By Stephen Lendman
Since Israel isolated Gaza under siege in mid-2007, it’s blocked essential humanitarian aid from entering, including:
— on December 1, 2008, when its warships stopped a Libyan cargo vessel several kilometers from Gaza, ordering it back to El-Arish, Egypt or be attacked; it was carrying 1,200 tons of rice, 750 tons of milk, 500 tons of oil, 500 tons of flour, and 100 tons of medicines;
— on December 15, 2008 when the Spirit of Humanity carrying five tons of aid and 21 passengers, including three volunteer surgeons, was intercepted at sea, 100 miles from Gaza, and warned to turn back to Larnaca, Cyprus or be assaulted; and
— on June 30, 2009, the Free Gaza Movement’s Spirit of Humanity was intercepted and boarded 23 miles off Gaza’s coast; its aid cargo and 21 human rights activists were seized, including Nobel laureate Mairead Maguire and former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney; they were threatened and forcibly taken to Israel’s southern port of Ashdod, held incommunicado under horrific conditions one passenger described as a "horror movie….in a warehouse, where we slept on a cockroach-infested cement floor as armed soldiers" stood guard; all their personal possessions were confiscated, and a day later two of them were taken to Ashdod’s central bus station with no money or belongings; the others were arrested and treated like criminals.
Cynthia McKinney described her ordeal as prisoner number 88794 at Ramle prison, known as one of Israel’s harshest – a former British police station, overcrowded, "stinking," many inside with no bed, everyone confined to tiny areas, some in isolation with no sunlight, and a series of dungeons six feet long, three feet wide, and six feet high that are dark, filthy, unbearable to be in, and those inside are stripped naked, beaten, unable to shower, given a thin coverall, and allowed to use the toilet once a day only.
McKinney had a suitcase with crayons for children. Others had medical and building supplies. Authorities tried to get her to confess to a crime. She refused so was treated harshly. She called Ramle:
"incredibly black: populated mostly by Ethiopians who also had a dream," were en route to Israel for it, yet were denied and then imprisoned. She and 14 others were held in a 7 by 7 meter cell in Israel’s summer heat, searched twice daily, but said it’s nothing to how Palestinians are treated.
One of the passengers, Ramzi Kysia, told the Israeli news service, Ynet.org:
"We’ll be back again and again….the Israeli regime should be careful, because we’re coming. We won’t stop until this blockade is broken forever and Gaza residents have access to the rest of the world." She also said the group’s attorney will demand that Israel return its vessel.
Gaza Freedom Marchers’ (GFM) Mission of Mercy
In late December, around 1,400 activists from about 43 countries gathered in Cairo, Egypt, preparing to travel to Gaza with humanitarian aid as a show of solidarity with its 1.5 million people needing all they can get – "put(ting) forth a global call to Israel to Lift the Siege of Gaza!"
Seven months in the planning, the group included doctors, lawyers, diplomats, students, artists, rabbis, priests, imams, and others, young and old, men and women, united to end the blockade, free the Gazan people, end their suffering, and highlight Israel’s outrageous crimes of war, against humanity, and brutalizing oppression that continues daily against civilian "protected people" under international law.
The march was under the auspices of the International Coalition to End the Illegal Siege of Gaza, formed after Operation Cast Lead, representing a "diverse coalition that represents all faiths (and no faith) and is focused on human rights in conformance with international law."
On arrival in Egypt, they were harshly treated and prevented from entering Gaza, save for a token 24 hours offered 100 only that the group summarily rejected as outrageous and unacceptable. Some dozens, in fact, went, as explained below.
On December 27, 30 freedom marchers were held under house arrest at their hotel in El-Arish, and another eight at the bus station to prevent them from traveling to Gaza. At the same time, security police broke up a Kasr al Nil Bridge commemoration on the anniversary of Israel’s attack, disrupting a peaceful protest against it.
Others marked the occasion in Cairo by floating 1,400 candles on the Nile, remembering the number of Gazans killed in cold blood.
