"It was meant to be a historic non-violent protest in Gaza against Israel’s blockade. But forces are quick to converge in the Middle East against those who work for peace."
The author of the following report, Barnabe Geisweiller, a Canadian student at the Columbia Journalism School who has lived in Palestine, went to Egypt and Gaza with the Gaza Freedom March. He spent weeks reporting on the organization of the march. [There will be reports on the march this week, on Thursday in NYC, and on Saturday in Woodstock, NY].
Security forces watch over marchers in Gaza. (Photo: Barnabe Geisweiller)
When Tighe Barry, a Gaza Freedom March coordinator, saw that the bus had not yet gone he pushed through the group of armed Hamas men in Gaza city and lost it.
“Why has this bus not left yet?” he yelled. “I’ll start this bus myself! It has to go now!”
Barry stormed on to the bus, startling the confused driver as he turned the key in the ignition. He came back out and pounded the windshield with his right hand.
“Get this bus out of here!” he bellowed. “The rest of us will take taxis!”
Barry, regularly clad in a suit and sneakers, hair slightly disheveled, eyes puffy from lack of sleep, always looked as though he had not yet stumbled home from a previous night’s excitement. But the short American with mysterious reserves of energy now seemed at his breaking point.
The Hamas men had watched his antics dumbfounded. Then the eyes of an imposing man, meticulously dressed with a thick beard, hardened with irrepressible rage. It was his turn now to shout and he went straight for Barry, whose own anger now seemed dwarfed by the man’s menacing demeanor.
Yousri Alghoul, the affable director of the Palestinian National Authority’s Department of Creativity Support who speaks fluent English, now had to do more than act as liaison between the foreign activists in Gaza for the Freedom March, whom he smilingly described as pesky, and the rigid Hamas security forces. He flung himself in front of Barry who was by now facing down the much taller Hamas man, and somehow eased the tension with some rapidly spoken Arabic. Minutes before, he had been telling me how he and his wife loved to watch the American television series Lost, about a group of plane crash survivors trapped on an inhospitable island.
Barry’s frustration was not hard to comprehend. For the past few days he and hundreds of other international activists had been holding protests throughout Cairo, corralled by Egyptian riot police and their even more intimidating plainclothesmen counterpart, after Egyptian authorities had announced they would not allow the activists to travel to Gaza.
Six month’s work was threatened by the decision. Groups from all over the world had held fundraising events, organizers had endeavored to plan out the logistics of the march, and activists from around the globe had coordinated their efforts. The march was billed by organizers as a historic peaceful march in the Gaza Strip to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Israel’s 22-day offensive there, which left around 1,400 Palestinians dead and much of the coastal strip in ruins.
But the Egyptians forbade private bus companies from transporting foreigners, threatening to revoke their operating licenses. People who tried to make their own way to the border with Gaza were detained and turned around. Those who managed to make it to Al-Arish, a city on the Mediterranean coast of the Sinai Peninsula not far from the Gaza border town of Rafah, were placed under hotel arrest.
After days of protests, the Egyptians announced they would allow only one hundred of the over 1,300 marchers from around forty countries to enter Gaza, and this only after a delegation had appealed directly to First Lady Susan Mubarak, the Egyptian president’s wife and head of the Egyptian Red Crescent.
The Freedom March participants quickly turned on one another as many, if not most, were opposed to accepting an Egyptian proposal that excluded them. If the Egyptians had planned to be divisive they were successful. The scene in Cairo where two busloads of activists were supposed to depart for Gaza turned chaotic as people held up signs urging the chosen few to not leave them behind.
The urgings soon turned to insults and tears. People disembarked while others pushed or negotiated their way onboard. It was announced that no buses would leave, and that Palestinian civil society, apparently represented by Haidar Eid, had said not to come. Then one bus with aid was to go. Finally both buses left after several hours of arguing under the watchful stares of riot police, who had threatened to move in on the noisy crowd.
Of the 86 who did leave on board the buses, many naively expected Gaza to be their oasis of freedom after days of restricted movement in Cairo. But when they arrived, civil society was conspicuous only in its absence, and Hamas took charge of the foreigners.
