Something exciting has been happening in Egypt this holiday season. Around 1,400 people from all over the world — traveling at their own expense, or through fund-raising drives in their communities — converged on Cairo to travel to the Gaza Strip on New Year’s Eve and march with the people of Gaza to the Erez crossing (the border that separates Gaza from Israel in the north).

Their aims? To draw attention to Israel’s siege on the Gaza Strip, deliver humanitarian aid, and try to end Israel’s brutal blockade, which started when Hamas took over the Strip in 2007 (after Fatah, backed by the CIA, tried to overthrow them) and intensified a year ago after Operation Cast Lead.

The blockade is something so evil, it’s difficult to describe or comprehend. Israel has essentially turned the Gaza Strip, home of 1.5 million souls, into the world’s largest open-air prison. Some go further and liken it to a ‘concentration camp,’ because prisoners in any normal country are at least given enough to eat, a set date when they can leave, and decent sanitation and medical care.

A year ago, in an assault the Israelis dubbed Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli army killed around 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, including hundreds of children, destroyed hospitals, schools, factories, businesses, farms, and sewage and electrical systems. Until now they have refused to allow building materials or spare parts to enter the Gaza Strip, leaving their devastation frozen in time.

The Israeli government claims it’s necessary because Palestinians might use the materials to build more home-made, unguided rockets, which have a 0.5% kill rate (i.e., one out of every 200 rockets finds a victim) with which to terrorize Israel’s southern population. (The rockets are themselves retaliations for Israel’s blockade, assassinations, mass arrests, illegal land grabs, violations of ceasefires, etc.)

Blocking some materials is debatably justifiable, though principles of proportionality and laws against collective punishment should be taken into account. But what can possibly explain Israel’s blocking shipments of pasta, cheese, and chickpeas? Israel later allowed these items into Gaza due to US pressure, but they still don’t allow things like toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, chocolate, cigarettes, or spare parts for generators or water treatment plants, creating among other things a dangerous shortage of drinking water.

In addition, “U.S. and Western officials complain that Israel frequently changes the list of humanitarian goods allowed into the Gaza Strip, creating major logistical problems for aid groups and donor governments which are unable to plan ahead.”

Meanwhile, the production of textbooks by the UNRWA ceased long ago “because there is no paper, ink or glue in Gaza.” Many life-saving medicines and machines can’t get through the blockade, and dozens of men, women, and children have died because Israel refused to allow them to leave the Gaza Strip to seek medical care not available in the Strip. The only way anyone has managed to survive in a human way is through smuggling tunnels linked with Egypt. Egypt is threatening to cut that off soon as well.

This is collective punishment on a historic scale.* It is illegal under international law and immoral under any sane moral code.

Meanwhile, Operation Cast Lead was so brutally disproportionate (a greater than 100-to-1 kill rate, roughly 300-to-1 if you count civilians only), with so many credible allegations of deliberate Israeli strikes against civilian targets, it was made the subject of a UN war crimes investigation. The author of the report was renowned international jurist and South African Jew, Judge Richard Goldstone.

His report alleged devastating war crimes committed by Israel and lesser war crimes committed by Hamas. Israeli journalist Amira Hass explained, “The Goldstone report asks Israel to open an independent inquiry to the allegations [of war crimes], and if, within six months, there is no sufficient or satisfying response from Israel — and Hamas, for that matter — it can be transferred to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.”

On a more human note, Judge Goldstone told PBS’s Bill Moyers that the things he witnessed and reported on in Gaza were so horrific, “It… will give me nightmares for the rest of my life.”

(Watch a two-minute clip from the interview here. You can find the full Goldstone Report here.)**

Israel laughed in the face of the report, knowing the US government would kill it in its cradle. Indeed, President Obama pressured Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to renounce it (a story I’ll tell in a forthcoming post), and the US Congress passed a bill condemning the report as “irredeemably biased and unworthy of further consideration or legitimacy.”

Judge Goldstone sent a letter to Congress explaining that the bill was full of misrepresentations, factual errors, and utter nonsense. Congress, taking its cue from the Israel lobby, ignored him (with a few brave exceptions).

So Israel shrugs and moves along, keeps Gaza under siege, and kicks a few more Palestinian families out of their homes in East Jerusalem for good measure — throwing families out of their home in the dead of night, dumping their possessions by the side of the road, protecting Jewish settlers who march in and take their place, and arresting or beating anyone who protests. (I’m not even going to talk about Israel’s increasingly brutal repression of Palestinian non-violent protest in the West Bank or the fact that I have two friends in Israeli jails, one without charge, the other on bogus charges.) And the world’s governments do nothing.

Never has it been more clear that our governments have failed. Never has it been more clear that it’s up to us.

Back in the summer of 2005, Palestinian civil society called for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel until it obeyed international law. Last year the campaign finally took off. Though it is arguably not yet inflicting real pain, for the first time it is inflicting real fear.

The Gaza Freedom March is another prong in the civil society counter-attack against Israel’s crimes. 1,400 killed by Israel. 1,400 marchers. 1,400 lives wiped from the earth. 1,400 speaking out against this injustice from all corners of the globe. One man or woman, one voice, for every Palestinian killed. Thousands more marching in solidarity all over the world.

