The departure from Ramses Street in Cairo, in about 20 buses, was set for the morning of Monday, December 28. However, the organizers of the Gaza Freedom March knew the buses would not arrive. Just as on Sunday night, the buses hired by a group of French activists never made it to their starting point - Cairo's Charles de Gaulle Street, near the French Embassy and across from the zoo.
In the week before the planned march, the Foreign Ministry in Cairo made it clear that the protesters would not be permitted to enter Gaza. Boats even mysteriously disappeared from the Nile on Sunday evening. The Egyptian authorities knew that scores of activists were planning to sail and light candles to mark the first anniversary of Israel's attack on Gaza and the 1,400 people who were killed.
A total of 1,361 people came to Cairo from 43 countries to participate in the Gaza Freedom March, 700 of them from the United States alone, many more than initially expected. It started out as a small initiative. Then the American feminist and peace group Codepink signed on, and it gradually spread to other countries.
Bringing Gaza to Cairo
"If we can't go to Gaza, we'll bring Gaza to Cairo," said one American peace activist. And indeed, for an entire week, more than a thousand foreign citizens, the vast majority of them from Western countries, scurried around the Egyptian capital looking for ways and places to demonstrate against the blockade of Gaza.
"The demonstrations in Cairo are conclusive proof that Israel pressured Egypt not to allow entry into Gaza," said one Egyptian citizen (who like other Egyptians, did not dare participate in the demonstrations, for fear of punishment). "What does Egypt need this headache for? It would have been easier and simpler to have sent them all to Gaza and forget about them."
When the buses didn't show, the French activists set up tents and sleeping bags outside the embassy. At 2 A.M., they discovered that le camping had been surrounded by a fence and a tight cordon of riot-dispersal police. Tents, a police barrier, movement restrictions, and an area under siege: Without having planned it, they were replicating the Gazan situation in particular and the Palestinian situation in general. Withstanding the siege conditions became an aim and a challenge.
During the next two or three days, the cordon intensified, from one row of police to three. Every few hours, the activists discussed how to proceed; this was direct democracy in action. Without secrets, without orders from on high, without hierarchies.
A similar process unfolded at various spots around Cairo. Some activists discovered police were surrounding their hotels, blocking them from exiting. Several demonstrated in front of their respective embassies - and were immediately surrounded by riot police. The most violent were those posted to the American Embassy.
Who's to blame?
One large group set up under the United Nations Development Program's offices. "In our presence here, we are saying that we are not casting the blame on Egypt. The responsibility for the shameless and obscene Israeli siege on Gaza rests squarely with our own countries," explained one of the organizers.
This sounded like an answer to an accusation voiced mostly by supporters of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah: With Hamas encouragement, international especially Arab popular pressure is being directed at the wrong address - Egypt, rather than Israel. Some of the organizers said they were indeed under the impression that Hamas was not at all interested in demonstrating at the Erez crossing into Israel, which is almost sealed, but rather at the Rafah crossing into Egypt.
The dream was to have tens of thousands march to the Beit Hanun/Erez crossing point on the first anniversary of the Israel Defense Forces offensive, in order to demand that Israel and the world lift the siege. The would-be participants are a very varied bunch: Some have been left-wing activists for decades, while others joined only during the Gaza campaign itself. Students and pensioners, university lecturers, paupers, young and old.
The older activists included Hedy Epstein, 85, a German-born American citizen whose life was saved when her Jewish parents sent her to England when she was 14. They later perished in Auschwitz. She sat on a chair under the building housing the UNDP offices, with those on hunger strike, in protest of their being banned from entering Gaza. Hippies in their 50s and 60s cavorted nearby, Italians sang "Bella Ciao," and South African activists unfurled a banner calling for sanctions on Israel and quoting Nelson Mandela: "Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians."
"I feel that I'm doing something for Israel, for the sake of its future," said one bearded young man from Boston, who has been volunteering in a Palestinian village in the West Bank. His mother, who is Jewish, accompanied him on one of his flights into Israel to have a look at his new life. When they landed, they learned his name was on a Border Control list at the airport, and mother and son were detained for eight hours of questioning.
"She came out of there a radical," laughed the young man, who a year and a half ago discovered the alternative discourse about his "second homeland."
A Venezuelan documentary director said, "Eighty percent of the participants I have interviewed at random are Jewish." Eighty percent is probably an exaggeration, though a large percentage of those present were Jews. The colorful crowd also included Palestinians who are citizens of Western countries, some of them Gazans hoping to see relatives for the first time in years. There were also religious Christians and Muslims. Some of the slogans they proclaimed were overly ambitious, such as "We have come to liberate Gaza."
But by and large, this variegated whole sounded a message of militant pacifism and feminism, liberation theories and a lot of faith in the cumulative, positive effect of popular, non-hierarchical action and its ability to bring about change.
It's a pity, I thought to myself: The Egyptians are preventing us from seeing what happens when this direct, transparent democracy meets the Hamas regime.
