To Gaza and Beyond: Reflections on the Gaza Freedom March

Posted by CODEPINK Staff

This is a long story and includes some great links to other delegates’ blogs and articles.  I find inspiration in the basic story of the great uprising that has been building over the past six months, so I will first impart the short version.

The short version

In December, 2008, Israel bombs Gaza into rubble and blood; many, like myself, who have been more or less silent about Israel's occupation, can no longer turn away from this gross violation of basic human rights.  The destruction is so intense that it is obviously not a mere act of "self-defense."  The global community responds with actions, letters, calls to their leadership.  In June, 2009, a few American organizers with the women's peace group I work for, CODEPINK, get together with a few Palestinian organizers in Gaza and envision a massive nonviolent march to protest the siege.  The Americans reach out to their networks to spread the word hoping for a few hundred people to go to Gaza.

The response is overwhelming and almost 1,400 - as many as the number of Palestinians killed a year ago in Israel's assault on Gaza - people (including me!) from over 40 countries sign up for the march and fly into Cairo to go to Gaza.  Egypt says no.  The people say, "Let our people go (to Gaza)!"  They demonstrate in the streets, take over embassies, raise a ruckus in a country where uprisings are forbidden by the ruling dictatorship.  News that peaceful demonstrators cannot march in Egypt and cannot go to Gaza spreads like wildfire in the media throughout the globe.  In the US, some recall images of Freedom Riders in the South.  Hearing the news, many put politics aside to see the injustice of being unable to march - where is the democracy and freedom in the Middle Eastern country that receives the second (next to Israel) highest levels of financial support from the US?

The wife of the Egyptian dictator has heart and squeezes 100 marchers into Gaza via her humanitarian organization, the Red Crescent (the Middle Eastern version of the Red Cross).  Many marchers demand all go or no go and allow themselves to be fractured by indecision, lack of leadership (I wouldn’t call it lack of leadership, but divided leadership), and repressive governments.  People, mostly Palestinians with family in Gaza, humanitarian aid workers, and journalists, board the buses anyway.  I go on the bus with these people to support their trip logistics and to witness for myself the destruction in Gaza, searching for the keys to transformation, as an American Jew of Israeli descent.

In Gaza we visit orphanages, refugee camps, fishermen, bombed out neighborhoods, human rights groups, the main hospital, families in their homes.  We take part in a march to the border with Israel (at Erez) - it is not what was originally envisioned but it is nonviolent and while we march to the border, peaceful people in Israel march to that same wall!  And in the West Bank people march!  And in Cairo the internationals march even when beaten by the Egyptian police!  And all around the world in 130 cities throughout the week of the march people rise up and take action!

After the march the South African delegation in Cairo, recalling their own movement to overturn apartheid, lead negotiations to craft a new solidarity commitment.  It is called the Cairo Declaration and weaves a spell for continued action including boycotts and accountability for Israel's war criminals.  2010 begins not only with mourning over the devastating loss of life in Gaza one year ago, but also with powerful organizing for social change.  Many delegates on the trip are forever changed and return home to speak out at every opportunity.  Nothing had gone as planned.  God laughs at such plans anyway.  But everything that happened on this trip created a doorway to step through.

This is how the magic happens, as I learned from CODEPINK cofounder and spiritual activist Carolyn Casey: First hold up a mirror so you can see what is really happening and show others the alarming reality (this means go to the places of oppression or read real news or talk with people who have the facts and the stories).  Then turn the mirror into a window that shows what life could be like in a different way, with no bombing, with laughing children, with fertile strawberry fields, with surf, with Jews and Muslims together, with trust and acceptance.  Finally, transform the window into a doorway and invite people to step through it.  There are a thousand ways people are working for peace and justice in one of the most holy and sacred places on our little blue-green planet.  What will you do?

The beginning: Chant down Babylon

“Lift the siege of Gaza! Free Palestine!” young men are chanting as they slog through the muddy road and, noticing me holding out a plastic bag filled with square pink peace flags, crowd around to grab one.  The prayer flags quickly pepper the march with soft pink hues and the endearing messages of peace from kids and their grandparents, moms and daughters from all over America contrast with the loud chants coming from the rear of a pickup truck equipped with mega speakers and the mostly male march.  Other signs saying “Women Say Free Gaza” in English and Arabic and are also snatched up by the male marchers.  But men carrying signs speaking for women is not enough and I can’t stop wondering, “Where are the women?”

It’s the morning of New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2009, and I find myself sandwiched among a swiftly moving crowd of Palestinians in Gaza destined for the Erez border between Gaza and Israel.  After driving through the busy streets of Gaza City and witnessing bombed out buildings, demolished police stations, marketplaces filled with items that can only have been brought in through the tunnels – the lifeline of supplies that get through the siege – we’ve arrived at the march site and are being pushed out of a bus into a bustling crowd of marchers.  I’ve finally embarked on the action I flew halfway around the world to participate in: The Gaza Freedom March.

Rewind six months.
It’s mid-June and CODEPINK cofounder Medea Benjamin and I are driving a rental car through the Negev desert in southern Israel on our way to scope out the AHAVA cosmetics plant near the Dead Sea in the West Bank.  We’re on a mission to see first-hand if allegations that this Israeli-owned factory is illegally operating in a settlement north of the 1967 armistice (or green) line, and, after the past few hectic, hot, noisy days of facilitating protests at the Erez border for our peaceful delegation of Americans and Canadians (who had wanted to deliver playgrounds to kids in Gaza but were denied entry), we finally have a quiet moment together to catch up with each other.

I want to know how Medea’s last trip to Gaza was, what she saw and heard, and how she’s feeling about being a more vocal player in the movement for justice in Palestine.  Rewinding five months more I can trace the journey to the Negev: After Operation Cast Lead, the 22-day Israeli assault on Gaza in late December 2008, in which over 1,400 Palestinians, including some 300 children and hundreds of other unarmed civilians, were killed by Israeli forces, who also razed hospitals, schools and houses – Medea, like many in the global community, was shocked and horrified, and boarded the next flight to the Middle East with her stomach still churning.  So she and her trusted activist friends, Ret. Col. Ann Wright, and CODEPINK activist Tighe Barry, made a fearless 48-hour excursion into Gaza in February to bear witness to the destruction, gather stories, and find out what they could do to support the survivors of the brutal attack. They saw some of the over four thousand homes and eighty public buildings that were destroyed, and noted that much of Gaza’s vital infrastructure was wiped out.  They emerged determined to bring larger delegations to bring humanitarian aid, gather testimonies, and show solidarity.

In the course of 2009, CODEPINK helped organize seven trips to Gaza via Egypt. Each time it was a struggle to convince the Egyptians to let the groups in—since the border is technically closed. But with political pressure from US Congresspeople and grassroots support, the groups managed to break the siege and get inside.  The first large delegation was a group of over 60 people who traveled to Gaza and delivered thousands of pink gift baskets to women on International Women’s Day in March, 2009.  Alice Walker wrote a profound piece on her experience on this delegation, and reading Alice’s writing about Gaza, I was changed forever.  Alice had just lost an older sister before going on the trip. Israel's clobbering of sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, mothers and fathers, along with the incidental Hamas militant, made her feel a connection to the people in Gaza.

Medea co-led a delegation to Gaza immediately before this delegation in Israel and as we zoom through the desert she describes that trip.  She tells me about the meetings she and writer/lecturer Norman Finkelstein had with Hamas officials who drafted a letter to President Obama that she and the CODEPINK delegation then tried to hand-deliver to the US Embassy in Cairo at the time of Obama’s first major speech in the region.  Throughout these negotiations and in their meetings with Palestinian civil society groups, the idea arose to do something bigger than bring in humanitarian delegations that brought supplies, stood witness to the wanton destruction, and made new friends.  They wanted to do something that would show the people of Gaza, on the anniversary of the invasion, that they were not alone.

The idea?  A massive non-violent march in Gaza demanding that the crippling siege be lifted. Conceived in the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi, the plan for the Gaza Freedom March was to attempt to enter Gaza via Egypt on the one-year anniversary of the Israeli assault.  Once in Gaza the international delegation would meet with human rights groups and civil society activists and bear witness to the continuing devastation. What better time to coordinate this action than one year after the Israeli assault? Since that time, the Israeli military has maintained a siege on Gaza, preventing materials, medicines, food and consumer goods from entering or leaving.  To draw international awareness to the horrific conditions in Gaza, on New Year’s Eve day, December 31, we’d be joined by tens of thousands of Gazans in a nonviolent march to the Israeli border at Erez, to demand the siege be lifted.  Simultaneous marches would take place on the Israel side of the Erez border and in the West Bank, and throughout the week solidarity marches, rallies, and vigils would occur in cities throughout the world.

Once I heard this idea, it seemed to flood the sparse desert landscape flashing by the car window with vivid color.  The few Bedouin huts and camels became thousands of people marching on both sides of a concrete wall, big peace doves and colorful banners overhead, all with one cohesive message for basic human rights: Lift the Siege!

Rewind six years. In college, I had studied Gandhi’s nonviolent movement in India, and my mentor was a professor who had retraced the Salt March himself and become an expert scholar on nonviolence.  At a university where fireside chats focused on such preposterously academic questions as “What constitutes a Just War?” this professor’s classes were a refreshing dose of hope and sanity, to say the least, and I had fallen in love with Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and the redemptive autobiography of Malcolm X.  The march in Gaza sounded like an excellent way to put theory into action.

Plus, growing up in a Jewish family with immigrant parents (both the children of WWII/Holocaust survivors and one born in Israel to a family that included one of Israel’s first conscientious objectors), I felt I had a vested stake in creating peace in the Middle East and wanted to be part of actions that went beyond fist-raising-side-taking-all-out-shouting-matches.  I wanted to live the change, be the dream, and all that other Gandhi-King rhetoric that is so awe-inspiring and true.  As Starhawk wrote in her blog, “I was raised to love Israel… a dream come true, a miraculous salvation from the grief and terror of the Holocaust… But I was also raised to love justice, not tyranny—no matter who the tyrants profess to be.  Without justice for the Palestinians, there can be no security or peace for Israelis.” I also relate to what Saria Idana, a fierce artist and sister Yid who recently spent time learning in Palestine, wrote: "As a result of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and as an American woman with a Jewish cultural identity and the privileges that come with being a white Jewish woman, I feel a simultaneous sense of being at home in Israel and of being a guest in a home where I am overstepping the hospitality of my hosts."

Medea and I completed our recon assignment at the Ahava mineral mud products factory (only to find all our worst assumptions about this company confirmed) and returned to our delegation, which as aforementioned had spent four days protesting at the Erez border to Gaza but were denied entry to deliver playgrounds to children.  Realizing we would not get in, we headed up to Tel Aviv and launched our international boycott of Ahava by getting muddy in our bikinis and effectively shutting down the flagship store inside the seaside Hilton for the afternoon.  A year before this I could not have predicted that I, a feminist and a Jew, would be standing bikini-clad in this shi-shi Tel Aviv store and shutting it down!  But bearing witness to the wanton destruction of families and homes in Gaza, and seeing the wall between the West Bank and Israel up close, changed me.  I signed on to boycott illegally made Israeli products because I had always supported human rights, and these companies were in violation of those rights.

A few days after this action we were on the plane headed home to the States where Medea hit the ground running to develop the Gaza Freedom March idea with Norman and others in the movement.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: The Makings of a March

From the start, the march was riddled with challenges, largely because it was focusing on an issue to which every organization and individual has very different ideas about changing.  There’s a saying, “Two Jews, three opinions.” (which is attributed to Israel’s founding father, David Ben Gurion, but has roots that go way back to Moses I am sure!)  It may be apropos to say, “Two organizers, three solutions and four arguments against them.”  But the organizers of the Gaza Freedom March didn’t give up, and wove into the thread of common unity – lifting the siege -- the background of Palestinian resistance and the additional calls for external economic and political pressure to be applied on Israel.  Though Norman ultimately bowed out of the organizing team, the momentum picked up and an incredible coalition came together to coordinate the march.

Endorsing organizations numbered in the hundreds and include American Friends Service Committee, Jewish Voice for Peace, the Union of Palestinian Workers and many civil society groups in Palestine, the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, Free Gaza Movement, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Middle East Children's Alliance, National Lawyer's Guild, United for Peace and Justice, most major Palestinian unions, Students for Palestine, War Resisters Leauge, Yesh G'vul in Israel, Veterans for Peace, and, of course, CODEPINK Women for Peace. Individual endorsers include author Alice Walker, Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire and Dr. Patch Adams. For a complete list, visit here.

The response to the idea was overwhelming. With no assurance of even getting into Gaza, people all over the world started signing up to meet in Cairo. As word spread over the internet, hundreds and hundreds more signed on. When the coalition finally cut off registration, 1,362 people from 43 countries were signed up! Delegations from Japan to India, from Australia to South Africa would travel to Egypt.  Judges, doctors, rabbis, priests, students, seniors, and even an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor would march.

The morning after co-hosting a fundraiser in SF for student scholarships and humanitarian aid for the Gaza Freedom March, I woke up and knew with undoubted certainty that I needed to joint the march too.  My best friend, Ariel Vegosen, a seasoned peace-worker, a dear friend Elizabeth Palmer, and I signed on, fundraised, and booked our tickets.  Our CODEPINK SF Intern, Marina Barakatt, CODEPINK cofounder Jodie Evans, and I took on coordinating the women’s contingent for the march.  We put out some outreach letters to women who had signed up for the march and built a group of marchers who wanted to meet with women’s groups in Gaza and march as women in solidarity.

In the busy weeks leading up the march, all CODEPINK staff were on deck to support the march.  We were writing email alerts, hosting conference calls, processing trip fees and donations, gathering delegate info… all the unseen trappings of the organizing that goes into a project of this magnitude.   Meanwhile in Cairo, two fearless and brilliant activists, CODEPINK activist Tighe Barry and Ret. Col. Ann Wright were working day and night to facilitate the march logistics, lay the groundwork for the massive delegation’s arrival, and communicating with the Egyptian and Gazan governments – with Egypt, to get us into Gaza and with Hamas, to ensure that the march was a civil society initiative, between people on both sides of the border, and not between internationals and government.

All Aboard?

Just as everyone was preparing to leave for Cairo, we were shocked to hear the Egyptians say they would not let us into Gaza.  But the marchers were determined and would not accept no for an answer.  We boarded the planes, determined to push forward.  In the days leading up to the march I had been lighting the menorah nightly with my parents and partner in observance of Chanukah.  I was hopeful that there would be a miracle – like the story of the candles burning for eight days – and all of us would be let into Gaza.  I was also thinking critically about holiday gifts and the real miracle of olive oil, and wrote a piece highlighting our Ahava boycott and my personal decision to invest in socially responsible and sustainable beauty goodies for friends, like Dr. Bronners soaps.

The night of Christmas I boarded the plane, thinking there was a real possibility that for the first time in my life I might actually see Santa Claus.  As the plane descended into Cairo there was still no sight of sleigh or reindeer, but I did see for the first time what smog looks like at night; the city was veiled in a yellow haze that seemed to illuminate the night sky like smoke in a dim bar.  We hopped in a taxi and zoomed off to downtown Cairo where we checked in at the 6th floor lobby of the dingy, smoke-clouded Lotus Hotel; little did we know we had just arrived at what would blossom into ground zero for the march in the days ahead.

The next morning we awoke to the news of the ever-evolving reality of what negotiating with a dictatorship means.  Not only had the Egyptian government denied the entire delegation – 1, 362 people! – access into Gaza, but they officially cancelled our buses and would not allow us to gather in a central agreed-upon meeting spot (a Jesuit school) for the whole group orientation on Sunday evening, December 27.  Adjusting rapidly to reality, we made an alternate plan, which GFM delegate and San Jose Peace and Justice Center president Sharat Lin describes well in his article:

The day began with a silent action, tying letter cards expressing solidarity to the people of Gaza to the railings of the Qasr el-Nil Bridge. Many Egyptian passersby stopped to add their own messages of friendship to the people of Gaza and Palestine. When police finally broke up the vigil, they ripped the cards off, leaving only the strings by which they were attached.

In the late afternoon, a plan to sail in dozens of feluccas (traditional Nile sailboats) was aborted by police, who closed off an entire section of the Cornish el-Nil where the feluccas are docked. The purpose of going onto the Nile River was to float 1,400 candles in biodegradable cups in memory of the Palestinians who died in the Israel assault one year ago. Gaza Freedom March delegates held their candlelight vigil anyway along the busy Cornish el-Nil street.

Starhawk wrote about this action:

A knot of activists were surrounded by a thicket of cameras.  The police were blocking us from getting on the boats, and shut down the rental place.  But we gathered, a group of several hundred, which we had been expressly forbidden to do.  Medea Benjamin, one of the Code Pink leaders, jumped up and made an impromptu speech.  “Who here wants to take a boat on the Nile, like tourists do?” she asked.  Everyone raised their hands.  “Who here wants to go to Gaza?”  The crowd began cheering and unfurling banners and chanting “Free Gaza!”  We lit our candles in cups and held them aloft.  The French, with a huge contingent of 300, demanded that their ambassador negotiate their entry into Gaza and when he was unsuccessful, they set up camp outside the Embassy, turning it into a bastion of solidarity that likes of which Egyptians had never seen before!

What follows is another excerpt from Sharat’s article:

The more than 300-strong French delegation had gathered in front of the French Embassy in Giza, expecting to board buses for El-Arish. When the buses failed to arrive because their permits had been pulled, the delegates in a courageous act of defiance sat down in the busy four northbound lanes of Murad Street and set up tents. Hundreds of riot police from the Central Security Force were mobilized to enclose the protesters and move them onto the footpath in front of the French Embassy. Not knowing what the police would ultimately do, there was a great deal of fear at the beginning of the action. At one point the security force cordon increased to three layers. However, the French ambassador was apparently supportive, discouraging Egyptian authorities from using force and pressing for permits to travel to Gaza. Towards the end, the security cordon was relaxed, allowing anyone to freely enter and exit the encampment. The encampment lasted continuously for four days.

