By Laura Ashfield and Hannah Carter.
This past December and January, we travelled to Egypt, Israel and Palestine on behalf of the Canadian Friends of Sabeel to participate in the Gaza Freedom March, organized by Code Pink. Each of us had participated in the International Young Friends of Sabeel Conference (Laura in 2008 and Hannah in 2009) and had been deeply affected by our time in the Middle East. As part of our ongoing commitment towards justice and peace in Palestine and Israel, we decided to be a part of the Gaza Freedom March; a ‘historic initiative to break the siege that has imprisoned the 1.5 million people who live in Gaza.’
We planned to arrive in Cairo on December 26th to meet with 1,361 other internationals from 43 different countries. Then on December 27th we would enter Gaza through the Rafah border with humanitarian aid such as school materials, medicine, water purification systems, and other much needed supplies. On the morning of the 31st, we hoped to join about 50,000 Palestinians in a peaceful march from one end of Gaza to the other. The purpose of the Gaza Freedom March was to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Israel’s invasion on Gaza, call worldwide attention to the ongoing humanitarian crisis, and show the residents of Gaza that the international community has not forgotten them. Through this effort, we had hoped to ‘break the seige’ and encourage the leaders of our governments to urge Israel and Egypt to open the borders surrounding Gaza.
Unfortunately, the Freedom March did not go as planned. We were actually delayed in Germany for a few days due to health complications, but our fellow marchers in Cairo did not have any more luck than we did. Although Code Pink had obtained permits for the delegation, the Egyptian authorities informed them that they were not going to be allowed through the Rafah border afterall. The Egyptian government also cancelled the buses to Al Arish and Rafah, and took away their permits to have large group meetings; basically making it impossible to carry out anything as planned. The freedom marchers were stuck in Cairo with not much hope of getting into Gaza.
The ‘March to Gaza’
The day before we arrived in Cairo, the Egyptian Government allowed 100 people into Gaza in order to bring humanitarian aid in and visit some of the organizations we had hoped to connect with. While a handful of the marchers were in Gaza, the rest of the group was making their presence known in Cairo! We arrived in Cairo on the night of the 30th and were quickly swept into the action. On December 31st – the day of the planned Gaza Freedom March – we symbolically marched to Gaza by walking peacefully in the streets of downtown Cairo. Because there was an official ban on public demonstrations, the organizers used the ‘flash mob’ technique. Basically, all the Gaza Freedom Marchers were told to walk around the Egyptian Museum area and look like tourists. At 10:00am sharp, two women leaders held up Palestinian flags, we all swarmed into the busy streets of Cairo. It worked well, and we quickly took over one of the main streets downtown. However, within minutes we were surrounded by hundreds of riot police. The police were very rough and sometimes violent with the marchers in order to get us off the road.
Eventually we were confined to a 500-square meter area of sidewalk across from the Egyptian Museum. Many people had banners and Palestinian flags and we chanted and cheered and made as much noise as we could. It was inspiring to see how passionate everyone was. There were young people, students, adults, and elderly gathered from all over the world and all there for the same reason – freedom for Gaza. Although we were somewhat silenced and trapped by the Egyptian officials and police, this protest was a sign of our anger and outrage at Israel and Egypt for not allowing us into Gaza, for the continuing blockade and siege on Gaza, and for our own governments’ silence. This protest was our opportunity to get our message heard in Cairo and hopefully the rest of the world.
We were extremely disappointed that we did not get into Gaza. In addition to all that had been planned with the official march, we had hoped to meet with the Middle East Council of Churches and learn about how the invasion and continuing siege is affecting the people of Gaza. Laura was in Gaza two summers ago and met with the MECC. She visited refugee camps, hospitals, schools, education centres, and churches where she met the most gracious, warm, and resilient people. We were really looking forward to reconnecting with them, learning from them, and offering solidarity. We had brought with us, two suitcases full of school supplies for children in Gaza. One of the local high schools in Kitchener-Waterloo collected school supplies specifically for Gaza and were hoping we would deliver them. In the end, we left the school supplies in Jerusalem with the family we stayed with – who said they would try their best to get them to Gaza. We’re sure they will be put to good use, wherever they end up.
Although the Gaza Freedom March did not go as planned, our determination and hope did not get defeated. Of course all of the Gaza Freedom March participants were upset that our plans were hijacked, but many people tried to see the positive side of things. Some argued that perhaps there was more media attention because we were not allowed into Gaza, and ended up having to protest. I’m not sure if this is the case, but either way, we felt that this was an important initiative to be a part of, whether in Gaza or in Cairo. The Gaza Freedom March brought thousands of internationals together in one place, in solidarity for the people of Gaza.
Our time in the West Bank
After participating in the Gaza Freedom March, we travelled to Israel and the West Bank, in order to meet with Sabeel in Jerusalem. We were also able to spend time with friends we had made during the Sabeel Conference and visit organizations working for peace. Since we were in the Holy Land over the Christmas/Epiphany season we also attended services in Bethlehem with our host family. It was wonderful to celebrate the birth of Jesus at his actual birthplace! We were pleased that we were also able to spend a few days in Hebron with the Christian Peacemaker Team. We walked with them during their daily patrols and spoke with the people living under occupation, learning more about the serious problems that are particular to the situation in Hebron. We used our time in the West Bank to learn as much as we could, to connect again with Sabeel, to listen, and to gain experiences.
We would like to thank you all for the many ways in which you supported us in our participation in the Gaza Freedom March and our travels to the West Bank and Israel. We are eager to present about our experiences traveling in the Middle East. If you would like to hear more, we would be happy to share more stories with you! In fact, we will be speaking at Knox Presbyterian Church in Waterloo on May 2nd at 12:15pm and you are more than welcome to attend.
Peace (in the Middle East)
Laura Ashfield and Hannah Carter