CAIRO, Egypt – Some of us reached Gaza and particpated in the Gaza Freedom March as planned. All of us significantly raised the profile of dissent – particularly, American dissent – against the blockade of the people of Gaza imposed by Israel and Egypt, with the backing of the United States and the acquiescence of Europe. The groundwork is being laid for future campaigning in the U.S. for "citizen sanctions" against the Israeli government that could help change the balance of forces influencing U.S. policy, so that U.S. policy becomes a force for peace, rather than continuing to perpetuate the Israel/Palestine conflict as the U.S. is doing today.
The New York Times (yes, the New York Times had two articles on the march) reported:
Hundreds of demonstrators gathered on both sides of the Israeli-Gazan border on Thursday to mark a year since Israel’s three-week war in Gaza, and to call for an end to the blockade of the area imposed by Israel and Egypt. About 85 of the several hundred demonstrators inside Gaza were foreigners, part of a group of more than 1,000 who arrived in Cairo in hopes of entering the territory but who were stopped by the Egyptian authorities. After days of negotiation, Egypt permitted a small delegation to cross the normally closed border at the southern Gazan city of Rafah.
Hundreds of us – confined to Cairo – protested against the Israeli/Egyptian blockade where we were. Our protests in Cairo were front-page news in the Egyptian press – and were reported in the U.S. as well.
The Christian Science Monitor reported:
Unable to protest the blockade from within the territory, they have protested it from here. The result has been a tense confrontation between American and European left-wing activism and a repressive police state engaged in a rigorous four-year-long crackdown on critics of the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Medea Benjamin, an American citizen, cofounder of the antiwar group Code Pink, and one of the march organizers, says she and 50 other US nationals were "beaten up" by Egyptian police when they went to the US Embassy in Cairo to attend a previously scheduled meeting with embassy staff on Tuesday morning.
And the New York Times noted that:
One protester, Hedy Epstein, 85, a Holocaust survivor, arrived in Egypt from the United States on Saturday. She said she started a hunger strike on Monday. "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," Ms. Epstein said. "I brought a suitcase full of things, pencils, pens, crayons, writing paper to take to children in Gaza — I can’t take that back home."
It wasn’t a starting point of the protest to highlight the role of the Egyptian government in enforcing the blockade. It was the government of Egypt which, by refusing to let us pass, put its role at center stage. The Egyptian government justifies its closure of the border crossing at Rafah by invoking "security" – just as the Israeli government does. The Egyptian policy is often explained as being a result of its opposition to Hamas – but enforcement of the blockade on Gaza by Egypt as a political weapon against Hamas is collective punishment of Gaza’s civilian population – just as grave a violation of international law as the Israeli enforcement of the blockade. Egypt’s actions in enforcing the blockade are powerful evidence for the widely held Arab view that in their policies towards the Palestinians, Egypt’s President Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu are "tizein bilbass" – two butts in one underwear. The events of the last week have transformed the "Israeli blockade" of Gaza into an "Israeli-Egyptian blockade," something that will dog Egypt’s international relations – including calls for sanctions against Egypt – until the siege has been lifted.
It is almost certain that new organizing around "boycotts, divestment and sanctions" against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza will take place in the United States as a result of the Gaza Freedom March. There is a strong push from Palestinian solidarity activists in South Africa and Europe for American solidarity activists to do more to promote the "BDS" campaign. There are plans for a delegation of Palestinian and South African trade unionists to tour the United States, and for student activists in the U.S. to train other student activists to launch BDS campaigns at universities.
Greater activity in support of sanctions against the Israeli government in trade unions, universities, and churches in the United States could eventually change the political terrain in Washington, by legitimizing the idea that the Israeli government should face real consequences from the United States for continuing its present policies. This year we saw the Obama Administration’s initial insistence on a total freeze of Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank fizzle out, in large measure because it wasn’t backed by any "or else" – even the idea of conditioning a part of U.S. aid to Israel on a real settlement freeze failed to gain any traction. A newly invigorated BDS campaign in the United States could create hundreds of organizing hooks to build momentum for a real change in U.S. policy.
Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy