Yusif Barakat’s business card is adorned with flowers and butterflies. On the front of the card, there is a photo of a smiling and eccentrically dressed Barakat wearing a black and white keffiyeh, a Palestinians scarf, around his head. On the back of the card is written his motto: “Do no harm. Be of service. Cooperate not compete.”
“I was born in Haifa in 1935, and I spent the first 12 years of my life in Palestine,” Barakat said in a sonorous voice. “I used to cross the Jordan River on horseback as a child. I used to be a shepherd boy, lived a very peaceful life. I grew up with Muslim, Christian, Jewish children. There were never any problems. During the Nakba [“the catastrophe”, the Palestinian name for the war of 1948] I found myself on a ship, crossed two oceans to Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, the New York skyline. There I was, a 12-year-old shepherd boy who couldn’t speak English, face to face with the Statue of Liberty, and it was very frightening. At that time I found that I’m going to spend my life helping humanity and stopping this kind of oppressive injustice.”
More than 60 years later, Barakat had come to Cairo and then to Gaza to protest this “oppressive injustice.”
The march was the brainchild of scholar and activist Norman Finkelstein, author of Beyond Chutzpah and The Holocaust Industry. The idea came to him when he was in Gaza after the war with a Code Pink delegation.
“Ghandi was of the opinion that non-violence was much more courageous than violence,” Finkelstein said. “The bulk of the march by far will be Palestinian, we would be there to act as human shields, more or less what happened in the American South during what was called Freedom Summer, where privileged northern students came down and risked their lives, knowing that if a black person were killed no one would give a darn but if a privileged student from Harvard or Yale gets killed, the press, the country, would pay attention.”
Norman Finkelstein, a kind of superstar in the world of activism for Palestinian rights in North America, was supposed to be the march’s spokesperson. His speaking engagements were needed to drum up support and media attention, but he along with several other key players resigned after a bitter dispute within the Gaza Freedom March steering committee over the march’s statement of context.
Finkelstein believed the statement should be simple and inclusive. It should focus on the illegality of Israel’s blockade and the collective punishment of Gaza’s population, he said. But two influential Palestinians, Omar Barghouti representing the West Bank and Haidar Eid from Gaza, wanted the statement to be a comprehensive manifesto dealing with everything from the right of return of Palestinian refugees and Israeli settlements in the West Bank to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement as a preferred mode of resistance to the Israeli occupation.
Omar Barghouti is a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, completing a master’s of philosophy at Tel Aviv University. Haidar Eid, an associate professor in the Department of English Literature at Al-Aqsa University in Gaza, is a proponent of the one-state solution and also a member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
The two individuals contacted Palestinian organizations that had endorsed the march, encouraging them to disassociate themselves from it until there was more of a focus on BDS. In their letter, the duo wrote that: “While over-emphasizing Gandhian non-violence, the statement ignores the most effective, home grown, non-violent form of resistance advocated by most Palestinians today: BDS.”
Organizers and members of the steering committee were receptive to the duo’s complaints, and draft statements began to go back and forth, eating up time and energy. Email exchanges eventually became increasingly bitter.
“The intervention of E&B [Eid and Barghouti] has created unnecessary division,” wrote Abie Dawjee. “Things have turned ugly. I don’t like such ugliness. Hence, with great sadness, I quit as march coordinator for South Africa.”
Thomas Woodley, director of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East and a member of the working committee, said the pressure placed on Palestinian organizations that had already endorsed the march was “unprofessional,” and it put organizers in a difficult position. It “would have looked strange” if no Palestinian groups were aboard. “We were trying to get internationals involved and felt strongly that the ‘lowest common denominator’ approach was the only way to go.”
Woodley thought strong leadership was lacking and that too much time had been spent trying to satisfy Eid and Barghouti, so he resigned. (Eid passed along my emailed questions to a media representative, who did not respond.)
Finkelstein resigned publicly with a statement posted on his website. In it he wrote:
“During the week beginning August 30, 2009 and in a matter of days an entirely new sectarian agenda dubbed ‘the political context’ was foisted on those who originally signed on and worked tirelessly for three months.… It should perhaps be stressed that the point of dispute was not whether one personally supported a particular Palestinian right or strategy to end the occupation. It was whether inclusion in the coalition’s statement of a particular right or strategy was necessary if it was both unrelated to the immediate objective of breaking the siege and dimmed the prospect of a truly mass demonstration. In addition the tactics by which this new agenda was imposed do not bode well for the future of the coalition’s work and will likely move the coalition in an increasingly sectarian direction.”
The steering committee voted 8-5 in favor of changing the statement of context to include BDS. Eid and Barghouti sent out their letter of support.
“We were just informed that the organizing committee of the Gaza Freedom March has finally adopted the statement of context that takes into consideration the key constructive suggestions expressed by both of us weeks ago,” they wrote. “Accordingly, we fully endorse the Gaza Freedom March….”
But days before the march was planned to take place, Eid told the government in Gaza that civil society would not partake, guaranteeing that the march would not be a success.
Eid had repeatedly requested over the months that the steering committee based in the United States send letters to Hamas, “reminding them that we were a civil society to civil society initiative and to please let the civil society representatives coordinate our visit and the march,” according to Ann Wright, one of the main organizers.
Members of civil society contended that Hamas had taken too important a role in the march.
“The government decided to take the control of the designing and way of the march so most of the civil society, NGOs and their representatives decided not to be in the same line as the government to ensure the neutrality of the march itself,” said Moheeb Shaath, the Gaza director of Sharek Youth Forum.
Civil society had spent months preparing for the march, according to Shaath, and had asked Hamas only to provide security.