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Stephen Keim
9 June, 2010  
The perils of protest

The aid flotilla attempting to breach the Israeli blockade is just the latest in the Gaza protest movement … Australian lawyers Ann Cunningham and Stephen Keim report on the Cairo protests earlier this year … US Embassy showed it has the muscle to halt violence by Egyptian security forces

On 31 May the Israeli military attacked a civilian flotilla carrying human rights and peace activists, in international waters in the Mediterranean, killing nine civilians on a Turkish ship and injuring many more.

This attack was not carried out by pirates. The Israeli forces carried a military commission. The actions of the Israeli forces have come under question from international law experts and there is a real need for an international and respected inquiry to determine the facts of what happened during the Israeli attack.

It is important to determine whether breaches of international law have taken place. The events have, potentially, severe implications for international relationships across the globe.

Turkey is a member of NATO. Turkey has a right under that treaty when attacked by another state to trigger the mutual defence obligations which lie at the heart of NATO’s ratio d’etre.

As information rolled out, predictable allegations made against the victims of the attack, mainly from Israeli sources, all but swamped Australia’s news media.

It was alleged that peace and human rights activists aboard the Free Gaza flotilla were armed or had instigated violence.

Allegations also were made and reported, uncritically in Australia, that the activists on the flotilla were connected to Al Qaeda and associated with terrorism.

This uncritical reporting occurred on SBS, ABC, Fairfax and News Ltd media outlets. We complained and received a verbal apology from SBS concerning the way in which these allegations were conveyed.

At the same time, the illegality of the Israeli occupation of Palestine under international law is rarely mentioned in the Australian media.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that 98 percent of industrial operations in Gaza have been shut down since 2007 as a result of Israel’s blockade and there are acute shortages of fuel, cash, cooking gas and other basic supplies

One of us (Ann Cunningham) took part in the Gaza Freedom March (GFM) based in Cairo, last December-January. Stephen Keim provided legal support to some who were participating from Australia.

The GFM gathers together more than 1,400 internationals representing over 40 countries and shares the aims of the Free Gaza Flotilla, namely to show solidarity; to deliver aid; and to highlight the blockade and the suffering it imposes on the people of Gaza.

Many of the organisers of and participants in the GFM are also part of the Free Gaza Flotilla. Those involved in the Free Gaza movement have a strict policy of non-violence. All participants are trained in non-violent responses.

This was borne out in extraordinary and difficult circumstances in Cairo.

imageThe GFM participants came from a range of political and religious affiliations. Many were angry when the Egypt government prevented participants from travelling to Gaza.

Ultimately, 90 of the 1,400 were permitted by the Egyptian government to cross to deliver aid via Rafah and then issued a press release saying that the foreign nationals remaining in Cairo were hooligans and troublemakers

There were no reported incidents of violence by the Free Gaza participants toward others despite aggressive actions from the Egyptian army, police and internal security who attended and broke-up many of the Cairo protests.

Neither Egypt nor Israel permit aid to be delivered to Gaza across shared borders with anything approaching the ease suggested in the media. We were advised that we would be deported if we entered Egypt for the purpose of going to Gaza.

There are numerous examples of the prevention of aid delivery to Gaza. Aid convoys, organised by Viva Palestina containing medical equipment, were turned back to Syrian ports. To our knowledge, these events were not reported in any Australian mainstream media.

A decision to take part in an international human rights action is never taken lightly. It’s a matter of conscience over personal comfort. Safe and comfortable lives in our own societies are diminished by the suffering of others elsewhere.

The worsening humanitarian plight is not assisted when countries, including Australia, fail to speak up clearly against continuing injustices, including the suffering caused by the Gaza blockade.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, like most western authorities, told those seeking information not to travel to the region.

DFAT was curiously selective in their communications with Australian participants.

Some were strongly advised not to travel to Egypt at all. Ann Cunningham, who participated in the GFM, was unable to obtain even an acknowledgment from DFAT despite a number of requests for information.

Nonetheless, her legal advice was that DFAT’s consular obligations to assist Australians abroad would still apply.

The reality was not particularly encouraging. During the GFM, one delegation of Australians, including a lawyer, a doctor, a kindergarten teacher and a retiree, were denied access to the Australian Embassy by zealous local security officials.

imageWhen contact was eventually made, the ambassador apologised to the delegates with whom she eventually met.