French delegate, Amar Aknouche, said he decided to join the Gaza Freedom March because of the injustice in Palestine. He noted, “Israel is the only ‘democracy’ which goes and kills children and erects an apartheid wall. I came here to express my solidarity with Gaza”

In the evening of that first night on December 27, when we were supposed to be having our first meeting indoors together, we held an outdoor gathering that looked more like a rally sans bullhorn.  Our attempts to hold peaceful vigils were met with riot police, barricades and scores of secret police.  All this and the first technical day of the Gaza Freedom March had not even begun!

Uniting Nations, Stringing Flags, and Delivering Dinner

We descended upon the United Nations asking them to intercede.  A negotiating team led by Philippine parliament member Walden Bello met with U.N. officials, but to no avail.  The Egyptian riot police arrived quickly and surrounded our group of several hundred delegates.  Tighe escaped to get water for everyone.  Lisa Fithian gathered representatives from each affinity group or region into a spokes council meeting to strategize on next steps.  Meanwhile a group of faith-based activists were singing, drumming and walking in a circle while another group was assembling a tent to bring in solidarity with the French and add the “camp-out” element.  Another group was waving a massive Palestinian flag – which had just days before been draped over one of the pyramids – up and down as if it were a parachute on a schoolyard.

The South Africans arrived and unfurled their beautiful, large labor union banner.
We held up signs, drank bottled water, and waited.

Kids in the US made peace flags for the marchWe gathered the women’s contingent together and began stringing peace prayer flags together.  The hundreds of peace flags had been made by kids, grandparents, and activists from all over the US.  Then some of the women’s contingent decided to try to reach the US Embassy before they closed, and left in taxis.  Our meeting with guards there laid the foundation for a meeting the next day (which turned into a hostage situation – read on!).  After the Embassy visit Tighe and I returned to the UN encampment with sacks of hot food for the protesters, but when we tried to deliver dinner, the Egyptian police reacted!  As I was lifting the bags from the trunk of the taxi on the curb, a police officer slammed the trunk down, hitting my head, and ordered the taxi away.  The taxi sped off fearfully with all our food, and inshallah, his family ate well that night!

Meeting Holocaust Survivor Hedy Epstein

85-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein began a hunger strike, and sat in the center of the group with a sign on her chest announcing that she was hunger striking.  Hedy said, “My message is for the world governments to wake up and treat Israel like they treat any other country and not to be afraid to reprimand and criticize Israel for its violent policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians.”  Being that I am the descendant of Holocaust and WWII survivors on both sides of my family, meeting Hedy was a very moving moment.  The courage of her convictions, which shone through her wrinkled face and determined smile, rose above the occasion of the riot police, the smog, the internal disarray.  32 other delegates joined Heddy in her hunger strike.  I later emailed Rabbi Rosen in Chicago who co-founded the Jewish Fast for Gaza and he emailed back to say they would do a solidarity fast.  In San Francisco CODEPINKers Nancy and Leslie coordinated a solidarity fast too.

During the action, people were constantly filming, tweeting, updating their Facebook pages, and snapping photos.  There were moments when there were more cameras out than activists!  Documentation of the March was tremendous and word (and images) of the scene in Cairo spread throughout the world quickly.  Al-Jazeera covered the march extensively and for several consecutive days Amy Goodman interviewed march organizers on Democracy Now!  The actions were highlighted in a piece in the New York Times.  But by far the biggest press coverage was not in the US mainstream media, but in the European news, where networks in Italy, Spain, and France carried daily updates on their citizens who were in the streets of Cairo demanding entry to Gaza and an end to the siege.  (Photo below featured in Tehran Times.)

Back in the US we encouraged people to keep calling the Egyptian embassies and the US State Department and pressuring them to let us in.  We even set up an email letter tool the week before the march that went straight to an Egyptian Foreign Minister’s inbox, causing much upset when thousands of emails started pouring in.  And delegates from other countries urged their communities back at home to do the same and apply pressure to the Egyptians and to their own heads of state to approach the Egyptians.

Meanwhile dozens of marchers embarked on buses headed towards the Rafah border, in hopes of getting as close as possible or even getting in.  Groups began leaving the previous Friday and continued peeling away from Cairo, at first as very obvious foreigners, and then, once the Egyptian police started turning people back, in more incognito ways, the women covering their heads, and the groups trying to hire Bedouin taxis to speedily get them through the many checkpoints along the way.

Kathleen and her finished mosaic in California

Two of the travelers to Al-Arish were Kathleen Crocetti and her husband Bill Lucas, a couple from Watsonville, CA, who I had met at the SF airport.  Kathleen is an artist and teacher who dedicated hundreds of hours of her time before the trip to creating a mosaic mural depicting freedom marchers with a starry sky above – one star for each Palestinian killed a year ago in Operation Cast Lead.  Kathleen trucked that mural on the airplane and then in various buses and taxis to Al-Arish, where the Egyptian police found her out and put her and her husband, and many other internationals, under house arrest.  Kathleen recorded her exciting adventures and amazing encounter with a sympathetic man, who happened to be the police officer in charge of guarding her from escaping, here.

By the end of the day on Monday, December 28, we had covered a lot of ground, but still hadn’t stepped foot in Gaza.  Starhawk summed it up best:

Our situation is ironically biblical—never have I understood the story of Exodus so well.  The irony is that in the story, it’s the Israelites petitioning Pharoah to let them go, packing their bags each time he indicates ‘yes’, unpacking them when he changes his mind and says ‘no’, ten times until in the end they leave in such haste they have no time to let the bread rise.  Now, it’s the Israelites, or at least, most likely, the Israelis applying political pressure to the Egyptians to refuse us entry into Gaza.  Indeed, even leaving Cairo has become problematic.  Small groups have made their way to el Arish, but most have been stopped, some pulled from taxis, others sent back in buses from checkpoints.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

On Tuesday morning we again went into full-swing action mode.  We wrote an appeal to President Mubarak and delivered it to his palace. We sent a delegation to ask for help from the Arab League.  We attempted to visit the US Embassy, where we were again surrounded by riot police and basically held hostage by the US government (read Ali Abunimah’s account of the action here). The women’s contingent appealed to Mrs. Mubarak.

Before leaving the states, we had reached out to Mrs. Mubarak, wife of Egyptian premiere Hosni Mubarak. She had interceded on our behalf when we were having the same experience with the Egyptian government in March, when they refused to let our buses take us to Al Arish. In March, we were all able to enter and deliver the thousands of pink baskets of aid to the women of Gaza for International Women’s Day.  So naturally this time we again appealed to the First Lady.  CODEPINK cofounder Jodie Evans led the delegation that approached Mrs. Mubarak, and she recounts her efforts in her blog post, “No Stone Unturned”:

This morning, I went to Mrs. Mubarak’s offices at the Women’s International Peace Movement to ask for her help again in opening the border of Gaza for our delegation. Her program manager was quite helpful and delivered a copy of the email thousands had been sending all weekend from the states, translated into Arabic.

Just hours later, an assistant from the office of the First Lady called, and said Mrs. Mubarak wanted to help us: Could I describe what we were taking and what we needed? I told her we needed the 1,300 to be allowed to enter Gaza and deliver the aid we had brought from thousands more who cared deeply for the situation the Gazans are suffering under.

Just an hour later, the head of the Red Crescent (of which she is Chair) called and said he had been instructed to help us in any way he could. He would send a car for me at 11 a.m. the following day and we would go over all the details of who was with us and what they were bringing. Mrs. Mubarak would take the information to the Foreign Ministry.

The Emperor has No Clothes… Except Riot Armor!

After the days of protests and the intervention of First Lady Mrs. Mubarak, a small group of 100 was allowed to enter Gaza for 3 days.  Trying to equitably and fairly create a 100-person delegation from a group of 1,000 was near-impossible, especially since we had only mere hours to do it.  The challenge of lack of ability to gather centrally and to communicate (between organizers and delegation leaders, and with delegates themselves) was acute.  We crunched numbers to find proportional representation from each region and contingent and prioritized people who had not been to Gaza before.  Calls, emails, and hotel-to-hotel meetings resulted in an all-out frenzy of activists clamoring to get their names on the special “chosen” list.  Never during all the pleas to get on the list did I hear someone ask, “Who among us most needs to get into Gaza?” or “What is the most strategic and important group to send, such as journalists, medics, or Palestinians?” or “What do the organizers in Gaza advise?”

Amidst this flurry of (mis)communications, some delegations started pulling out from the mini-delegation, seeing it not as a small step forward but instead as a big step back.  Ironically, many members from almost all of those delegations ultimately went to Gaza.  I learned a lot from the whole process about communication and coordination in a coalition.

