Gaza Freedom March Blocked

— an interview with Kim Redigan

Fourteen hundred international activists mobilized in Cairo, Egypt in late December for a Gaza Freedom March (GFM) to break the siege imposed by the U.S., Israeli and Egyptian governments. The marchers were blocked and attacked by Egyptian police and military forces; there can be no doubt that the authorization for these assaults and the orders to block the march from reaching Gaza came directly from the U.S. administration.

[To get some flavor of the Gaza Freedom March experience, Against the Current interviewed Detroit high school teacher and social justice activist Kim Redigan. A member of the Michigan Peace Team (MPT) delegation to the GFM, Kim has also spent considerable time in Haiti and wrote “A Meditation on Gaza and Haiti,” which is posted on the Solidarity website (www.solidarity-us.org/current/node/2658). This interview was conducted by David Finkel from the ATC editorial board.]

Against the Current: Tell us about the Michigan Peace Team and why you planned to go to Gaza.

Kim Redigan: One of our objectives is to help provide a space for people to resist oppression and injustice in places where our presence has been requested. The Michigan Peace Team trains domestic and international peace teams to provide third-party nonviolent intervention as a way of reducing violence in volatile situations.

So, in Palestine, for example, we show up at demonstrations and public events where our presence is often a deterrent to the Israeli Forces — who often react violently, but not as violently as when internationals are absent.

Sometimes we provide accompaniment as a way of reducing violence so that people can carry on with their lives. For example, MPT has accompanied Palestinian children as they walk to school in the Old City of Hebron, where they are often harassed by some of the most ideological and violent settlers in the West Bank.

We have joined Palestinian farmers in their fields where they are often threatened while harvesting olives. At other times peace team members may position themselves at checkpoints and challenge abuses or intervene when people are being threatened, roughed up, or detained.

While serving on a peace team in 2005, I lived with a cave community in the South Hebron Hills that lives in the shadow of both an outpost settlement and a larger settlement. This community is very vulnerable; its people and livestock have been attacked by the settlers.

As peace team members, our job was to live in the caves and go out with the shepherds each day in order to thwart settler attacks and document human rights abuses.

I should mention that MPT sends international teams to other places as well, most recently to Juarez where an exploratory team laid the groundwork for future work. We have also placed teams in Bosnia, Haiti and Chiapas.

On the domestic front, we have placed teams locally, again only where invited, in places where people want a presence to help de-escalate potentially violent situations. So when a xenophobic, anti-immigrant hate group spoke at Michigan State University not too long ago, campus immigrant rights organizations requested our presence. We are also an annual fixture at Pride Day in Lansing where we provide a presence between participants and religious hatemongers.

I want to be emphatic, however, that we are not “peace police.” We stand on the side of justice, freedom, and peace and support those working against oppression and injustice, agreeing with Desmond Tutu who once said that when an elephant is stepping on a mouse, the mouse does not appreciate neutrality. I think it is fair to say that MPT stands with the mice of this world.

MPT was contacted by Gaza Freedom March organizers and invited to support and join. MPT has had a presence in Gaza for several years and our going was a natural continuation of this work. Last year, Peter Dougherty and Liz Walters, both with extensive experience in Gaza, organized a team to Gaza in the immediate aftermath of Operation Cast Lead (the Israeli assault of December-January 2008-’09) and were prohibited from entering.

Day after day they stood at the gates of Rafah and the gates of Erez, along Gaza’s borders with Egypt and Israel, only to be refused entry, a real testament to the reality of the siege and the degree to which Gazans have been cut off from the rest of the world. It was our hope that maybe by joining a huge contingent from around the globe for the GFM, we would be allowed to enter and join the 50,000 Gazans from civil society who were organizing the GFM.

ATC: What happened when you arrived? We all know now that the Egyptian government blocked the access to Gaza. How did you find that out on the ground? Was it a surprise?

