Organizers had only had a few hours to compile a list of one hundred names for the authorities, and had tried to include representatives from as many countries as possible. A lot of the marchers were upset, and felt the selection process had lacked transparency.
Gaza civil society, represented by Omar Barghouti and Haidar Eid, sent a message to organizers which was read aloud to all those present. Though they had been supportive of only a hundred people going the night before, they now wrote: “After a lot of hesitation and deliberation, we are writing to call on you to reject the ‘deal’ reached with the Egyptian authorities,” the email read. “We … are unambiguous in perceiving this compromise as too heavy, too divisive and too destructive to our future work and networking with various solidarity movements around the world.”
When people started disembarking the buses, the Egyptian authorities became more flexible, allowing new names to be added to the list. Those who were determined to leave on the buses, despite the urgings of so many of the marchers, believed they could serve an independent purpose in Gaza. Some had NGO business to tend to, while others were journalists, photographers or bloggers. Some had aid to deliver. Others had relatives they hadn’t seen in years to visit. All had their reasons for wanting to go.
“My dad worked in Gaza in 1949 with the United Nations and Quakers in charge of tents, food and medicines in a refugee camp by Rafah”, said David Hartsough, executive director of Peaceworkers and co-founder of Nonviolent Peaceforce. “His being willing to come into a warzone halfway around the world to meet the needs of people he had never met impressed me. In addition to that, I’ve heard about what was happening in Gaza, people living there imprisoned, the terrible destruction from a year ago from the Israeli attack, and I just felt that it’s time the world wakes up and says that this is unconscionable.”
The buses left with a motley crew, some in tears, some angry, most feeling the need to voice their justifications for being on board. To some, the march had already lost its historic potential—it was clear the marchers would not disrupt the functioning of the Israeli or Egyptian governments—but many hoped to still put a dent in Israel’s shield of public opinion.
This optimism shrank on the day of the march when activists were bused to the road leading to the Erez crossing with a police escort leading the way. One young woman remarked bitterly that the police car’s siren was more likely to attract unwanted attention if the government was genuinely concerned for the activists’ safety. Palestinian media were waiting near the drop off, and the marchers on board the buses were filmed like animals in a zoo before being allowed to disembark by their Hamas overseers.
Palestinians and foreigners began their march up the road together. There were very few women and children on the Palestinian side, and the crowd could not have numbered more than a few hundred people—a far cry from the 50,000 Palestinians anticipated by the Freedom March organizers. The marchers were flanked by armed security men, who herded stragglers forward.
Eid and Barghouti may have suddenly decided that the 100 marchers should not accept Egypt’s offer, but they had chosen to remain mute regarding civil society’s apparent decision to no longer participate.
“We in Cairo were as surprised as those who went to Gaza that Hamas had taken over the march,” said Ann Wright, who did not travel to Gaza, in an email. “From what we heard in Cairo, our delegates in Gaza realized that Hamas had taken over the march when they were at the march site.”
The Palestinian media darlings of the event were the group of orthodox Jews from Neturei Karta who marched waving Palestinian flags. Hamas, for its part, kept its promise to organizers not to have any of its own green flags visible at the march.
Protesters walked to about a mile from the Israeli border where a high concrete wall with watchtowers and an observation balloon marked the beginning of Israeli territory. There were a few speeches, a short-lived sit-down far from the Erez crossing, and then participants were ushered on to buses by curt security men.
The marchers’ efforts were not in vain. The march and protests in Cairo did attract the attention of the Egyptian and international press. For many activists, the main goal of the protests was to build global support and pressure to force an end to the blockade of Gaza.
“I think we made our voices heard, and will continue to make our voices heard,” said David Hartsough. “From my point of view, unfortunately Hamas kind of took the leadership away from the nongovernmental organizations. Just last night I finally met some of the nongovernmental organizations. They’re some really great people that are struggling under very difficult circumstances.”
Many of the protesters in Gaza and Cairo felt the friendships and connections made alone were worth the trip.
On Jan. 2, all the marchers were told they would have to leave Gaza. Many had planned to stay on, but Hamas said it feared Egypt would keep the Rafah border crossing closed if everyone did not return. Indeed, the Egyptians did temporarily open the crossing the following day, allowing some of the hundreds of medical patients, students and people with visas to leave, and some Palestinians stranded on the Egyptian side of the border to enter. But having been Saturday, the holy day of Shabbat, the orthodox Jews could not travel, and Hamas had to wait until sundown to send them off.
Yusif Barakat, the Palestinian refugee from Haifa, had stood with the marchers only a mile from Israel. On the other side of the border wall, up the coast, was the plot of land where he was born, the fields in which he had galloped amongst the olive trees.
“This is the highlight of my life,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to return.”
But this man of peace was not filled with joy.
“It’s being back home but unfortunately it’s not the home that I left,” Barakat said. “It’s not the atmosphere that I left. Everything is more oppressive here. Everything is tightly controlled. So the Israelis are aggressive, and the Palestinians are oppressive. And it’s all for security, I suppose. But still, it’s not what I remember as a child. I want to wish peace for all the world. I believe we are all one people. We are all one humanity.”
The leaders of the Middle East seemed to differ.