An 85-year-old Holocaust survivor launched a hunger strike in Cairo on Monday, as she and hundreds of other activists sought entry to Gaza for a solidarity march.
American Hedy Epstein and some 1,400 participants in the Gaza Freedom March planned to travel to Gaza this week, to press Israel to lift its blockade on the anniversary of last year's IDF offensive against Hamas in Gaza. Delegates from 42 countries were stopped in Cairo and denied entry via the Rafah crossing by Egyptian authorities.
"I started this morning, and I've been drinking water," Epstein told The Jerusalem Post at around 4:30 p.m. local time by telephone from Cairo, where participants gathered to await passage to the Rafah crossing and Gaza. Saying she would drink orange juice if she felt weak, Epstein said that so far, she was "feeling fine."
A longtime civil rights activist, she added: "I've come to a point in my life where I think I need to do something else to [draw] attention."
Epstein, who was born in Germany, fled the Nazis on a Kindertransport at age 14 and lived in England during World War II. Her parents died in the Holocaust.
"I am a survivor of the Holocaust," she said. "It's not the same experience as mine, but suffering is suffering," she said of the people living in Gaza. "When people are suffering, it comes upon the rest of us to try to do whatever we can."
Organizers of the march, including American NGO Code Pink: Women for Peace, held a news conference on Monday at the United Nations building in Cairo. Participants, including novelist Alice Walker and Philippine Senator Walden Bello, pledged to press forward into Gaza. "We'll get to Gaza," Bello told the crowd.
Earlier this month, citing tension at the border, Egyptian authorities informed organizers that the Rafah border would be closed into January, according to organizer Medea Benjamin. But in an article published by The Huffington Post Web site, she said the mission would not be dissuaded.
"Because of the incredible humanitarian crisis in Gaza caused by the Israeli attack on Gaza a year ago and by the international siege on Gaza, we feel morally obligated to continue our mission to bring more international attention to the plight of the 1.5 million people imprisoned here," she said.
Acknowledging the "setback," Benjamin cited previous delegations that were permitted to pass through after public and political pressure. She said activists would flood embassies, missions and other Egyptian governmental offices with calls, faxes and e-mails.
"We're all slightly disappointed. We thought we'd be crossing into Gaza tomorrow," said Max Ajl, a media coordinator for the march. Ajl said delegates had hoped to be in Gaza by Tuesday, and that there was still a possibility they'd get there eventually, citing support from US lawmakers, including, he said, from Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. In a December 23 letter not addressed to any one party, the senator expressed "strong support for the humanitarian delegation" traveling from his state.
According to Ajl: "We are delayed, we are stalled, but we think we can get moving again."
In the meantime, citing security concerns, Egyptian authorities have beefed up security along the bank of the Nile river, where hundreds of protesters gathered, and along the road to the Rafah border crossing, according to news reports. Ajl said plainclothes and uniformed security officers surrounded hundreds of activists at the UN building on Monday.
"Measures have been tightened along the road from Cairo to Rafah to prevent activists from the Gaza Freedom March from staging the march," a security official told AFP.
Separately, more than 400 members of a group saying they are carrying humanitarian supplies to Gaza are in Aqaba, after being denied entry into Egypt. Led by British politician George Galloway, members of the Viva Palestina convoy began a hunger strike on Sunday.
In a statement, Galloway said: "Israel has kept Gaza under siege for three and a half years against international law. It has not allowed aid or rebuilding materials in following its attack on Gaza earlier this year. Our convoy is determined to break the siege and take in urgently needed supplies. Spirits are high in our camp in Aqaba, and we are going nowhere except to Gaza."