Palestinian and Israeli peace activists have joined forces to demand the lifting of the Gaza blockade.
The power cuts that plunged Gaza into darkness this week are a poignant sign of the catastrophe befalling this tiny but troubled slither of land. Prompted by the humanitarian disaster that has gripped besieged Gaza, Palestinian and Israeli peace activists have decided to join forces – and the chorus of condemnation – and demand that Israel lift its blockade.
Tomorrow, Israeli protesters will mass alongside the wall separating Israel from Gaza. Their Palestinian counterparts were due to gather on the other side of the wall but, owing to safety fears, they will hold their demonstration at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider in Gaza city. The Israeli and Palestinian protesters will communicate via telephone and a symbolic funeral for all the sick who died unnecessarily owing to the blockade will take place in Gaza.
Demonstrators in the West Bank and in a dozen or so cities around the world will also take to the streets to express their moral support. “Saturday is an international day of protest in support of the people of Gaza,” Eyad Sarraj, a Palestinian psychiatrist who heads the End the Siege on Gaza campaign, told me by telephone from Gaza.
And Palestinian despair and international outrage is justified in the face of the collective and disproportionate punishment being meted out on the population of Gaza by Israel and the international community since they allowed Hamas to become part of the government in January 2006.
Poverty is rampant among the 1.5 million inhabitants – the majority of whom are descendants of refugees who fled or were pushed out during the creation of Israel. A third of Gazans live on less than $2 a day and more than three-quarters receive humanitarian assistance. Half are unemployed because they can no longer work in Israel and, without a connection to the outside world, their economy is controlled completely by Israel.
This dire situation has caused “chronic toxicity among the people of Gaza. The recent violence is a symptom of that,” explains Sarraj who is also the founder and medical director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP).
This week, the hungry and desperate residents of Gaza challenged the blockade in a spectacular way, when they blew up a section of the wall with Egypt and an estimated 350,000 Palestinians flocked to the relative plenty across the border.
“We… should take great pride and encouragement in this quintessentially civil society refusal to accept subjugation, to abandon their fate to governments, including their own, for whom the lives of ordinary people are simply grist for their political charades,” said Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD).
“This will put great pressure on Egypt to break the blockade,” Uri Avnery, the wise elder of the Israeli peace movement, told me. “It was a very unusual situation: Egypt helping to blockade and starve the Palestinian people. It could not last.”
And Egypt has said it won't force the Gazans back across the border for the time being.
The Israeli activists will bring with them a relief convoy of essential supplies. According to the Israeli Coalition Against the Siege, the 2,000-strong caravan will be carrying staples, such as flour and food supplies, as well as desperately needed water filters.
The organisers have also invited Israeli families to prepare individual parcels with personalised letters of support and solidarity to show Gazans that they care about their fate. While this grassroots relief effort will only help a few hundred families and hardly make a dent in the desperate shortages plaguing Gaza as a result of the year-long Israeli blockade – which has intensified in recent weeks – and the years of economic isolation the territory has endured, it does send out a powerful message.
The fact that Israelis are challenging the embargo imposed by their government is of significant psychological import. “It's very important that Israelis are themselve bringing relief to the Gaza Strip,” Avnery noted.
But bringing an end to the blockade won't be the protesters' only ambition on Saturday. “One of our demands is for Israel to start negotiations with Hamas to achieve a ceasefire. Palestinians must stop rocket attacks and Israel must stop its military strikes,” Avnery, who heads the progressive Gush Shalom peace movement, continued.
“Hamas is ready to talk, but our government refuses to speak to Hamas, the United States refuses, Abu Mazan [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] refuses. But this is ridiculous. Hamas won't go away.”
Israel, the United States and Europe define Hamas as a terrorist organisation. In defence of the harsh, uncompromising approach to the Hamas-infused Gaza government, Israel and its supporters point to the Hamas charter which calls for the dissolution of the Zionist state in favour of an Islamic one. But failure to engage and, instead, punish sparked civil war in Gaza which led to a complete Hamas takeover last year.
As I've argued before, there is a world of difference between abstract charters and realpolitik. Several Israeli parties take a similar position towards a Palestinian state in their own charters, yet this hasn't stopped the Palestinians or the international community from working with them
For instance, the Likud party's Central Committee adopted a resolution rejecting the creation of a Palestinian state and adopted a resolution on the subject in 2002. The religious Shas party, which often makes or breaks coalitions, has as one of its aims the creation of a Greater Israel.
However, despite its ultra-nationalism, the party realises that reality is very different to its utopic Jewish dreams and has declared that it supports the idea of ceding some land (not enough) to the Palestinians. Likewise, Hamas may fantasise of a certain Islamic utopia in the future, but it is also aware of the real world. For instance, its leaders have stated repeatedly since being elected that they are willing to accept a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders.
Some Israeli peace activists believe their government is pulling the wool over its people's eyes. “Many Israelis say we gave them back Gaza, so why are they firing rockets at us?” observes Angela Godfrey-Goldstein, also of ICAHD. But the reality, she points out, is that Israel may have evacuated its Gazan settlements but it still controls Gaza's economy, borders and many other aspects of life there.
“I think the blockade is pre-election posturing,” she opines. “But we are shooting ourselves in the foot… Israel is a lovely country but it needs to come to terms with its people's history. We have to move on beyond the trauma … The oppressor is also oppressed.”
But perhaps Israelis and Palestinians collaborating in the cause for peace may held turn the psychological and ideological tide by demonstrating to both sides that not everyone on the other side is out to destroy them.
“This joint Israeli-Palestinian action is very important symbolically. It shows that there are people on both sides who want peace and coexistence,” believes Sarraj.
“It's very important that the close co-operation between peace forces on both sides that existed in the days of Arafat is renewed,” Avnery echoes.
Godfrey-Goldstein points out that there is already a fair amount of joint activism, particularly between the progressive peace camps on both sides, but this often does not get picked up on the media's radar. “I do hope this protest will be a precursor for even more joint action,” she asserts.
I am a strong advocate of formalising this kind of joint activism under the umbrella of a pan-regional, non-violent peace front which, I have suggested, could merge the Arabic and Hebrew words for peace and call itself something like Salom Now. This alliance would not only bring together Israelis and
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 25 January 2008.