Walden Bello wrote about this dilemma and debacle for his piece on Foreign Policy in Focus:

Two days of pressure – including a campout at the French embassy that was tolerated if not covertly supported by the embassy staff and a rally at the World Trade Center that houses the UN offices – pushed the Egyptian government to a compromise brokered by Susan Mubarak, wife of the country’s president:  a representative delegation of 100 people would be allowed to cross the border into Gaza.  Under the circumstances, many people, including myself, felt this was best deal we could get. Code Pink, the key group behind the march, began to pick 100 people to form the delegation, taking pains to ensure representation by country and organization.

It proved to be too good to be true.  The steering committee of the GFM initially endorsed the plan.  However, in a meeting that went till 4 am on December 30, the steering committee consensus fell apart.  One reasons was that the Egyptian foreign ministry released a statement characterizing the 100 that were going as the “good elements” of the GFM while the “bad ones” were those left in Cairo.  To some, this was government propaganda that needed to be taken in stride and not allowed to disrupt the Gaza mission.  To others, it called into question the legitimacy of the convoy.

It was, however, too late to get word of the lack of consensus to the handpicked 100 who had started assembling, along with others who still had hopes of getting into the buses, as early as 6 a.m. near the Isis Hotel at the foot of the October 6 Bridge near Tahrir Square.  By 8 a.m., a group had gathered at the departure point shouting epithets at those in the buses, calling us “divisive,” “traitors,” or “collaborators with the Egyptian government.”  These participants in the Gaza Freedom March were demonstrating against those of us who were supposed to represent them in Gaza!  That we were a solidarity delegation put together to help break Israel’s siege of Gaza was completely forgotten.  We were suddenly vilified as pawns of the Egyptian government.

I had seldom witnessed a more awful display of naive, misguided politics.  The protesters actually thought that the 100-person delegation compromise was a sell-out and that by holding tough they could get the authoritarian Egyptian government to relent and allow all 1,362 of us to march into Gaza.  What planet did these people think they were on?”

While getting the two buses from the Egyptian government proved to be divisive and chaos-causing, it also shone a spotlight on Egypt’s lies.  The reason the Egyptian government had given for denying us 1,400 people entry into Gaza was security.  They said it was unsafe to cross the Rafah border at this time.  Now, why is it safe for 100 but not for 1,000?

When the Egyptians gave the okay for 100 to go, they instructed Jodie to give them a list of the people by a specific time so they could approve them.  They then allegedly screened each person and came back to us to say that everyone was green lighted to go.  But the next morning was a total chaos, with people shouting at each other and trying to convince one another to not go on the buses.  Do you remember the scene in the children’s book, The Sneetches, by Dr. Seuss, where Sneetches are going in one machine to get stars, and then jumping in another to get their stars removed from their bellies, all with hopes of fitting in and being right?  Well, that is what it looked like, and Sylvester McBean was replaced by the Egyptian security guards.

At any rate, once the dust settled, there were 86 people aboard two buses and they most definitely did not match the names on the original list given to the Egyptians.  But the Egyptian security seemed not to care at all!  Though they had scrutinized the passports of the original 100 who got on the buses, once people started off-boarding and others boarded, they let anyone get on the buses.  The people that were on the bus were quite a diverse group from dozens of countries around the world.  We even had citizens of Turkey and people from Lebanon and originally from Palestine, though the Egyptians had said no Middle Easterners could go!  Incidentally, we also had a huge delegation of French women, despite that France had pulled out of the offer.  11 of the delegates to Gaza were from the Bay Area.  Most were journalists, like Amira Hass, or Palestinians, like Adil Abu Lebdeh who was going home to Gaza for the first time since he was four years old, or videographers, like Konda Mason. I got on the bus to support Tighe and Kit with trip logistics and to witness for myself the destruction in Gaza, searching for the keys to transformation, as an American Jew of Israeli descent.  And then we were pulling away from the chaos in the streets, Ariel and I holding hands and peering out the window as the golden yellow city whirred past.  We were destined for Gaza at last.

I will never know if it was the “right” thing to do to go on the bus or to stay behind.  I think at that point we were beyond right and wrong and I was thinking practically.  But I do know that powerful action took place in Gaza and in Cairo, and important relationships were forged on both sides of the Rafah border.

The Gaza Freedom March, Sort of

After a full day of traveling and waiting at the border, we reached Gaza City by about eleven at night on December 30 and had a very late dinner before checking everyone into two hotels.  (Photo below shows truck piled with humanitarian aid we brought into Gaza.)

Upon arrival we learned that the civil society groups had pulled out of the Gaza Freedom March, which was scheduled for the morning of the next day.  Acclaimed Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who traveled with us into Gaza, published this account of the march in an article in Ha’aretz:

Hijacked or poorly organized?  The march was not what the organizers had dreamed of during the nine months of preparation. The day before the trip to Gaza, they already knew that the non-governmental organizations had backed out. Some people said that Hamas government representatives had found the NGOs did not have a clear, organized plan for the guests and therefore had taken the initiative. One Palestinian activist insisted: "When we heard there would only be 100, we canceled everything."

Another said, "From the outset, Hamas set conditions: No more than 5,000 marchers, no approaching the wall and the fence, how to make speeches, how long the speeches should be, who will make speeches. In short, Hamas hijacked the initiative from us and we gave in."

Hamas, or its Popular Committee, brought 200 or 300 marchers. The march turned into nothing more than a ritual, an opportunity for Hamas cabinet ministers to get decent media coverage in the company of Western demonstrators. Especially photogenic were four Americans from the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jewish group Neturei Karta, who joined the trip only at Al Arish. There were no Palestinian women among the marchers - a slap to the many feminist organizers and participants, both women and men.

Women in a van at the Gaza Freedom March

There were in fact some women in the march, only they were cornered off at the back of the mass and crammed into large vans.  A group of young women on the delegation and I all converged at a point in the back with the same question, “Where are the women?”  We found them then in a van at the back of the march.  The van slowed down so we thought it was an open invitation to jump in, which we did.  Sandwiched in the van we showed each other our banners and gave out “Women say Free Gaza!” pink pin-on squares.  After going only a few yards, the van stopped and let everyone out.  But no sooner had we began marching with the women and taking a few photos together than the women were all told to get back into the van, which they did.  So we followed too, to the dismay of the guards.  Once loaded the van sped off and neared the front of the march, and then, remarkably, we were again all allowed off the van, and we were able to march arm-in-arm, woman-to-woman, the rest of the way.  We found out that the women belonged to a teachers’ union.

At the end of the march there was a large press conference where some of our delegates spoke.  Then our international delegation pushed on beyond the line where Palestinians are allowed to go, and went another 100 yards toward the Erez border (which lay about a quarter mile from the final Gaza wall).  Our delegation sang freedom songs, held out peace flags, and sat down on the border for several minutes in solemn observance of the siege and the looming wall in the distance.  After the march concluded we did a live Al-Jazeerah interview and then were herded back onto the buses. While we were excited to have discovered sisters-in-struggle in the march, and the feeling of pushing on a bit past the first border was exhilarating, we were still dismayed with the overall low turn-out, the lack of strong civil society groups, and the near-lack of women.

Nonetheless, we had taken part in a march to the border with Israel at Erez, and though it was not what was originally envisioned, it was nonviolent and while we marched to the border, peaceful people in Israel marched to that same wall!  And all around the world at roughly the same time, people held 130 solidarity actions that focused world attention on the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza. Arabs and Jews marched on the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza; there were rallies in Bethlehem and Ramallah on the West Bank and in Tel Aviv.  People marched across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, they flew kites for Gaza in Afghanistan, they held a candlelight vigil on the Bundesplatz in Bern. From Australia to South Korea to Japan, the world community cried: “Free Gaza; Lift the Siege.”  The report backs – with photos, videos and news links – are quite inspiring.

GFM Action in Switzerland

Amira Hass continued her piece as follows:

After the march, the guests voiced protests to some of the official Palestinian organizers. "We came to demonstrate against the siege, and we found that we ourselves were under siege," they said. Their variegation and the transparency of their behavior did not suit the military discipline the official hosts tried to impose. The officials listened, and after the reins were loosened a bit, I set out to visit the homes of friends.

There people described the lingering fear from the Israeli onslaught. Saturday afternoon, at 11:30 A.M. - the time of the first aerial bombardments - remains today a sensitive hour for many children. Just as thunderstorms, or electricity failures (an everyday occurrence) or a persistent drone flying above cause anxiety and evoke nightmarish memories.

Some of the marchers were now allowed to go out on their own, with Gazan acquaintances they had previously known only via telephone and e-mail. Some, especially the Arabic-speakers, complained that "a shadow in the shape of a security man" continued to accompany them. In quick "safari" tours of bombed neighborhoods, through bus windows, they saw ruins that had not yet been cleared, like the complex of bombed-out government buildings that are still standing - ugly concrete skeletons with empty rooms and no walls, like screaming mouths.

That night after the march we were invited to ring in the New Year with Palestinian friends who had arranged a hip-hop concert.  We started the evening with a candlelight vigil - our delegation gathered with dozens of students and we rapidly distributed candles to all who wanted.  We lit one candle and then lit each other's candles.  The young guys kept blowing their candles out and relighting them.  All the boys clamoured to take photos with us on cell phone cameras.  Mond and I stood on a garden wall and made a blessing for peace, an acknowledgement of the suffering of the past year, an affirmation of hope and friendship.  The vigil became a cypher circle of hip hop and then the bigger concert began.  We danced, shared stories, made new friends, and had a chance to speak on stage.  Hamas rushed us back to the hotel before midnight so we actually celebrated the countdown to the new year in a big circle in the hotel lobby.  Below is a photo of Palestinian hip-hop group, DARG Team who celebrated the emergence of 2010 with us.

Bearing Witness and Stuffing Backpacks

Though upon arrival in Gaza we were greeted by a very kind and articulate Hamas representative from the Ministry of Education, our overall experience with the Hamas government in Gaza was turbulent at best.  They watched our every move and tried whenever possible to restrict our movement and only show us what they wanted to see.  Most important to them seemed to be keeping us from talking with anyone.  But of course, we weaseled our ways out of their grasp and met with many people and groups.

The two days we spent in Gaza were a flurry of activity as everyone was trying to do, see, and connect as much as possible in our extremely limited time.  In Gaza we visited orphanages, refugee camps, fishermen, bombed out neighborhoods, human rights groups, the main hospital, families in their homes.  Because we had not scheduled itinerary, we invented the plans throughout the day, sending small delegations out to sites whenever a bus and guide were ready to go.  And on occasion Gazan activists came to us.  A professor came to the hotel and offered to lead a small group to visit NGOs and sites.  Two representatives of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) came to speak with us at the hotel and ended up giving the group a full evening presentation on their work.

The Hamas officials governing our agenda arranged for a soccer game between our delegation and the Gaza national team, Al-Jazeerah.  Our delegates were whisked away from their orphanage visit, much to many people’s dismay, and bused to a massive soccer stadium for the game.  We assembled a team with our white Gaza Freedom March shirts as a uniform, but once out on the field, half our players were told they could not play!  We were informed that it is against Palestinian “culture” to have women playing soccer with men.  Our team huddled, frustrated and unsure what to do next.  We ultimately decided to play two games – a shorter game with men from our delegation vs. the Gaza team, and then a co-ed match between us internationals.  We also told the government officials that if we were going to take the women off the field, our team would be at a serious disadvantage, and thus needed a 2-point starting lead.  A few chuckles and the negotiation was over, and then a long ceremony thanking us for coming to Gaza commenced.

Nuha Masri speaks to the soccer players and officials

We were each given wool scarves with a kefiya and Palestinian flag design.  We were given the mike to speak and Nuha Masri, a young feisty Palestinian-American student from UC Berkeley, spoke articulately, describing our delegation, our reason for coming to Gaza, our desire to help lift the siege, and our hope that next time we returned to Gaza, women and men would play soccer together!  The ball was soon in the air and after 35 minutes Al-Jazeera declared victory, 3-2.

Our delegation took a fishing boat out on the open waters, where we could make out Israeli ships in the distance, encroaching day by day closer in on waters that used to be free fishing areas for the Palestinian fishermen.  I was shocked to learn how much smaller the Gaza fishing zone had gotten in recent years.  GFM delegate Sharat Lin wrote an excellent piece about this recently.

All in all, we delivered humanitarian aid, marched with Palestinians, witnessed the devastation, met with local groups and brought back their stories.

Shattered Glass, Creating Hope

“I have come to rebuild what has been shattered.  To rebuild love.” – Thich Nhat Hahn

When asking, “Why Gaza?” GFM delegate Kathleen Crocetti responded like this:

Why Gaza? This past summer I went to the CODEPINK Peace Conference in Cambria. Medea Benjamin told the story of one of her visits to Gaza, it went something like this: A destitute Palestinian woman living in a tent invited Medea in for tea and told her that she had a souvenir from the USA. When Medea asked to see it she was shown a piece of the shrapnel that destroyed this woman's house and killed her husband and children. Stamped right on the twisted chard of metal was "Made in the USA".  It could have said "Sent by Kathleen" and I would not have felt any worse.  Later when Medea asked me if I would go to Gaza and make a memorial for them I did not have to think twice about it. Yes, I'm going.

Kathleen is a community artist, activist and teacher in Watsonville, California.  She approached the creation of the memorial with reverence for the process of co-creation across the borders, and spent a lot of time – and email exchanges – going back and forth with artists in Gaza and basing her design on an image from PCHR.  Read her account of the artistic process here.

Kathleen and team install the mosaic in Gaza City

The final image was of a diverse group of freedom marchers underneath a starry sky, 1,400 stars, to be exact, one for each Palestinian killed during Operation Cast Lead.  Once the design for the large mosaic was firm, Kathleen and dozens of other artist friends in the Santa Cruz area set to work piecing it all together.  Kathleen based her piece on a poem by Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shahib-Nye which goes like this:

My Grandmother in the Stars

It is possible we will not meet again
on earth. To think this fills my throat
with dust. Then there is only the sky
tying the universe together.

Where we live in the world
is never one place. Our hearts,
those dogged mirrors, keep flashing us
moons before we are ready for them.
You and I on a roof at sunset,
our two languages adrift,
heart saying, Take this home with you,
never again,
and only memory making us rich.

After reading this poem, I became instantly moved by Kathleen’s particular contribution to the march, namely for two reasons: In 2009, almost immediately after Operation Cast Lead, my own grandmother died, leaving behind a trail of family bitterness, pieces of incomplete stories from her life in Holland and Missouri, and memories of crafty moments from my childhood.  Secondly, the way I survived a home in which dishware, wine bottles, and fine china were routinely hurled across the kitchen and smashed into smithereens amidst episodes of drunkenness, was to learn how to make mosaics, piecing the tiny shards together to make beautiful vases and spiraled tiles, creating from the rubble.  The idea of this type of transformative art writ large moved me to tears.

Les reads messages from American kids to kids in Gaza while preparing backpacks of supplies for delivery

Of course Kathleen could not be content just bringing a massive mural to Gaza.  She also had her middle school students make pencil cases with red, green, and black duct tape for kids in Gaza.  Into each one the American students put a letter to a Palestinian student and inserted their school photo.  When we later stuffed the backpacks with school supplies for kids in the refugee camps, we read some of these little stories out loud – each one sweet and moving.  (In the above photo Les reads some of the letters from American kids to kids in Gaza as we assembled the backpacks).

Kathleen’s journey to bring these artistic gifts to Gaza was not easy.  She had been one of the early delegates to depart for Al-Arish, where she, her husband, Bill, and the glass mural were held hostage for days, under hotel arrest.  Finally she and Bill were able to board the buses for Gaza along with about twenty other delegates who were camped out, and stuck, in Al-Arish, and Kathleen’s mural made it into Gaza.  As Ariel pointed out, “Glass entering Gaza is a small miracle considering Israel will not allow glass in and many houses remain windowless. For a while Israel would not even allow pasta in (because you know, you might make a bomb out of pasta). And yet people got creative and with so little they create so much smuggling goods in through tunnels; every bottle of water I bought still had dirt on it.”

Once we were in Gaza, Kathleen immediately went to work to install the mural on the whitewash wall outside the main university in Gaza City.  She discovered that part of the Arabic translation of the poem was incorrect and had to redo that section late at night.  Hamas security guards were ordered to sit up with us until all were asleep, and so forced to sit with this artist in the wee hours of the night, they started to help her piece it together.  During the daylight hours Kathleen was supported by any number of Gazan passersby who stopped to talk and help.  Someone even volunteered to paint the text of the full poem on the sides of the mural.

One day I went to get lunch for Kathleen and the mural crew.  I asked a taxi driver where his favorite place was and we drove all the way across town to a small falafel and shwarma shop.  I ordered several sandwiches, fries, and an assortment of the kinds of Mediterranean salads that I grew up eating.  I asked the cook, Mohammad, where he was from and he said, “I’m a New Yorker!”  He then told me his life story: He grew up in Gaza and then emigrated to Canada where he got a work permit and a girlfriend.  At his girlfriend’s request, he moved to New York City where, in 2001, he was living in his own apartment, had a car, and worked in construction at a good paying job.  In fact, he lived on 125th Street in Manhattan, right around the corner from where my apartment was in 2001.  Effectively, I had just met a former neighbor, in Gaza.  After the 9/11 attack, when Islamophobia was on the rise and people were staring to get suspicious of each other, a neighbor phoned ICE and reported Mohammad.  He had some issues with his work visa and because of this he was sent to prison for six years.  After that he was sentenced to be deported, and was flown on a private plane (austensibly for security reasons) back to Jordan, from which he was taken to Gaza and now remains.  He said he is still fighting the charges with the US government and hopes to win his case.  There are thousands of other innocent people just like Mohammad facing similar charges and deportation.  This is one of the great gifts of any war on “-ism”; just as McCarthy’s policies turned against anyone who fit the communist stereotype, so too the Bush doctrine hardens hearts against those who seem to fit the terrorist stereotype, leading to rampant racism and almost unchecked violations of basic rights and democracy.

