Sarah Hassouneh, a philosophy student in her third year at Portland State, went to the Middle East to attend the Gaza Freedom March over winter break.
With the help of the women’s peace organization CODEPINK and the student group Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights, Hassouneh raised money to join people in Gaza for a mass march to the Israeli border.
The Gaza Freedom March Web site (www.gazafreedommarch.org) states that on December 31, 2009, over 1,300 people from more than 43 countries joined the Palestinians in Gaza for the peaceful march.
“[I] met internationals from all over, like France and Spain,” Hassouneh said.
The march occurred on the anniversary of the Gaza War.
“Since Israel’s offensive last year, homes and buildings are still flattened. People are still living in tents one year later. Because no building materials are allowed into Gaza, most of the destruction has yet to be fixed,” Hassouneh said.
SUPER began aggressively fundraising during fall term 2009, with various efforts including a benefit dinner and T-shirts sales. They earned $3,100, and Hassouneh left Portland on Christmas Day.
Hassouneh said she has “always been interested in Palestine issues.”
When she arrived, she quickly realized that “Gaza is completely under siege.”
“Nothing is allowed in, nothing is allowed out,” Hassouneh said.
The Gaza Freedom March planned to enter Gaza through the city Rafah, Egypt, border and march to the Israeli Erez crossing.
“The Egyptian government refused at first to let any of the marchers in,” Hassouneh said.
COPEPINK negotiated a deal with Egyptian First Lady Suzanne Mubarak to allow 100 marchers into Gaza. CODEPINK had very little time to select these people, and only a night to accept or reject the proposal.
“Many of the marchers thought it was a poor decision,” Hassouneh said. “Many felt that a march significantly reduced in size would have less of an impact and wouldn’t be as safe for anyone involved, and would also break solidarity within our own group and so some on the list decided against going to Gaza.”
Hassouneh found out that “the Egyptian government, without CODEPINK’s knowledge, issued a statement declaring that the 100 on the list were deemed not to be a security threat to Egypt, and were therefore allowed in. What this meant implicitly for the rest of our group was that apparently they were a security threat. Unfortunately, in this way, the Egyptian government did a pretty good job of dividing us.”
Hassouneh joined 86 people on the trip into Gaza for two days, on a limited and structured schedule.
“I was able to visit a family in Khan Yunis, visit a school, the site of a bombed school, an orphanage, and was also able to go along on a boat with some Palestinian fisherman,” Hassouneh said.
When she was on the boat with the fishermen, she was told that they could not take their boat beyond two kilometers from the shore, because the Israelis could take their boat or shoot at them. This makes fishing difficult, as the number of fish in that small area is limited, Hassouneh said.
Also while on the boat, Palestinians pointed out smokestacks in the distance. The smokestacks were located in Ashkelon, Israel, and are where Gaza’s electrical power source is located.
“When I was visiting a family in Khan Yunis, the power shut off, and everyone told us that this was normal for them…because Israel has the ability to shut the power on and off whenever they decide to,” Hassouneh said.
She was told that most items, unless grown locally, came to Gaza through the tunnels that run between Rafah and Gaza.
“Food and medicine are among the products that come into Gaza by way of underground, not just weapons like Israel has been saying,” Hassouneh said.
“Egypt is currently building a steel wall, funded and designed by the U.S., which will cut across the tunnels, meaning the small amount of goods seeping into Gaza now will become even scarcer,” Hassouneh said.
Before leaving Gaza, the Gaza Freedom March planned to visit the tunnels. Hamas, the government of Gaza, asked the group to not visit the tunnels.
“They wouldn’t provide explanations for these instructions, but we reluctantly listened and didn’t stop at the tunnels,” Hassouneh said.
The group was on the bus, out of Gaza and back in Egypt when Hassouneh heard many people on the bus getting phone calls from people home, in Cairo and still in Gaza.
“[They told] us that right at that moment, when we were supposed to be touring the tunnels, Israel was bombing the tunnels as we were supposed to be there,” Hassouneh said.
Hassouneh said that while they were in Cairo, Egyptian security forces watched them heavily, including regular uniformed police forces, riot police and plain clothed officers.
“They prevented us from meeting, tapped the phones of our organizers, and explicitly told us our actions were not allowed,” Hassouneh said.
“But most of these policemen were on our side, and told us that they were sorry for the Palestinians in Gaza and that they would rather be protesting with us,” Hassouneh said.
“It really showed me how much discrepancy exists between the orders and policy of a government and the people it’s supposed to represent,” she said.