On December 28, a group of French activists from the solidarity group EuroPalestine took over the boulevard outside their Cairo Embassy, occupied the street with tents for four hours, blocked traffic, demanded buses to Gaza, and forced the French ambassador to negotiate on their behalf, or at least go through the motions as nothing he did helped.
They were confronted by dozens of armored police vehicles, hundreds of riot cops, water cannons ready if they resisted orders to disperse. They negotiated with the police, said they intended to stay, demanded buses to Gaza, and asked others to join them in peaceful solidarity.
Others staged a sit-in outside Cairo’s UN building demanding the world body intervene on their behalf. They, too, were met by security forces while some of them negotiated with UN representatives asking for safe entry to Gaza for all 1,400 marchers. They were rejected even though the UN agreed to try to arrange a meeting with the Foreign Ministry’s chief of staff to deliver their request to President Mubarak, Egypt’s reigning despot since 1981, in league with Washington and Israel, and fully supportive of the siege, so expecting him to help is futile.
Most protestors dispersed at the end of the day, promising to return, while Holocaust survivor, Hedy Epstein, age 85, began a hunger strike (with dozen or more others) to protest, drinking only water and orange juice for energy. Concerned about her health, she ended it on New Year’s eve, but vowed to continue her efforts to end the criminal siege.
On December 29, Egyptian security forces detained about 25 American citizens inside the US Embassy and another seven or eight outside the compound. They were seeking help to enter Gaza, but were met almost immediately in response, and according to Gael Murphy, one of the organizers, this action "suggests the American Embassy is responsible." Indeed so, as one word from inside and it would end, or perhaps never happen in the first place.
America, Israel, and Egypt, of course, are complicit in isolating Gaza. Washington and Tel Aviv jointly planned Operation Cast Lead and all other IDF conflicts, and the world community turns a blind eye to daily attacks, land seizures, torture, killings, targeted assassinations, and decades of these and other Israeli crimes and oppression against millions of Palestinian civilians.
After three days of vigils, protests, and determination to persist, the March Coordinating Committee and other contingents "flatly reject(ed) Egypt’s (token) offer" to let 100 enter Gaza for 24 hours. All or no one they said as one step toward liberating 1.5 million Gazans. In fact, about 85 activists went, including Palestinians who had never seen family members there and wanted a chance.
On December 31, the entire group defied police blockades and unfurled banners calling on supporters to join with them in solidarity. Some got past barricades and marched to Tahreer Square in downtown Cairo. Courageous Egyptians joined them to denounce their government’s role, risking severe measures freely used against anyone defying government orders.
Police separated them from the marchers, then assaulted them. One of them, Desiree Fairooz said:
"I was lifted by the Egyptian police forces and literally tossed over the fence."
More measures likely followed, unreported away from the demonstration, perhaps including arrests and brutal treatment in detention, common measures by Egyptian security forces, including torture.
On January 1, marchers protested in front of the Israeli consulate, and were quickly confronted again, but demonstrated again the next day. Reports were that Egyptian plainclothes police were involved, used violence, and injured seven or more protestors. Mick Napier, head of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign said:
"The police used excessive force, and at one stage several female protestors were punched and kicked. A couple had their hijabs ripped away from the head. Many of us were taken aback by the naked (police) aggression as this was a nonviolent protest."
Marchers were also "dragged, pulled, and manhandled" according to Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin. Surprisingly, no one was arrested, but they were fenced into a pen and held for two days, surrounded by baton-wielding riot police, forced sleep on the sidewalk, and most were denied food or toilet access. About 50 US citizens were roughed up and held briefly in detention.
On January 3, organizers reported a French citizen’s death from security force sustained injuries. Marie Renee died in a Cairo hospital. She was one of 300 members of a French delegation.
The same day, Al-Jazeera reported that hundreds of Israelis and Arab activists protested against the siege in central Tel Aviv chanting "Freedom and Justice in Gaza." They demanded an end to the blockade, calling it a "war crime," according to the AFP new agency.