KR: We were told prior to leaving that Egypt was going to prohibit our going into Gaza, although up until a few weeks before the march, GFM organizers were fairly confident that we were going to be allowed in. Members of the women’s peace group, CODEPINK, were among the chief organizers. They had successfully gotten several delegations through the border of Rafah and were fairly confident that we would be allowed in as well, especially since long before the march organizers shared our personal information with the Egyptian government: names, addresses, passport numbers, flight info, everything.

The march organizers had people on the ground in Cairo long in advance of the march. The first harbinger of trouble was Egypt’s refusal to allow entry to the march organizer who was supposed to go into Gaza to meet with organizers there. On the day we left Detroit, December 25, organizers were sending out emails suggesting that we should prepare to participate in demonstrations in Cairo since Egypt was not going to budge. We also heard that a few countries, including Canada, warned their citizens not to travel to Cairo.

We arrived on Sunday, December 27 and discovered immediately that Egypt was blocking access to Gaza. We were also told that internationals who traveled across the Sinai to the coastal town of Al Arish, about 40 kilometers from Rafah, were being held under house arrest by Egyptian forces. We were not surprised although, at this point, I think we still had a semblance of hope that with enough pressure Egypt might relent.

In retrospect, it was perhaps naïve to believe that the pressure of 1,360 global citizens would trump the enormous power of Israel and the United States in affecting the Egyptian government. That said, in the long run, the power of committed people from civil society should not be underestimated.

ATC: How did the international delegations respond to the situation, and what happened with Egyptian police and military?

KR: Let’s just say that a mix of spontaneity, creativity, and flexibility was the name of the game throughout the week given the fact that Egypt was not going to budge. Although the Egyptian government suggested that we spend our time in Cairo sightseeing, we decided to use the week to pressure Egypt to let us into Gaza. In short, it was filled with demonstrations, public gatherings and other strategies to highlight the inhumanity and illegality of the siege and keep Gaza front and center.

In Egypt, it is against the law for six or more people to gather publicly, so our every move was watched and then contained by Egyptian security forces. Egypt is a police/surveillance state and all of us were followed everywhere we went.

Even the most benign gathering resulted in an excessive show of force. On our first night in Cairo, for example, the plan was to rent small flotillas on the Nile and hold a solemn lantern ceremony in remembrance of the 1,400 Gazans killed in Operation Cast Lead. Upon arriving at the docks, we were swarmed by security personnel and police officers and barred from entering the area where the boats are docked.

They tried to confiscate our notebooks, prohibited us from taking pictures and tried to move us off the street. Ultimately, our numbers were too great and so they erected barriers and penned us in during which time we held an impromptu candlelight ceremony. This is the way things played out throughout the week, whether at the United Nations building the following day or at the two press conferences called by hunger strikers on the steps of the Journalists’ Syndicate.

I should mention that we felt someone had given orders not to arrest or deport internationals. Rather, it seems that their strategy was to call in great numbers of police, barricade people, and then restrain them from moving. Much of the week was a struggle to hold space on the street.

Some members of our peace team had a good discussion about this strategy and our desire to transform rather than just hold space, since this battle for turf too closely resembles the problem itself in our world — an old paradigm that has gotten us to where we find ourselves today.

At any rate, the police and plainclothes security forces were omnipresent. When their superiors were not looking, many of the young Egyptian conscripts showed their support for us. Because we came face to face with them so often, we had ample opportunities to interact with these police officers. Often, they would say, “thank you” or “Yes, Palestine.” At one point, a police officer joined detained internationals in singing “We Shall Overcome,” although he stiffened and stopped when his boss approached.

We got the sense that the police officers, who carry clubs but not guns, were conflicted. We heard troubling stories about the intimidation and force used against Egyptian activists and others who were supporting the march, and can only imagine what would befall these young officers if they dared to challenge orders.

The plainclothes superiors were very unpleasant to deal with — harsh and abrasive and, as one member of our team described it, the kind of guys who sit in the shadows directing torture sessions.

The Egyptian government fears its own people, including — perhaps — its own police force. That said, the Egyptian police were brutal in their treatment of marchers on December 31 when a solidarity march was slated to coincide with the Gaza march.