Hamas said it was guarding the internationals from potential attacks from extremists. Some of the marchers accused it of hijacking the march and preventing them from mixing freely with ordinary Gazans, perhaps for fear they may harbor harsh words for its regime. Hamas may have wanted to limit the foreigner’s contact with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the leftist, secular Palestinian political and paramilitary organization. Thousands of Palestinians had rallied in Gaza in the Palestine Stadium earlier in December to celebrate the PFLP’s 42nd anniversary.
The following day the disappointment inside the buses transporting the activists from the morning’s march was palpable. People wanted to be taken back to their hotels. Barry was passing out in complete exhaustion.
Hamas officials, for their part, had to deal with exasperated foreigners determined to ditch the overbearing armed guards who blocked the entrances of the hotels and followed them around. Government officials claimed to have taken over the organization of the march only after they realized civil society had done nothing to prepare for the arrival of potentially over a thousand internationals.
On the night of Dec. 31, an outdoor gathering was organized to celebrate the coming of the New Year with performances by Palestinian artists including a rap group. Gazan university students took advantage of the event to meet outsiders and practice their English. Some recounted horrific war stories from Israel’s offensive. A young man’s neighborhood had been virtually destroyed. A child with deep, doleful eyes clung to her father’s leg. He rolled up her sleeve to reveal the massive scars left by an Israeli bomb all along her right arm. The air filled with the aromatic smoke of narjilehs—large waterpipes—their incandescent bits of charcoal glowing over bowls of flavored tobacco. Waiters rushed with glasses of sweetened tea.
The night’s celebratory mood was dampened by the presence of Hamas security forces who forbade people from leaving the party on their own. A bus was meant to transport those who wanted to return to their hotels while those who stayed on would take taxis. When the bus had not moved half an hour later and a few grumpy activists began to complain vociferously, Barry lost his cool.
Hamas officials had needed to deal with angered foreigners only a couple hours earlier, when the delegation of orthodox Jews from Neturei Karta became enraged at the sight of women and men celebrating the New Year together. They oppose the existence of the State of Israel because they believe their religious texts prohibit Jews from having a state of their own until the arrival of the messiah.
It seemed lost on Hamas officials that these orthodox Jews would forget all about Palestinian rights if the messiah were to suddenly appear, when both Hamas and Neturei Karta had looked pleased to use each other for photo ops earlier in the day. Now Hamas needed to quickly organize to have the pale, robed men driven back to their hotel.
In the meantime, most of the marchers remained stuck in Cairo, their protests broken up with increasing harshness by Egyptian authorities who tried to paint them as somehow more extreme than those who had been allowed to board the buses. Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said: “Those who tried to conspire against us, and they are more than a thousand, we will leave them in the street.” A group of activists, including 85-year-old Hedy Epstein, whose family perished in the Holocaust, were on hunger strike.
“I’m determined to go to Gaza,” said Epstein. “It’s important to let the people of Gaza, who are terribly, terribly isolated, know that there are some people out there who know about what is happening and who care, and who support them in this dreadful, dreadful life they have to lead.”
On Dec. 31, the day of the march, some of the activists were barricaded in their hotel by police. When groups came together in front of Egypt’s national museum they were quickly encircled by riot police as they attempted to march down the road. They sat on the street to hold their ground and police began hitting and pulling them. Then protesters were once again corralled into a fenced area and allowed to continue chanting for the rest of the day.
This was not the turn of events organizers had anticipated. The march was supposed to be against Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. But it was Egypt that prevented the march from taking place as it had been envisaged, and even welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Cairo on Dec. 29, much to the consternation of many Egyptians and international activists.
Egypt increasingly became the focus of criticism both by participants and in the media. Shortly after the march, Egypt said it would allow 139 vehicles from a Viva Palestina aid convoy to enter Gaza but that 59 vehicles would have to pass through Israel. This decision came after the convoy had already been forced to change its route after spending three days stranded in Aqaba, Jordan, because Egypt had refused to allow it entry through the port of Nuweiba. Clashes erupted between Viva Palestina members and Egyptian police, leading the foreign minister to announce that “Egypt will no longer allow convoys, regardless of their origin or who is organizing them, from crossing its territory.”
