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Fanning the Flames of Freedom from Cairo to Gaza and Beyond

Emily Ratner | Dissident Voice

January 3 2010

“The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class–it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of freedom.” –Anna Julia Cooper, page 27, my US passport

The Gaza Freedom March announced the Cairo Declaration to End Israeli Apartheid on January 1st, and so yesterday hundreds of Marchers smuggled freedom’s smoke signals in our luggage as we climbed into buses, vans, and taxis and made a mad dash for the Rafah border crossing. My own van was pulled over at the first checkpoint on the way out of Cairo, where we sat on a dusty curb for two hours before being forced to turn back. As we waited for guards to run our passport numbers and strategized about next steps, a small bus filled with our French friends sped by on the other side of the road, headed back to Cairo. Their hands formed peace signs through the windows as they shouted at border guards, and we were reminded once again of the historic nature of these days, when more than 1,300 people have come to Egypt from 43 different countries to support our sisters and brothers in Gaza. When we were first pulled over I felt silly for thinking our small van, filled with aging activists and suitcases overflowing with medicine and other forms of aid, would be permitted to pass to Rafah. As we drove away from the checkpoint, where we picked up two stragglers who had been pulled from buses and told they must return as well, my thinking began to change: Even if none of us arrive in Gaza (an impossibility given the resourcefulness of this remarkable group), our global solidarity community has accomplished something amazing here in Cairo, and in countries around the world. We will now leave Egypt, either for Gaza or for our homes, with a unified call to action, and a concrete plan to continue this crucial work.

We have seen so many victories here in Cairo in the crazy days since the Egyptian Foreign Minister announced we would not be permitted to cross the Rafah border. There are some moments when the haze of Cairo clouds our eyes with dust and disappointment, but we sing our successes into the smog of this city, reminding ourselves and our allies around the world that our efforts will not be deterred by Egyptian guards at checkpoints and the Israeli politicians who are calling the shots:

On December 27, the French group of over 300 allies and mentors took over Giza/Charles de Gaulle St, a terrifyingly busy thoroughfare, when their Rafah-bound buses did not arrive at the French Embassy. They held the street for a full hour before agreeing to wait for the buses on the sidewalk in front of the Embassy. They camped in “Giza Strip” for a full five days, guarded by three rows of riot police.

On December 29, Hedy Epstein, an 85 year-old Holocaust survivor, began a widely reported hunger strike with thirty activists, announcing that they will feast when all of Gaza feasts.

Later that night, hundreds of internationals stood alongside hundreds of Egyptians, who bravely protested Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to Egypt and demanded an end to the siege.

On December 30, the Egyptian government sent two buses of marchers to Gaza in an effort to temper the terrible press Mubarak is receiving in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. So many of us refused to be satisfied by this token gesture that the buses were not full when they reached Gaza.

Later that day, hundreds protested at the American Embassy, where police managed to fracture them into small, highly guarded groups but could not divide the loud, unified voice with which they demanded an end to the siege, both from the streets in front of the Embassy and from negotiations inside.

Also on December 30, 25 French activists raced an enormous Palestinian flag to the top of one of the pyramids as hundreds of Egyptians and others cheered them on in this highly illegal act. This was the flag’s second trip to the top of the pyramid since we’ve arrived.

On December 31, more than 500 internationals set out on a Freedom March to Gaza from the Egyptian Museum, where they stopped heavy traffic on Tahrir Square and fought fearlessly against guards who violently moved them to pedestrian areas. In Gaza, internationals joined Palestinian marchers in the trek to the Erez crossing, where hundreds upon hundreds protested the siege from the Israeli side of the border. Thousands more joined solidarity protests around the world.

On January 1, more than 500 protested at the Israeli Embassy, forcing global attention on the government that is desperately seeking to divert our efforts to the Egyptian government’s role in the siege. We have proved that we will not be fooled.

Later that night, the South African delegation officially announced the Cairo Declaration that we have worked together to create in partnership with our sisters and brothers in Gaza. The Declaration demands an end to Israeli Apartheid, lists our renewed commitments, and provides an action plan as we move forward in this important work. In a week of historic events, this document proves we have accomplished the mission that brought us to Cairo: We are now united with the people in Gaza, and have a unified plan as we move forward in our crucial work.

While Egyptians turn us away from check points and borders, we remember that it is the Israeli government that has demanded we be kept out of Gaza. And the Israelis have made this demand because they are terrified of our movement. Their weapons and soldiers are no match for the ideas we carry with us, sparked in Palestine and now aflame in Egypt and throughout the world. Our global community join Palestinian civil society in some demands of our own, which the Israelis cannot quell by preventing our passage to Gaza. As the Cairo Declaration states, we demand Self-Determination for all Palestinians. We demand an End to the Occupation. We demand Equal Rights for All within historic Palestine. We demand the full Right of Return for all People of Palestine.

And we insist that as a global solidarity movement, we have the right to make these demands. Egyptian guards have been unable to stop us as we scream our demands from atop the pyramids, from the sidewalks of the U.S. and Israeli Embassies, and from the front pages of newspapers in Egypt, Kuwait, Yemen, and around the world. Allies have stamped these demands into the world’s streets as they march for Palestine’s freedom.

We must make these demands because our work is too important to wait for the the governments of the world to acknowledge that the Israelis will never offer Palestinians what they are owed. We can make these demands because we have the power of a global boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement that will some day be strong enough to cripple the Israeli economy, if we do the work we have promised here in Cairo. And, as Anna Julia Cooper so eloquently states in the US passport that was rejected by Egyptians working on behalf of Israelis yesterday, we will make these demands because freedom is the birthright of humankind.

We celebrate our sisters and brothers in Gaza and throughout Palestine, who have worked so hard to bring us to this historic moment. We celebrate allies here in Cairo and around the world, who are renewing their commitment to their crucial solidarity work by endorsing the Cairo Declaration. And we celebrate all of the travelers who slowly make their way to Rafah, whether they arrive or not. May the Egyptians run our passport numbers thousands of times as they turn us back. May the Israelis be reminded again and again that they have only encouraged us to work more tirelessly than we have so far. May the U.S. government be reminded of the wisdom of Cooper’s words, spat on every time we are rejected at a checkpoint or border crossing. May we leave Cairo with more hope than when we arrived that the siege will end and Gaza and all of Palestine will be free.