo and along the highway from Bur Sa’id to El-Arish. However, they were all halted at the bus stand in El-Arish or at the final checkpoint before entering El-Arish. Police forced all foreign travellers, including those holding Palestinian passports, back towards Cairo under police escort at least up to the Suez Canal. Eight Europeans refused to go back, choosing instead to camp out at a checkpoint. A subsequent directive of the Ministry of Interior blocked all non-Egyptians from travelling east of the Suez Canal.

On 28 December, while negotiations continued with the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for permits to enter Gaza, a new avenue was opened through the United Nations office in Cairo. A negotiating team led by Philippine parliament member Walden Bello met with U.N. officials, but to no avail. Bello confided, “I know it’s a bit difficult right now with the situation here, but I don’t think they will be able to keep us away from there [Gaza] forever.”

The negotiating team was supported by nearly a thousand delegates rallying in front of the World Trade Center Cairo where the U.N. office is located. The scene was abuzz for hours with chants of “We want to go to Gaza,” “Free Gaza,” “We shall overcome,” and many more. There was music led by guitarists and an accordion player. Meanwhile, organizing meetings in the various national delegations were constantly going on in the background.

Eighty-five-year-old Holocaust survivor, Hedy Epstein, used the occasion to announce her hunger strike to demand passage to Gaza. She explained, “I have come to a point in my life in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, especially the Gaza issue, where I think I need to do something else because what I have done so far has not really caught the attention of my own government or the governments of the world who are silent on this issue. And so I’ve decided to go on a hunger strike.” She was quickly joined by others.

As at the French Embassy, the rally was visually contained by a solid wall of black-uniformed members of the Egyptian Central Security Force. But the wall could not hide the banners, Palestinian flags, and chants that flew high above the security cordon. The young recruits frequently expressed sympathy and smiles with the delegates. One symbolically crossed his wrists, signalling that his hands were tied. The Central Security Force recruits carried no arms, and have not done so ever since a 1987 mutiny. However, police (some of whom are armed) did filter the crowd and remove three Egyptian nationals. They also removed one Palestinian American woman, punched her in the face, and then released her. Twelve international delegates remained camped at the World Trade Center overnight.

Many Egyptian passersby and people in buses and cars also signalled their sympathy by waving to the delegates, for the Gaza Freedom March was exercising a limited freedom of assembly and speech accorded to internationals that would not be permitted among Egyptians.

On 29 December, the Syndicate of Journalists invited the Gaza Freedom March to join their members at their trade union headquarters for a rally for Gaza that lasted into the evening. Some Palestinian and Egyptian speakers moved beyond lifting the blockade on Gaza to chanting “down with Hosni Mubarak” and calling for “revolution.” The combined voices of Egyptians and internationals sent a powerful message of unity and solidarity on Palestine and opposition to the Egyptian government’s role in upholding the blockade on Gaza.

Divisive Breakthrough

Code Pink organizer, Jodie Evans, used her personal contact with Suzanne Mubarak, wife of President Hosni Mubarak, and chairwoman of the Egyptian Red Crescent (ERC), to appeal for permission for the Gaza Freedom March to carry its humanitarian aid into Gaza. The response from Mrs. Mubarak’s office was positive with instructions to “help in any way possible.” After reviewing the details of the request, by the next day Mrs. Mubarak secured permission for 100 delegates and two buses to cross into Gaza on 30 December morning. Code Pink organizers were given only two hours to come up with a list of names.

The initial acceptance of the offer proved to be tactically divisive for both the Gaza Freedom March and for the Egyptian government. After raging internal arguments and Palestinian calls for “all or none,” the Gaza Freedom March belatedly, but wisely, decided to decline the offer and allow only Palestinians with family in Gaza, key media personnel such as a Telesur team, and a handful of individuals to deliver humanitarian aid to board the buses. Meanwhile, Mrs. Mubarak’s intervention reportedly enraged Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abu al-Gheit for having undermined his ministry’s monopoly over political decision-making on the Gaza border crossing. He, in turn, tried to drive a wedge through the Gaza Freedom March by praising those selected (falsely as if by the government) to go to Gaza as “good and sincere,” while denouncing those remaining in Cairo as “hooligans” “acting against Egyptian interests.” Fortunately, that divide-and-rule tactic only served to unify delegates.

