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Gaza Freedom Marchers Demand End to Blockade, Declare Support for BDS

By: 
Hena Ashraf
Date Published: 
April 1, 2010

At the hands of Israel, the Gaza Strip has become the world’s largest open-air prison, trapping 1.5 million Palestinians inside its borders. The Israeli blockade of Gaza began in June 2007, after Hamas defeated US-backed Fatah forces who were attempting to carry out a coup in Gaza. The blockade was an extension of the economic sanctions that began in March 2006 in response to Hamas winning parliamentary elections, and has essentially closed Gaza off to the outside world.

The extent of its isolation became clear on December 27, 2008 when Israel launched “Operation Cast Lead,” and restricted even foreign journalists from entering Gaza. The war on Gaza lasted 23 days and killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, but galvanized efforts by various groups to end the siege and blockade. One such effort was the Gaza Freedom March (GFM), organized by the International Coalition to End the Illegal Siege of Gaza to mark the anniversary of the war by mobilizing hundreds to enter Gaza from Egypt and break the blockade. It was also part of a broader strategy to end the illegal Israeli occupation.

Approximately 1,400 activists from 43 countries gathered in Cairo in late December to participate in the peaceful march. However, in mid-December, six months after the organizers informed the government of their plans, the Egyptian government announced it would not let the march proceed. For more than a week, the activists continued to mobilize, meet, and protest on the streets of the city, yet their demand for all the marchers to be let into Gaza was not met.

Ali Abunimah, a GFM participant and co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, described the interactions with the Egyptian authorities: “Our main point of contact was with the police, who followed us around everywhere and were on hand whenever we held a vigil or protest. Our goal had been to pass through Egypt very quickly en route to Gaza, but the Egyptian decision meant we were stuck in Cairo. Police prevented people moving around freely, occasionally blockaded hotels, and most significantly kept Egyptians away from us whenever they tried to talk to us or vice versa.” Both riot police and undercover agents were continuously present.

Eventually the Egyptian government announced that it would allow 100 of the marchers into Gaza; however, only 84 ended up entering Gaza from the contingent, and for only 36 hours. Abunimah said, “Our colleagues in Palestine felt that the Egyptian offer would be used as propaganda to say that Egypt was in fact letting us in when the reality was that most of us were being prevented from going to Gaza. It was very tough and emotional to make that decision under so much pressure, but I am convinced it was the right decision for me to get off the bus.”

Cairo Declaration

Though the GFM was not allowed to proceed, the participants threw their efforts into drafting a statement called the Cairo Declaration, which had an energizing effect on the participants and the Palestinian solidarity movement internationally. The landmark Declaration was initiated by the South African delegation, “which included veterans of the struggle against apartheid…Their central role brought experience, sophisticated analysis, and moral authority to the effort” explained Abunimah. The Declaration reaffirmed the commitment of the marchers to the Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel and demonstrated the unity and determination of the 1,400 marchers.

Nitin Sawhney, an organizer for Voices Beyond Walls, was the only individual foreign national allowed into Gaza through the Rafah crossing by Egypt for an extended stay. Sawhney was able to enter Gaza as an individual because of help from the Indian embassy in Cairo. The Indian embassy wrote a letter on Sawhney’s behalf to the foreign ministry, and he received a permit shortly after. “The border was only open on January 4th and 5th, for a total of two days officially. Over a 12-hour period, crossing 13 checkpoints from Cairo to Rafah, I finally managed to get through, after lots of negotiations at almost every security checkpoint. Indeed I was the only one who got in, before the border was completely shut. And they weren’t even letting anyone out for an indefinite period,” said Sawhney.

According to Abunimah, the blockade is “an outrageous, historic crime, as is the complicity of all the governments helping Israel enforce it.” The blockade has further impoverished the population of Gaza and devastated the Gazan economy, which now relies on trade with Egypt via tunnels under the border. Each tunnel takes two years and $100,000 to build and runs almost 200 feet underground. The tunnels are worked mostly by young teenage boys in extremely difficult and dangerous conditions.

Sawhney was able to witness the activities of the tunnels: “There are white tents set up all along the border, only meters away from the border wall with Egypt. Everyone can see that these are tunnels.” Because of the blockade, Sawhney reported that “the tunnels are there as a lifeline of support for basic goods and services into Gaza. Pretty much the entire economy of Gaza is run through tunnel trade right now.” Inflation has risen dramatically because of the tight Israeli blockade, resulting in goods that get into Gaza via the tunnels being six times the normal price. This includes consumer goods and food supplies.

Furthermore, Sawhney explained that Gaza’s entire supply of fuel and gas comes from the tunnel trade and added, “This was all done with the complete understanding of the Egyptian authorities. They knew what was going on. In fact they’re benefiting from it. They’re able to charge a tremendous amount of money for the Egyptian goods. They’re very much in complicity of the tunnel trade, and it’s shocking to me that they’re the ones trying to blockade those tunnels now.”

Egypt is currently building a wall on its border with Gaza. Reportedly, the US Army Corps of Engineers has helped design the wall, which will be made out of steel. The barrier will be placed deep underground, and as of December 2009, could take 18 months to complete. It is meant to be impenetrable and to cut off the tunnels that run between Gaza and Egypt.

Ending the blockade

Yet efforts continue to end the siege of Gaza.

In early January, Viva Palestina, another group working to end the blockade, tried to deliver 200 trucks of aid to Gaza. The convoy, led by George Galloway, an outspoken British Member of Parliament, consisted of 550 participants from 17 countries. Like the GFM, the convoy was denied access into Gaza by Egypt, resulting in a delay of ten days and heightened tensions between the activists and Palestinians and the Egyptian police. At the port of Al-Arish, Egyptian riot police injured 50 of the activists, and an Egyptian soldier was shot dead in violent clashes with Palestinians at the border. Eventually Viva Palestina was let through although for only 36 hours and Galloway was immediately deported upon his return to Egypt.

The Free Gaza Movement has sailed to Gaza from Cyprus on several trips since August 2008 and has brought many to witness firsthand the destruction of Gaza and the Palestinian population at the hands of Israel. The boats were the first to sail to Gaza since 1967. On June 30th, 2009, Israel attacked the Free Gaza boat the Spirit of Humanity and abducted 21 activists and journalists from 11 countries, including the former Green Party presidential candidate, Cynthia McKinney. They were imprisoned by Israel for a week before being deported, after much international news coverage.

In late January, the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish Relief Foundation announced a joint venture of sending a flotilla to Gaza of ten boats including two cargo ships in the spring of 2010. The passenger ships will carry journalists and activists, as well as politicians from around the world. This will be largest trip Free Gaza has made yet in its efforts to break the siege by Israel, and will transport cement, water filtration systems, and paper, which are needed reconstruction materials that Israel does not allow in.

Because of the blockade, Palestinians in Gaza are rarely allowed to enter or leave the Gaza Strip, including university students with admissions abroad and those with medical emergencies. For Sawhney, “it’s the human aspect of the blockade that we need to hear about. We absolutely need to do something about that.” Abunimah provided further reflection on the frustration the GFM felt in not being allowed into the Gaza Strip: “It gave us a small taste of the infinitely greater frustration that 1.5 million people in Gaza feel every day at being held prisoner by Israel with US and Egyptian complicity.”

Hena Ashraf is an independent filmmaker in NYC. She can be reached at [email protected]. For more information, visit gazafreedommarch.org, cairodeclaration.org, and freegaza.org