So there I was in Gaza face-to-face with my former neighbor who had been incarcerated by my own government and then shipped back to an even larger prison, which was effectively also run by my tax dollars.  If I were him, I may want to strangle me.  But instead he smiled and said how happy he was to meet a fellow New Yorker, and gave me his email address to stay in touch, along with my hot sandwiches and fries, and a hefty discount because he admired the peace work we were doing.  I protested the discount but out of respect ultimately accepted.  Sometimes the kindness of people is just overwhelming.

As we zoomed out of town on that final hectic morning in Gaza, we caught a glimpse of Kathleen’s mural.  It was a bright highlight amidst the grey and rubble, and was at least one project that came to full fruition and totally co-created in solidarity.  When Kathleen returned home she resumed teaching at Mission Middle School and sharing with her community the tales of the trip, which appeared in her local newspaper as well.

Cultivating Seeds of Peace

Ariel managed to evade the Hamas security and journeyed to visit former campers she knew from Seeds of Peace, a camp in Maine that brings together kids from conflict regions for reconciliation and peace games ever summer.  Ariel used to run their ropes course, teaching kids to trust in each other even if their families and societies taught them to hate one another.  Now that trust was bringing her at last to the homes of some of the kids she had known halfway across the world.  Here is her account of her visit:

This is the story of my meeting with my camper Mohammed Bashir. He comes to meet me at the mosaic project we are making in Gaza City, tiny pieces of glass being placed together a design created by people in Gaza and people in California.  Mohammed is skinny, 17. He looks at me. Doesn't blink. Says, “Are you busy?”  I say, “No, I am here to see you.”

Khalil Bashir in front of his house in Deir Al-Balah in September, 2005

Without pause he says my father died.  Khalil Bashir at 52 is no more.  Khalil Bashir survived being shot in the back of the head by Israeli soldiers in April 2001.  Khalil Bashir taught his family to believe in peace despite having their house directly occupied by Israeli soldiers for five years.  Khalil Bashir, whose other two sons were shot, one in his back by the base of his spine and one in his leg, is alive no more.

I am stunned.  I never met the man. I had seen videos and photos and knew that Khalil was the headmaster of a German-financed school in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza. I knew he was well loved and a true peaceworker. I was looking forward to meeting him.

I had heard the story from both Mohammed and his brother Yusuf about their home and their land being taken over by soldiers. It is one thing to hear and another to see.  Mohammed and I got in a taxi (escaping the watchful eye of Hamas who wanted us to always remain with the group) and headed to his neighborhood. When I got out of the taxi I was shocked to see a building grey in color with the two top floors blown out, no windows, barbed wire at the top and Mohammed says, “This is my home.”  This is the house that his father built, land that his grandfather lived on.

I think of the home I grew up in, in Long Island - neat grass, beautiful windows, warmth and ease, next to countless other similar looking homes in a safe neighborhood with drinkable tap water and grocery stores a short walk away.
Here in Gaza in this neighborhood called Deir Al-Balah there seems to be nothing. Silence. Emptiness. And this pit in my stomach was growling, asking, “Could this really be his home?”

I remember Mohammed telling me that during the invasion a year ago he couldn't shower and there was little food to eat. I think of myself at 17 hanging out with friends and going to parties - the water flowing from taps across America and the food that comes in from all over the world that I buy with ease in supermarkets. And here Mohammed at 17 has to worry about his family, where food will come from, and how to deal with years of abuse from Israeli soldiers. At 17, he and his twin sister share an ongoing trauma of PTSD. The soldiers might have left their house in 2006, but their childhood was filled with weapons and bullets and never feeling safe in their own home. Their solace was their father, who through all of it stayed peaceful, non-violent, and courageous, who taught his children to love even when things seem impossible, who taught his family to give when there is so little.

And now their house is missing this key figure of love, in his place thousands of letters piled up from peace activists and friends, co-workers and family sharing grief and thanks.

Mohammed's mother welcomes me, creates a huge meal; when they have so little she shares so much.  She serves maqluba, lebna (my favorite), home made grapefruit jam (which in the morning she packs up and gives to me), pita, olives, and more love than possibly imaginable amongst so much grief. She and her children are so open, so willing to accept me. And here I am a Jewish American woman originally from New York. Part of my identity is responsible for the pain they have suffered and they welcome me and feed me and share with me. This world continues to amaze me and I am deeply inspired by the Bashir family.

In 2001, Israel declared ownership of part of the Bashir's family home and their surrounding land. This is the complexity of war. At once your land, your Grandfather's house, your house, your farm can be deemed someone else’s. The Kfar Darom Israeli settlement, the neighbors to the Bashir family, viewed the Bashir home as a threat and the Israeli military viewed it as a strategic location to continue an ongoing occupation. Standing in their home still ravaged from war I thought back to the 2006 media coverage of the Israeli disengagement of the settlements and I realized this house was in all those video shots. The military was standing on the roof of this very home. This home with my gentle camper and his loving mother was taken by force for five years.

I almost feel like I need to repeat that over and over again because in my world that seems so unreal, so implausible. But in this world, here in Gaza this is reality. This is true and very real for the Bashir family and the affects of occupation, war, and now border restriction are what people in Gaza have become used to. And the young Israeli soldiers like the young Egyptians who tried to stop me from entering Gaza are people, as hard as that is to remember sometimes. Behind their armor, their guns, their camouflage, their yelling, they are people. People taught to be afraid, taught to fight, taught to shoot, and taught that taking over someone else’s home to "secure" another group of people is justified and somehow moral.

When Mohammed was eight years old, he was told that he and his six other siblings, mother, and father would be forced to live all together in the small living room while soldiers would use the rest of his house as a military base. If he or anyone in his family wanted to use the toilet, a soldier would be coming with them. They were forbidden to go to the top two floors of their own home. They became familiar with a series of different weapons and with facing gun wounds and terror all the time.

I’ll interject for a moment here to say that upon reading this part of Ariel’s writing on Mohammed’s story, I couldn’t help but see images of my own grandmother.  In the late 1930s the Nazis came to Holland and decided that my grandmother’s family’s big, beautiful home was a necessary strategic spot for their men.  So they moved my grandma and her family into the root cellar and moved their men into the house.  My grandmother did not get enough to eat and did not see the sun so she suffered many ailments and would experience trauma for the rest of her life after the war.  My grandmother, too, was forbidden from going to the top floors of her own home.  She too became familiar with a series of different weapon sounds, and with the heavy boots of soldiers marching overhead, and with terror all the time.  Back to Ariel’s account:

During my visit, I shared a room with Mohammed's twin sister; at 17 years old it’s clear this childhood trauma is still with her.  We stay up late at night - tears and words, the light on. The soldiers are gone, but their barbed wire, weapons, and put-downs remain. For five years their family lived this way, one small room and soldiers occupying their house protecting the settlers while stealing Mohammad's childhood. And still his father told his children to love their neighbors and to believe peace is possible.

Mohammed’s family has had their house returned to them, windowless and bombed out. The soldiers are gone and they are free to call the whole three floors home. But what is home when you never feel safe and by the time your oppressor leaves you do not have the money to re-create what your father built? What is home when half your family lives so far away and you are not free to leave to see them? What is home when there are no opportunities awaiting you? What is being 17 when there is no higher education to look forward to, no parties to attend, and no father to smile at you in the morning and remind you to keep being strong and to keep believing in peace?

Mohammed’s other three brothers and sister have joined the diaspora, like my ancestors years ago leaving pogroms and escaping near-death, never looking back, never returning to these parts of Europe later we won't claim as home. Mohammed’s siblings cannot return to Gaza, cannot attend his fathers funeral. Mohammad's mother has not seen these four children in at least four years. They escaped to Germany and America, to study and to attempt to claim a real future. There is nothing in Gaza, no jobs, no money, no easy access to food; everything comes through tunnels, everything comes through pain; the olive trees and the lemon trees were long ago ripped up by Israeli bulldozers, the young children’s dreams ripped up night after night after night till all that remains is this tiny spec of hope, little shards of glass in Gaza City strewn together to become the stars and me on the beach collecting sea shells for my Grandmother.

There are a thousand words, a thousand pieces of shattered glass, a thousand bombed out windows
and me
In this place called Gaza
that we struggled so hard to enter
and a thousand people left in Egypt unable to enter this land
blocked off by Israel, blocked off by Egypt, blocked off by a world unwilling to look
unwilling to see the reality
which is complex layers stacked on layers
like the movement that arrived to work in solidarity to tear down the walls cross the border
and liberate Gaza.
Sometimes this conflict feels so complex that my head is exploding
and my heart is hurting and I'm left with only a simple vision:
the ocean crashing onto the sand in Gaza where I collect stones
and sea shells that I will later give to my 97 year-old Grandmother
who taught me to love and to know there is no other,
there is only us,
we are all the others.