In the United States months earlier, organizers of the march associated with the anti-war group Code Pink had been sanguine that they would pull the event off, and that it would involve 50,000 Palestinians all marching together to the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel. People had hoped the march would be historic, alluding to marches against colonial rule in India and apartheid in South Africa. But forces are often quick to converge in the Middle East against those working for peace.
Tunnel under Egypt/Gaza border. By Barnabe Geisweiller.
The generators powering lights and winches in the hundreds of tunnels beneath Egypt’s border droned in the night. There was no mistaking what was happening on the Gaza side of the border near the town of Rafah: a truck was being loaded with sacks of cement pulled from the ground. Egyptian guards in a watchtower took no interest in all the activity; there is plenty of money to be made on both sides from the booming tunnel industry.
All but the most basic of supplies in Gaza must go through the tunnels. Coke cans bought in stores must be wiped clean of their dirt. The price of goods and materials has spiked as the tunnels, reinforced with steel and cement, are costly to build and run. They have become a lifeline for Palestinians in Gaza. Some are also used to smuggle weapons.
Israel has imposed a blockade on the strip since June 2007 when Hamas pre-empted a plan for forces loyal to rival Fatah to take control after Hamas won the 2006 legislative elections. Gun battles raged in the streets between Palestinian militants, and violence between Israel and Gaza escalated.
On June 19, 2008, Hamas and Israel reached a ceasefire as Defense Minister Ehud Barak was ordering the Israel Defense Forces to plan for war. Hamas abided by the ceasefire despite Israel’s refusal to lift the blockade. Rocket fire from the strip was reduced by 97 percent. The rockets that were fired were from groups other than Hamas, and in response to the killing of Palestinians by Israel in the West Bank. Israel broke the ceasefire on Nov. 4, 2008, killing 6 Palestinians. Hamas resumed firing rockets after Israel broke the ceasefire.
On Dec. 27, 2008, Israel attacked Gaza. The first wave of bombings came at precisely the time when children were being let out of school and crowded the streets. Some 22 days later, around 1,400 Gazans were dead, including hundreds of women and children. Israel lost 13 people, including three soldiers accidently killed by its own military. More than 4,000 buildings were destroyed and more than 20,000 were severely damaged—representing around 15 percent of all buildings in Gaza. Around 50,800 Gazans were homeless and 400,000 were without water. Israel damaged or destroyed about 50 U.N. facilities, 21 medical facilities, 1,500 factories and workshops, 20 mosques and 10 water sewage pipes. Schools and universities had also come under attack. The estimated damages at the war’s end stood at two billion dollars. Hamas remained as strong as ever.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International accused Israel of war crimes, including the possible murder of unarmed civilians waving white flags. On Nov. 5, 2009, the UN General Assembly endorsed the Goldstone report, a U.N. investigation which found both Israel and Palestinian militants guilty of war crimes. The investigation was headed by Justice Richard Goldstone, a South African Jew whose daughter lives in Israel, and a former war crimes prosecutor at the U.N. tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The 575-page report accused Israel of committing war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity. It also accused Hamas of war crimes for its indiscriminate rocket attacks, but the brunt of the criticism was reserved for Israel whose actions were far more extensive and destructive.
Gaza is a land of contrasts. Its potential is visible to all who visit: a beautiful Mediterranean coastline and scarlet sunsets, palm trees, pleasant cafés and hotels, and incredibly friendly people. But in the North of Gaza near the border with Israel, Palestinians have collected scavenged rebar from the buildings destroyed during the war to sell as scrap metal. On the coast, fishermen bring in nets with barely any fish—raw sewage has been pumped into the sea since the war. Boats that venture out more than a few miles from shore risk being attacked or harassed by the Israeli navy.
Gaza has the highest unemployment rate in the world. Many Palestinians in Gaza, some 80 percent of who are not from Gaza but are the descendents of refugees from Southern Israel dispossessed in 1948, have become wholly dependent on U.N. handouts to get by. One year on after the war, the most impoverished of those who lost their homes live in tents or makeshift shelters, as did their ancestors when they fled from Jewish paramilitary groups to Gaza more than 60 years ago.
