By Sylvia Schwarz, 14 January 2010
On December 27, 2009 1,400 international activists convened in Cairo for the Gaza Freedom March, an expression of solidarity with the people of Palestine, and an attempt to bring the story of the oppression and human rights abuses of Palestinians, a story that has been neglected and ignored for over 60 years, to the eyes of the world. We expected to meet in Cairo and the following day board buses to Gaza. 50,000 Gazans waited to join us in a non-violent march toward the Erez Crossing in the north.
I was one of seven Minnesotans who had signed up for the March, each with a different and fascinating personal story, who came together to express our intention to force Israel to follow international law. As we were preparing for our trip, unsettling news came from Code Pink, the organizers, that the Egyptian government would not allow us to get through the checkpoint into Gaza. Code Pink had led seven previous delegations to Gaza in the past year, and had always been allowed to enter, but this time Egypt was intent on frustrating our efforts. All our meeting permits were revoked; halls and schools where we had paid for meeting locations were forced to lock their doors; the buses hired to take us to Al Arish, the Egyptian town closest to the Rafah crossing, were not allowed to pick us up.
Understandably, communication was rendered difficult. It is against the law in Egypt to meet in groups of more than six. And although we met at the three hotels where many of us stayed, and tried to keep in communication through e-mail and cell phones, it was a major challenge. At each planning meeting, under difficult circumstances where each sentence had to be repeated three times so that people packed in the hallways and other rooms could hear, Egyptian police, sometimes in plain clothes (but why bother since they were so visible anyway), were there listening and reporting to their superiors.
Although we all wanted to get to Gaza – many groups had humanitarian aid to be brought in, items like school supplies, laptop computers, medicines, toys, all items which have been banned from the region during Israel’s brutal blockade begun after the wrong political party was elected in free and fair elections – we made good use of our time in Cairo. We had demonstrations in front of the UN/World Trade Center offices, several of our embassies, and tourist areas. This brought a lot of media attention all over the world. We were on the front page of all Egyptian newspapers and top news in Europe for more than a week, and though we had planned to be top news in those media from within Gaza, this media attention brought into sharp focus the collusion between Israel, Egypt, and the United States in enforcing this illegal and inhumane siege on a defenseless population. Despite the re-starting of the “peace process” so sanguinely reported by Hillary Clinton a few days ago, few people around the world take that seriously any more.
The Gaza Freedom March even made news in the US, in mainstream media from the Washington Post to the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Given the difficulties of getting any media coverage for Palestine-related issues in mainstream media, this is no small feat.
The most important result of the Gaza Freedom March was the issuance of the “Cairo Declaration” (http://cairodeclaration.org/). This document was initiated by the South African delegation, inspiring and brilliant activists from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and had input from delegates from all over the world, including Palestinian civil society. It sets out the demand that Israel comply with international law, and in order to encourage Israel to comply with international law, several proposals are made. The proposals are legal, economic, and cultural measures – all non-violent – that will exert pressure on Israel to end its apartheid policies. These measures are specific actions that each of us can take towards that goal.
In the next weeks and months the Minnesota Seven (there were actually eight of us, and not all were from Minnesota, but we can talk about math and geography some other time) plan to work on implementing the Cairo Declaration here in Minnesota. We will spend a lot of time on the Minnesota Break the Bonds campaign, and other Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaigns. We will attempt to bring South African and Palestinian trade union members on a speaking tour of Minnesota. We will organize events to coincide with Israel Apartheid Week in early March. We will become involved in politics, lobbying, and educational activities. We will make important connections with delegates from all over the world who have committed themselves to working on this issue. In all of these activities, we are asking for your help and energy. This movement is growing and gaining momentum and we are drawing inspiration from those we met in Cairo and those who supported us back home. Together, we will create the change that is needed for a just and lasting peace in Palestine/Israel.
Sylvia Schwarz, a resident of Saint Paul, is a member of the Coalition for Palestinian Rights (CPR) and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, Twin Cities (IJAN-TC).