Free Gaza Square

On the day of the actual Gaza Freedom March from both sides of the wall (Gaza and Israel) to the Erez Crossing, 31 December 2009, delegates in Cairo planned to symbolically “march to Gaza” by walking peacefully in the streets of downtown Cairo. But because of the official ban on public political demonstrations, organizers adopted the tactic of initiating the march with “flash mob” and “swarm of bees” techniques. It worked for only about twenty minutes before the “swarm” became trapped between the traffic and hundreds of police.

In the ensuing melee, a solid wall of Central Security Forcers first began pushing demonstrators away from trapped buses, with officers attempting to ram the human wall from behind. Once the buses were cleared out of the way, police (not Central Security Forces) began grabbing delegates and throwing them onto the footpath. Some officers used fists to hit delegates, including several women. Two reported that their headscarves were ripped off. Seven delegates were reportedly injured. One American man had blood on his face that required treatment at the medical station set up by march organizers. He had been clubbed with a two-way radio by a plainclothes police officer.

Once confined to a 500-square-metre area of footpath, Gaza Freedom March delegates erected banners and Palestinian flags, and proclaimed the site “Free Gaza Square.” Within its confines they spoke about the political accomplishments of the week, and the unfinished tasks ahead. Challenged by the lack of democratic rights in Egypt, delegates were more determined than ever to break the siege of Gaza and challenge their governments’ acquiescence to the blockade.

Ali Abunimah, a founder of Electronic Intifada, observed, “Gaza is harder to visit than a prison. They are turning back all the buses. It is too bad we didn’t get into Gaza. But the most important thing is that Al-Jazeera has carried it [Gaza Freedom March protests in Cairo] throughout the Arab world.”

Another participant observed, “One positive development is that we raised more media attention about the plight of Gaza by demonstrating in the streets of Cairo that we would have by marching in Gaza” due to the comparative lack of media access to Gaza.

Late in the evening, hundreds of Gaza Freedom March delegates gathered once again in the open plaza in front of El-Mogamma, the monolithic state office building that houses the public entry point into much of the central government bureaucracy, to hold a candlelight vigil to celebrate the new year. They held candles and arranged more candles on the pavement to create the luminous word “Gaza” within a circle. People spontaneous began passing out sweets. The novelty of this action was immensely popular with Egyptian passersby who joined in the hundreds, swelling the crowd. Then plainclothes police moved in to filter out and sweep away all Egyptian nationals. Even simple collective celebration of the new year is a “luxury” not available to Egyptians. A double-row contingent of the Central Security Force also moved in, until senior commanders were told to back off, removing the contingent to a distant corner of the plaza. The state itself held no official new year festivity, as if fearing its own future.

The Cairo Declaration

In the new year, the Gaza Freedom March concluded with three important events. First, it convened an ad hoc convention to ratify the “Cairo Declaration” jammed into a small hotel restaurant. In a move spearheaded by the South African delegation, an international working committee drafted a document putting forth a globally-unified plan of action for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israeli apartheid and “to compel Israel to comply with international law.” With the concurrence of civil society representatives in Gaza and the West Bank, the document reaffirms commitments to “(1) Palestinian self-determination, (2) ending the occupation, (3) equal rights for all within historic Palestine, and (4) the full right of return for Palestinian refugees.” The historic document includes 128 initial signatories from 16 countries.

Second, the Gaza Freedom March hunger strikers held a press conference at the Syndicate of Journalists to conclude the official hunger strike, although a few vowed to continue their hunger strikes until they returned to their home cities. Over the course of the hunger strike, the number of participants had swollen to 27. Hedy Epstein said that she felt “strengthened” by her actions seeking justice for the people of Gaza.

There was the usual Central Security Force cordon. But it was plainclothes police that disconnected and took down the al-Jazeera video camera and escorted the cameraman away from the scene. In previous incidents during the Gaza Freedom March, three Egyptian journalists had been arrested for photographing demonstrations, and one was arrested in the midst of interviewing a Gaza Freedom March delegate. One Egyptian photojournalist asked me to send a photograph, saying that, “I would be arrested for taking photographs of the demonstrations. Egypt is no democracy.”

Third, a flash mob demonstration was organized in the afternoon in front of the high-rise building housing the Israeli Embassy. Demonstrators rapidly appeared from the south side of the traffic circle between the University Bridge and the Giza Zoo. For at least ten minutes, demonstrators swarmed throughout the crossroads and the end of the bridge before Central Security Force personnel in riot gear arrived to move them onto a narrow strip on the south side of the bridge opposite the Israeli Embassy. While there was little police intimidation inside the security cordon, aggressive harassment by plainclothes police outside the cordon was particularly severe. One French cameraman was physically threatened on the University Bridge even as he was walking away from the demonstration and showing his French passport.

