Gaza freedom march looking ahead
Medea Benjamin: Cairo declaration will lead to more international actions in support of people of Gaza
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in our studio in Washington. Now joining us and just back from Gaza is Medea Benjamin, cofounder of Code Pink. Thanks for joining us.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Nice to be here.
JAY: So you went to Egypt, tried to get into Gaza with about 1,400 internationals, I think, as you were calling yourselves. What did you expect when you went, and what did you get?
BENJAMIN: Well, I went representing both Gaza Freedom March and Code Pink. And as Code Pink, we have taken seven different trips to Gaza in the last year. Every time, we’ve worked with the government of Egypt, and every time we’ve gotten in. So we thought, "Alright, this is just a bigger trip"—and it was huge. But we’d been working with the Egyptian government for months, many months, and furnished them with all the information they wanted—everybody’s names, everybody’s passports, everybody’s birthdays, everybody’s occupations—so they could do their own security checks. We did all that. And then, a week before the trip, they said we couldn’t go. What we had expected is we were going to take 1,362 people into Gaza, we were going to have a Gandhi-like walk to the Israeli border, we were going to spend a couple of days learning about the situation, and we were going to go home.
JAY: So what happened? They told you you can’t go before you all got on the planes, or once you got there?
BENJAMIN: Well, it was as people were getting on the planes. And, you know, people make their reservations way in advance. It’s holiday season. We tell people, you know, you’d better get your tickets. And so when they told us no, well, we thought, we’ve heard "no" before that turns into "yes", that if the people come, they’re not going to want us angry sitting in Cairo—they’re going to want us happy on the way to Gaza. They’ll change their minds. And so we told people we’ve been rejected, but we think we can turn that around. We encourage you to still come.
JAY: And everybody went, more or less.
BENJAMIN: Just about everybody came.
JAY: So you get to Cairo, and Egyptians are quite serious about their "no". They say "no" means no.
BENJAMIN: It’s very different than we thought, right, because not only did they say no, but immediately they start blocking everything we wanted to do, including getting together. We had reserved an auditorium for an orientation. We needed a big place for us all to come together. We had gotten a permit, because foreigners need a permit for that. Lo and behold, the day before the orientation, we were told, "No, we yanked your permit. You can’t meet there." Everywhere we started to go to get another place, they said, "No, government’s already said we can’t allow you." The government wouldn’t allow us to meet the entire time we were there. So it was pretty chaotic to have people from 43 countries pouring into Cairo, not being able to even meet to discuss, "Alright, now what do we do?"
JAY: So what did this reveal for you about the role Egypt plays in the blockade of Gaza?
BENJAMIN: Well, first of all, I think it was a very strange decision. The Egyptians seriously miscalculated. They should have just let us in. We would have gone in, had a heartfelt time in Gaza, and left. Instead what they created was chaos on the streets of Cairo, and actually from Cairo all the way to the border, because most of us were Westerners, a lot of Europeans. They know how to protest. They don’t say, "Thank you very much. We’re going home now." In fact, what the French did—there were 300 French—they lied down in the middle of a main thoroughfare, literally put their bodies and lied down and blocked traffic for hours and hours, until the ambassador from the French Embassy had to come out and say, "Alright, I’ll work and negotiate on your behalf." There were, every day, then explosions of demonstrations here and there that the Egyptians didn’t know what to do with, because they didn’t want to be seen beating up on foreigners. And yet—.
JAY: Which they did.
BENJAMIN: Which they did. And they were beating up on elderly women. I mean, we had a woman, 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, Hetty Epstein, who, when the Egyptian government wouldn’t let her in, said, "Alright. I’m going on a hunger strike," and plopped herself down in front of the Journalists Union, which was illegal for a foreigner to do, and surrounded by all kinds of supporters and the riot police. And they were saying, "Well, what are we going to do with this 85-year-old woman here?" So it was a huge dilemma for them. But they did beat up on us. They did try to block us at every move. They even locked us in our hotels. They put up big blockades and wouldn’t let people out of their hotels.
JAY: So did you get a sense why the Egyptian government seemed to have changed their position on this? Some pressure came from somewhere.
BENJAMIN: I think the pressure came from the Israeli side. The Israelis did not want us to go in. They did not want us delivering the humanitarian aid. They did not want us walking to the Israeli border and saying, "Lift the siege of Gaza." I think they put pressure on Egypt. I think the American government did not want us going. In fact, when we went to the US Embassy to try to get help, instead of getting help we got detained outside our own embassy for hours. And finally, when we got to see somebody from the embassy, they said, "We don’t think you should go to Gaza, so we’re not going to help you at all." Egypt gets $2 billion a year from the US government. The US government has a lot of influence. They certainly did not help us; in fact, I think the US government hurt us. And then the other excuses they gave: they said it was too dangerous, that there was fighting going on at the border. That’s partially true, because Egypt started building a wall to block the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt.
JAY: Yeah, so let’s be clear: this is, like, big steel shafts, essentially, they’re sticking into the ground to make it impossible to bring the tunnels from Gaza into Egypt.
