GFM Wrap Up

 Dear friends and family,
Marhaba from Palestine!  We’re writing you from an Internet Cafe in
Bethlehem.  We’ve been staying in Beith Sahour for 2 days with Lee’s
host mom from when he did the Palestine Summer Encounter (with Holy
Land Trust) 5 years ago.  We took an overnight bus from Cairo to Taba
and from there another bus to Jerusalem.  We’ll spend the remainder of
time visiting Palestinian cities including: Hebron, Ramallah, and
Jericho.  We want to share a summary of the conclusion of the Gaza
Freedom March as well as our impressions crossing into Israel and the
situation in the West Bank.

A lot has happened since we last wrote.  We left you just before the
final march planned for the 31st.  This march was seen as a
culmination of our efforts in Cairo and was meant to represent a day
for internationals around the world to protest in solidarity with the
people of Gaza.  We woke up to a text message informing us that we
should leave the hotel immediately because the Egyptian police had
blockaded several hotels where Gaza Freedom Marchers were staying in
order to prevent them from participating in the day’s events.  The
idea was to creat a swarming effect near the Egyptian museum where
protesters dressed as tourist would mill about until a signal was
given and everyone would pour into the street, blocking traffic and
marching.  We arrived to find the group of protesters who had managed
to block several lanes of traffic already surrounded by riot cops,
forcing them onto the sidewalk.  We watched and photographed as the
police pushed people, pulled them by their hair and literally lifted
them over a barrier onto the sidewalk.  Egyptian police were telling
those of us photographing to move and we ignored them until they began
to close off the area and try to drag people into the protest.  We ran
down the street and away from the protest.  We spent the rest of the
day going back and forth between the blockaded hotel and the protest,
seeing if we could offer water or food to the entraped protestors.  At
one point we were able to free Lee’s mom’s friend Ellen who was stuck
at the hotel when she came over to chat, saw an opening and slipped
through the barricades.  Wandering around we made new friends,
including a French couple.  The woman is a member of IJAN and we
enjoyed talking with her and her husband a lot.  She’s actually from
Argentina and said that the tension with the police reminded her of
the military occupation in the seventies and eighties.

It was a confusing day because while the protestors were successful in
occupying a space for a majority of the day, the group was once again
confined to a remote area and hidden from view.  Traffic had been
blocked for 10 minutes at most.  The group itself was split into
pieces with some at the hotel, some at the protest, and others like us
wandering around unsure of what to do.  Our friends who were on the
inside had mixed reviews: some felt there was a positive energy within
the group, but others were frustrated with their delegations for
provoking the police at times.  By late afternoon the protest had
dispersed and people were able to leave the hotel.  The organizers
seemed to feel that the protest had been successful but stressed the
need for non-violence.  Sadly because of this protest the hotel was
reprimanded by the police for seeming to facilitate our protest.  From
then on the employees who had been extremely helpful and friendly were
cold.  People had been concerned all week about the impact we would
have on the hotel staff.  We’re not sure how CodePink will address
this, but we plan to follow up with them.  In some ways, seeing that
made us feel like we were part of a circus–we came, put on a show,
and left the trampled grounds behind.

That night we gathered at 11:30 to pass the New Year at a vigil in a
square in Cairo.  Despite the disappointment and tension from earlier,
it felt good to participate in something that put the focus back on
the people of Palestine and less on us.  There were candles spelling
out the word Gaza and at one point a woman recieved a call from Gaza,
where she was talking to youth expressing their gratitude for our
solidarity.  This was the first time we had heard directly from people
in Gaza, because we had been feeling increasingly like our purpose had
been derailed.  [Lee: It was really moving for me to ring in the New
Year next to Ina, at a vigil for Gaza, while hearing my mom’s friend
Ellen sing protest songs that I have heard my whole life].

At ten the following morning we packed into the hotel once again to
hear the "Cairo Declaration" a document spearheaded by the South
African delegation offering direction for the solidarity movement.
They called for an educational tour led by trade unionists from South
Africa and Palestine to encourage unions around the world to boycott
and divest from Israel–different than a consumer boycott this is
hoping to build from the workers refusing to handle Israeli goods when
they come to ports or warehouses.  This is the first solidarity
document of its kind.  The wording is explicitly anti-Zionist–calling
for full and equal rights for all living in historic Palestine.  See
the document at the end of the letter.

On the first day of the New Year, we joined a protest outside of the
Israeli embassy.  This was the first time we were able to catch
Egyptian security offguard.  We stood by a major intersection with
banners and flags, allowing many passers by to show their solidarity
with peace signs, kissing of kuffiehs, and good ol’ thumbs up.  Within
15 minutes a cadres of riot police was assembled to block us from
view.  However, we were able to hold our ground and remain visible
without violence.  As we stood there, the police who were literally
inches from our faces initiated conversation with us.  While, our
communication was limited (our lack of Arabic), these young men were
able to communicate a great deal.  They showed us through gesture,
writing and words that they supported what we were doing.  They asked
again and again for us to explain what each of our signs meant.  At
one point a soldier took his baton from his belt and threw it on the
ground as a way to show that he did not like his position.  They
explained that they were policemen for lack of education (there is a
real visual class difference between the riot cops and their superiors
who walked around in suits, sipping tea).  At a couple of points when
we chanted in Arabic we saw tears well up in a couple of their eyes.
These expressions of support from Egyptian people contextualized the
ways in which we are dealing with a huge structural problem, not just
in Gaza, and also that there is support in hidden places, even when we
ourselves were wondering about the value of our actions.  This was the
height of our experience in Cairo.

Following this protest was the closing ceremony, which did little more
than reflect the internal issues within CodePink and vehement anger
towards them from various individuals and delegations.  Overall people
found the organizing to US centric, conciliatory and narrow in its
analysis of the issue.  If you compare the GFM call to the Cairo
Declaration, you see a sharpening of discourse.  One of our biggest
disappointments was that because CodePink led the US participants, the
US delegation was disorganized.  This was a lost opportunity.  It was
hard to watch as the French delegation slept on the street in front of
its embassy for 6 nights and the South African delegation helped to
spearhead the Cairo Declaration while the US delegation, whose
government plays the biggest role in maintaining Israeli occupation
and impunity, watched from the sidelines.  This isn’t to say that we
don’t respect the incredible amount of work that organizers in the US
put in to bringing everyone there, but we hope in the future that we
can do more to organize cohesively and hold our government
accountable.  As a plug look out for Israeli Apartheid Week in March

On the evening of the second we boarded a bus for the border.  As
participants of the Border Studies Program we were interested to see
how this border crossing would be.  We arrived to Israeli security in
Eilat at 5 in the morning and were greeted by what looked like
mallrats in military attire–18 yearolds with AK 47s and Uzis.  We had
taken special precautions in packing so as not to be turned away
because of our participation in the GFM (we got rid of our Egyptian
SIM card, e-mailed ourselves our contacts’ information, etc and sent a
bag of our stuff with some friends returning directly to Chicago).
However, we were carrying a bag of electronics intended for
organizations in Gaza.  We went through 4 metal detectors and had our
passports checked several times.  We were told that Palestinians
cannot cross through this border, but have to travel by ferry to
Jordarn where they take a bus to a crossing.

The economic shift as you cross from Egypt into Israel is visible
immediately.  It was a sinister relief to have clean bathrooms and
toilet paper, cappuchinos and all the comforts of the US.  When we
boarded our second bus to come to Jerusalem, we were surrounded by
tens of soldiers returning from a weekend off and carrying their
automatic weapons as though they were shoulder bags.  The military
force required to maintain that standard of living was painfully
apparent.  There was also a clear cultural shift of aggressiveness and
a familiar Western entitlement–people cut us in line repeatedly,
ignored us when we were clearly waiting to talk to them, jokes about
Al Qaeda that made us uncomfortable, etc.

The bus rode up along the Eastern edge of historic Palestine, along
the Dead Sea, where in Israel and the West Bank alike the landscape
was dotted with Israeli resorts.  Every few minutes we saw another
sign for Ahava beauty products which are manufactured with stolen
Palestinian resources and are the target of an international boycott.
The bus ride travelled through the West Bank, passing Palestinian
cities, settlements and military posts.  It was hard being on a bus
that we knew no Palestinian could ride while travelling through
Palestinian land.

We arrived to Jerusalem which reminded us in turn of Boston and how we
imagine San Francisco, an eerily utopian society.  It was the first
time we saw boutiques and interacted with so many Americans.
Everyother conversation we overheard in the city was in English.  It
was a difficult couple hours to be there because it had never been so
clear how US tax payer money supports a military state.  It shined a
light on the importance of boycott and divestment that hadn’t been as
clear before.  Obviously there are Israelis who are critical of the
role their government plays and are extremely active in challenging
that.  In a few short hours this is what we encountered.  We arrived
in Beit Sahour that evening and have been staying with a wonderful
woman Evon, who we will write more about later.  We will update you
again before we leave.

Thank you to those who responded to our first e-mail.  We hope to hear
from all of you in the future.

Happy New Year!

Ina and Lee

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