“Where is the ummah; where is this Arab world they tell us about in school.”
Those words will forever remain etched on my brain. They were spoken by a 10 year old girl in a bombed out ruin in Gaza in March. She had lost her almost her entire family in the 22-day Israeli bombardment earlier this year. The second time she spoke, it was to the back of my head. I had to turn away; what answer could you give her?
While Hugo Chavez expelled the Israeli ambassador to Venezuela, the leaders of the Arab League, with a handful of exceptions, spent those murderous weeks in December and January scarcely summoning even the synthetic indignation that has so often attended previous bloody episodes in the Palestinian tragedy.
But that was not so of public opinion, not only in the Muslim world, but mobilized on the streets of Western capitals. In Britain, over 100,000 people took to the streets and night after night we blockaded the Israeli embassy. Above all, the Gaza onslaught produced in the US an unprecedented outpouring. There have, for sure, been protests before, but this has turned out to be more than an ephemeral release of impotent rage. Something is changing.
That has become more and more apparent to me over the last two months as I’ve spoken on Palestine at packed meetings and fundraisers across the US. The opinion polls in January showed a plurality of Americans against the Israeli onslaught. It may not have been a surprise to those of us who witnessed Ariel Sharon’s leveling of Beirut in the late summer of 1982, but the sight of white phosphorous – which forms a gaseous cloud – being used against civilians in Gaza stunned the senses of millions or people who had up to that point been led to believe that it was somehow the Palestinians who were occupying Israeli land rather than the other way round.
Seasoned activists in the Palestinian cause confirm that there is now a window of opportunity to take this case beyond the ghetto and into the mainstream of political life – in the US and in Britain, which between them bear the heaviest responsibility for the suffering in Palestine: the US as the cashier for Israeli colonization; Britain, as the author of the tragedy in 1917, when a leader of one people, British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour (an anti-Semite), gave to the purported leaders of another people, the Zionist movement, the land belonging to a third people, the Palestinians. And all without asking any of the people, which even by the standards of British imperialism is quite a triumph.
How then to bring to the cause of Palestine the kind of political movement that helped shatter apartheid, between the hammer of the ANC resistance and the anvil of international solidarity? This is the question that has led to me flitting backwards and forwards across the Atlantic, between lectures and fundraisers here, and the unfolding of an extraordinary political crisis at home. It was the question we asked ourselves as we marched past the Israeli embassy on those cold days in January.
The demonstrations were important. Anyone who doubts that should listen to those living under siege whose capacity to resist was strengthened every time they saw those protests on Al Jazeera and Press TV. But they were not enough, nor were the speeches, though they too have their place. It is actions that speak louder than words. That’s why on January 10 I announced at the big London demonstration that I would be leading a convoy of humanitarian aid from Britain to Gaza.
We decided to head off just five weeks later and to go through a difficult route – down to Spain, cross to Morocco and then driving across the Maghreb. We hoped to take a dozen or so vehicles. In the end, we left Hyde Park on February14 with 107 vehicles, 255 people and around $2 million of aid. Some 23 days and 5,500 miles later we entered Gaza. And now, we’re doing it all again, this time from the US.
On July 4, the Vietnam vet Ron Kovic, myself and hundreds of US citizens will fly out from JFK to Cairo where we will form up a convoy of hundreds of vehicles carrying medical aid and head into Gaza. We will be in Egypt exactly one month to the day from when President Obama delivered his historic speech offering a new and more egalitarian relationship between the US and the Muslim world. And that speech makes it all the more imperative that anyone and everyone gets on board this convoy.
For Obama’s speech, like his election campaign and presidency, can be looked at two ways. There were the expressions of general support for Israel and continuity in foreign policy which it would be naïve not to expect from any US president. How easy it would be to slump into the cynical and knowing snorting that has been such an unappealing trait of too much of the left for far too long. Because at the same time, his skilful appeal for a more respectful East-West dialogue opens up many roads for friends of Palestine and the Arab cause. If you doubt that, look at the frenzied reaction of the Israeli right who, in their usual understated way, are likening opposition to the settlement program to genocidal murder.
Our case is that Obama is right to identify that if the US wants to drain the swamp of hatred against it, then it needs a radical change in policy. The road he marked out in Cairo points in the right direction. But he stopped short. Literally. The road leads a couple of hundred dusty desert miles further from the Nile Delta, across the Sinai and to the Rafah crossing into Gaza. Hence the convoy, whose aims are manifold.
First, it is to take much-needed aid to a people subsisting under siege. We are a link in the supply chain that others who have sent delegations to Gaza have also helped establish.
Second, it is to take people – lots of American people. No one should underestimate the impact that will have on the Palestinian people. It was emphasized by our hosts in March that the presence of so many Britishers was even more valuable than the aid we brought. It meant hundreds of people going back as ambassadors for Palestine in towns and cities across the country. For the people of the Gaza Strip it was proof positive, in front of their very eyes, that they had not been forgotten.
Third, it is to contribute to the mighty process of changing US public opinion on this issue. And where public opinion changes, public policy follows – even if the mechanism is complex and difficult. The eight dark years of the Bush era saw, in effect, the criminalization of solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Whole organization, Muslim and Arab, were closed down, their leaders disappeared and deported or imprisoned, witness the appalling trial and verdict of the Holy Land Foundation organizers. This convoy is about ending that. We want a cross-section of US society, including prominent figures, to take part and demonstrate that this is no longer a no go area; that Palestine is the issue and nobody is going to turn us around.
In Gaza, Ron Kovic will hand over wheelchairs to Palestinian amputees. That’s the image the world’s media will carry. Let the rabid supporters of the Netanyahu-Lieberman regime raise their voices against that. That’s a public relations battle we should relish.
There’s no point passively bewailing what this presidency might be failing to do. If we make an impact in July and beyond, it can help shift the balance, throwing the die-hard defenders of Israeli aggression on the defensive and making it more politically attractive for President Obama to move further down the dusty road.
In a sense George W Bush had an excuse for the mayhem he unleashed: he was a complete and utter imbecile. Barack Obama does not have that excuse. He’s highly intelligent and cultured. He met the sorely missed Edward Said. He doesn’t just know who the President of Pakistan is, he can pronounce the name of the country.
If the new sentiment for Palestine in this country is roused and made politically effective, there will be no excuse for anyone not to do the right thing.
Go to www.vivapalestina-us.org for information on the US to Gaza convoy or phone 773 226 2742
GEORGE GALLOWAY is the Respect Party Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green and Bow.