Operation Cast Lead was a massacre filled with thousands of heartbreaking stories. Each of the 1,400 persons killed represents an entire world. Yes, it is also a war crime to fire kassam rockets into Israel with the intention to kill civilians. Over 2,000 rockets and 1,600 mortar shells were fired into Israel in 2008 alone. Some among the Palestinian population use armed force to resist Israeli’s military occupation and blockade of Gaza and the West Bank. According to international law, armed resistance against illegal occupation can be considered a just cause, as long as the rules of war are observed. However, as a person committed to nonviolence, I view the use of militarism by states or non-state actors to ensure security or resist occupation as a self-defeating strategy that promotes more violence and suffering and does not, in the end, result in well-being or peace for beleaguered populations. However, for those who believe in the use of military force as a viable option, Israel’s response to kassam attacks went far beyond legal and ethical boundaries. The much maligned Goldstone Report proved beyond reasonable doubt that Israel intentionally targeted civilians and civilian institutions with deadly weapons. This is nothing new.
When I traveled to Cairo to participate in the Gaza Freedom March, I hoped to enter Gaza to contribute toward ending the siege and preventing future air assaults and invasions, such as the 22-day Operation Cast Lead that Israel launched against Gaza at the close of 2008.
I was also keenly looking forward to meeting a young Gazan who had greatly assisted my co-workers on a Voices for Creative Nonviolence delegation to Gaza during last year’s Operation Cast Lead. At considerable risk to himself, this young man met members of Voices at the border, arranged housing, translated, and assisted in bearing witness to the devastation caused by the Israeli military assault. Due to the callousness of the Egyptian authorities, I was not able to meet this man or deliver much needed material aid to his community. Early this morning, my co-workers and I received an email from our friend in Gaza, saying that the Israeli military is once again bombing near the Rafah border. One Palestinian was killed and others were injured.
This past week, during the holiday period after Christmas and over the new year, a group of young Iraqis gathered at the headquarters of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Upper Nyack, New York. They were all university students attending U.S. colleges, whose schooling was organized by the Iraqi Student Project — an initiative modeled on FOR's Bosnian Student Project from the 1990s. An article in today's Journal News, the newspaper of New York's Rockland & Westchester Counties, profiles the hope of these young people as they seek a better future than that seen amidst the war they left behind.
One of the acts of conscience which impressed the Egyptian public, inspired the Gaza Freedom March delegation, and echoed compassionately through exchanges with Palestinians in Gaza, was the act of thirty delegates to initiate a fast at the beginning of the gather in Cairo. Especially impressive was that these individuals were always at the front of actions over the five days we were in Cairo, and always warm and interactive with the Egyptian Police, the public, press, and international delegation. This is the statement they issued as we prepared to disband in Cairo.
As we gathered with candles under a full moon, directly overhead, at the edge of Tahrir (Freedom) Square, in Cairo, Egypt, the few hundred here welcomed the New Year with increased hope that a week together might offer the momentum to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East and the release of Gazan Palestinians in particular from the state of siege they have suffered most intensely throughout the year just ended.
On the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Richard Deats has written an impressive booklet, “Active Nonviolence Across the World,” tracing the work of nonviolence around the globe.
This morning following our Gaza Freedom March planning meeting, we headed to Tahrir Square in Cairo.
We waited for the sign of a flag waving to let us know that it was time to get together on the right side of the square. A big crowd was already there. Mark Johnson [executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation] and I joined the crowd. I took my sign of “Free Gaza” out and started to chant “Free, Free, Gaza.” Then suddenly I noticed that the Egyptian police were attacking us. This was my experience:
Things get messy when 1,300 people from 42 countires confront the intractable machinery of autocrats. The Egyptians have been successful in keeping the larger delegation from ever convening in one whole. Nearly 300 from France have occupied a sidewalk in front of the French Embassy for nearly a week, the remainder of the delegates are spread out through dozens of small inexpensive hotels and hostels, none with a meeting space for more than 75 people maximum and each also occupied by tourists and business folk. It has been a logistical quagmire, not adequately anticipated and not easily resolved. No local place of worship or public entity would consider provding us space for a gathering.
The young Egyptian soldiers who arrive by buses to whatever site where we convene, bear no guns or batons and are quick to smile, though their superiors try to keep them somber and reserved. Passing out yellow pens labeled in English and Arabic with the logo of the Gaza Freedom March (GFM), and greeting them with the traditional greeting, Salaam Aleikum, they whisper their names, ask where we are from, and even signal sympathies for our efforts. They are quick to smile, and despite their sympathies also have reservations about the Gaza situation based in their own political context.