SF Gray Panthers Newsletter, February, 2010, p 5
In late December 2008, Israel embarked on its brutal assault on the Gaza Strip, Operation Cast Lead, killing approximately 1400 Palestinians. A year later, in late December 2009, approximately 1400 international nonviolence activists from over 40 countries, converged in Cairo, Egypt, with the goal of entering the Gaza Strip to march with the people of Gaza in the Gaza Freedom March (GFM), calling for an end to the siege of Gaza.
From the time they arrived in Cairo, the international solidarity activists—including SF Gray Panther Arla S. Ertz—met with hurdles thrown up by the Egyptian government that prohibited the group not only from entering Gaza, but even from setting out on previously chartered buses to the Egyptian town of Al-Arish, near the Gazan border. Moreover, the Egyptian government revoked all permits for venues the GFM organizers had arranged for the international group’s meetings in Cairo.
GFM delegates came up with creative ways to communicate, meet, and organize to counter Egypt’s attempt to stop the march. First, delegates headed in small groups to a bridge across the Nile, where they tied flowers and cards bearing messages memorializing the Gazans who had died a year ago, winning support from Egyptian passers-by, until the police caught on and abruptly ended the tribute, ripping the cards and flowers from the bridge’s railings. Later delegates moved on to the next action—releasing 1400 memorial candles in biodegradable cups into the Nile from dozens of feluccas, traditional open sailboats—but the police ordered the boat owners to cancel their rentals to the group. Undeterred, they conducted a candlelight procession on the sidewalk along the Nile, with much impassioned chanting and singing, lasting for hours into the evening. Egyptian motorists in the heavily traveled area witnessed the strong international support for Gaza.
Succeeding days brought increasingly intensified actions, including a highly spirited rally outside the World Trade Center building, which houses the local UN office. Three representatives, including Philippine parliament member Walden Bello, met with UN officials to persuade them to urge the Egyptian government to reverse its prohibition and allow passage to Gaza, without success. Also, many delegates approached their respective embassies. One day, Arla met with diplomats at the US Embassy, but no amount of discussion would move them to take steps on the group’s behalf. Another day, a group returned to the US Embassy, only to be held in detention by Egyptian police for five hours! Repeated calls to officials inside the US Embassy failed to garner their release. A highlight action was a rousing rally held by Egyptians on the steps of the Journalists’ Syndicate, with internationals present in support, especially moving because speaking out this way is highly risky for Egyptians under their repressive government.
In the end, delegates decided that if they couldn’t march in Gaza, they would march to Gaza, and organized the march for December 31. Small groups headed for the Egyptian Museum, posing as ordinary tourists, and gathered relatively inconspicuously in various spots nearby. On signal, they converged, whipped out banners and flags, and began to march! For some minutes, they marched for Gaza.
Then, the police surged on the marchers en masse, using force to stop them. Plainclothes officers dragged Arla by the arms through the street, tossing her on the sidewalk. Police dragged and beat other delegates, finally cordoning all the marchers into one area, which delegates declared “Free Gaza Square,” and held a rally with heart-felt speeches by internationals from various countries.
Although the GFM was fraught with difficulties and disappointments, positive outcomes rose from it. For one, the GFM closed by adopting the Cairo Declaration, a position statement developed by the South African contingent. For another, the GFM events in Cairo cast a spotlight on Egypt’s undeniable complicity in the siege of Gaza along with Israel, with the US backing both of them. We must all call attention to the underground steel wall Egypt is building, with US financial and technical support, designed to cut off Gaza’s lifeline by blocking the tunnels that provide the only way for Gazans to receive the supplies they need for daily living, such as food, pure water, construction materials, and school supplies. We need to call upon our government to investigate alleged violations of the US Arms Export Control Act by Israel in its assaults on Gaza. JUSTICE FOR GAZA!
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