BENJAMIN: Yes. This is quite an advanced technology being used in the desert to drive these big, big, huge poles into the ground, and to create this underground wall. It’s being done with the help of the US Army Corps of Engineers with US technology. And it is trying to stop the only commercial lifeline there is for the people of Gaza. And when we found out about the wall, that was even more reason to protest the Egyptian government. And in fact we joined in, then, with Egyptian activists to have protests against the building of the wall.
JAY: And what did the Egyptians say to you about why they blocked you, why they’re building the wall? What’s their argument?
BENJAMIN: They say it’s about security issues, that there are weapons that are going in and out of those tunnels, and they have to secure their own borders. And we say, right, of course. You should and have to secure your borders. The best way to do it is to lift the siege, open the border between Gaza and Egypt, and do what every other country does: inspect every single thing that goes in there. And then close the tunnels. But you can’t close the tunnels while you have the border sealed. That’s like signing a death warrant for the people of Gaza.
JAY: The objective of the Egyptians seems quite similar to the Israelis, which is somehow bring down Hamas is—that seems to be the objective.
BENJAMIN: Exactly. Exactly. The Egyptian government hates Hamas. It’s embarrassing Egypt, because Egypt is trying to negotiate a reconciliation between the two factions of Fatah and Hamas, and Hamas is not going along with it. Makes the Egyptian government very angry. Also, the Israelis are really pushing to have this prisoner exchange, and Hamas isn’t going for it, and so Israel is pressuring the Egyptians. So all of this pressure is to be put on Hamas, and what it’s doing is strangling the people inside Gaza. It’s collective punishment.
JAY: Where does this movement go now, the 1,400 people and all the international attention received? What’s next?
BENJAMIN: Well, I would say the best thing that we accomplished is that we brought together people from 43 different countries who are all passionate about this issue. And while only a small number of them could get into Gaza, they all want to continue working together and building a real international movement. So the Gaza Freedom March now will morph into an international network around Israel-Palestine. And in fact it was the South African delegation to the Gaza Freedom March that put out the initial call, called the "Cairo Declaration", that lays out the way forward for us to work together. So we are very excited about transitioning now to a broader global movement for justice for Palestine.
JAY: A small delegation within Israel went down to the Gaza-Israeli border and sort of joined in the action. But it was a very small delegation, and in terms of generally Israeli public opinion, there seems to be mostly support for the blockade. Is there anything on your agenda, this international group, to do actions within Israel itself?
BENJAMIN: We have done actions in Israel, in fact. We took a delegation and protested at the Israeli border. But the Israeli police are way worse than the Egyptian police. I mean, they really don’t care what they do to foreigners. In fact, one person in our delegation had to be taken to the hospital ’cause he was hit by the Israeli police. The other thing is that a lot of the activists are already banned from Israel, so it’s hard for us to do a gathering. But people did say that they wanted to try the same thing next year in Bethlehem, trying to start out there and doing a march to the Israeli border for those who can get inside. We recognize that the main focus should be on Israel. Egypt is, unfortunately, a main collaborator, but it’s really the Israelis where we have to focus our attention. And then, for those of us in the United States, we realize our attention has to be focused back home. So we’re already organizing, for March 7, 8 and 9, activities in Washington and asking people from around the US to come to do a massive lobbying and actions at the State Department and at the White House, calling for lifting the siege.
JAY: Now, something like about 100 of your delegation did get into Gaza. What was their experience there, especially with Hamas?
BENJAMIN: They only had a short time. They were there for three days. Unfortunately, Hamas is getting more and more controlling of the foreigners. One of the excuses they use is that there are al-Qaeda type groups inside Gaza now that would like to capture foreigners. That might be true, but it means that they were very controlling. It was hard for people to just go off on their own. They did, because it’s hard to control 92 foreigners. But Hamas really wanted to take them on more of a PR tour of the devastated areas, have them do the meetings that Hamas wanted them to meet with, where our groups wanted to really focus on the NGOs and of course speak to a lot of individuals. So they managed to get around Hamas to some extent, but I think it does show us that Hamas is getting a tighter and tighter control. And it’s ironic, because the US government and the Egyptian government says that our Gaza Freedom March was like a PR coup for Hamas, and we say just the opposite, that it’s actually—we’re trying to strengthen civil society in Gaza. It’s the policies of blockade that strengthen Hamas. When you depend on Hamas for everything that gets into the territory except what the UN is able to do, you might not like Hamas, but you’re forced to depend on them. So our argument to the US government and to everyone else is: lift the siege of Gaza, and then you’ll see a flowering of democracy inside.
JAY: Just finally, Hamas says to international delegations that "We’re willing to talk with Israel." Jimmy Carter came back from a meeting saying that Hamas is essentially ready to recognize Israel. But then the Israelis say, "Well, they say that to foreigners, but then nothing actually really happens, and when we sit down with them, they actually never really put recognition and normalization on the table." What have they said to you about this?
BENJAMIN: They have said the same thing to us. And I think one way to test them out is that some high-level representative from the US government ought to talk to them. We know that George Mitchell has not talked to Hamas, that Hillary Clinton has not visited Gaza, that in fact no US officials have been to Gaza since the invasion, except for congresspeople who’ve gone on their own. So we think it’s quite easy to test the sincerity of Hamas, which is talk to them.
JAY: Thanks for joining us.
BENJAMIN: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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