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2009-12-24

Gaza Freedom March Planned for One-Year Anniversary of Israeli Assault

Guests

Hedy Epstein, member of the Gaza Freedom March. She’s an eighty-five-year-old Holocaust survivor who was born in Germany. She’s also a committed anti-Zionist activist and has made five solidarity trips to the West Bank.

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK and part of the coordinating committee of the Gaza Freedom March

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This weekend marks that one-year anniversary of the start of Israel’s three-week assault on the Gaza Strip that killed some 1,400 Palestinians and thirteen Israelis. To mark the occasion, a group of over nearly 1,400 individuals from over forty countries around the world are aiming to break the siege of Gaza and participate in a nonviolent march inside Gaza alongside thousands of Palestinians. We speak with Hedy Epstein, an eighty-five-year-old Holocaust survivor who is taking part in the march, and Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK and part of the coordinating committee of the Gaza Freedom March. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of the start of Israel’s three-week assault on the Gaza Strip that killed some 1,400 Palestinians and thirteen Israelis. One year later, little to no rebuilding has taken place, and Israel’s illegal siege of Gaza continues. Since the end of its assault, Israel has only allowed forty-one truckloads of construction materials into Gaza. A new report by leading humanitarian and human rights groups says thousands of truckloads are required to repair the thousands of buildings destroyed by Israel’s military assault on Gaza. The report accuses the international community of not doing enough to end Israel’s blockade and of betraying the nearly 1.5 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, next week a group of over nearly 1,400 people from over forty countries around the world are aiming to break the siege of Gaza and participate in a nonviolent march inside Gaza alongside thousands of Palestinians. It’s been called the Gaza Freedom March.

We’re joined now by one of the many Americans who will be on this march. Hedy Epstein is with us. She’s an eighty-five-year-old Holocaust survivor who was born in Germany. She’s also a committed anti-Zionist activist and has made five solidarity trips to the West Bank. Hedy Epstein is joining us from St. Louis.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Why are you going on this trip, Hedy?

HEDY EPSTEIN:

Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN:

It’s good to have you with us.

HEDY EPSTEIN:

There are several reasons why. Thank you. There are several reasons why I’m going. One of them is to let the people in Gaza know that there are people out there in the world who care about them, who are concerned about them, who are worried about them, unlike the governments of many countries, who seem to be asleep or at least not paying any attention to what is going on in Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN:

Give us a little —-

HEDY EPSTEIN: Another reason, I guess, is -—

AMY GOODMAN:

Go ahead.

HEDY EPSTEIN:

Go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN:

I was going to say —

HEDY EPSTEIN:

Another reason —

AMY GOODMAN:

— tell us a little more about yourself, Hedy. Talk about your early years in Germany and how you survived the Holocaust.

HEDY EPSTEIN:

OK. I was born in Germany, and when Hitler came to power, I was eight years old. And my parents quickly realized that Germany was not a place to raise a family under the Nazi regime. And so, they tried to leave Germany and increasingly were more desperate about getting out anywhere in the world. But there was one place they were not willing to go to, and that was Palestine.

And why was that? Because they were ardent anti-Zionists. And as a child, I didn’t really know what or understand fully what Zionism or anti-Zionism is about. But if my parents were anti-Zionist, so was I.

In May 1939, I was fortunate to be able to leave Germany on a Kindertransport, or a children’s transport, to England. England took in almost 10,000 Jewish children in the nine months preceding World War II. My parents were not so fortunate. They perished in 1942 in the concentration camp, or extermination camp, Auschwitz.

And I came to the US in 1948, about the same time that Israel became a state. And I had mixed feelings at that time. One, I was glad that there was a place for people to go to who survived the Holocaust. But on the other hand, I remembered my parents’ anti-Zionism, and I was afraid that somewhere down the road no good would come of this. What that might be, I couldn’t possibly imagine then. But I was new in the United States, and new things to learn and new impressions, and so I paid little or no attention to that part of the world.