Smugglers importing pharmaceutical drugs into Gaza have profited from the psychological trauma of war, the hardships of life under siege and an uncertain political future. Palestinians searching for reprieve from stress and distress have turned to painkillers and tranquillizers, triggering a wave of addiction. Natural opiates were banned under Hamas rule, but the government failed to regulate synthetic opioids such as Tramal, a strong painkiller and now the drug of choice in Gaza, especially popular amongst high school students.
This is the dire state of affairs the activists came to protest only to be held up in Cairo by the Egyptian authorities or smothered by Hamas in Gaza. On their last day in Gaza, and as if to complete the picture for the peaceful activists, a rocket was fired into the Negev desert by Palestinian militants and Israeli jets bombed several targets across the strip, wounding two Palestinians.
Fishermen in Gaza. By Barnabe Geisweiller.
Yusif Barakat’s business card is adorned with flowers and butterflies. On the front of the card, there is a photo of a smiling and eccentrically dressed Barakat wearing a black and white keffiyeh, a Palestinian scarf. On the back of the card is written his motto: “Do no harm. Be of service. Cooperate not compete.”
“I was born in Haifa in 1935, and I spent the first 12 years of my life in Palestine,” Barakat said in a sonorous voice. “I used to cross the Jordan River on horseback as a child. I used to be a shepherd boy, lived a very peaceful life. I grew up with Muslim, Christian, Jewish children. There were never any problems. During the Nakba [the war of 1948] I found myself on a ship, crossed two oceans to Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, the New York skyline. There I was, a 12-year-old shepherd boy who couldn’t speak English, face to face with the Statue of Liberty, and it was very frightening. At that time I found that I’m going to spend my life helping humanity and stopping this kind of oppressive injustice.”
More than 60 years later, Barakat had come to Cairo and then to Gaza to protest this “oppressive injustice.”
The march was the brainchild of scholar and activist Norman Finkelstein, author of Beyond Chutzpah and The Holocaust Industry. The idea came to him when he was in Gaza after the war with a Code Pink delegation.
“Gandhi was of the opinion that non-violence was much more courageous than violence,” Finkelstein said. “The bulk of the march by far will be Palestinian, we would be there to act as human shields, more or less what happened in the American South during what was called Freedom Summer, where privileged northern students came down and risked their lives, knowing that if a black person were killed no one would give a darn but if a privileged student from Harvard or Yale gets killed, the press, the country, would pay attention.”
Finkelstein, a kind of superstar in the world of activism for Palestinian rights in North America, was supposed to be the march’s spokesperson. His speaking engagements were needed to drum up support and media attention, but he along with several other key players resigned after a bitter dispute within the Gaza Freedom March steering committee over the march’s statement of context.
Finkelstein believed the statement should be simple and inclusive. It should focus on the illegality of Israel’s blockade and the collective punishment of Gaza’s population, he said. But two influential Palestinians, Omar Barghouti representing the West Bank and Haidar Eid from Gaza, wanted the statement to be a comprehensive manifesto dealing with everything from the right of return of Palestinian refugees and Israeli settlements in the West Bank to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement as a preferred mode of resistance to the Israeli occupation.
Omar Barghouti is a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, completing a master’s of philosophy at Tel Aviv University. Haidar Eid, an associate professor in the Department of English Literature at Al-Aqsa University in Gaza, is a proponent of the one-state solution and also a member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
The two contacted Palestinian organizations that had endorsed the march, encouraging them to disassociate themselves from it until there was more of a focus on BDS. In their letter, the two wrote that: “While over-emphasizing Gandhian non-violence, the statement ignores the most effective, home grown, non-violent form of resistance advocated by most Palestinians today: BDS.”
Organizers and members of the steering committee were receptive to the duo’s complaints, and draft statements began to go back and forth, eating up time and energy. Email exchanges eventually became increasingly bitter.
“The intervention of E&B [Eid and Barghouti] has created unnecessary division,” wrote Abie Dawjee. “Things have turned ugly. I don’t like such ugliness. Hence, with great sadness, I quit as march coordinator for South Africa.”