We would urge you to read some of the available accounts of what happened during the GFM. Antony Loewenstein, Ali Abunimah, Alice Walker, Jessie Boylan and Philip Weiss all vividly evoke the atmosphere from their own perspectives.

The events constituted inspiring, uncompromising activism and had an energising and powerful effect on the locals. The GFM Legal Group noted to participants in their legal briefing notes:

“We also wanted to share a message of the human rights lawyers we met with. They are thrilled that we are here. The press and the public are talking about nothing else, we’re covering the newspapers and television shows. By our presence we have stimulated the country into renewed interest in and resistance to the Palestinian occupation and the siege on Gaza – and at a perfect time, since construction on the metal underground wall cutting off supply tunnels just began and elections are coming in 2011. And they stand by ready to help should we encounter any legal trouble… The overwhelming opinion of all Egyptian lawyers (borne out by their experience here) is that the government does NOT want to have anything to do with arresting international citizens (unless their embassy approves an arrest).”

Participants soon realised that our embassies can and do sanction arrest for non-violent civil disobedience in places such as Egypt.

The fact that Egypt was a favourite rendition destination for US detainees, including Australian Mamdouh Habib, lends support to this conclusion.

Not surprisingly, the participants who were most at risk were locals who joined the protests. They were apprehended even in the presence of international participants.

Our legal team received distressed phone calls from international participants who witnessed internal security dragging Egyptians away. All we did was to ask that clear notes were made of what they witnessed, with as much identifying information as possible.

We were then able to forward the information to the local human rights groups and lawyers who could then make inquiries to locate those who had been arrested.

imageInterestingly, a protest close to the Egyptian Museum brought the most violent responses from local police.

The museum is the biggest tourist attraction in an impoverished country, where tourism is a major source of income.

The legal team received many phone calls initially from activists barricaded in their hotels by police. Subsequently there were complaints of beatings with injury reports consistent with broken ribs, severe bruising, bleeding and so on.

An most interesting aspect of this demonstration is the operation of the security services in a client state, dependent on foreign aid.

A US lawyer on the team contacted the US embassy complaining of the violence against the demonstrators. Initially, she was told that the embassy could and would do nothing.

The explanation was that US citizens had been told that they should not engage in any protests. The lawyer persisted in engaging embassy officials as reports of violence increased and became more concerning.

The persistence was rewarded. Ultimately, a US embassy official said he would have the violent response of the security forces stopped.

Fifteen minutes later, the violence against the protestors miraculously ceased.

imageGFM internationals included rabbis, priests, writers, lawyers, politicians, doctors, teachers, unionists, peace activists and students.

Among the 1,400 internationals there was an enormous diversity of experience with protests. Many delegates had experienced similar levels of police or state violence and brutality in their home countries. Veterans of the US labor movement were particularly vocal about this.

Nonetheless, the courage required to protest in Egypt is much greater. One’s family and friends are not at hand to drop by the watchhouse. This is a military regime. The cultural differences are keenly apparent.

We heard so many different views on what constitutes a viable solution for Palestine-Israel – radical, conservative, two state, one state, return to 1967 borders and so on.

While resistance to inhumane actions was vigorously asserted, at no time was there any call for violence against Israel by any participant.

The Cairo Declaration, a powerful call for civil action, initiated by the South African delegation is the culmination of our activities.

The GFM in Cairo was clearly about highlighting the collusion of the Egyptian regime in the oppression of Palestine by Israel in particular.

It is clear the blockade could not continue without the collusion of many western governments. The reporting by public information channels in western countries generally is uncritical and afraid of Israel’s well oiled and assertive propaganda machine.

The boarding of civilian boats by a military force in international waters and the death of nine people raises many questions.

The least Australia could do in international fora is to insist that a respected and independent international inquiry be established to ascertain the facts of the incident and to advise whether obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law, have been respected.

Stephen Keim
Ann Cunningham

Photo credits

From top

#1: GFM protest Cairo. Philip Weiss

#2: Orthodox Rabbi supporting GFM. Antony Loewenstein

#3: Candlelight Vigil, Tahrir Square, Cairo. Ann Cunningham

#4: French GFM protesters outside their embassy in Giza, Cairo. Antony Loewenstein


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