When Tighe Barry, a Gaza Freedom March coordinator, saw that the bus had not yet gone, he pushed through the group of armed Hamas men in Gaza city and lost it.
“Why has this bus not left yet?” he yelled. “I’ll start this bus myself! It has to go now!”
Barry stormed onto the bus, startling the confused driver as he turned the key in the ignition. He came back out and pounded the windshield with his right hand.
“Get this bus out of here!” he bellowed. “The rest of us will take taxis!”
Barry, regularly clad in a suit and sneakers, hair slightly disheveled, eyes puffy from lack of sleep, always looked as though he had not yet stumbled home from a previous night’s excitement. But the short American with mysterious reserves of energy now seemed at his breaking point.
The Hamas men had watched his antics dumbfounded. Then the eyes of an imposing man, meticulously dressed with a thick beard, hardened with irrepressible rage. It was his turn to shout and he went straight for Barry, whose own anger seemed dwarfed by the man’s menacing demeanor.
Yousri Alghoul, the affable director of the Palestinian National Authority’s Department of Creativity Support, who speaks fluent English, now had to do more than act as liaison between the foreign activists in Gaza for the Freedom March, whom he smilingly described as pesky, and the rigid Hamas security forces. He flung himself in front of Barry, who was facing down the much taller Hamas man, and somehow eased the tension with some rapidly spoken Arabic. Minutes before, he had been telling me how he and his wife loved to watch the American television series Lost, about a group of plane crash survivors trapped on an inhospitable island.
Barry’s frustration was not hard to comprehend. For the past few days he and hundreds of other international activists had been holding protests throughout Cairo, corralled by Egyptian riot police and their even more intimidating plainclothesmen counterpart, after Egyptian authorities had announced they would not allow the activists to travel to Gaza.
Six month’s work was threatened by the decision. Groups from all over the world had held fundraising events, organizers had endeavored to plan out the logistics of the march, and activists from around the globe had coordinated their efforts. The march was billed by organizers as a historic peaceful march in the Gaza Strip to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Israel’s 22-day offensive there, which left around 1,400 Palestinians dead and much of the coastal strip in ruins.
But the Egyptians forbade private bus companies from transporting foreigners, threatening to revoke their operating licenses. People who tried to make their own way to the border with Gaza were detained and turned around. Those who managed to make it to Al-Arish, a city on the Mediterranean coast of the Sinai Peninsula not far from the border town of Rafah, were placed under hotel arrest.
After days of protests, the Egyptians announced they would allow only one hundred of the over 1,300 marchers from around forty countries to enter Gaza, and this only after a delegation had appealed directly to First Lady Susan Mubarak, the Egyptian president’s wife and head of the Egyptian Red Crescent.
The Freedom March participants quickly turned on one another as many, if not most, were opposed to accepting the Egyptian proposal which excluded them. If the Egyptians had planned to be divisive they were successful. The scene in Cairo where two busloads of activists were supposed to depart for Gaza turned chaotic as people held up signs urging the chosen few to not leave them behind.
The urgings soon turned to insults and tears. People disembarked while others pushed or negotiated their way onboard. It was announced that no buses would leave, and that Palestinian civil society, apparently represented by Haidar Eid, had said not to come. Then one bus with aid was to go. Finally both buses left after several hours of arguing under the watchful stares of riot police, who had threatened to move in on the noisy crowd.
Of the 86 who did leave on board the buses, many naively expected Gaza to be their oasis of freedom after days of restricted movement in Cairo. But when they arrived, civil society was conspicuous only in its absence, and Hamas took charge of the foreigners.
Hamas said it was guarding the internationals from potential attacks from extremists. Some of the marchers accused it of hijacking the march and preventing them from mixing freely with ordinary Gazans, perhaps for fear they may harbor harsh words for its regime. Hamas may have wanted to limit the foreigner’s contact with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the leftist, secular Palestinian political and paramilitary organization. Thousands of Palestinians had rallied in Gaza in the Palestine Stadium earlier in December to celebrate the PFLP’s 42nd anniversary.
The following day the disappointment inside the buses transporting the activists from the morning’s march was palpable. People wanted to be taken back to their hotels. Barry was passing out in complete exhaustion.
Hamas officials for their part had to deal with exasperated foreigners determined to ditch the overbearing armed guards who blocked the entrances of the hotels and followed them around. Government officials claimed to have taken over the organization of the march only after they realized civil society had done nothing to prepare for the arrival of potentially over a thousand internationals.
On the night of Dec. 31, an outdoor gathering was organized to celebrate the coming of the New Year with performances by Palestinian artists including a rap group. Gazan university students took advantage of the event to meet outsiders and practice their English. Some recounted horrific war stories from Israel’s offensive. A young man’s neighborhood had been virtually destroyed. A child with deep, doleful eyes clung to her father’s leg. He rolled up her sleeve to reveal the massive scars left by an Israeli bomb all along her right arm. The air filled with the aromatic smoke of narjilehs—large waterpipes—their incandescent bits of charcoal glowing over bowls of flavored tobacco. Waiters rushed with glasses of sweetened tea.
The night’s celebratory mood was dampened by the presence of Hamas security forces who forbade people from leaving the party on their own. A bus was meant to transport those who wanted to return to their hotels while those who stayed on would take taxis. When the bus had not moved half an hour later and a few grumpy activists began to complain vociferously, Barry lost his cool.
Hamas officials had needed to deal with angered foreigners only a couple hours earlier when the delegation of orthodox Jews from Neturei Karta became enraged at the sight of women and men celebrating the New Year together. They oppose the existence of the State of Israel because they believe their religious texts prohibit Jews from having a state of their own until the arrival of the messiah.
It seemed lost on Hamas officials that these orthodox Jews would forget all about Palestinian rights if the messiah were to suddenly appear, when both Hamas and Neturei Karta had looked pleased to use each other for photo ops earlier in the day. Now Hamas needed to quickly organize to have the pale, robed men driven back to their hotel.
In the meantime, most of the marchers remained stuck in Cairo, their protests broken up with increasing harshness by Egyptian authorities who tried to paint them as somehow more extreme than those who had been allowed to board the buses. Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said: “Those who tried to conspire against us, and they are more than a thousand, we will leave them in the street.” A group of activists, including 85-year-old Hedy Epstein whose family perished in the Holocaust, were on hunger strike.