Gaza March Puts Spotlight on Civilian Suffering

United Nations – More than 50,000 people are expected to take to the streets of Gaza on Dec. 31 for a mass march designed to send a message to the United States, a key supporter of Israel’s army, that the situation in Gaza violates international human rights laws.

The idea behind the “Gaza Freedom March” comes from CODEPINK, a women’s peace group committed to drawing attention to the humanitarian crisis in the occupied Palestinian territories, among other campaigns.

Organisers say the main catalyst for the mobilisation was the Goldstone Report, commissioned by the United Nations and written by renowned South African jurist Richard Goldstone.

The 575-page report, released in September, detailed gross human rights violations and war crimes committed by both Israel and Hamas in Gaza during the Dec. 27, 2008 to Jan. 18, 2009 conflict.

However, it was particularly critical of Israel, calling the military campaign “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate, and terrorise a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability.”

It also described Israel’s longstanding economic blockade of Gaza a form of “collective punishment” against the population and cited a number of attacks on civilian targets during the operation for which there was “no justifiable military objective”.

“I think we have to recognise that the importance of the Gaza Freedom March as a way of drawing attention to the blockade is crucial,” said Michael Ratner, president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, at a news conference to announce the march last week.

“But what really changed here is the world’s understanding of what’s really happening in the occupied territories in the West Bank, and Gaza, and in East Jerusalem,” he said.

The three-mile march from Gaza to the Erez Crossing in Israel intends to bring together 51,350 people from 43 nations, of whom 50,000 are Palestinians. Each participant has signed a code of conduct committing to non-violence during the march.

Ratner said he plans to attend with his family, who he said want to show solidarity as Jewish Americans with the people of Gaza.

“I want to break the blockade, I want to see the damage done by the weapons from my tax dollars, and I want it understood: Israel does not kill in my name. I want to follow words with action, and that’s why me and my family are going to Gaza,” he said.

Currently, the U.S. gives about three billion dollars per year in military aid to Israel, he added.

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK and also a Jewish American, has visited Washington numerous times to lobby for a reduction in aid. She hopes the march will influence the way the international community had responded to the attacks on Palestinian civilians.

“I think it’s a recognition that Israel can no longer hide under the idea that it somehow is exceptional, that it can create and engage in gross violations of internationally recognised human rights, and do so with impunity. It can’t continue to impose collective punishment on the people of Gaza. It can’t deliberately attack civilians,” said Benjamin.

“The fact that so many people around the world are coming really gives heart and inspiration to the people in Gaza that shows that they have not been forgotten,” she said.

Benjamin said that the participants come from diverse backgrounds, including civil society activists, students, university professors, members of trade unions, business people, people from refugee communities, women’s organisations and journalists, among many others.

“We [even] have people in their seventies and eighties. Quite a large portion of the people are of Jewish decent. One is an 85 year-old Holocaust survivor,” said Benjamin.

Benjamin equated the situation in Gaza to historical struggles for human rights throughout the past century.

“We are doing this in the spirit of Martin Luther King, of Mohandas Gandhi, of Nelson Mandela, of non-violent resistance worldwide,” she said.

Abdeen Jabara, a member of the Steering Committee for the Gaza Freedom March, also compared the struggles of African Americans for civil rights during the 1950s to Palestinians today, emphasising the importance of non-violent, peaceful resistance.

“For centuries, black people in America suffered from segregation, but it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding,” said Jabar. “We fervently hope that this effort in some small way could break the siege, [and] will register in DC, and the other capitals of the world.”

The Goldstone report has been affirmed by both the U.N. Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.

However, Israel dismissed it as biased, and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Alejandro Wolff also rejected the report as “deeply flawed” and “unbalanced”.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly last month to condemn the report, as well.

According to statistics compiled in 2008 by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), there are 1,059,584 refugees in living in impoverished conditions in Gaza. The blockade has created a situation where often even basic supplies of medicine and food cannot pass through Israeli checkpoints.

The hope of CODEPINK is that the Gaza Freedom March will create vibrations throughout the world, and especially in the U.S., to stop these gross human rights violations from occurring and to end its aid to Israel once and for all.

“Israel has no place to hide,” said Jabara.