Thomas Woodley, director of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East and a member of the working committee, said the pressure placed on Palestinian organizations that had already endorsed the march was "unprofessional," and it put organizers in a difficult position. It "would have looked strange" if no Palestinian groups were aboard. "We were trying to get internationals involved and felt strongly that the ‘lowest common denominator’ approach was the only way to go.”
Woodley thought strong leadership was lacking and that too much time had been spent trying to satisfy Eid and Barghouti, so he resigned. (Eid passed along my emailed questions to a media representative, who did not respond.)
Finkelstein resigned publicly with a statement posted on his website. In it he wrote:
“During the week beginning August 30, 2009 and in a matter of days an entirely new sectarian agenda dubbed ‘the political context’ was foisted on those who originally signed on and worked tirelessly for three months. […] It should perhaps be stressed that the point of dispute was not whether one personally supported a particular Palestinian right or strategy to end the occupation. It was whether inclusion in the coalition’s statement of a particular right or strategy was necessary if it was both unrelated to the immediate objective of breaking the siege and dimmed the prospect of a truly mass demonstration. In addition the tactics by which this new agenda was imposed do not bode well for the future of the coalition’s work and will likely move the coalition in an increasingly sectarian direction.”
The steering committee voted 8-5 in favor of changing the statement of context to include BDS. Eid and Barghouti sent out their letter of support.
“We were just informed that the organizing committee of the Gaza Freedom March has finally adopted the statement of context that takes into consideration the key constructive suggestions expressed by both of us weeks ago,” they wrote. “[…] Accordingly, we fully endorse the Gaza Freedom March […].”
But days before the march was planned to take place Eid told the government in Gaza that civil society would not partake, guaranteeing that the march would not be a success.
Eid had repeatedly requested over the months that the steering committee based in the United States send letters to Hamas, “reminding them that we were a civil society to civil society initiative and to please let the civil society representatives coordinate our visit and the march,” according to Ann Wright, one of the main organizers.
Members of civil society contended that Hamas had taken too important a role in the march.
“The government decided to take the control of the designing and way of the march so most of the civil society, NGOs and their representatives decided not to be in the same line as the government to ensure the neutrality of the march itself,” said Moheeb Shaath, the Gaza director of Sharek Youth Forum.
Civil society had spent months preparing for the march, according to Shaath, and had asked Hamas only to provide security.
“One week ago they came and said they will take the lead,” he said on the day of the march.
When the government announced it wanted to give a speech at the march, Shaath said civil society took this as a sign that the event had been hijacked.
“They just want to embarrass us,” said Ahmed A. Alnajjar, director of international relations at the Ministry of Education, who gave a speech at the march.
Civil society had done a poor job of coordinating with the government, said Alnajjar, and Hamas’ main concern was for security.
“I’m not sure whether you know, a few months ago, some people were killed in Rafah, some people who claimed they were part of Al Qaeda,” Alnajjar told me. “So that’s why we were a little bit worried about the safety of foreign people.”
Hamas was fighting the War on Terror.
Tighe Barry, the American coordinator with Code Pink who went to Gaza, believed civil society had done little to actually prepare for the march and the arrival of potentially over a thousand foreigners, and that this prompted the government to take control.
Yousri Alghoul, who served as liaison between Hamas and the activists, said Hamas was concerned because elements bent on destabilizing the government could kidnap or hurt foreign visitors to make Hamas look bad. But he opined that the gruff security forces could probably have benefited from courses on how to deal with foreigners more amicably.
Retired U.S. Army colonel and former diplomat Ann Wright met with Egyptian officials and diplomats early on to inform them of the plan to have over a thousand activists shuttled through Egyptian territory and into Gaza. Since Egypt is the only country to share a border with Gaza aside from Israel, having the support of the authorities was crucial.
“We put together the database of all the people who have signed up and we contacted the Egyptian embassy in person,” she said in October in New York City. “We meet with the ambassador or the deputy ambassador and the political officer which is our point of contact.”
Organizers gave the authorities the names of all participants, which were then sent to the foreign ministry in Cairo. Wright believed past Code Pink delegations to Gaza had been successful precisely because of this diplomatic and cooperative approach.
