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Recent Reports from Cairo -- Gaza Freedom March

By Jean Athey

Gaza Freedom March
Fourth Letter: December 31, 2009

Over 1300 people came to Cairo this week from all over the world, hoping to join Palestinians today in a nonviolent Gaza Freedom March to end the blockade. Since we were prohibited from going to Gaza, we decided to march in Cairo today instead. We hoped to step off at 10 a.m., the same time as the march in Gaza was to begin.

Many people managed to make it to the location selected for the march—near the Egyptian Museum-- but they were quickly and forcibly removed from the street; a few were injured and some had their cameras destroyed. Once off the street and onto the sidewalk, protesters were surrounded by riot police, and there they remained all day.

I was one of those who didn’t manage to get to the march. Egyptian police surrounded the Lotus Hotel early this morning, where many people are staying, including me, and they prevented us from leaving. The government also cut off Internet access to the hotel. We were able to go outside directly in front of the hotel, which is on a busy street, but we could not cross the police line. So, we set up a demonstration on the sidewalk, chanting, waving signs, singing, and talking to passers-by and to the police.

We finally stopped the demonstration at about 3 p.m.

A lovely French woman named Delphine is my roommate, and tonight we went together to eat dinner. We saw a young couple going into the same restaurant as us and speaking American English. Assuming they were with the March, we invited them to join us, which they did. But it turned out that they were simply in Egypt on vacation. We began to tell them about the March, which they found interesting. Both were well-educated, but neither knew anything at all about Palestine, Gaza, or the issues we are trying to address. Nothing. Nada. Rien.

It was disheartening to see the level of education that is needed in the US if American policy is ever to change. They were a very nice couple and highly supportive of our actions, once they understood what they are about.

There is so much work to do in the US.

Tonight we will ring in the New Year in Tahrir Square, altogether. We hope, we pray, that 2010 will bring some relief and some hope for all Palestinians and, especially, that the siege of Gaza will end.

*** ***
Gaza Freedom March
Fifth Letter—January 1, 2010

Hedy Epstein, 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, has stolen our hearts. At four feet-ten, she is a giant. Her gentle smile lights up every room that she enters, and yet if you saw her on the street, you might not immediately sense her power. Unless you paid close attention, you would just see a sweet little old lady.

When she came to Cairo, Hedy decided to undertake a fast in support of the people of Gaza, a particularly apt form of protest given the inadequacy of both the supply and type of food the people there have access to. Malnutrition is endemic in Gaza, and children’s growth is stunted; people frequently go hungry.

Inspired by Hedy, thirty others joined her fast, beginning on December 28. Today, the fasters held a press conference on the steps of the building housing the Egyptian journalists’ union. Some of the thirty will continue to fast, others will stop now. They released this statement:

We are thirty activists from around the world, inspired by Hedy Epstein, the 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, who initiated a hunger strike in Cairo for the opening of the borders of Gaza to the outside world.

We recognize that the Palestinians of Gaza continue to hunger for food, shelter, and most of all for freedom.

We continue to hunger for justice for Gaza and all of Palestine. At this time, we announce that we will feast when Gaza feasts.

Until that time, each of us will choose the time to end her/his fast and again take food.

Our pleasure in that food will always be mixed with the pain of Palestinians.

We call on all people of conscience from around the world to renew their resolve for peace and justice in Palestine.

My friend Keren, Jewish like Hedy, has talked about how personally difficult it is to work for justice in Palestine when your dearest community will not support you, even actively opposes you. Hedy, too, has struggled with this problem, Keren told me, when members of her own family rejected her. And yet, she takes this strong, brave action, risking her health and accepting shunning from loved ones in order to stand up for those who are oppressed.

On this final day of the Gaza Freedom March, I have reflected on the experience—did we accomplish anything? We have all been inspired--by individuals of conscience like Hedy, by the sense of international friendship and solidarity that has pervaded these days here, even by the observable impact of our practice of nonviolence on the young policemen. There has been media coverage of our multiple protests here, and so we have raised up the issue of Gaza around the world, although coverage in the mainstream media has been limited, especially in the U.S. We have made lasting connections with one another, and so a nascent international movement, initiated by the South African delegation, is forming to combat the apartheid system in Palestine, a system with many similarities to what once existed in South Africa.

Most people will leave Cairo either tomorrow or the next day, returning home to their various countries. A few of us are staying on, however, hoping that we can, in a few days, get into Gaza after all--not to participate in a march but rather to offer our service as volunteers. If we are successful and cross into Gaza, we know that we will be greeted with love by the people there. We received this e-mail yesterday, written a few days ago, from the youth of Gaza:

We are still waiting for everyone to cross and share his/her feelings with us, but even if Egypt keeps you out, your work in Egypt is critical. Egypt is one of the perpetrators of the blockade, and we so appreciate all the solidarity protests you have conducted at great personal risk throughout the great city of Cairo, at every important "nerve center." You showed your support of Gaza and Palestine loud and clear, waking humanity up to the 1.5 million persons in Gaza who have been suffering for the past four years.

So please don't stop fighting, no matter what happens. With your help, we will achieve peace and justice. We are marching for freedom together.

We are still waiting for the Gaza Freedom March to cross from Cairo and we are against the Egyptian government’s decision! Welcome to Gaza and to a Happy New Year without blockade, settlements and occupation!

As for me, I have never spent a more memorable New Year’s Eve than last night, when I went to the French Embassy where the 200-strong French delegation was still camped out. Marching on the sidewalk between rows of small tents, with a couple of hundred riot police standing guard at the curb, the French, wearing paper New Year’s Eve hats, chanted, “Ga-za, Ga-za, on n’oublie pas! Ga-za, Ga-za, on n’oublie pas!” Gaza, Gaza, you are not forgotten! And, “Gaza, bonne annee, oui! Gaza, bonne annee, oui!” Happy New Year, Gaza.

May 2010 be the year that the blockade ends and freedom comes to Gaza and all Palestine.

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