“I’m determined to go to Gaza,” said Epstein. “It’s important to let the people of Gaza, who are terribly, terribly isolated, know that there are some people out there who know about what is happening and who care, and who support them in this dreadful, dreadful life they have to lead.”
On Dec. 31, the day of the march, some of the activists were barricaded in their hotel by police. When groups came together in front of Egypt’s national museum they were quickly encircled by riot police as they attempted to march down the road. They sat on the street to hold their ground and police began hitting and pulling them. Then protesters were once again corralled into a fenced area and allowed to continue chanting for the rest of the day.
This was not the turn of events organizers had anticipated. The march was supposed to be against Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. But it was Egypt that prevented the march from taking place as it had been envisaged, and even welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Cairo on Dec. 29, much to the consternation of many Egyptians and international activists.
Egypt increasingly became the focus of criticism both by participants and in the media. Shortly after the march, Egypt said it would allow 139 vehicles from a Viva Palestina aid convoy to enter Gaza but that 59 vehicles would have to pass through Israel. This came after the convoy had already been forced to change its route after spending three days stranded in Aqaba, Jordan, because Egypt had refused to allow it entry through the port of Nuweiba. Clashes erupted between Viva Palestina members and Egyptian police leading the foreign minister to announce that “Egypt will no longer allow convoys, regardless of their origin or who is organizing them, from crossing its territory.”
In the United States months earlier, organizers of the march associated with the anti-war group Code Pink had been sanguine that they would pull the event off, and that it would involve 50,000 Palestinians all marching together to the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel. People had hoped the march would be historic, alluding to marches against colonial rule in India and apartheid in South Africa. But forces are often quick to converge in the Middle East against those working for peace.
The generators powering lights and winches in the hundreds of tunnels beneath Egypt’s border droned in the night. There was no mistaking what was happening on the Gaza side of the border near the town of Rafah: a truck was being loaded with sacks of cement pulled from the ground. Egyptian guards in a watchtower took no interest in all the activity; there is plenty of money to be made on both sides from the booming tunnel industry.
All but the most basic of supplies in Gaza must go through the tunnels. Coke cans bought in stores must be wiped clean of their dirt. The price of goods and materials has spiked as the tunnels, reinforced with steel and cement, are costly to build and run. They have become a lifeline for Palestinians in Gaza. Some are also used to smuggle weapons.
Israel has imposed a blockade on the strip since June 2007 when Hamas pre-empted a plan for forces loyal to rival Fatah to take control after Hamas won the 2006 legislative elections. Gun battles raged in the streets between Palestinian militants, and violence between Israel and Gaza escalated.
On June 19, 2008, Hamas and Israel reached a ceasefire as Defense Minister Ehud Barak was ordering the Israel Defense Forces to plan for war. Hamas abided by the ceasefire despite Israel’s refusal to lift the blockade. Rocket fire from the strip was reduced by 97 percent. The rockets that were fired were from groups other than Hamas, and in response to the killing of Palestinians by Israel in the West Bank. Israel broke the ceasefire on Nov. 4, killing 6 Palestinians. Hamas resumed firing rockets after Israel broke the ceasefire.
On Dec. 27, Israel attacked Gaza. The first wave of bombings came at precisely the time when children were being let out of school and crowded the streets. Some 22 days later, around 1,400 Gazans were dead, including hundreds of women and children. Israel lost 13 people, including three soldiers accidently killed by its own military. More than 4,000 buildings were destroyed and more than 20,000 were severely damaged—representing around 15 percent of all buildings in Gaza. Around 50,800 Gazans were homeless and 400,000 were without water. Israel damaged or destroyed about 50 U.N. facilities, 21 medical facilities, 1,500 factories and workshops, 20 mosques and 10 water sewage pipes. Schools and universities had also come under attack. The estimated damages at the war’s end stood at two billion dollars. Hamas remained as strong as ever.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International accused Israel of war crimes, including the possible murder of unarmed civilians waving white flags. On Nov. 5, 2009, the U.N. General Assembly endorsed the Goldstone report, a U.N. investigation which found both Israel and Palestinian militants guilty of war crimes. The investigation was headed by Justice Richard Goldstone, a South African Jew whose daughter lives in Israel, and a former war crimes prosecutor at the U.N. tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The 575-page report accused Israel of committing war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity. It also accused Hamas of war crimes for its indiscriminate rocket attacks, but the brunt of the criticism was reserved for Israel whose actions were far more extensive and destructive.
Gaza is a land of contrasts. Its potential is visible to all who visit: a beautiful Mediterranean coastline and scarlet sunsets, palm trees, pleasant cafés and hotels, and incredibly friendly people. But in the North of Gaza near the border with Israel, Palestinians have collected scavenged rebar from the buildings destroyed during the war to sell as scrap metal. On the coast, fishermen bring in nets with barely any fish—raw sewage has been pumped into the sea since the war. Boats that venture out more than a few miles from shore risk being attacked or harassed by the Israeli navy.
Gaza has the highest unemployment rate in the world. Many Palestinians in Gaza, some 80 percent of who are not from Gaza but are the descendents of refugees from Southern Israel dispossessed in 1948, have become wholly dependent on U.N. handouts to get by. One year on after the war, the most impoverished of those who lost their homes live in tents or makeshift shelters, as did their ancestors when they fled from Jewish paramilitary groups to Gaza more than 60 years ago.
Smugglers importing pharmaceutical drugs into Gaza have profited from the psychological trauma of war, the hardships of life under siege and an uncertain political future. Palestinians searching for reprieve from stress and distress have turned to painkillers and tranquillizers, triggering a wave of addiction. Natural opiates were banned under Hamas rule, but the government failed to regulate synthetic opioids such as Tramal, a strong painkiller and now the drug of choice in Gaza, especially popular amongst high school students.
This is the dire state of affairs the activists came to protest only to be held up in Cairo by the Egyptian authorities or smothered by Hamas in Gaza. On their last day in Gaza, and as if to complete the picture for the peaceful activists, a rocket was fired into the Negev desert by Palestinian militants and Israeli jets bombed several targets across the strip, wounding two Palestinians.