Although our team, along with marchers in other hotels, was blocked from leaving our hotel that morning by three trucks full of police officers (all of our phones were blocked as well), other people managed to get out of their hotels. As they marched in the streets of Cairo, they were pushed, beaten, and dragged by the Egyptian police. One of our friends, an American priest who was there, said it was one of the scariest he had ever witnessed.

Brutality at the Embassy

ATC: Can you describe what went on at the U.S. Embassy? What were your impressions about the role of our government in Egypt’s policy?

KR: The French delegates had set up an encampment at their embassy and were actually joined, we were told, by embassy staff who offered them water and the use of bathroom facilities. While not expecting this kind of hospitality, we Americans were not quite prepared for the reception we received at our embassy.

After being denied entry at two embassy gates, a small group of Americans approached a third embassy entrance and were rudely denied entrance. Approaching the gates with U.S. passports held aloft, approximately 30 Americans were turned away. At one point, Medea Benjamin from CODEPINK went over the low metal barrier where she was roughly pushed to the ground and detained.

Within a matter of minutes, a K-9 Unit was called to the scene and then a very large contingent of riot police was summoned. Two of us from MPT tried to document this and on a few occasions almost had our cameras torn from our hands. It was not long before most of the Americans were encircled by riot police and detained in an area out of sight of the main road.

In the meantime, the two of us moved to the sidewalk in order to document and provide a visible presence to passersby. Two other American women joined us and, after being screamed at and ordered to “get in the pen” with the others, we too were encircled and detained. One of the young women with us was seated, and Egyptian security forces really handled her roughly. While this was happening, a white guy in dress shirt and tie, whom we presumed to be American, stood yards away watching without making any move to intervene.

While we were being held there, we witnessed several disturbing incidents. A young man on the sidewalk who appeared to be of Arab descent (we were later told he is a U.S. citizen) was shoved very roughly by the man in charge, a brute who was rough with all of us, and then lifted into the air by security forces and thrown to the ground.

We also witnessed a young woman of color dragging a suitcase behind her being pushed and shoved by the same man and his forces. Within minutes she and a few other people were being detained in an area close to where we were. While all of this was going on, the area outside the embassy gates was filled with people, both in and out of uniform. One surreal memory is of a well-armed man standing close to us wearing a pin reading “sniper.”

We cannot confirm this, but we believe that this excessive show of force could not have occurred without orders from Washington. This raises, of course, the question regarding to what degree the United States and Israel pressured Egypt to deny us entrance to Gaza. While Egypt certainly could have made this decision on its own, it is quite likely that our government and Israel had a considerable say in the decision to thwart the march.

ATC: What happened with the Egyptian announcement that 100 “good” activists would be allowed into Gaza? Who wound up going in and what did they find?

KR: Late Tuesday evening, we received a text message saying that a group of women from our delegation had met with Suzanne Mubarak, the president’s wife who is in charge of the Red Crescent, and that she arranged for 100 of our 1,360 delegates to enter Gaza the following morning.

GFM organizers were given two hours to compose a list of 100. Their criteria included people who had never been to Gaza or hadn’t been there for the past four years, Palestinian delegates, journalists, photographers, and representatives from the 43 participating countries.

By about 3 am the list was complete and included, one of our MPT members, Yusif Barakat, a Palestinian American whose family was expelled from Haifa in 1948.

We awakened Yusif and gave him the news that he had just a few hours to pack for Gaza and get to the bus station. When we arrived at the bus station at 7 am, people were getting on the buses along with all of the humanitarian aid that was to be delivered — school supplies, winter coats, medical supplies.

At about the same time, the morning papers hit the street. According to the Egyptian papers, Egypt had selected 100 “good” people to travel to Gaza. The rest of us were dismissed as “hooligans” and “troublemakers” who, according to Egyptian authorities, would be “left in the streets.” This was a deliberate ploy to sow dissension among the delegates — and it worked.

In many ways, 86-year-old Hedy Epstein, a Holocaust survivor (her parents died at Auschwitz after sending her out of Germany) and human rights advocate, was the heart of the GFM. It was she who called for a hunger strike and it was she who gave voice so eloquently to the demand to end the siege. As the buses were being boarded, Hedy took the loudspeaker and said that she was not going to go to Gaza if everyone could not go and urged people to follow their consciences in making this decision.