Besides wanting access to Gaza and the siege ended, marchers want to stop Egypt (with US Army Corps of Engineers help and congressional funding) from building a 9 – 10 km long iron wall across its Gaza border, extending up to 30 meters below ground to prevent essential goods from the Strip through hundreds of tunnels.
Washington, Israel and Egypt call it "smuggling." Gazans say it’s a vital lifeline bringing in food, medicines, fuel, and other essentials in whatever amounts possible, way short of what’s needed, but important nonetheless.
Gaza Freedom Marchers persist and on January 1 issued their Cairo Declaration saying:
"We, international delegates meeting in Cairo during the Gaza Freedom March 2009 in collective response to an initiative from the South African delegation, state:
In view of:
— Israel’s ongoing collective punishment of Palestinians through the illegal occupation and siege of Gaza;
— the illegal occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the continued construction of the illegal Apartheid Wall and settlements;
— the new Wall under construction by Egypt and the US which will tighten even further the siege of Gaza;
— the contempt for Palestinian democracy shown by Israel, the US, Canada, the EU and others after the Palestinian elections of 2006;
— the war crimes committed by Israel during the invasion of Gaza one year ago;
— the continuing discrimination and repression faced by Palestinians within Israel;
— and the continuing exile of millions of Palestinian refugees;
— all of which oppressive acts are based ultimately on the Zionist ideology which underpins Israel;
— in the knowledge that our own governments have given Israel direct economic, financial, military and diplomatic support and allowed it to behave with impunity;
— and mindful of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (2007)
We reaffirm our commitment to:
Ending the Occupation
Equal Rights for All within historic Palestine
The Full Right of Return for Palestinian refugees
We therefore reaffirm our commitment to the United Palestinian call of July 2005 for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) to compel Israel to comply with international law.
To that end, we call for and wish to help initiate a global mass, democratic anti-apartheid movement to work in full consultation with Palestinian civil society to implement the Palestinian call for BDS.
Mindful of the many strong similarities between apartheid Israel and the former apartheid regime in South Africa, we propose:
1. An international speaking tour in the first 6 months of 2010 by Palestinian and South African trade unionist and civil society activists, to be joined by trade unionists and activists committed to this programme within the countries toured, to take mass education on BDS directly to the trade union membership and wider public internationally;
2. Participation in the Israeli Apartheid Week in March 2010;
3. A systematic unified approach to the boycott of Israeli products, involving consumers, workers and their unions in the retail, warehousing, and transportation sectors;
4. Developing the Academic, Cultural and Sports boycott;
5. Campaigns to encourage divestment of trade union and other pension funds from companies directly implicated in the Occupation and/or the Israeli military industries;
6. Legal actions targeting the external recruitment of soldiers to serve in the Israeli military, and the prosecution of Israeli government war criminals; coordination of Citizen’s Arrest Bureaux to identify, campaign and seek to prosecute Israeli war criminals; support for the Goldstone Report and the implementation of its recommendations;
7. Campaigns against charitable status of the Jewish National Fund (FNF).
We appeal to organisations and individuals committed to this declaration to sign it and work with us to make it a reality."
Before heading home, Freedom Marchers formed a five member working committee to implement specific measures outlined above, including a BDS speaking tour and efforts to have Israeli war criminals prosecuted.
They were prevented from entering Gaza, but highlighted the complicity of Israel, America and Egypt in stopping them, aroused greater world outrage, and enlisted more support as a result – including in America despite a mostly dominant media blackout on their mission.
Finally on January 3, one marcher, Emily Ratner, delivered this message:
"May we leave Cairo with more hope than when we arrived that the siege will end and Gaza and all of Palestine will be free."
May Israel, Washington and Egypt know that committed activists and growing millions worldwide won’t relent until the siege and occupation ends and those responsible are held fully accountable.
Viva Palestina’s Commitment to Break the Gaza Siege
In an emergency year end appeal, the registered UK charity announced that on December 6, its third aid convoy left London, traveling almost 3,000 miles through nine countries, gaining support to bring vital relief to Gaza and end the siege.