Meanwhile in Cairo

The vast majority of marchers continued to protest in Egypt, including spirited protests at the Egyptian museum and the Israeli Embassy. On December 31st they attempted to march through Cairo – marches are illegal in Egypt – and managed to get only a few strides before they were surrounded by riot police.  They sat down and refused to leave, clobbering up traffic for hours.  Riot police responded more brutally than they had in days prior and many activists were beaten and dragged.  Ryan Fey, a law student from the Bay Area, was clubbed in the face by a policeman’s baton.  (Below is a photo of Ryan.)

I heard of these actions in Gaza only when I reached the newsroom of PressTV.  At their studio I sat down to do an interview and a screen in front of me showed the beatings in Cairo while the reporter, through a bug in my ear, asked me what it was like in Gaza.  My jaw was dropped open seeing my friends being beaten.  I stumbled to catch my breath and recall the war-torn reality outside the studio’s walls.  The Gaza Freedom March actions on the streets made international news and highlighted Egypt’s complicity with Israel in keeping the people of Gaza imprisoned.

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, whose teachings and Torah of Nonviolence are a mystic and practical gift to all spiritual traditions, helped to coordinate the Interfaith affinity group, and wrote the following about the actions in Cairo:

Starhawk, Rae, Ariel, and Rabbi Lynn at the Cairo bus station

As the only rabbi present in Cairo for the entire GFM experience, I was honored to stand with hundreds of other activists from over forty nations, many of whom spoke to me of their commitment to oppose anti-semetism wherever it emerged. I spent ten days planning actions, protesting in the streets, talking about next steps, networking and envisioning. At one point, American Jews organized a protest in front of the Israeli Embassy which is fifteen stories above the street and visible only by the familiar blue and white flag.

I was asked to lead a Sabbath service. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Egyptians and internationals of all persuasions stood round a simple kiddish cup, Egyptian flat bread and candles. I invited participants to envision a world where everyone could find a seat at the table and eat, unafraid. We sang and prayed in Hebrew in public and I saw tears flow. Standing among the crowd was a man with a Palestinian father and a Sephardic Israeli mother. He wept in joy because, for one instant, the worlds of conflict stretching across the borders of his soul could dissolve in a single vision of unification and peace.

So may it be for all of us, Palestinian and Jew, living together on the same land in recognition of our common love for place and each other. Palestinians have the right to return to their own land, or receive just compensation.  Only a 'solution' that ensures 'the right to exist' and universal human rights of all people living on the historic land of Israel/Palestine will suffice. The children of the future will see the world very differently than those of us living now. They will face new challenges and inherit a new sense of globalism, which hopefully strengthens the religious, cultural and national heritage of both Palestinians and Israelis in a renewed culture of peace. It is up to us to prepare the way.

The South African delegation to the Gaza Freedom March initiated the Cairo Declaration, a call for a global movement for Palestinian rights, focusing on Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), the prosecution of Israeli war criminals and the implementation of the Goldstone Report.

It was a rough week for the activists in Cairo—battling Egyptian police on the streets, getting rebuffed by our own embassies, joining the hunger strike, facing an Egyptian offer of allowing only 100 people into Gaza.  The unexpected challenge of being prohibited from convening a meeting of all the delegates, coupled with the lack of continuous access to communications such as phone and email, made gathering affinity groups and the whole delegation together a struggle.  And in Gaza we again faced the challenges imposed by the Hamas government, the lack of scheduling preparations, and the issue of distributing a truckload of aid to the correct places with only 48 hours.

But we pulled through and came together.  The day after the Gaza delegation returned to Cairo we held report-backs to fill each other in on what had happened on both sides of Rafah.  The Gaza report-backs were received well and led to stimulating conversations about next steps.  And then before we could catch a wink of sleep, we were packing up banners, sorting through the lost and found, and closing up shop at the Lotus Hotel.

Sunrise on Mount Sinai

Ariel and I departed late that night and took an all-night bus across the Sinai to the coastal town of Dahab alongside the Red Sea.  The next night we made a pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai, and at one in the morning, we began our ascent to the Biblical mountain’s peak.  Stopping only for small cups of hot sweet Bedouin tea, we wound around the camel trail and up the final ascent of 750 stone stairs, arriving at the top well before sunrise.  Then we shivered and waited in the cold, crisp air on what seemed like the edge of the world, until the giant orb of sun arose.  Light slipped out of the horizon and slowly drenched the desert mountain range in shades of pink and orange.  Ariel was divinely inspired and wrote a new list of ten commandments, including “Love your neighbor as they want to be loved.”

I felt as if I could have stayed in the perfect stillness of the mountaintop at sunrise forever, but the cold edged in and it was time to descend.  Somehow through buses and minivans and my getting food poisoning and super stomach sick we made it back to Cairo.  On our way to the airport that final morning we asked the taxi driver to take us by the pyramids, but all we saw was the faint outline of the Sphinx teasing us through the deep haze.  It was a cruel mirage to the experience of the Gaza Freedom March: coming so close to the destination, but being held back in a fog of confusion and repression.

A few other marchers were able to make it into Gaza in the early days of January after the GFM was officially over.  Nitin Sawheny, who was admitted via the Indian Embassy because he has Indian citizenship, chronicled his trip in Gaza, including meetings with wounded children and with the Viva Palestina convoy, and a visit to a strawberry farmer’s fields, here.  Others remained in Cairo or camped outside the Rafah border for days, weeks, and were unable to get in, as Pam Rassmusen documented in her blog.

Coming Home

When I stepped off the plane into New York City’s JFK airport, the customs agents for a brief moment blurred to look like the gates to Nirvana.  I actually relished being back in the USA, where, I imagined, I would soon be attending candlelight vigils without being caged by riot police for hours!  In my sleep-deprived state, it seemed that clean air, fresh vegetables, and a steady internet connection all awaited me beyond the customs desks like gleaming treasures at the end of a rainbow.  What really awaited me was a young thief who robbed me of my cell phone as I rode the train from the airport into Brooklyn.  “Welcome back to NYC.  Don’t get too excited about America just yet,” the city seemed to say.

And indeed it was true.  While I did appreciate being home where I could speak the common language, have my “freedom of assembly” back, and eat raw salad without fear of barfing, I became keenly aware of the political reality of my country.  Once Congress returned from the winter recess, the attacks on Judge Goldstone continued. ( A little background on this report: The United Nations commissioned an investigation, led by eminent South African judge Richard Goldstone. The meticulous 575-page Goldstone Report was released in September 2009. It criticized Hamas, but because of the disproportionate Israeli force, the report focused on Israeli actions:  the indiscriminate use of firepower; deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian structures, including hospitals, schools, mosques, water and sewage plants, and rescue vehicles; the use of white phosphorus munitions in residential areas; use of human shields; abusive treatment of detainees; the imposition of a blockade on Gaza before and after the attack itself. The report concluded that Israel committed war crimes, possibly even crimes against humanity.  Israel politicians dismissed the report as one-sided. So did the US politicians, including UN ambassador Susan Rice, who called it “unbalanced, one-sided and basically unacceptable.” The US rejection of the report meant that the case would not be sent to the International Criminal Court, as Judge Goldstone had recommended.)

But the news wasn’t all doom and gloom.  54 Congressional Representatives signed onto a letter to President Obama that was coauthored by Congressman Jim McDermott and Congressman Keith Ellison which criticizes Israel's blockade of Gaza as "de facto collective punishment" leading to the "unabated suffering of Gazan civilians." The letter addresses all aspects related to the siege of Gaza, including movement of people and access to clean water, food, medicines, commercial and agricultural goods, construction materials, and fuel.  It was sent to President Obama during the week of January 18. A year ago, while the bombs paid for with US taxdollars were raining down on innocent Palestinians, the US Congress passed a resolution “recognizing Israel’s right to defend itself against attacks from Gaza.” Only 5 members of Congress voted against the resolution.  Slowly but surely, beltway politics is catching onto this atrocity and stepping out to take a stand.  11 of the 54 cosigning representatives on the McDermott-Ellison letter are from districts in my home state, California (though I was disheartened to learn that my own Congresswoman, Anna Eshoo, who I met with personally in DC after the march, did not sign onto the letter).

GFM on the Golden Gate Bridge

I feel proud to live in California where the movement for justice with Palestine is thriving.  San Francisco is home to several national organizations doing excellent work on the issue, including the Middle East Children’s Alliance, Jewish Voice for Peace, the Free Gaza Movement, Interfaith Peace Builders, Global Exchange, and CODEPINK, among others.  43 Bay Area residents joined the Gaza Freedom March, including many students from UC Berkeley.