But in December, when the Egyptian foreign ministry, citing escalating tensions along the border, announced the activists would not be allowed into Gaza days before the bulk of them were due to arrive in Cairo, the list of names became a weapon. The authorities were able to use their database of names to profile foreigners traveling to the Sinai and detain them.
“We feel devastated that this government thinks that for some crazy reason we shouldn’t be allowed to go there,” said Medea Benjamin in Cairo, an organizer and co-founder of Code Pink, days before the march was due to take place. “I think that Israel has put its foot down and said ‘you better not let this march happen to the Israeli border.’”
Code Pink offered to reimburse half of the fees participants had paid; either $250 or $400 depending on the type of accommodation in Gaza and to cover transportation from Cairo to Gaza and back. Everyone had paid for their airfares separately. Many of the marchers now needed the money to afford their extended stays in Cairo.
Participants speculated on Egypt’s true motives for derailing the march. Some pointed to the congressionally-appropriated military financing grants Egypt receives each year from the United States, and to the influence Israeli lobby groups have in the U.S. congress. Others pointed to the fact that Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the main political opposition, and that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak wanted to limit its influence in his country. Others thought the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah who presides from the West Bank, had put pressure on Egypt to keep Hamas isolated. Possibly all these assertions had some truth to them, but the Egyptians were not forthcoming with explanations.
When the Egyptians announced a hundred marchers would be allowed to enter Gaza, many saw this as affirmation that Egypt’s claim that security concerns were behind its decision was bogus. After all, if it were true, why were the authorities so determined to limit or prohibit any shows of solidarity with the people of Gaza on the streets of Cairo? When activists had wanted to set candles afloat in the Nile’s murky waters on the night of Dec. 27, police threatened to revoke the operating licenses of boats that took foreigners on board. When activists tied commemorative ribbons and flowers to the 6th October Bridge, police ripped them off.
But on Jan. 6, as if to redeem Egypt’s security claim, Hamas loyalists rallied on the Gaza side of the border to protest Egypt’s construction of an underground steel wall that will block the hundreds of smuggling tunnels that make life in Gaza possible, and its restrictions on the Viva Palestina convoy. Stones were thrown, shots were fired, and an Egyptian soldier was killed.
Historically, peaceful movements have been successful inside countries where the protests disrupt or disable the functioning of government.
“If a non-violent protest has the ability to stop things, to make it difficult for the established powers to function, then it’s exercising what a lot of sociologists call leverage,” said American sociologist Michael Schwartz, professor of sociology at the State University of New York. “That’s the lens I think needs to be applied, does this protest generate leverage of some sort?”
Many amongst the crowd that gathered on Ramses Street in Cairo at 7 a.m. on Dec. 30, felt their leverage was in numbers, and that the Egyptian proposal to allow a hundred people out of over 1,300 to travel to Gaza was divisive and unacceptable. Many were there to convince the activists heading to Gaza not to board the buses.
“We all need to take a unified stance as the Gaza Freedom March delegations, and say that if we all do not go, none of us should go,” said Sarah Mahmoud of the Canadian delegation. “Not a hundred people, not two hundred people, that’s not the Gaza Freedom March. That’s a hundred people going on two buses with aid.”
Organizers had only had a few hours to compile a list of one hundred names for the authorities, and had tried to include representatives from as many countries as possible. A lot of the marchers were upset, and felt the selection process had lacked transparency.
Gaza civil society, represented by Omar Barghouti and Haidar Eid, sent a message to organizers which was read aloud to all those present.
“After a lot of hesitation and deliberation, we are writing to call on you to reject the ‘deal’ reached with the Egyptian authorities,” the email read. “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.”
When people started disembarking the buses, the Egyptian authorities became more flexible, allowing new names to be added to the list. Those who were determined to leave on the buses, despite the urgings of so many of the marchers, believed they could serve an independent purpose in Gaza. Some had NGO business to tend to, while others were journalists, photographers or bloggers. Some had aid to deliver. Others had relatives they hadn’t seen in years to visit. All had their reasons for wanting to go.