On Christmas eve, over 500 people from 20 countries in 250 vehicles, loaded with humanitarian aid, were stranded in Aqaba, Jordan when they were refused permission to take the short route to Egypt.
Forced to turn around, they headed back to Syria to travel a longer one to get there. Because of the added cost, they appealed for help to charter ferries and a plane to complete their mission. World Bulletin.net reported that a Gulf businessman paid for a Turkish cargo ship to transport them, named Ulosoy 6, after which they prepared to leave.
On January 3, Al-Jazeera reported that the convoy left Latakia, Syria with 210 lorries of medicines and other supplies, sailing for the Egyptian port of El Arish on the Mediterranean where they were expected to arrive the next day.
British MP George Galloway and Kevin Ovenden lead it, had appealed to Egypt for Gaza access through the Red Sea Nuweiba port, but were denied. Cairo ordered the alternate, much longer route, risking Israeli interception, and no assurance of Gaza entry on arrival regardless of promises made.
On January 4, AP reported that the "convoy will be allowed to enter the Gaza Strip after organizers struck a deal with Egyptian authorities over its transit route."
On January 4, they arrived at El Arish, cleared customs, expect to enter Gaza as soon as possible, are just 100 miles away, and "198 vehicles" are coming with aid that includes specialized medical equipment and the vehicles themselves. Those let in will stay and are vitally needed.
Convoy organizer, Kevin Ovenden, expressed optimism saying:
"We now have every right to expect unhindered and safe passage into Gaza, but we call on all our friends internationally to stand ready to raise their voices if we face further unjustified delay."
On January 3, Al-Zajeera reported that Egypt will temporarily open the Rafah crossing from January 3 – 6, something sporadically done before, only to be shut again on short or no notice.
Whether all, or even any, aid gets in unknown as earlier promises have been broken, and Israel keeps Gaza isolated under siege with Cairo a complicit ally.
Events are fast-moving and fluid. On January 5, aid members reported that Egyptian authorities seized 157 passports, including from convoy leaders George Galloway and Kevin Ovenden. They’d been stamped on arrival, then got an exit stamp, meaning they’d have to leave the country. Word was that these members alone would gain Gaza entry, not another 400 flying into Al Arish late Monday. After "noisy protests," passports were later returned with exit stamps removed, so temporarily the issue was resolved.
However, members report that the "situation is changing by the hour," yet everyone remains hopeful. Spokeswoman Alice Howard said the "convoy expects to enter the Gaza Strip via the Rafah crossing from Egypt at 2pm local time on Tuesday." In 2009, Galloway lead two successful missions. He hopes to make this one his third with much more aid if successful.
On January 5, a late report from Al Arish casts doubt saying:
"Our situation is now at a crisis point! Riot has broken out in the port of Al Arish. This late afternoon we were negotiating with a senior official from Cairo who left negotiations some two hours ago and did not return." It was about securing safe passage to Gaza with needed aid.
Afterward, "Egyptian authorities called over 2,000 riot police who then moved towards our camp at the port. We have now blocked the entrance (and) now faced with (them) and water cannons and are determined to defend our vehicles and aid."
"The Egyptian authorities have by their stubbornness and hostility….brought us to a crisis point."
Early AM January 6, it’s reported that hundreds of members broke down the gate at the Al Arish port in protest. George Galloway scuffled with Egyptian police, and 55 activists were injured when police used water cannons, tear gas and batons to beat people who objected to Cairo’s obstructionism.
Authorities told Galloway and other convoy leaders that dozens of aid vehicles would be sent to the Israeli checkpoint, not Rafah that Egypt controls. Of course, nothing entering Israel reaches Gaza, so this idea was rejected. Hence the scuffle, standoff, and unsuccessful resolution as of early AM US Central time, January 6.
As a result, Viva Palestina calls on friends and supporters to protest by any means possible and demand that the entire convoy be granted free access to Gaza. The situation remains fluid, so new developments are likely after this article is published. Follow them at vivapalestina.org and web sites reporting their progress, or lack of it.
– Stephen Lendman is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.