Gaza Freedom March challenges Israeli siege

January 16, 2010

More than 1400 activists from 43 countries travelled to Egypt to mark the first anniversary of Israel's December 2008-January 2009 assault on the Palestinian Gaza Strip.

The Israeli war on Gaza cost 1400 Palestinian lives, mostly civilians. The Gaza Freedom March (GFM) intended to march into Gaza as an expression of solidarity against the Israeli siege.

For the past four years, the siege has deprived the territory's 1.5 million people of essentials such as building materials, fuel and medical facilities, and has stopped reconstruction since the devastating Israeli assault.

However, most of the activists were stopped from reaching Gaza by Egypt's Western-backed dictatorship, which unleashed riot police and plainclothes thugs on the international protesters.

Similarly, the third "Viva Palestina" convoy seeking to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza met with bureaucratic obstruction and police brutality in Egypt, despite it including a delegation of Turkish parliamentarians and British MP George Galloway.

It was eventually allowed into Gaza on January 6.

The violent attempts by the Egyptian regime to stop international solidarity with Gaza shows that Israel would be unable to keep its starvation siege of the Palestinian enclave without the help of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Gaza shares its southern border with Egypt, its only neighbour asides from Israel.

With US help, the Mubarak regime, which has already built a wall along its Gaza border, is building underground structures to stop tunnelling between Gaza and Egypt.

The tunnels are the main way essential goods, such as food and medicine, have entered the besieged territory.

Canterbury Bankstown Peace Group and Sydney Stop the War Coalition activist Marlene Obeid was in Egypt as part of the GFM between December 25 and January 8.

"There were various obstacles put in place", she told Green Left Weekly. She said transit permits, which had been previously negotiated by march organisers with the Egyptian government, were cancelled.

She said international protesters were banned from the town of El Arish, close to the Rafah crossing into Gaza.

Busses hired for the four hour trip from the capital Cairo were cancelled after the government threatened the bus companies with the removal of their licenses. Drivers of other vehicles were intimidated and threatened for taking protesters to El Arish.

Obeid said foreign activists were followed everywhere by plainclothes security in Egypt. "At every event there was a heavy police attendance: riot cops, plainclothes security — hundreds of police."

The largest action by the GFM was a December 31 street march in the centre of Cairo. "We took to the streets and they started to remove us", Obeid said.

Riot police and plainclothes police "started pulling people by the hair [and] throwing kicks to the lower ribs of people sitting on the road. A number of activists got broken ribs.

"I was dragged by my hair and kicked in the back. I saw a young Australian woman dragged by her hair. She and another protester had their heads bashed together."

Passing motorists gave victory signs and sounded their horns in solidarity. Some locals joined in, although GFM organisers did not encourage this due to the threat of reprisals from the dictatorship.

Obeid said: "Even though we were handled roughly, we didn't face the same consequences Egyptians would have."

On December 30, GFM activists joined a protest organised by local activists against the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "We were asked to go and support it and remain until all local protesters had left."

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