“My dad worked in Gaza in 1949 with the United Nations and Quakers in charge of tents, food and medicines in a refugee camp by Rafah”, said David Hartsough, executive director of Peaceworkers and co-founder of Nonviolent Peaceforce. “His being willing to come into a war zone halfway around the world to meet the needs of people he had never met impressed me. In addition to that, I’ve heard about what was happening in Gaza, people living there imprisoned, the terrible destruction from a year ago from the Israeli attack, and I just felt that it’s time the world wakes up and says that this is unconscionable.”
The buses left with a motley crew, some in tears, some angry, most feeling the need to voice their justifications for being on board. To some, the march had already lost its historic potential—it was clear the marchers would not disrupt the functioning of the Israeli or Egyptian governments—but many hoped to still put a dent in Israel’s shield of public opinion.
This optimism shrank on the day of the march when activists were bused to the road leading to the Erez crossing with a police escort leading the way. One young woman remarked bitterly that the police car’s siren was more likely to attract unwanted attention if the government was genuinely concerned for the activists’ safety. Palestinian media were waiting near the drop off, and the marchers on board the buses were filmed like animals in a zoo before being allowed to disembark by their Hamas overseers.
Palestinians and foreigners began their march up the road together. There were very few women and children on the Palestinian side, and the crowd could not have numbered more than a few hundred people—a far cry from the 50,000 Palestinians anticipated by the Freedom March organizers. The marchers were flanked by armed security men, who herded stragglers forward.
Eid and Barghouti may have suddenly decided that the 100 marchers should not accept Egypt’s offer, but they had chosen to remain mute regarding civil society’s apparent decision to no longer participate.
“We in Cairo were as surprised as those who went to Gaza that Hamas had taken over the march,” said Ann Wright, who did not travel to Gaza, in an email. “From what we heard in Cairo, our delegates in Gaza realized that Hamas had taken over the march when they were at the march site.”
The Palestinian media darlings of the event were the group of orthodox Jews from Neturei Karta who marched waving Palestinian flags. Hamas, for its part, kept its promise to organizers not to have any of its own green flags visible at the march.
Protesters walked to about a mile from the Israeli border where a high concrete wall with watchtowers and an observation balloon marked the beginning of Israeli territory. There were a few speeches, a short-lived sit-down far from the Erez crossing, and then participants were ushered on to buses by curt security men.
The marchers’ efforts were not in vain. The march and protests in Cairo did attract the attention of the Egyptian and international press. For many activists, the main goal of the protests was to build global support and pressure to force an end to the blockade of Gaza.
“I think we made our voices heard, and will continue to make our voices heard,” said David Hartsough. “From my point of view, unfortunately Hamas kind of took the leadership away from the nongovernmental organizations. Just last night I finally met some of the nongovernmental organizations. They’re some really great people that are struggling under very difficult circumstances.”
Many of the protesters in Gaza and Cairo felt the friendships and connections made alone were worth the trip.
On Jan. 2, all the marchers were told they would have to leave Gaza. Many had planned to stay on, but Hamas said it feared Egypt would keep the Rafah border crossing closed if everyone did not return. Indeed, the Egyptians did temporarily open the crossing the following day, allowing some of the hundreds of medical patients, students and people with visas to leave, and some Palestinians stranded on the Egyptian side of the border to enter. But as it was Saturday, the holy day of Shabbat, the orthodox Jews could not travel, and Hamas had to wait until sundown to send them off.
Yusif Barakat, the Palestinian refugee from Haifa, had stood with the marchers only a mile from Israel. On the other side of the border wall, up the coast, was the plot of land where he was born, the fields in which he had galloped amongst the olive trees.
“This is the highlight of my life,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to return.”
But this man of peace was not filled with joy.
“It’s being back home but unfortunately it’s not the home that I left,” Barakat said. “It’s not the atmosphere that I left. Everything is more oppressive here. Everything is tightly controlled. So the Israelis are aggressive, and the Palestinians are oppressive. And it’s all for security, I suppose. But still, it’s not what I remember as a child. I want to wish peace for all the world. I believe we are all one people. We are all one humanity.”
The leaders of the Middle East seemed to differ.