By Kim Bullimore
Its New Year’s Eve and my team mate and I are on our way to Israel’s Erez Crossing, one of the 6 border crossings into Gaza which has been repeatedly closed by the Zionist state as part of its illegal collective punishment of the Palestinian people in Gaza. We have joined three bus loads of Israeli and Palestinian activists in Jaffa to make the hour long journey to the Gaza border crossing to protest Israel’s ongoing siege. As we wait for the buses in Jaffa, I look around the slowly gathering crowd and recognize some of the faces from demonstrations in the Occupied West Bank: several of the courageous and dedicated activists from Anarchists Against the Wall, as well as some activists from Gush Shalom and others from Ta’ayush. But there are many I don’t recognize – young people, as well as older folk – all of whom are outraged at Israel’s repeated war crimes and collective punishment of the Palestinian people of Gaza.
It’s now been a year since Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli war which killed more than 1400 Gazan Palestinians and more than two and half years since Israel declared the region an "enemy entity", imposing an almost total siege on 1.5 million people. In September last year, the Goldstone report provided the most accurate and damning account of Israel’s actions in Gaza both during Operation Cast Lead, as well as Israel’s actions before and after its brutal all out war on Gaza . According to the report, the Israeli military carried out indiscriminate attacks on Palestinian civilians, as well as deliberately targeted Palestinian civilians during both ground and air attacks . In addition, the report outlined how Israel’s war machine used Palestinian civilians as human shields on at least four occasions and well as its systematic and “reckless” use of chemical weaponry such as white phosphorus (which burns through flesh and bone) and small arms fletchettes missiles in densely populated urban areas. Despite claims of bias by both the Israeli state and its supporters, including the Obama Administration in Washington, the Goldstone report also addressed the issues of Palestinian-made Qassam rockets being fired into Israel, noting that while they constituted an indiscriminate attack on a civilian population, they also "caused little damage".
While the Goldstone report key recommendations were not binding, the report called for the immediate lifting of the Israeli siege of Gaza; the cessation of Israeli restrictions on Palestinian sea access; the lifting of Israeli restrictions on freedom of movement between Gaza and the Occupied West Bank, as well as Israel to pay reparations for the destruction its assault wrought on Gaza . Other key recommendations included a call for Israel to release all Palestinian political prisoners detained as a result of the Zionist state’s ongoing illegal occupation and that the Israeli authorities should end its attempts to intimidate internal Israeli dissent and opposition to the government’s policy and its military operations in Gaza.
Three months after the release of the report, however, Israel has continued to tighten its Gaza noose. Three months after the release of the report, Israel continues to bomb Gaza regularly and continues its illegal colonization of Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank and Occupied East Jerusalem, while deepening its apartheid policies within Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
A year after Operation Cast Lead, as we gather in Jaffa, in Cairo 1400 internationals have also gathered in an attempt to break the siege as part of the Gaza Freedom March. Their attempts to reach Gaza, however, have been actively stymied by the brutality of the Egyptian police and security forces obeying the orders of a corrupt and brutal Egyptian regime which long ago decided that the human rights of own people or those of the Palestinian people matter little.
Soon the buses arrive and we start to board and I find myself sitting next to a young Palestinian woman who is from a village in what is now the north of Israel. We chat for a while and she tells me about the campaign she is involved in to stop the demolition of Palestinian homes in Jaffa and to prevent the further ethnic cleansing of the city. In front of me, I hear my team mate talking with an older Israeli woman, who is recounting a story from her early years as an anti-occupation activist.
Soon, we have left the traffic congestion of Jaffa and are traveling through the open countryside. In all my previous visits, I have never traveled to this region of what is now the Israeli state. The landscape is different from that in the Occupied West Bank. There, the land is hilly and rocky, dotted with ancient olive groves and sparse shrubbery. Its rocky beauty is something I fell in love with just weeks into my first visit to Palestine. Here in the South, however, the land is flat and open and the fields have been cultivated into blankets of greenery, with almost every trace of Palestinian heritage wiped clean.