Some of those who followed Hedy, however, did not follow her lead in appealing to individual conscience. Rather, the calls to get off the bus deteriorated into some delegates calling those on the buses traitors and collaborators. Then the call came from Palestinian organizers to abandon the march.

Ultimately, 85 people left on the bus. Along the way, they picked up some of those stranded in Al Arish, including three ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Those who went to Gaza gave compelling and heartbreaking reports upon their return. The march itself was boycotted by much of Palestinian civil society, but the time spent with Gazans in the days after the march was fruitful.

[The outspoken Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who hadn’t been able to enter Gaza for the past two years, was able to go on the bus from Cairo and report on the march and the difficult and repressive conditions inside Gaza: www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1141085.html — ed.]

My own take on this is a both-and rather than an either-or approach. I think the way this divisiveness was orchestrated was reprehensible and I fully support the statement of group solidarity that was issued by those who strongly protested Egypt’s divide-and-conquer strategy.

At the same time, I think that it was crucial that the aid intended for Gaza be delivered and that people be able to bring back eyewitness reports that detail the horrific consequences of the siege.

Starvation Wall Under Construction

ATC: What can be done to confront the blockade of Gaza? What has this experience meant for you and other MPT members?

KR: Personally, I am deeply disappointed that we were not allowed into Gaza. On the other hand, our being in Cairo garnered a lot of international press (including two articles in The New York Times) and exposed the siege in a way that we had not intended.

The word from Gaza is that Palestinians there were very supportive of our solidarity work in Cairo. It is also worth mentioning that cities around the world held solidarity events during our time in Cairo and that these events, too, generated a great deal of media attention (see www.gazafreedommarch.org for a list of some of these events and stories).

I should also mention a bold statement initiated by South African trade unionists in Cairo, the “Cairo Declaration to End Israeli Apartheid,” calling for Palestinian self-determination, an end to the occupation, equal rights for all within historic Palestine, the full right of return, and a commitment to boycott, divestment and sanctions.

While a lot of good came out of the GFM all things considered, the siege continues and, as we speak, an underground wall is being constructed on the Egyptian/Gaza border with U.S. support and funding. This will choke off the tunnels.

The reports we got back from Gaza claim that every scrap of food, every piece of toilet paper, every provision needed for life comes from the tunnels. What this portends for Gazans if the blockade is not lifted is too grim to contemplate.

As we were preparing to leave Cairo, we got word that a former Egyptian ambassador and human rights workers were challenging this wall in the Egyptian courts. We must do the same here by pressuring our elected officials to lift the blockade and halt the construction of this underground wall. We must insist on adherence to international law and, despite how tone deaf our congresspersons are on the issue of Israel/Palestine, we must continue to pressure them while building a wider constituency of human rights supporters in U.S. civil society.

That means working in our schools, labor unions, and houses of worship. We can also increase the pressure by getting involved in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and by working in coalitions with other groups that are committed to focused BDS work. This is something that we here in Detroit will be doing as part of the U.S. Social Forum in June.

We can also support the work of the Free Gaza Movement which, in great part, inspired the GFM by taking humanitarian aid into Gaza on small boats — a brave and costly undertaking that deserves wider support. While our work in Cairo was important, our real work is here.

As far as what the experience meant for me, our inability to get into Gaza simply highlights in a very concrete way the reality of the siege and the isolation of Gaza. We were kept literally hundreds of miles from the border — a small taste of what it must feel like to live in Gaza. As fellow team member, Liz Walters, remarked, “I now have a deeper sense of the isolation that the people of Gaza experience as a result of a siege.”

I come home more determined than ever to work to end the siege and for the kind of justice that will bring about peace. I also am convinced that this unprecedented gathering of activists in tandem with the solidarity actions around the globe that occurred a few weeks ago is a sign of hope and a model for international organizing.

ATC 145, March-April 2010

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