We are in the Middle East, seeking a nonviolent solution to the blockade of Gaza. Free Gaza actions are occurring all over Cairo, and so the police, who are often in riot gear, have had a busy day – they show up wherever we go. They are incredibly young, maybe 18 or 19. Typically, they surround us with movable steel fences, which they line up behind, and they watch us with what seems to be curiosity, not malice. However, their innocent appearance doesn’t mean they won’t become aggressive; police today were very rough with several Spanish protesters. As internationals, though, we have great protection not enjoyed by locals. Some Egyptians have joined in these protests, and we find their courage astounding.
This morning, I was at the US Embassy with a group of about 40 other Americans. We went hoping to see the ambassador, but instead we were surrounded by Egyptian police in riot gear and kept penned in for some five hours. The police told us that they did this at the behest of the American Embassy, but later the “political security officer” of the embassy denied it. So, who is lying? It is interesting that the French ambassador spent the night outside with the French protesters when they first occupied the sidewalk in front of their embassy, but the American ambassador refused to see us, apparently had us detained, and for no reason.
We went to the American Embassy to ask the US to prevail upon the Egyptian government and allow our nonviolent delegation into Gaza. The US has tremendous leverage with Egypt, of course, and if the US asked Egypt to allow us to go to Gaza, the border would surely be opened immediately. Three members of our group were allowed inside the embassy to speak to an American representative, while the rest of us were prevented from moving outside our temporary pen. Our spokespersons reminded the political officer with whom they met that when Barack Obama came to Cairo in June, he spoke movingly of the power of nonviolence as a way to resist oppression. The president said:
For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding.
The Gaza Freedom March embodies that “peaceful and determined insistence” about which the president spoke. I wonder if the ambassador heard his speech.
In that same speech, President Obama acknowledged the dire circumstances of Palestinians in general and Gazans in particular. He said:
So let there be no doubt: the state of the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own … Israel must also live up to its obligations to ensure that Palestinians can live, and work, and develop their society. And just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security . . . Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress.
And, yet, it seems that we Americans have turned our backs on the people of Gaza; we are doing nothing to end the siege, which is creating enormous suffering. We have done nothing to compel Israel to end the siege. Indeed, the US is presently facilitating a strengthening of the siege: it was announced last week that the Army Corps of Engineers is assisting Egypt in further isolating the people of Gaza by helping in the construction of a huge underground wall. This wall will cut off the only remaining sources of food, clothes, medicine, and all othera necessities of life, which now enter Gaza through tunnels from Egypt. How shameful that the US is working to increase the suffering of the people of Gaza rather than to diminish it.
In his Nobel acceptance speech, President Obama said:
As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there is nothing weak – nothing passive – nothing naive – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.
Our president applauds nonviolent action and recognizes its strength. The Gaza Freedom March was conceived as a nonviolent response to what President Obama characterized as an intolerable situation and a humanitarian crisis – a crisis that has become increasingly dire since he spoke here in June.
Thus, we are attempting to do exactly what President Obama recommended, and, yet, when we went to our own embassy for intervention with the Egyptian government, we were surrounded by police and detained for hours in an open-air pen, an appropriate symbol for Gaza itself, actually.
President Obama said in Oslo:
It is also true that security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine they need to survive. It does not exist where children cannot aspire to a decent education or a job that supports a family. The absence of hope can rot a society from within.
In Gaza, because of US complicity with Israel in the blockade, people do not have enough food, clean water or medicine. There are no books or paper for school children, and the schools that were bombed cannot be rebuilt because building materials are not allowed into the Strip. Unemployment is at 75 percent. There is little hope in Gaza.
President Obama ended his eloquent Oslo speech with these stirring words:
So let us reach for the world that ought to be – that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls … Somewhere today, in this world, a young protester awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, who believes that a cruel world still has a place for his dreams. Let us live by their example.
And, yet, when we US citizens attempt to speak with representatives of our own Embassy – in a client state – about our desires to help alleviate a dire humanitarian situation, we are detained for hours like animals and refused an audience. Is this the audacity of hope? Is this change we can believe in?
We ask our government to live by the words of our president and to help us end the illegal and immoral siege of Gaza.
Jean Athey is a retired grandmother of six who lives in Brookeville, Maryland. She is the coordinator of Peace Action Montgomery, a local volunteer peace group in Montgomery County, Maryland.