Unfortunately, the Egyptian government — a dictatorial police state propped up by American tax dollars and political support — refused to allow the marchers to get near the Gaza Strip, much less enter it through the Rafah border crossing. They claimed the security situation was too unstable. (Um, when is the security situation in Gaza ever stable?) So instead of protesting in Gaza, the marchers found themselves stuck in Cairo protesting against the Egyptian government and their own embassies for doing nothing in the face of another assault on liberty.

Philip Weiss, the American Jewish editor of the excellent Mondoweiss blog, reports from Cairo:

“I have to say that the broken Gaza Freedom March has been a great achievement. How can that be, when we are going stir crazy in Cairo? Well an international conversation over the issue is taking place here among the most diverse collection of people. I keep thinking of ways to convey just how inspiring that is. One minute you are talking with a slim, proper Japanese man. Then a minute later an Egyptian youth is telling you that Gaza thanks you for your moral solidarity. Then a minute after that Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb is saying that she came here to march, and she will march. Borders have fallen away here, and the American frame is gone. On my plane I met a kid from Jersey who had done the free Jewish ‘birthright’ trip a year ago and whose Jewish friends have been angered at his decision to come here, but when I saw him today, he seemed enthralled, transformed.”

The mainstream media is mostly ignoring it, as noted by Stephen Walt, co-author of The Israel Lobby, though there was a surprisingly nice write-up in the New York Times. It even mentioned Hedy Epstein, the 85-year-old Holocaust survivor who went on hunger strike to protest Egypt’s complicity in Israel’s blockade of aid and activists. Seriously. If irony were a commodifiable resource, the Middle East wouldn’t need oil. All that’s missing is for someone to dress up as Moses and shout, “Let my people go!”

Eventually the Egyptian government consented to allow 100 of the delegates to go to Gaza. After much turmoil and drama, they rejected this piecemeal offer because of its token nature and divisiveness. (The Egyptian government claimed these 100 were the peaceful ones, for example, implying the rest were hooligans.)

Phil Weiss again:

“Big deal we’re not in Gaza. It’s like being in Birmingham when the big march is going down in Selma… The Americans, who are so conditioned to living with the Israel lobby, as an abused wife to her battering husband, are being exposed to a more adamant politics — we are having a rendezvous with the Freedom Riders. For another thing, our direct actions and demonstrations seem to be awaking Egypt, a little [Egyptians on the whole are disgusted by Egypt’s complicity with Israel’s blockade, but their police state does not tolerate internal dissent], and getting a lot of publicity [at least in Europe and the Arab world]. Helen Schiff told me that the front page of an official government newspaper today said, ‘Mubarak to Netanyahu: Lift the siege and end the suffering of the Palestinian people.’ ‘We gave him that line!’ she said. A longtime civil rights activist, Helen told me it’s ‘fabulous’ what happened. We are achieving more in Cairo than we would if we had gotten into Gaza.”

They never did make it to Gaza. But they planted the seeds of a more sustained, organized, and motivated world-wide movement to end Israel’s illegal policies and American and European complicity. Here is the “Cairo Declaration,” a document drafted by the Gaza Freedom March as a blueprint for going forward. It calls for intensified action for academic, cultural, and economic boycotts of Israel until it complies with international law, continued legal actions against suspected Israeli war criminals, speaking tours, and other non-violent means.

A South African Jewish journalist named Tony Karon, who supported the Gaza Freedom March, recently posted this encouraging message on Facebook:

“In South Africa in 1988, if you’d asked any of us how long our struggle was going to last, the honest answer would have been twenty years. We couldn’t destroy the regime and they couldn’t destroy us; looked like a bloody stalemate. And then, barely a year later, a changing international balance of forces that none of us could have foreseen prompted a dramatic change of course. The darkest hour is just before dawn and all that… Happy New Year, and keep up the great work!”

May this shiny new decade bring many happy surprises.

Much love,

* Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that no protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed. Reprisals against protected persons and their property are also prohibited.

Quoting Wikipedia: Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions collective punishments are a war crime. By collective punishment, the drafters of the Geneva Conventions had in mind the reprisal killings of World Wars I and World War II… In World War II, Nazis carried out a form of collective punishment to suppress resistance. Entire villages or towns or districts were held responsible for any resistance activity that took place there. The conventions, to counter this, reiterated the principle of individual responsibility. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Commentary to the conventions states that parties to a conflict often would resort to “intimidatory measures to terrorize the population” in hopes of preventing hostile acts, but such practices “strike at guilty and innocent alike. They are opposed to all principles based on humanity and justice.”

** Bill Moyers sums it up: “There are… some very tough allegations of Israeli soldiers shooting unarmed civilians who pose no threat, of shooting people whose hands were shackled behind them, of shooting two teenagers who’d been ordered off a tractor that they were driving, apparently carrying wounded civilians to a hospital, of homes, hundreds, maybe thousands of homes destroyed, left in rubble, of hospitals bombed. I mean there are some questions about one or two of your examples here, but it’s a damning indictment of Israel’s conduct in Gaza, right?” This is a miniscule portion of what Israel is accused of. You can find the full report here.