On Monday evening, the demonstrators learned that, at the request of the president's wife, Suzanne Mubarak, 100 people would be allowed to enter the Gaza Strip. Many saw this as a way of breaking the demonstrators' solidarity and lessening the pressure on Egypt. In the end, on December 30, about 80 people set out on buses, including several journalists who were not affected by the dilemma.
At midnight, about 12 hours after leaving Cairo, we arrived at a hotel in Gaza. There the first surprise awaited us: A Hamas security official in civilian dress swooped down on a friend who had come to pick me up for a visit, announcing that guests could not stay in private homes.
The story gradually became clear. The international organizers of the march coordinated it with civil society, various non-governmental organizations, which were also supposed to involve the Popular Committee to Break the Siege, a semi-official organization affiliated with Hamas. Many European activists have long-standing connections with left-wing organizations in the Gaza Strip. Those organizations, especially the relatively large Popular Front, had organized lodging for several hundred guests in private homes. When the Hamas government heard this, it prohibited the move. "For security reasons." What else?
Also "for security reasons," apparently, on Thursday morning, the activists discovered a cordon of stern-faced, tough Hamas security men blocking them from leaving the hotel (which is owned by Hamas). The security officials accompanied the activists as they visited homes and organizations.
During the march itself, when Gazans watching from the sidelines tried to speak with the visitors, the stern-faced security men blocked them. "They didn't want us to speak to ordinary people," one woman concluded.
Hijacked or poorly organized?
The march was not what the organizers had dreamed of during the nine months of preparation. The day before the trip to Gaza, they already knew that the non-governmental organizations had backed out. Some people said that Hamas government representatives had found the NGOs did not have a clear, organized plan for the guests and therefore had taken the initiative. One Palestinian activist insisted: "When we heard there would only be 100, we canceled everything."
Another said, "From the outset, Hamas set conditions: No more than 5,000 marchers, no approaching the wall and the fence, how to make speeches, how long the speeches should be, who will make speeches. In short, Hamas hijacked the initiative from us and we gave in."
Hamas, or its Popular Committee, brought 200 or 300 marchers. The march turned into nothing more than a ritual, an opportunity for Hamas cabinet ministers to get decent media coverage in the company of Western demonstrators. Especially photogenic were four Americans from the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jewish group Neturei Karta, who joined the trip only at Al Arish. There were no Palestinian women among the marchers - a slap to the many feminist organizers and participants, both women and men.
After the march, the guests voiced protests to some of the official Palestinian organizers. "We came to demonstrate against the siege, and we found that we ourselves were under siege," they said. Their variegation and the transparency of their behavior did not suit the military discipline the official hosts tried to impose. The officials listened, and after the reins were loosened a bit, I set out to visit the homes of friends.
There people described the lingering fear from the Israeli onslaught. Saturday afternoon, at 11:30 A.M. - the time of the first aerial bombardments - remains today a sensitive hour for many children. Just as thunderstorms, or electricity failures (an everyday occurrence) or a persistent drone flying above cause anxiety and evoke nightmarish memories.
Some of the marchers were now allowed to go out on their own, with Gazan acquaintances they had previously known only via telephone and e-mail. Some, especially the Arabic-speakers, complained that "a shadow in the shape of a security man" continued to accompany them. In quick "safari" tours of bombed neighborhoods, through bus windows, they saw ruins that had not yet been cleared, like the complex of bombed-out government buildings that are still standing - ugly concrete skeletons with empty rooms and no walls, like screaming mouths.
In meetings without the security men, several activists got the impression that non-Hamas residents live in fear, and are afraid to speak or identify themselves by name. "Now I understand that the call for 'Freedom for Gaza' has another meaning," one young man told me.
The participants spent Thursday and Friday in the Gaza Strip. Friday, January 1, was the 45th anniversary of the establishment of Fatah. The Hamas government does not allow the rival organization to assemble, just as the PA does not allow Hamas to assemble in the West Bank. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh congratulated Fatah on its anniversary, but at the same time the Hamas security services did all they could to deter the movement's activists from even thinking about a celebration.
Hundreds of Fatah activists were summoned by the police and kept in semi-detention for several hours, until evening. Security officials entered homes where candles were burning or Fatah flags were being flown to mark the anniversary. In one home, the security officials tried to arrest two people, and the mother tried to block them. One policeman allegedly hit her - and she had a heart attack and died.
I wondered: Were the restrictions an order from above, or an unwise interpretation by lower ranks? Does Hamas think it can entirely prevent the few visitors - clearly pro-Palestinian - from hearing non-official versions? Don't the people giving the orders realize what a bad image they were creating? Or was there really a security concern?
Someone who, to put it mildly, is not a Hamas fan explained to me that young men who quit Iz al-Din al-Qassam for the amorphous Jaljalat militia are a genuine headache. They are a convenient excuse for restricting contact with "just anyone," but the fear that they might try to harm the visitors in order to damage Hamas is real.
These are devout young men who, officially, criticize Hamas for not enforcing Islamic religious law in its entirely. However, as the critic said, "Unwittingly, because of their lost lives, our lost lives, they are angry at the whole world."
Postscript: After two days all the visitors, journalists included, had to leave Gaza. According to Hamas, this was an explicit Egyptian demand. Egyptian officers confirmed this.