By Antony Lowenstein, The Sydney Morning Herald – 6 Jan 2009
The 85-year-old Jewish, anti-Zionist, Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein is a sturdy looking woman. Her slightly hunched frame hides the determination to continue a life-long dedication to social justice.
This week in Cairo she joined close to 1400 international delegates on the Gaza Freedom March (GFM), a project aimed at ending the suffocating blockade on Gaza. Epstein launched a hunger strike alongside about 50 others to highlight the human rights abuses in Palestine and Israeli and Egyptian collusion in the humanitarian crisis for the Strip’s 1.5 million population.
GFM steering committee member Dr Haidar Eid, based in Gaza, said that the “deadly, hermitic siege” had only tightened after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in December 2008/January 2009.
Epstein told The Age that she refused to remain silent as a Jew when, “Israel was committing crimes against the Palestinian people. I often receive hate-mail from Jews over my public stance, being called a self-hating Jew and worse, but I ignore them.”
Citizens from 42 countries, including America, Venezuela, Cameroon, Ireland, Australia, Britain, Japan and Libya descended on Cairo on December 27 with the hope of leaving for the Egyptian/Gaza border the following day. Organised by American peace group Code Pink, prominent delegates included leading American legal advocate Michael Ratner, European members of parliament and co-founder of the Electronic Intifada website Ali Abunimah.
The Egyptian regime blocked access for the mission, citing “security” concerns, and refused to grant entry visas to the assembled group. Cairo’s position, undoubtedly backed by its masters the US and Israel, condemned most of the marchers as “hoodlums” and “criminals”. In fact, many participants were the elderly and the religious and non-violent, Gandhian tactics were the central ideology.
I attended the week-long event, as a Jew, human being and journalist, and never heard any mention of incitement from the delegates. Instead, it was clear that Palestine had become a key concern for citizens across the globe, dismayed that the Western political elites continued to support Israeli aggression. The Jewish state’s very legitimacy is being challenged like never before.
A key concern of the GFM was establishing closer global links between civil communities. The Congress of South African Trade Unions held a meeting with various individuals and shared stories about its own ultimately successful struggle against apartheid. A leader from the metal worker’s union intended to educate his delegates about the importance of boycotting Israeli products. “During apartheid we labelled certain products with a label that excluded its export,” he said. “We can do the same thing with Israeli products if they arrive on our shores.”
The term “apartheid Israel” wasn’t controversial in these circles; it was simply used as an accurate description of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.
The humanitarian situation in Gaza remains desperate and the GFM aimed to highlight the plight to the international community. On the one-year anniversary of Israel’s latest assault, according to Israeli human rights group Gisha, “87 million litres of untreated or partially treated sewage is dumped into the sea daily for lack of electricity and spare parts”.
The Gazan people are being collectively punished to pressure the democratically elected Hamas Government. It seems to be failing. During my visit to the Strip in July last year, I constantly heard complaints towards the Islamist organisation but they’ve only increased their grip on the territory in the past 12 months.
The GFM was faced with a dilemma. The focus was supposed to be Gaza but Cairo’s intransigence forced them to find creative ways to protest peacefully in a country where the gathering of more than a few people is deemed illegal.
Mass demonstrations were held outside the UN building, the Journalist’s Syndicate and about 300 French citizens camped for three days outside the French Embassy, surrounded by hundreds of Egyptian riot police. One of their leaders told me one night, as we snaked past sleeping bags, tents, mattresses and aching bodies, that, “we are only sacrificing our comfort while the people of Gaza have been suffering for years”.
A small Australian delegation was granted a meeting with the Australian ambassador, Stephanie Shwabsky, who said she found the situation “utterly tragic”, but could only pledge to push the tired, unworkable formulas offered by the Rudd Government and the Obama Administration.
On the last day of the GFM, after a handful of delegates were granted entry to Gaza, about 500 protested in Cairo’s central Tahir square. The state’s security forces dragged, kicked, punched and groped a number of us, causing a few broken ribs and bloody noses, but we stood firm for about five hours.
Participants wore T-shirts with the words, “The audacity of war crimes”, “Boycott Israel” and “Free Gaza”, the sheer range of countries represented and the backgrounds of those present reflecting the internationalisation of the Middle East conflict.
Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney journalist and the author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution.