Update–Gaza Freedom March
Guest post from Sayed Dhansay, 28 December 2009
Participants in the first ever Gaza Freedom March are currently still in Cairo after the Egyptian government denied their requests to enter the Gaza Strip. Over 1,360 peace activists from 43 different countries have travelled to Egypt in the hope of visiting Gaza.
The marchers were scheduled to participate in a march inside the Gaza Strip on 31 December 2009 alongside an expected 50,000 Palestinians to commemorate the first anniversary of Israel’s winter invasion that left over 1,400 Palestinians dead and more than 5,000 injured. The Gaza Freedom March also has desperately needed relief aid that it wants to take into Gaza, and seeks to raise awareness of the suffocating siege which Gaza has been under since 2006.
Despite five months of intensive negotiations with Egyptian authorities by organisers, the Egyptian government notified them just days before the march that they would not be allowed to proceed.
Busses transporting the marchers were scheduled to depart from Cairo for the border town of Al Arish on Monday morning. They failed to arrive however after the Egyptian government threatened to revoke the permits of any companies transporting marchers to Gaza. Several participants who travelled to Al Arish independently on Sunday evening were detained or arrested, with some being placed under house arrest in their hotels.
Egyptian police also broke up a peaceful vigil on Sunday night which saw activists attempting to float 1,400 candles on the River Nile in commemoration of those killed in Gaza.
Other protesters report being harassed by Egyptian police and having their busses turned back at various points along highways en route to Al Arish. At present, reaching the Rafah border is impossible as several Egyptian military checkpoints have been set up to prevent protesters from approaching the sealed crossing.
On Sunday evening over 300 French nationals laid siege to the French embassy in downtown Cairo in order to pressure their government to intervene and persuade the Egyptian government to allow the Gaza Freedom March to proceed. The group is still camped outside the embassy and say they will remain there until permission to proceed to Gaza has been granted.
Also on Monday, five busses transporting British, Greek, Belgian and French marchers were turned back at several points en route to Al Arish, with some groups’ passports being temporarily confiscated by Egyptian police.
As every attempt to travel to Al Arish is currently being thwarted by Egyptian authorities, march organizers and participants have turned their efforts to applying political pressure on Egyptian authorities and raising awareness in local and international media in the hope that the decision will be reversed. On Monday afternoon, several hundred march participants staged a lively protest on the doorstep of the UN offices in Cairo.
Activists sang, waved Palestinian flags, erected a makeshift “Gaza Embassy” and staged a “die-in”, symbolizing those killed in Israel’s military offensive in Gaza one year ago. The protesters have set up camp outside the UN offices and refuse to disperse until they are given permission to travel to Gaza.
85-year-old Holocaust survivor and Gaza Freedom March participant Hedy Epstein is leading a hunger strike in protest of the Egyptian government’s decision to ban the march.
Several embassies have also been contacted to intervene and a women’s delegation has delivered a letter to the wife of President Hosni Mubarak appealing to let the march proceed. Organisers also met with the Arab League on Monday pleading for an intervention but, expectedly, were not given any firm commitment.
The over 1,300-strong delegation includes doctors, lawyers, diplomats, journalists, Imams, Rabbis, a Jewish contingent, women’s contingent, grassroots activists and Palestinians who have never been able to visit Gaza.
March participants are appealing to people in every country to urgently apply pressure to their Egyptian embassies to allow the delegation to proceed to Gaza and take with them the desperately needed aid.