But every now and again, it reappears. In a field, here and there, you will see what’s left of a beautiful old Palestinian house, with its square cut sturdy blocks of stone. These houses, now derelict or used dismissively as agricultural storage areas, stand as a last defiant reminder that this land once belonged to another people.
As I gaze out the window of the bus, I notice the location signs dotted along our route. Soon we are passing the junction turns for Ashdod, Asheklon, Sderot. At the junction for Sderot, we turn into a gas station, as this is to the convergence point for all the buses traveling to the demonstration. The buses from Jaffa are the first to arrive and over the next 30 – 40 minutes, we are joined by buses carrying solidarity activists from Jerusalem, Haifa, Lod (formerly the Palestinian city of Lydda), Bethlehem and other cities within Israel. Once all the buses have arrived, we re-board and make the final leg of the journey, which too my surprise only takes 8 or so minutes.
My first sight of Erez Crossing is like a punch in the stomach. I immediately felt nauseous. Before me is a massive terminal, with the apartheid wall snaking out from either side of it. My immediate thoughts fly to the 1.5 million people of Gaza trapped in devastation behind this ugly wall and building. It is hard to fathom that they are so close and we can not see them, reach them or speak to any of them. In a daze, still trying to fully comprehend that I am at the Gaza border, I leave the bus along with my traveling companions.
Several hundred protestors, many of whom are Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, have already gathered near the terminal gate. The protest crowd soon swells as bus load after bus load of demonstrators join their ranks. In front of one section of the crowd are Palestinian women dressed in traditional dress leading chants and holding up photos of the devastation in Gaza. Lifeless bodies of children, destroyed homes and a ravaged homeland. Near the terminal gate are some older Palestinian men, who have attached a banners to the crowd rails set up by the Israeli police. One banner says: "ISRAEL end your persecution. WORLD end your indifference". Another proclaims definitely: "Our Will is Stronger than your Siege". For the next two hours, chants ring out in Hebrew and Arabic, calling not only for an end to the siege, but also calling for national unity between Fatah and Hamas and for defiance against Israel’s occupation of their homeland.
As I stood listening to the women chant and sing, suddenly jubilant cheering erupted. A older Palestinian woman dress in black with a lone suitcase is being surrounded by the protesting women, who are now dancing and singing. The woman, a resident of the besieged strip, had just exited Erez Terminal and was being embraced by the women in the rally. Within seconds, she is enthusiastically joining the singing and dancing. As I stood smiling, watching the women in their exuberance embrace their sister from Gaza, I could not help wondered about the well being of those we could not see, still left behind the concrete wall.
Unlike the demonstrations in the Occupied West Bank where rubber bullets and teargas are fired on non-violent protests like clockwork, this does not happen today. The Israeli state, however, is still omnipresent. On the hills surrounding the protest, at least three dozen Israeli border police stood watching the demonstration. At the fences near the terminal were many more, as well as mounted police. Unlike a year ago, the Israel state apparatus does not attack or arrest any demonstrators. The fact that we even make it to the Terminal Crossing is a surprise for many of the Israeli demonstrators. A year before, at the height of the war, they were arrested and prevented from even making it anywhere near the Crossing.
As the demonstration starts to wind down and the demonstrators start to board the buses, I find it hard to leave. Part of me want to run to the terminal and shout and try to fruitlessly tear down the fencing, part of me wants to cry and part of me is more angry then ever at the inhumanity and injustice of what lies in front of me. But there is another part of me which is buoyed by the solidarity and strength I had witnessed today and the knowledge that at the same time we were protesting at Erez that thousands of Palestinians in Gaza were also definitely marching on the other side of the wall that divided us and that we were also joined in spirit by the more than 1400 internationals in Egypt and tens of thousands around the world who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people and their struggle for freedom and justice.
– Kim Bullimore is currently living in the Occupied West Bank, where she is a human rights volunteer with the International Women’s Peace Service (www.iwps.info). She has a blog: www.livefromoccupiedpalestine.blogspot.com and is a regular writer on Palestine-Israel issues for the Australian newspaper, Direct Action (www.directaction.org.au). She contributed this article to Palestine Chronicle.