A Meeting of Activists for Palestine

Not long ago I went to a meeting of Palestine activists, held in a community hall in West London.

A young man reads out a statement from Leila Khaled, who could not be with us today because the Israeli government wouldn’t let her travel. I’ve been to a few of these activist meetings and she can never make it. She’s a member of the Palestinian National Council, but Israel know her power as a hero of the Palestinian resistance movement after her involvement in the 1969 hijackings. What the Israeli government don’t realise is that her continued suppression only increases the fervour of our sense of injustice. The young man’s hands shake holding the paper, his voice shakes with her words also.

Then we settle down and watch a film documentary about the Raytheon 9, anti-war activists from Derry who occupied and wrecked the Raytheon arms factory in Derry. Raytheon supplied missiles to the Israeli army during their invasion of Lebanon in 2006. The film had pub-interviews with the activists in jocular reminiscence of their hour of heroism, pints of stout in hand. I don’t know if they’re idiots or heroes. They fought against the injustice, but what good did they do? The documentary mentioned the difficulty of attracting business investment in the Derry area after the end of the troubles in Northern Ireland. There was a concern that Raytheon would leave, damaging the economy of Northern Ireland and risking future investment. However, Raytheon are still there and Israel still get their missiles.

The Raytheon 9 were expecting to get thrown out of the building by the police, but they weren’t. The police thought they were armed and so called in a specialist unit. When this police squad – with guns and gas masks – burst in to where the activists had blockaded themselves, the Raytheon 9 were sitting around playing cards. They were arrested and taking to court, of course, but the judge ruled in the activists favour. It is not a crime to use illegal means to attempt to prevent a greater crime. Tony Benn came on, saying that this ruling shows that there is no moral obligation to obey a law contrary to your conscience. Mark Steele came on, saying that this was a glorious victory and that the worst thing for an activist is to feel alone, to feel that you are banging your head against a wall and not getting through to anyone.

There is raucous laughter and cheers and applause at the film’s end. It’s like watching a bloodsport; we’re tourists at a bullfight, with front row seats.

Next, there’s a panel of activists and they all have their speeches to make. But I’m losing interest with their fine words and raised voices. One of the activists is a captivating young woman. I stare despite myself: spectacular hair, rings of blonde, somehow brown, syrup, honey, gold, framing a white blushed face, perched on a chair, chin lifted, showing the delicate sinews of her neck. If she catches me staring I would have violated her image. My stares are not lascivious, but aesthetic; she is Rembrandtian. Fine arched eyebrows, a curl of gold from her ear, lashes in synchronisation. What makes a person like that join a movement like this? So young, so beautiful? What makes anyone stand up and fight?

I am not convinced by these speakers. Why? They talk of injustice, I do not doubt that there is injustice, but I struggle to whip up any enthusiasm. Is it simply my growing boredom as the evening wears on? Is it because I am unconvinced by the efficacy of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement? Is it because I still see things from the point of view of the government, am I too conservative? Should I have more courage to stand up and fight the wrongs of others? Or am I reticent because I don’t trust these speakers?

I suspect some of the panellists to be fantasists. One of them tells a story about being asked questions in English by Israeli guards and answering in Arabic. The Israeli guards then spoke to each other in English, saying, ‘Don’t worry about him, he’s just an Arab.’ Why would they speak together in English? I know the power of activism. I’ve seen people charged with their own sudden self-importance, overwhelmed by the feeling of power, of rebellion. I’ve felt it, I was an important person, I was a hero. But what do our actions mean, actually? Nothing at all. The feeling of power is a delusion, a luxury we feel as privileged British passport holders. Another panellist refers to the ‘millions’ of people killed by Zionism. This is a heinous falsehood. A high estimate would have 80,000 casualties in war since 1948 and perhaps another 15,000 during al-Nakba. That is a long way less than millions, even if you were to add on the number of people killed in custody by the Israeli police force. I’m sorry, but fantasy makes your argument significantly less convincing.

There is time at the end of the panel for questions. It degenerates into squabbles between the organisers of the event and the Stop the War campaign, who resent the chair’s anecdotal story that he had to wait forty-five minutes on a march to get help after he was detained by the police force. This forty-five minute claim dominates the questions and the discussions for the rest of the evening, despite some people desperately calling for unity and to focus on the injustice of the Israelis and the sufferings of the Palestinians. It reminds me of another forty-five minute claim that twisted headlines.

At the end of the meeting, a young woman stands up and declares that she is from Gaza herself. Suddenly the hall erupts into cheers and applause, people lean over to hug her and to shake her hand, to pat her on the back. The air is of that surrounding a celebrity: at last, a real victim!

The Gaza Freedom March report

In December 2009, over 1,300 international peace activists arrived in Egypt expecting to travel through Egypt to Gaza and to break the siege. The march brought together all kinds of groups: feminists, Vietnam veterans, worker’s unions, Palestinian solidarity groups, Israeli journalists, Jews, Muslims, Christians and atheists – our diversity epitomised by Hedy Epstein, an 85-year old Holocaust survivor.

The Gaza Freedom March was organised by The International Coalition to End the Illegal Siege of Gaza. This organisation was formed after Israel’s 22-day assault on Gaza in Winter 2008-09. The coalition conceived this march as part of a broader strategy to end the Israeli occupation by targeting nonviolently its flagrant violations of international law from the house demolitions and settlements to the curfews and torture. But, on our arrival, the Egyptian authorities prevented us from gathering together as a group and revoked our permits to travel to Gaza.

We protested the decision: some members of the march went on hunger strike, 300 people from the French delegation made an encampment outside their embassy for a week. Eventually, one of the groups who helped organised the march, CodePink, opened dialogue with Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of the Egyptian President. After some negotiations, it was announced that two buses would be allowed to go to Gaza. This made a mockery of the stated reason for our detention in Cairo: our security. Furthermore, the Egyptian foreign minister made an announcement to the effect that the Egyptian authorities had vetted the members of the march and these 100 were the only people who had genuine humanitarian aims for Gaza. Having been involved in the chaotic process by which the list of the 100 was created, I can state categorically that this was not the case. I was telephoned in the evening of the 29th of December and told I had 5 minutes to provide two names of people who would represent the United Kingdom. This was farcical: I had no particular mandate to speak for everyone who came from the UK – I just happened to be the person they had the telephone number of.

This process created a rift among the marchers; in many ways the Egyptian government played the game very cleverly. They gave us just enough room to make our protest, but ensured that it didn’t spread beyond the confines of our visit. Then they drove a wedge between the organisers who accepted Suzanne Mubarak’s offer and the vast majority of the marchers who were angry that not everyone would be allowed to go to Gaza.

As it happened, I ended up on the bus bound for Gaza. As we sat in the bus waiting to leave, one of the organisers of the march in Gaza called. He said that he didn’t want us to come like this; the march was supposed to be an act of solidarity and shouldn’t be divisive. Hearing this, I got off the bus, much relieved.

After another day of protests in Cairo, I decided to get the night bus to Israel to see the conflict for myself.