Revolution #191, February 7, 2010

Gaza Freedom March: A Call to the World

Part II – Marching in Cairo

At precisely 10 am on December 31, 2009, a dozen or so "tourists" moved swiftly into eight lanes of traffic in the middle of a main thoroughfare through the center of Cairo, Egypt. Hundreds of signs in English and Arabic emerged from suitcases and backpacks: "End the Siege!" "Free Gaza!" This was the signal. Within seconds, hundreds of other "tourists" poured into the streets to join them—the Gaza Freedom March was on!

Egyptian security forces, with plainclothes thugs in the lead, kicked, punched, shoved, tossed, and beat the protesters—who sat down, linked arms, threw themselves on top of their comrades to protect them, and struggled to hold their position. Security forces finally managed to push the protesters to the sidewalk, where they were surrounded and detained by phalanxes of riot police for seven hours. The Gaza Freedom March, which was already front-page news in Egypt and the Middle East, became a living call to the world: Free Gaza!

This is the story of how the Gaza Freedom March came to be. Why it took place in Cairo, instead of Gaza, Palestine as intended. Who were the people who came from around the world to be part of it? And what light the whole experience sheds on the urgent and vital stakes of breaking the siege of Gaza, and the struggle for freedom for the Palestinian people.

There are things in this world you just are not supposed to question. There are assumptions you are not supposed to challenge, and relations you are not allowed to oppose. And the moral legitimacy of the state of Israel, and its crimes against the Palestinians, are among those assumptions.

And in that light, the audacity of the Gaza Freedom March (GFM) continues to grow on me.

Many people participated in the Gaza Freedom March, coming from all kinds of political and philosophical perspectives. But speaking for myself, my appreciation of the spirit and accomplishments of the GFM was deepened the other day when Barack Obama was challenged by a student in Florida as to how could he talk about "human rights," and yet not condemn "Israel and Egypt's human rights violations against the occupied Palestinian people?" In reply, Obama, as commander-in-chief of the U.S. empire, laid out the basic parameters of acceptable discussion, questioning, protest and action in relation to the state of Israel:

"Israel is one of our strongest allies, it has... let me play this out. It is a vibrant democracy. It shares links with us in all sorts of ways. It is critical for us and I will never waver from ensuring Israel's security, and helping them secure themselves in what is a really hostile region.... So I make no apologies for that."

And then, he laid out the parameters and limits of what is supposed to be legitimate concern for the Palestinian people:

"What is also true, is that the plight of the Palestinians is something that we have to pay attention to, because it is not good for our security, and it is not good for Israel's security if you've got millions of individuals who feel hopeless, who don't have an opportunity to get an education, or get a job, or what have you."

It is important that those who care about the Palestinian people (as well as people who are becoming disenchanted with Obama generally) not just dismiss Obama's response as "two-faced bullshit." If you listen carefully, Obama's response reveals much about the level, and unwavering commitment of the U.S. to Israel. And Obama makes "no apologies for that."

On the other hand, if you listen to what Obama is saying, in the calculations of U.S. imperialism the only reason to even worry about the "plight of the Palestinian people" is that if they are backed too far into a corner, something might happen that is "not good for our country" or "Israel's security."

Out of bounds in this set of parameters is any exposure, analysis, or understanding of the origins and thenature of the state of Israel. The creation of the state of Israel was originally sponsored by European colonial powers—mainly Great Britain—who deemed it necessary and, through a Zionist state, possible to have a militarized outpost in the Middle East. Today, Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. aid in the world, and has carried out military missions on behalf of the U.S. not only in the region, but on behalf of brutally repressive pro-U.S. regimes from Central America (Guatemala) to Africa (the apartheid regime in South Africa). Recent research by Israeli historians has documented, through first-hand sources, how fundamental terrorist ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population was to the establishment of Israel. And Israel today viciously oppresses and subjugates the Palestinian people, on whose land it is built—something I'll have much more to say about in upcoming installments of this series.1

Gaza Freedom March: Out of Order

Over 1,300 of us from around the world came to Cairo, Egypt, intending to march in Gaza, to stand with the million-and-a-half Palestinian people who are being held hostage by Israel, backed by the U.S. in an isolated, hell-on-earth, outdoor prison.

Did I realize how "out of order" this was? On one level—intellectually—I understood this before I left. But the stakes of what we were doing became more and more clear as the Egyptian authorities not only barred us from getting to Gaza, but surrounded and detained us just about every time we congregated in a group of more
than six.

