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WEB EXCLUSIVE: New Yorkers Break Gaza Siege

Soozy Duncan Sep 3, 2009

With what seems like more buildings collapsed than standing, 5,686 miles does not begin to measure the distance between New York City and Jabalia, Gaza. Only two miles from the Israeli border, the town and its enormous refugee camp were destroyed by Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” in December and January. Now children, excited at seeing the buses drive past, run barefoot from the tents they’ve been living in for the past six months, tents probably not unlike the ones their grandparents or great-grandparents lived in when they first fled their homes and came to Gaza in 1948. Some elders shake their heads — it’s not the first time outsiders have come to see the devastation, but life has yet to change.For the New Yorkers with the 200 person Viva Palestina-U.S. (VP-US) convoy who broke the siege on Gaza July 15 by personally delivering more than $1 million in medical supplies, it’s a very different world. It’s a land with a history so recent and intense it’s difficult to fathom. As President Barack Obama said during his June 4 address in Cairo, “the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.” Yet being a U.S. taxpayer means not only tolerating that situation, but directly sponsoring it. Lamont Carolina, a Brooklyn resident, says he was compelled to travel by plane for the first time in his life to join the VP-US caravan because “the people of Gaza suffer so much, and no one does anything about it. We have a genocidal situation like Rwanda on our hands, and the governments of the world are silent.”

New York City Councilmember Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn), who before taking office had been a long-time community activist, also joined VP-US. He pointed out the dissonance between the new administration’s words and actions regarding Palestine.

“President Obama said the siege should end, Secretary Clinton said humanitarian aid should get through, so why isn’t the American government trying to do what 200 Americans are doing?” Barron said.  “And when we run into all of this blockage by the Egyptian government, we get no assistance from Washington, D.C.” 

Egyptian authorities presented the convoy with an assortment of bureaucratic obstacles, including repeatedly requesting lists of participants, requiring citizens to waive their rights to U.S. consular protection, refusing to release 45 vehicles purchased by the convoy from the Alexandria Free Port, and then only authorized a 24-hour trip into Gaza.

Standing before a pile of rubble still bearing the sign “American International School in Gaza” near Beit Lahiya,  Barron’s discord became concrete. “Our tax dollars built that school, and our tax dollars destroyed it,” he said incredulously.

Obama’s proposed fiscal year budget for 2010 includes $2.775 billion in military aid for Israel, a 10 percent increase from 2009.

Despite the administration’s failure to recast its financial support for Israel, the diversity of the outcry in the wake of the continued assault on Gaza has contributed to changing discourse within Palestinian communities in the United States. Palestinian-born lawyer Lamis Deek, who has been an organizer with Al-Awda NY: The Palestine Right to Return Coalition for nearly a decade, said, “This convoy is probably the first time so many Palestinians have thrown their support behind a non-Palestinian movement.”

Deek characterizes British Member of Parliament George Galloway’s Viva Palestina delegations, of which this was the second, not as isolated actions, but as part of a new movement. “In the past, international allies have tended to disregard the concept of self-determination,” Deek said, “but solidarity with the people of Gaza is saying this is what you’ve chosen and we support your basic and fundamental right to choose how you live. The worldwide outrage of the people who protested the attacks on Gaza was not just a reaction to the massacre, but to Israel’s exposing itself and its true intention towards the Palestinian people, and it has spurred what I am hoping will become an international movement for Palestinian self-determination.”

Other convoy participants had decided to defy the blockade by finding commonality between their own struggle and that of the Palestinians. While Black Nationalism and Pan Africanism once took inspiration from the founding of a Jewish state, today’s analysis identifies with the self-determination of the Palestinian people in the face of the colonialism, land theft and discrimination inflicted upon them.

Mutulu “M-1” Olugbala, half of the revolutionary hip hop duo Dead Prez, sees joining with the people of Gaza as part of a natural political evolution. 

“Globalization is not only the new agenda for capitalism and imperialism, it needs to be the new agenda for our movement, to globalize our struggle, because there’s a siege against poor and oppressed people worldwide,” Olugbala said. “And Gaza is the most protracted struggle of oppressed people in the world right now.”

Olugbala also likened specific aspects of the Palestinian situation to the struggle back home in Brooklyn, calling gentrification in New York City “a land grab that displaces Africans to reservations in the suburbs” just as Palestinians have been driven to refugee camps in Gaza and elsewhere. 

Similarly, Brandon King, a civil rights organizer with the New York City-based Picture the Homeless and volunteer with Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, sees “militarization of communities as directly connected to displacement,” he says. “Terrorized by either the police or the Israeli military, people are forced out of their areas to make way for new communities, whether it be white folks with higher incomes moving into Harlem or settlers illegally moving into the West Bank.”

It’s hard not to see the similarities between the targeting of Blacks and Latinos by the New York Police Department’s “stop-and-frisk” policies, for which lawsuits have been filed, and the official racial-profiling of Israeli policy regarding Arabs. According to the Travel Warning for Israel, the West Bank and Gaza issued by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, “American citizens whom Israeli authorities suspect of being of Arab or Muslim origin are likely to face additional, often time-consuming, and probing questioning by immigration and border authorities, or may even be denied entry into Israel.”

Such an effort by U.S. citizens to break a siege enforced by the two largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid may seem futile. Yet there is more to VP-US than just providing medical supplies.

“We made history, but there’s more work to be done,” said Carolina, noting that the recent VP-US convoy brought the largest delegation of Americans to enter Palestine. “We have to get the word out and fight for the cause back home.” 

For Olugbala, the effort was symbolic as well as pragmatic. 

“Palestinian people here need to see Africans like me standing up so they know they’re not alone in the struggle,” Olugabala said. “And when there’s a struggle like this going down anywhere, in Gaza or Africa or the U.S., we can identify that we’re fighting the same enemy and we can work together in the same way. And hopefully someday somebody’s gonna break the siege in Brooklyn.”

Soozy Duncan joined the Viva Palestina-U.S. convoy from Queens, New York.