And then in 1982, I guess I got a wake-up call. I learned about the massacres in the two refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, located in Lebanon. And I needed to find out what was this all about, who was responsible, who was adversely affected, and what happened between 1948 and 1982, when I paid little attention to this part of the world. And as I learned more and understood more, I began to speak out and speak out publicly. And then, as you mentioned, I have been to the West Bank five times since 2003, and this will be my third attempt at going to Gaza. And I hope the Egyptian government will find it in its heart and soul, especially at this time of the year of giving, in giving us the opportunity to get into Gaza.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

And were you able, as you grew up here in the United States, to eventually get an understanding of why your parents, so early on, before even the founding of Israel, had become such committed anti-Zionists?

HEDY EPSTEIN:

Yes. I mean, I don’t know why my parents became anti-Zionists. That’s a question I never asked as a child. So I can only guess at what the reason is, and probably they did not feel they wanted to be in a place or a country or a state that is only for Jews and by Jews, to the exclusion of all non-Jews.

AMY GOODMAN:

When you say you attempted to get into Gaza several times before, explain what happened, Hedy Epstein.

HEDY EPSTEIN:

Alright. The first time I was hoping to go with the Free Gaza Movement, and the Free Gaza Movement is another nonviolent organization trying to break the siege. And two boats were actually successful, on the first trip, to go to Gaza in August of last year. Just —- and we were going to take the boat in Cyprus. Just before we were ready to go, there was an enormous heat wave in Cyprus, 120 degrees in the shade. And I suffered from that heat and became ill, and in deference to my fellow travelers, I chose not to go, a decision I shall regret the rest of my life.

The second attempt, the second time that I wanted to go, was in June of this year. And the day before I was to leave St. Louis, I was assaulted on my street during broad daylight. And I suffered some physical injuries, lost a lot of blood, and was not able to go because of that.

And so, this is my third attempt. The first two were by boat, the second by land. And being an inveterate optimistic, I know that the Egyptian government will make the right decision and let us go. And I will be able to go with about 1,400 other people from forty-two different countries to Gaza. And we’re bringing -—

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, let’s talk about Egypt’s decision. Earlier this week, Egypt threatened to block the Gaza Freedom March from crossing into Gaza from Egypt. We’re turning now to Egypt for the latest. We’re joined in Cairo by Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of CODEPINK and part of the coordinating committee of the Gaza Freedom March.

Medea, welcome to Democracy Now! What’s happening? What’s the latest?

MEDEA BENJAMIN:

Well, the Egyptian government is being very difficult right now. We have been working with them since September on this, negotiating, giving them names, all the information about every individual who is trying to come. And they never gave us a definitive answer, and suddenly this week they came out and said, “No, we’re not going to let you go,” after we have 1,350 people already signed up, already got their tickets, already ready to go, including members of parliament from around the world, judges, people like Alice Walker —

AMY GOODMAN:

Medea, I’m going to interrupt for one second. Medea, are you speaking on an earpiece or — we’re just having a little trouble understanding you. If you can speak as clearly as you can directly into the phone without any kind of earpiece.

MEDEA BENJAMIN:

Yes, the Egyptian government, we have worked with them for months, since September, on this, and suddenly, this week, they told us that we would not be allowed to go in. So we are flooding their embassies around the world with phone calls and pleas to let the Gaza Freedom March proceed into Gaza.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

And Medea, what kind of new efforts is the Egyptian government making to isolate Gaza from the rest of the world along the border?

MEDEA BENJAMIN:

They have been, just recently, starting to build an underground wall that goes 100 feet into the ground to cut the tunnels that have become the lifeline for the people of Gaza. It’s making the situation very desperate. It is increasing tension between Hamas and the Egyptian government. And these tensions are one of the excuses that the Egyptian government is giving for not allowing the Gaza Freedom March to proceed.

AMY GOODMAN:

So what are you going to do? We just have a minute now. If the Egyptian government says no — I know there are a number of people already in Egypt — what are your plans?

MEDEA BENJAMIN:

We work [inaudible] to pressure the Egyptian government. We’re asking your listeners to call the Egyptian embassy at (202) 895-5400 and plead with them to be on the side of the moral conscience of the world and the side of the people of Gaza in this one-year anniversary, and please don’t side with the Israelis.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, we’re going to leave it there. Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK: Women for Peace and part of the Gaza Freedom March coordinating committee. And we want to thank Hedy Epstein for joining us, eighty-five-year-old Holocaust survivor and activist. She plans to be a part of the Gaza Freedom March.

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