Shortcomings and Accomplishments

Mass media coverage of the Gaza Freedom March in Cairo had reached around the world, even though many major western media networks refused give more than cursory attention. In Egypt, the events received front-page coverage in opposition newspapers like Al-Wafd, Al-Sharouq, al-Dastur, and the independent Al-Masri al-Youm and Daily News Egypt. But newspapers like the semi-official Al-Ahram, and government-owned Al-Akhbar and Al-Gumhuriya ignored the events as if they did not exist. Yet even the pro-government Egyptian Gazette could not avoid publishing a front-page photo of the demonstration at the Israeli Embassy. While avoiding day-to-day coverage, Al-Arabi and Al-Karama end up splashing headline photos of Gaza Freedom March activities in their weekend editions.

Except for the Syndicate of Journalists, the relative absence of Egyptian participation and solidarity with the Gaza Freedom March could have been interpreted by delegates as the result of either severe political repression or political indifference. But anti-government Egyptian activists pointed out that Gaza Freedom March organizers failed to reach out to them and establish coordination. In fact, Egyptian labour unions, students, and organizations of civil society have a long history of struggle in the streets of Cairo and other towns for democratic rights in the face of the overwhelming force of the state apparatus. Nevertheless, six full days of political demonstrations in Cairo by a large group of visiting internationals is without historical precedent.

The struggles in Cairo and the new construction of a steel wall deep into the earth at the Rafah border also highlight the fact that the Egyptian government has been bought by U.S. aid following the Camp David Accord of 1978, in this instance to help enforce the Israeli blockade.

Delegates of the Gaza Freedom March were defeated in their desire to travel to Gaza, but, as a result of the struggles in the streets and embassies of Cairo, they were more determined than ever that the blockade of Gaza by both Israel and Egypt must be lifted. Bitur Nabi Tammam of Bahrain saw the bright side, “Even if they don’t allow us to cross, I think it has accomplished the purpose that from all over the world you see people left their families, left their homes, to come here to say ‘freedom for Gaza,’ ‘freedom for Palestine,’ ‘open the gates!’”

Sharat G. Lin is president of the San José Peace and Justice Center. He writes on global political economy, the Middle East, India, and public health. He lived in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, and spent time in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Captured by a Palestinian militia in 1973, he has first-hand experience of their internal workings. Read other articles by Sharat.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Ismail Zayid said on January 4th, 2010 at 10:44am #

    This, again, confirms the Egyptian gobernment’s complicity in the Israeli crimes, imposing this brutal siege on Gaza. The international activists, participating in the Freedom for Gaza March, deserve full praise for their humanitarian effort attempting to relieve some of the suffering endured by the people in Gaza. Glory and honour are deserved by those like Hedy Epstein who were willing to make personal sacrifices, including fasting, to emphasize their condemnation of this siege engineered by Israel and enforced by the Egyptian government in its submission to Israeli dictat.

  2. Maryb said on January 5th, 2010 at 5:07am #

    This is the latest news from one of the people driving the Viva Palestina convoy of vehicles to Gaza. They have surmounted all the difficulties so far.

    UPDATE from Damascus 5TH JANUARY
    Posted by Jade on January 5, 2010 at 11:40am

    JJ Crockett: “It’s not up to the Egyptians or the Israelis to allow or disallow people into the house of the Palestinian.”

    This update written at 4AM last night Egyptian time:

    “We are sitting in the Damascus international airport at 4am here. Despite our greatest hopes of flying in from Syria to Egypt, those hopes have been spectacularly shattered once again. The first flight of 120 convoy members that were due to join the aid that had successfully arrived in Al-Arish, departed today at 4pm. We then got on the second flight at 8pm, and all was going to plan for an entry into Gaza tomorrow. Spirits were high, everyone was laughing and the excitement was immense as we were waved off from the Palestinian refugee camp in Latakia, Syria. They told us to give their love to family that they not seen in many years, and gave their blessings to a homeland that they were thrown out of. We shook their hands and embedded their messages deep within us. I really believed that we would arrive in Gaza on the 5th (tomorrow), and even Danny and Derek were hopeful they could get the pre-arranged flight home to Ireland on the 6th. After all, these are two family men, with children that have spent 33 days away from a family that are usually used to having them at their side, especially at Christmas.

    However, all these hopes and premonitions were dashed, when our plane had to be diverted to Damascus due to technical problems. We have been here since 0930am and are now just boarding a flight at 6am. Stories are leaking through that our counterparts who had successfully flown into Al_arish earlier, had their passports confiscated and even worse; they were given an exit visa whilst they were only entering the country of Egypt. That’s a hand of welcome from the Egyptians alrite.

