Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Gaza Freedom Marchers, Dr. Mads Gilbert on Gaza during and after Israeli Assault

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Gaza Freedom Marchers, Dr. Mads Gilbert on Gaza during and after Israeli Assault

Article excerpt

THREE participants in the Gaza Freedom March plus one spoke to a crowded hall in New York's historic Judson Memorial Church in New York on Jan. 21. The sponsoring organizations, too numerous and varied to list, reflect the burgeoning Palestinian solidarity movement, inspiring attorney and panel chair Abdeen Jabara to describe the occasion as not only a report-back, but also a celebration.

The "plus one" was Fida Qishta, a journalist, filmmaker and educator from Rafah, Gaza. Her family home was one of 17,000 that Israel destroyed during its Operation Cast Lead assault on Gaza last year. Because Israel has not allowed building materials into Gaza, her family has been unable to rebuild. Qishta presumes this is because when Israel attacks Gaza again, it will not want to destroy the same houses twice. Her response to the routine accusation by Israel's apologists that Palestinians teach their children to hate is, "Our children learn from experience and become older than their years. Children who saw parents and others killed in front of their eyes won't forget." When Qishta left Gaza in May for training in England, she thought she was saying goodbye to her family for two months, but she has been unable to return. "We don't need food or clothing; we don't want money," she said. "We need to be free to come and go. We need to feel human. People in Gaza are like you-not from another planet."

Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, joined the Gaza Freedom march with his wife and two children, aged 19 and 21. When they were not able to get into Gaza, they decided to go to the West Bank. Ratner last visited Israel 50 years ago. This trip, he stated, made him an activist for Palestine.

The Ratners joined a nonviolent march of mostly young Israelis that began in West Jerusalem, where they were pelted with apples and water. When the marchers entered East Jerusalem, they were greeted with cheers and smiles. In the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, the Ratners met a Palestinian who had fled Haifa in 1948 and who, since 1956, has lived in one of the homes built by the United Nations for refugee families. Recently Israeli soldiers blew off the door of his home and Israeli settlers moved in. Once again he is living in a tent.

On a tour of East Jerusalem with Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions, the Ratners stood on a hill overlooking a valley with Ma'ale Adumim in the near distance. There, Ratner said, the architecture of apartheid is visible. He saw roads that connect settlements but divide Palestinian bantustans, the wall that is grabbing 15 percent of the West Bank, the stumps of olive tree orchards, and in the center of the valley a new Israeli police station paid for by an American billionaire. Ma'ale Adumim is called a settlement but, Ratner said, it looks like Beverly Hills. Once you see this, he concluded, the two-state solution seems ridiculous. Ratner described what is happening in Gaza and the West Bank as a "horrific ongoing crime and the world is doing very little about it." But he is optimistic that civil society can change the equation.

Jenna Bitar, an 18-year-old high school student, was the youngest freedom marcher. She is half Palestinian, but confided that it took Operation Cast Lead for her to become activated. When it became clear that Egypt would not allow the marchers into Gaza, Bitar realized that it didn't matter because the goal was political: to call the world's attention to what Israel is doing to Gaza. The experience taught Bitar how to be an activist, when and how far to push the Egyptian government. She also discovered camaraderie. When Bitar sat sobbing after the nonviolent marchers were met with the violent responses of Egyptian police, a stranger stopped to hug her.

Ali Abunimah agreed that the Gaza Freedom March was an incredible way to build solidarity and trust. Although not being allowed into Gaza was frustrating, he said, it was only a taste of what the one and a half million Palestinians in Gaza live every day. …

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