Israel's massacre of Gaza last year targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure. And the ongoing blockade is calculated to produce widespread civilian suffering and death particularly on the very young, the old, and the sick in Gaza. The more people see Israel for what it is, the more basis there is for people to not only understand the real implications of Obama's statement that Israel "shares links with us [sic] in all sorts of ways. It is critical for us," but to politically oppose Israel's crimes against the Palestinians, and the role of the U.S. in backing that.

Israel, and Egypt—backed by the U.S.—have done all they can to isolate the people of Gaza and cover up what is being done to them. (See Part 1 of this series, for example, for the role of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the wall Egypt is building to seal off Gaza, and the role of the U.S. Embassy in preventing the Gaza Freedom March from getting to Gaza. Embassy officials informed GFM representatives that it is against U.S. policy to encourage Americans to go to Gaza.) When former U.S. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and others attempted to deliver humanitarian supplies to Gaza, their boat was rammed and forced away from Gaza by the Israel military. United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the occupied Palestinian territory, Richard Falk, who condemned Israel's siege of Gaza as amounting to a "crime against humanity," was detained in harsh conditions in an Israeli prison while investigating human rights abuses. The Goldstone Report, commissioned by the UN, concluded that the blockade that preceded Israel's assault constituted "violations of international human rights and humanitarian law," and that in the war itself, Israel's target was "at least in part ... the people of Gaza as a whole." That report has been suppressed by the UN.2

And in this context, the powerful forces in the world were determined that there would be no Gaza Freedom March.

The Bus Offer

There were daily GFM actions and protests in Egypt. We were not at all just "sitting around and waiting" to see if we would get permission to go to Gaza. And as it became clear the Egyptians were being very intransigent in not allowing us to go to Gaza, there was growing impatience among those of us in Cairo. At the same time, we were increasingly becoming an embarrassment to the Egyptian regime, whose role in the siege of Gaza was becoming more and more of an issue in Egypt, in the Middle East, and worldwide. The Egyptian foreign minister, for example, complained that Egyptian embassies around the world were being flooded with angry emails.

It was under these conditions that the Egyptian regime, in the form of the offices of Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of Egypt's "president for life" and also the head of the Egyptian Red Crescent (the equivalent of the Red Cross in the Muslim world), offered to allow 100 of us to go to Gaza on December 28, as a humanitarian mission, and under the auspices of Code Pink, not as the Gaza Freedom March. Code Pink initially accepted this offer.

Egypt had allowed small humanitarian missions into Gaza in the past. Regardless of the intent and work of those involved, allowing a trickle of humanitarian aid to reach Gaza could be, and has been spun by the Israelis and Egyptians as supposed proof of their humanitarian "concern" for the people of Gaza.

On the other hand, the mission of the Gaza Freedom March was an unprecedented political protest of over 1,300 people from around the world joining with Palestinians (and with an Israeli component on the Israeli side of the Gaza border). In the words of the Call for the march: "Our purpose in this March is lifting the siege on Gaza. We demand that Israel end the blockade. We also call upon Egypt to open Gaza's Rafah border. Palestinians must have freedom to travel for study, work, and much-needed medical treatment and to receive visitors from abroad."

As I briefly noted in the first installment of this series, on the evening of December 27, as word of this deal spread, all-night debates broke out. In the largest gathering, representatives of several delegations announced that they had rejected the offer, and would refuse to participate.

While some people supported this deal, most of the people on the GFM—for a variety of reasons—opposed it. Those who negotiated the deal argued that it was the best that could be done under the circumstances, that "the siege is not going to be broken in a day," and that "this is a start." There were also concerns raised that alienating the Egyptian regime would imperil future humanitarian missions.

But the overwhelming consensus from the beginning was that this was not acceptable. That position grew in numbers and substance as the debate developed. There was a general feeling that accepting this offer would be giving up on our basic mission. As one delegate was to put it later, we were not here to "put another band-aid on the cancer." And most people felt we were not in a hopeless situation, that we were breaking the silence around Gaza, causing a big uproar in the Middle East. People raised concerns—which turned out to be well-founded—that the Egyptian regime would use the buses as a face-saving cover to whitewash their role in the crimes against the Palestinians. And in fact, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit was later quoted in the Egyptian media as saying those selected to go on the buses were "good and sincere," while those remaining in Cairo were "hooligans" who were "acting against Egyptian interests."

The debate was passionate, as befits such an important decision. Delegations stormed out of the room, and came back. But overwhelmingly the debate was waged with substance, and through the debate, a stronger understanding of, and commitment to the original mission of the Gaza Freedom March emerged. By dawn, a consensus was forged, and Code Pink itself adopted a position that it had been a mistake to make this agreement.