    So we carry on…more obstacles will appear that’s for sure…and this is just a small insight into the lives of Palestinians that literally stand at checkpoints for hours on a daily basis. We share this suffering with them, and it reassures us that through all this, we will finally meet them and publicise to the world that here is a humble people, broken by a brutal occupation and siege.

    We will continue, and hopefully within the next 48 hours, enter Gaza and leave the ambulance and supplies there. I know we have been saying this for a long time, but every time we knock on the door and seem to be let in, they close it shut right in front of us. We keep knocking and we will get in, because it’s not up to the Egyptians or the Israelis to allow or disallow people into the house of the Palestinian.

    This is the update from now.. We will join our friends in Al-Arish, and then 2 more flights will transfer the remaining 200 from Syria to Egypt, making us a 500 strong party with 220 vehicles in Egypt by tomorrow afternoon and only 30 kms from the gates of Gaza. God I hope we make it, and so do the other 4 boys. Thanks for your support, and publicising the horror of the brutal siege on Gaza. If we keep this up, then there will be change. We can have trust in this.

    good nite, JJ
    More soon……

  3. Maryb said on January 6th, 2010 at 12:06am #

    2,000 Mubarak bullies attack the Viva Palestina convoy members using tear gas and water cannons. It appears that the Egyptians are saying that some of the vehicles inc. the larger ones are not going to be given entry to Gaza but are to be handed to the Israelis! Outrageous. Some injuries reported.

    Witness reports here and help requested in phoning Egyptian embassies.

  4. Mulga Mumblebrain said on January 6th, 2010 at 12:31am #

    Ah, MaryB, no doubt the message came, carrying orders for that Quisling scum-bag Mubarrak, from the Master Race, probably via their stooge and employee, the ‘House Negro’ and confidence-man par excellence, Obama. The sadistic, diabolical, treatment of the Gazans serves many purposes. It slakes the bottomless, fundamentalist religiously derived, sadism of the Zionazi ruling elite, it provokes more hatred and resistance from the braver and more decent elements in the Arab and Islamic worlds, and it tells the wretched of the earth, the great, immiserated, majority, that the Western masters do not care whether they and their children live or die (in fact they would prefer them to die) and the fate of the Gazans awaits any who dare resist their racial and civilizational superiors, or who just get in the way.

  5. Maryb said on January 6th, 2010 at 1:43am #

    There is certainly great cruelty being displayed in stopping this aid (a speck of what is needed but important now that the underground steel wall is going in) getting in Mulga.

    I have just read an article by Nadia Hajib – Alarmingly Close in Gaza –
    When Does It Become Genocide? where she says

    ‘Here is how Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish legal scholar who pushed for the genocide convention, defined it in 1943:

    “genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation…. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.”

    It is hard to conceive of a better description of what is going on in Gaza.’

    So very true.

  6. william nomates said on January 6th, 2010 at 2:28am #

    mary,please explain to me how hamas can smuggle in weapons,alcohol,even though their religion forbids it,mercedes cars,tobacco and even hi fi goods but they can’t bring in food,medicines etc

  7. Maryb said on January 6th, 2010 at 4:51am #

    I know I shouldn’t be feeding you but suggest you ask Hasbara for the answer. Perhaps they could tell you if Mercedes have this sort of thing in their range.

  8. Maryb said on January 6th, 2010 at 7:07am #

    As I thought a good shabbas goy has fallen right into that hole I dug for him.

  9. william nomates said on January 6th, 2010 at 11:38am #

    Egyptian security forces and Palestinians clashed at the Gaza border on Wednesday over the delay of an international aid convoy, killing one Egyptian border guard and wounding 15 Palestinians.

    The incident further raises the tension between Egypt and the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip who see Cairo’s attempts to seal the border as a direct threat to their survival, particularly a new effort to build a steel wall blocking cross-border tunnels.

    It was the worst violence on the border since an Egyptian major was killed by Palestinian gunmen during Operation Cast Lead in December 2008.

    The Egyptian state news agency said Palestinians shot and killed the 21-year-old border guard who was in an observation tower overlooking the frontier. Nine other guards were injured by the stones thrown across the border by hundreds of Palestinians.

    Hamas had called for a protest earlier over the delay of an international aid convoy at the nearby Egyptian port city of El-Arish, but soon lost control of the situation as hundreds of youths began hurling rocks across the border at the guards.