In the wake of youth-led uprisings across the Arab world, several international activist groups are calling for a “march of millions” into Gaza. The march is scheduled for 15 May, the 63rd anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel – commonly referred to in Arabic as the Nakba, or catastrophe.
The march seems to have resulted from simultaneous calls for a large initiative to mark the anniversary made by several unrelated international activist groups, including some inside the Palestinian territories.
Since its announcement, the initiative has been described by various online groups as “The 2011 March of Return,” “The Palestinian Refugees' Revolution,” and, in some cases, “The Third Palestinian Intifada.” The number of similar groups, both online and on the ground, multiplied shortly after Facebook, at the request of the Israeli government, shut down one of the earliest Palestinian-based pages calling for the march.
In Egypt, the movement is being organized by a coalition of groups, including the seasoned pro-democracy movement Kefaya, a new pro-Palestinian group called Kollana Makawma (or We are All the Resistance) and two contingents of hardcore football enthusiasts, or Ultras.
Buses will depart from Cairo’s Tahrir Square at noon on 14 May and then meet up with more protesters in Suez. Planners say they hope to reach Gaza by the evening, march on the border crossing, and participate in the marches and protests inside the Palestinian territory scheduled for the following morning. Though many of the logistics of the trip remain unclear, activists say they are not concerned about the feasibility.
Besides the march, protests are also scheduled to be held outside the Israeli embassy.
Egyptian activists are using the opportunity to push for local demands regarding Israel as well.
“Through this initiative, we are calling for the cessation of gas exports to Israel and the release of all Palestinian prisoners held in Egyptian jails,” explains Salma Shukrallah, an Egyptian and founding member of the Kollana Makawma movement, which is helping spearhead the local campaign.
Other demands agreed upon by the coalition of participating Egyptian groups include the permanent reopening of the Rafah border, the normalization of Egypt-Gaza trade relations, and the cancellation of the QIZ (Qualifying Industrial Zones) agreement between Egypt and Israel.
First and foremost among their demands, and one shared by all international groups participating in the march, is the “assertion of the right of exiled Palestinians to return to their homeland,” as stated on the press statement by the Egyptian coalition.
“The former [Egyptian] regime was largely responsible for driving and enforcing the sanctions on Gaza, even when international agreements called on Egypt to keep the Rafah border open,” said Halim Heneish, a founding member of the Youth Movement for Justice and Freedom.
Heneish believes that after the toppling of the former regime it is now possible to achieve the coalition’s goals.
Moreover, Heneish insists that the call for the liberation of Gaza will, in a way, help ensure the formation of an Egyptian government that represents Egyptians’ concern for and allegiance to the Palestinian people.
“The Zionist government,” he says, referring to the current Israeli regime, “will never be satisfied with the formation of an Egyptian government that properly, and truthfully, represents the Egyptian people since, by definition, such a government would not be an ally to Israel, or willing to meet its demands.”
“Israel is the source of the counter-revolution now taking place in Egypt,” Heneish said, reiterating his belief that the Israeli government will do whatever it takes to prevent the formation of a regime that reflects Egypt's largely anti-Israel constituents.
Meanwhile, plans for the march do not seem to have been affected by the news of a reconciliation deal between Fatah and Hamas, signed last Tuesday in Cairo.
“The Nakba is marked by commemorative events every year, all round the world,” Shukrallah said. “Due to the recent revolutions, people expected this year’s commemoration to be larger and more effective.”
In response to suggestions that the march to Gaza might complicate or hamper the reconciliation, which stipulates the formation of a new technocratic government and could potentially lead to the revival of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Shukrallah said, “There’s always a reason to criticize or delay initiatives such as [the march]. People have different opinions.”
“When people voice their demands and put pressure on the ruling powers, it makes a difference when the time comes for political changes,” Shukrallah said. “If anything, this march will hasten and assert Palestinian unity.”
But the success of the 15 May march is far from assured. Activists say they are unsure “whether or not we’ll be granted entry into Gaza.”
Meanwhile, Israel has received news of the march with growing concern. Israel National News, the online version of Arutz Sheva radio, has described the march as an “assault” with the intention of “intimidating and embarrassing Israel.” Last year, a flotilla of ships bringing international aid to Gaza was attacked by Israeli commandos, leaving nine pro-Palestinian activists dead.
The online news source also reported that in anticipation of the march, Egypt's army has heightened its alert and intensified its forces in areas around the border, reportedly planning to seal off all entries to North and South Sinai.
Meanwhile, even some who are sympathetic to the cause question the potential of the 15 May march.
“Any gesture against the Israeli entity is a positive thing, but this doesn’t seem to be a realistic plan,” said Tamim al-Barghouti, a Palestinian-Egyptian poet, during a poetry event at the Journalists Syndicate last month.