On December 31 there was a solidarity march across the Golden Gate Bridge that organizers expected, given the holiday date and poor weather, would draw about 100 people.  The police reported over 500 in attendance, spanning the length of the bridge with signs, chants, and a spirit that uplifted residents and soared directly to Gaza.  In October of 2009 when former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came to speak at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco, 22 activists, including myself, were arrested for attempting a citizen’s arrest of Olmert and effectively shutting down much of his talk by speaking the truth and holding up the Goldstone report.  The Youtube of the action has been seen by over 100,000 people.  So, undoubtedly my hometown region will continue to be a hotbed of activism for justice in Palestine.

When I returned home, my coworkers, friends, and parents all had the same question, “How was Gaza?” “Oh, lovely,” I wanted to reply, “Just a Mediterranean seaside paradise with Biblical beauty surrounded by steel walls and AK47s.”  I struggled with how to describe the past two weeks of travel, from the streets of Cairo to the refugee camps and orphanages in Gaza.  I came up with the one-word response, “Intense,” and succumbed to admitting for the first time in my life that I was human enough to feel jetlag.  I slept 13 hours for several nights one week.  Alice Walker wrote in her piece about Gaza, "I have been, once again, struggling to speak about an atrocity.”  So too I have been grappling with how to write about this journey.   What has resulted is this long, somewhat clumsy and very personal piece of writing, in which I’ve attempted to highlight some of the herstory behind the march, infused with my own story, and tried to link to some of the best pieces I’ve read so far from trip participants.

All of these photos are Gaza - the beautiful sunsets, the people living in tents a year after having their homes demolished, the rubble that cannot be rebuilt because no building supplies can get through, the resilience of people determined to work for justice and create art even under attack.

1,362 delegates were involved in the march, and countless others were touched when you think of each person’s family, faith group, community, and all the people who read their blogs and news articles – each one of these people has their own story of what happened.  1,400 people in Gaza died one year ago, each with her or his own story, and families, and communities, but we will never know each person’s story or what could have become of their lives.  As Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb wrote, “Operation Cast Lead was a massacre filled with thousands of heart breaking stories. Each of the 1400 persons killed represents an entire world.”

Devi Kistnasamy, a marcher from Mauritius wrote, “The mere fact of 1,400 people going to Gaza in order to contribute to breaking the siege shows the real will of people to act against the Israeli domination of Palestine. The difficulties of making decisions in changing circumstances, however, highlight the limits of civil society type actions.” Though not all marchers made it into Gaza, the action contributed to building opposition to the Israeli siege, and to exposing the role of the Egyptian State in the siege.

After some reflection and debriefs, the successes of the Gaza Freedom March shine like that bright sunlight that rose to greet us atop Mt. Sinai.  We Gaza Freedom Marchers can be proud of our many accomplishments, which include, as summarized by Medea in her interview on The Real News, the following:

By focusing worldwide attention on the siege, we lifted the spirits of the isolated people of Gaza. Mohammed Omer wrote to us from Gaza to say, "For us, a population of 1.6 million being imprisoned and starved, the gratitude we express to you, the Gaza freedom marchers, is immense. Thank you all from the depth of our hearts!"
We put the spotlight on the negative role Egypt is playing in maintaining the siege and we put pressure on the highest levels of the Egyptian government. "Your presence in Egypt was like an earthquake," said Suzanne, an Egyptian student. "You did more good politically by protesting in Egypt than you could have ever done in Gaza." Check out the hundreds of press hits on the march from dailies around the world!

We connected with Egyptian lawyers and activists who are protesting the underground wall Egypt is building, with U.S. help, to close the tunnels along the Rafah border that are the commercial lifeline for people living in Gaza. We held a rally outside the courthouse where a lawsuit against the government was being filed. The lawsuit says that the wall violates international and Egyptian law because it will deprive the people of Gaza of food, water and medicine, the right of refuge and freedom of movement. Many of us scrambled through the web of the Egyptian bureaucracy to become temporary residents so that we would have standing as plaintiffs. In total 250 Egyptian and foreign activists filed the lawsuit against President Mubarak, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and Ministers of the Interior and Foreign Affairs. “Even semi-constructed, the Egypt-Gaza wall, like other barriers around the world, is a visible and dramatic symbol -- an embodiment of Egypt’s policy and a lightning rod for opposition,” wrote Ursula Lindsey in an excellent piece on the GFM and the steel wall under for Middle East Report On-Line.

We forced the Egyptian government to make a concession by letting 100 delegates into Gaza. That delegation took in tens of thousands of dollars in humanitarian aid, allowed Palestinians to see long-lost family members, recorded stories they will disseminate broadly, and put up a stunning mosaic memorial, created by muralist Kathleen Crocetti, in a central location in Gaza City in the name of the international community. View the photos of the Women's Contingent in action and the whole Gaza Freedom March and solidarity actions from photographers around the world!  Plus see marcher Angela Sevin’s moving slideshow here.

We supported young activists to get engaged in the issue and travel to the march.  CODEPINK helped fundraise for 21 American students to go on the march, and over 100 US students joined together in Cairo.  As one news source reported, “The future of the movement is in good hands. Jenna Bitar is a high school senior in New York City who joined the March with her mother and brother. She still has braces on her teeth, but her speech was bold and eloquent, with stories of her success fooling the Egyptian police and of the violence she witnessed on the streets of Cairo and the Gaza Strip. The task, for her, was ‘to make some noise’ for all the world to hear.”

Finally, we reinvigorated our own determination to keep working to lift the siege! A new international network formed that will coordinate future work and, initiated by the South African delegation, the Gaza Freedom March committee and various members drafted the Cairo Declaration. It outlines a program for moving forward, including boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), the prosecution of Israeli war criminals and the implementation of the Goldstone Report.  I found it beyond random chance that I first heard about the march en route to my first exposure of corporate profit from Israeli occupation, and one of the main outcomes of the march is to turn up the heat on the boycott tactic.  Coming full circle, the relevance of CODEPINK’s boycott of Ahava, called Stolen Beauty, has never seemed more important.

Our friends in Gaza, who I hear from now often over facebook and email, long for a normal life, unencumbered by the siege and constant fear of bombings. They know that there is very little chance that their voices will be heard in the halls of powerful governing bodies. But we can and must join our voices with theirs. We can and must build a stronger worldwide movement to end the siege and ensure that all people in the region can leave in peace and dignity.

Ariel wrote this beautifully:

There is a lighthouse in Gaza, this small shimmering of hope and from the smallest spark comes the largest fire.
There are fisherman who can't go more than 3 miles out because Israeli guards are in border boats waiting with guns
and there are young Israelis in boats waiting and shaking confused and afraid, told their neighbors are the enemy
because rockets have hit Sderot
and there are men in high places with fish on their table making policies that don't benefit the soldier or the fisherman
and the cycle continues
those on the ground battling each other
while others get richer and profit from this hell
I am ready to meet in the field out beyond right and wrong
I am ready to heal our wounds
share our bread
and figure out how to stop this machine.

I am ready to become the lighthouse and the biggest lesson I learned in Gaza is that one person alone cannot be the lighthouse. We need each other. We need community to have a vision of peace. We cannot end the siege if we do not have a creative beautiful replacement. If we only aim to end wars we end up with corrupt and violent governments in power. If we vision for peace and community we end up using our skills to create a world we want to live in. I am ready and I am asking all of you to join me, always.

Peace will not come until Palestinians enjoy the rights that they deserve, not simply the pittances Israel and the international community have so far offered to provide.  We must remember that beyond the politics and the emotions that run hot on this issue, there is the reality of real human life, and in the case of Gaza, the lives of children.  As Ali Abunimah said, “The war against the Gaza Strip is a war against children, as 52 percent of people there are under 18.”

It is impossible for most of us to imagine what living under siege and war is like, but the personal stories we heard in Gaza paint the chilling picture, stories like this one from Khulood Ghanem, a Gaza resident who is 27 years old, like me, who wrote in her diary:

December 27, 2008, 11:45am. I was walking in the street when I heard the first rocket, the second and the third. I saw the military planes low down in the sky. The sound of bombs and explosions was horrible, the ground was moving up and down. Children were getting out of school, shouting, running everywhere. The streets became crowded with ambulances.

I started to run away, but where to? I was scared and started to lose consciousness. I walked a lot till I felt sick. I was worried about my family, sisters, brothers, friends. I said: It is not a joke, it is a real. The war has started.

Any one of us could have been born in Gaza, could be Khulood, and it is this recognition of kinship to the people everywhere suffering under oppression and occupation that compels us to act for freedom.  As the Aboriginal activists in Queensland say, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” And as Alice Walker says in her stunning essay on Gaza that reflects on the South African anti-apartheid struggle, our fate is intertwined with fate of the Palestinians. As global citizens, “allowing freedom to others brings freedom to ourselves.” Onwards for collective liberation that transcends borders, opens hearts, and rekindles the human spirit of dignity and love!

“Lift the siege of Gaza and then you’ll see a flowering of democracy inside Gaza.”  ~ Medea Benjamin

Rae Abileah is the roseroots coordinator at CODEPINK Women for Peace. She lives in San Francisco, CA, and can be reached at rae[at]


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