The March in Cairo

As a consensus emerged that we would not take the buses deal, a vision and plan for a powerful, defiant march in the streets emerged. Energized and unleashed by the great debate, people sprung into action to mobilize for the Gaza Freedom March to be a powerful statement, in Cairo on December 31.

We took measures to anticipate repression by the Egyptian police state—we did not announce the exact location of the March online or through email, and we stashed bags of banners to drop out of windows at the hotels and hostels where people were staying, in the event that we were placed under house arrest on the morning of the 31st. As it turned out, the Lotus Hotel, where many of the prominent leaders of the GFM were staying, was sealed off by authorities who did not allow people to leave that morning. However, that action did not end up preventing most people from getting to the march location.

Egyptians who tried to join the march, however, were dragged out immediately by the authorities. The fact most of us were from North America or Europe put some constraints on the brutality of the Egyptian police. That said, people who came from around the world to take this stand felt they were taking real risks. "Don't get me wrong," one student from the U.S. told me, "I've been through serious actions before and risked arrest many times." But, he added, "We were in a country where people have no rights. It just seemed to me that the police reaction could be anything from brutal to lethal."

Outside the cordon of police, for seven hours a stretch of Cairo that is as busy as Times Square in New York City was dominated by a living billboard to Break the Siege, Stop the Genocide in Gaza, and The World Says: Free Gaza! Despite the constant threats of police, Egyptian drivers, cabs, and pedestrians stopped and expressed strong approval.

On January 1, "flash mob" tactics similar to those on December 31 were employed in a successful protest at the Israeli Embassy, where again it took some time before Egyptian authorities were able to corral the protest and isolate it from the street, and from Egyptians passing by. And on January 3, GFM activists joined with Egyptian activists in a protest associated with a a lawsuit filed in Egyptian courts against the treatment of the GFM (some GFM activists are litigants in this action).

* * *

The Gaza Freedom March in Cairo, and the week of activity that preceded it, had a significant impact on world public opinion, particularly in the Middle East. In Egypt, the events received daily front-page coverage in opposition or independent newspapers while semi-official and government-owned or pro-government media tried to ignore the protests, but then in some cases ended up running front-page stories. Newspapers I picked up from Jordan and Syria had front-page coverage of the GFM. And Al-Jazeera carried news of the Gaza Freedom March in Cairo throughout the Arab world and beyond.

A young Palestinian-Canadian had these thoughts on the impact of the Gaza Freedom March: "People are now asking, 'Is the situation that terrible in Gaza that 1,400 foreigners buy tickets to Cairo, aren't allowed in and decide to cause havoc on the streets of Cairo?' Yes, it's that important. ... [The Egyptian government] thought, 'Okay, don't let them into Gaza, they won't do anything about it,' but we did. We gave hope to the Egyptian people and to the Palestinian people as well. Despite the world being silent, they know that there are people out there willing to help them, and we will recruit more and continue our efforts to help them until we break the siege, end the occupation."

And an emergency room nurse, who was part of a delegation from a Middle Eastern country, told me, "We are all making history here. Each of us, now, must go back to our own countries and tell everyone what is happening here."

This is happening now, as participants in the Gaza Freedom March are speaking out and spreading the word of what we did, and learned.

In future installments of this series, I'll share the stories of people who participated in the Gaza Freedom March, their motivations, and lessons learned during experiences many of them had in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.

1. For first-hand documentation, from Zionist sources, of the origins of the state of Israel in the terrorist ethnic cleansing, see “The Nakba: Ethnic cleansing and the birth of Israel,” from A World to Win News Service, available at For a discussion of the role of Israel in the imperialist world order, see “Bringing Forward Another Way,” by Bob Avakian, particularly but not only the section “Israel and Its ‘Special Role’ in Relation to U.S. Imperialism.” That talk is available at [back]

2 For an analysis of how and why the Goldstone Report was suppressed by the U.N., see “Gaza UN report: The U.S. and Israel vs. the truth,” by A World to Win News Service. [back]

Schedule Alan Goodman to speak about his experiences at
Gaza Freedom March

Alan Goodman was a participant in the Gaza Freedom March on December 31, 2009 and is corresponding on the experience in Revolution newspaper.  He is currently available for "report-back" presentations that bring to life the critical situation for the people of Gaza one year after Israel's massacre, and the importance of the struggle to break the siege of Gaza.  Clips from the presentation are available at:

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