The Middle East witnessed the dizzying potential of mass movements from below over four days last week. Walls tumbled, a dictator was humiliated and US strategy to isolate the Palestinian resistance was smashed into ruins.
It began on the morning of Tuesday 22 January when thousands of Palestinian women and children laid siege to the border crossing at Rafah separating Egypt from the Palestinian territory.
The demonstrators were demanding entry into Egypt following Israel’s tightening of its grip over the Gaza Strip.
Since the outbreak of the second intifada (uprising) in 2000, the Gaza Strip has been economically isolated. In 2005 the resistance forced Israel to abandon its illegal settlements established when it seized the territory in the 1967 war.
This withdrawal was followed by a shock 2006 election victory for the Hamas movement – a resistance organisation that rejects any peace deal with Israel that does not address the central issues faced by Palestinians. Despite being declared a “free and fair election”, the West refused to recognise the new government.
The Egyptian-Palestine border was closed using the wall built by Israel over 40 years, denying Palestinians a way out of Gaza and stranding hundreds of Gazan residents on the Egyptian side.
Israel, the US and Egypt attempted a coup in June 2007, but this was thwarted when Palestinian security forces refused to join the attack on the Hamas government. Following this failed take over Israel moved to isolate the Gaza Strip completely.
Its blockade of the Gaza Strip was central to a strategy adopted by the US and its allies to bring the Palestinians to their knees. The punishing blockade turned into a full-blown siege after Israel cut all fuel supplies. This plunged 1.5 million people into darkness.
With the region in the grips of one of the coldest winters for years, desperate groups of women and children marched towards the border crossing.
Egyptian riot police lined up to block them. Some demonstrators chanted insults against Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak as children indignantly slapped the riot shields.
To the cries of “cowards, cowards”, the riot police began to buckle. Around 50 women broke through the border post before they were driven back by gunfire, water cannon and batons.
As news spread that Mubarak’s hated police were beating desperate Palestinians, Egypt’s opposition Muslim Brotherhood and the Socialist Alliance – a coalition of left wing organisations and individuals – issued a call for a demonstration on Wednesday morning on front of the Arab League building in central Cairo.
Other protests were organised outside Egyptian embassies across the Arab capitals.
A terrified Mubarak mobilised his security forces and declared that the demonstration would not go ahead. Hundreds of activists belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and left wing organisations were seized from their beds, or as they prepared to travel to the capital for the protest.
As Mubarak’s security forces were mobilising to snuff out the Cairo protest, Hamas engineers destroyed the border fence that separates the Gaza Strip from Egypt.
It has since been revealed that the engineers had been secretly cutting through the six metre high steel barrier for months. On Wednesday night they brought the whole fence tumbling down.
As word went round that the border fence had fallen, tens of thousands of Palestinians began crossing into Egypt. The security forces were powerless in the face of this human wave. Some abandoned their posts, while others stood aside.
In Cairo news began to filter through that the border had fallen. Although over 450 key activists had been arrested, 2,000 people began to assemble in Tahrir Square, in the centre of the capital.
Fearful that the attempts to stifle open protests had failed, the state security police shut Cairo’s underground stations and swept through working class areas randomly arresting people. For the Egyptian state the enemy was everywhere.
The chants of “cowards, cowards” were taken up by the demonstrators in Cairo. As news reached the demonstrations that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were now flooding into Egypt the riot police attacked protesters chasing them into side streets. Over 1,500 were arrested.
But the crackdown could not stop what was rapidly becoming a major humiliation for Mubarak. With his border police in disarray and his riot police retreating in the face of a mass of people, he announced on national TV that he had in fact “invited the Palestinians in”.
“I told the security forces to allow the Palestinians to buy their basic needs and go back to Gaza as long as they are not carrying arms or anything illegal,” he said.
Events along the border with Gaza have further weakened Mubarak’s rule after over 26 years in power. Since December 2006 a wave of strikes, factory occupations and protests have broken his regime of fear.
This growing popular power is giving rise to a new generation of young militants, with women and young workers often taking the lead.
The movement from below is growing at such a pace, one veteran left wing activist described its impact as “dizzying”.
“After years of small deeds in the face of harsh repression, we are overwhelmed by the scale and depth of the movement,” he told Socialist Worker.
Mubarak’s regime is a key US ally in the region. Two weeks ago George Bush dropped in on the Egyptian dictator in the last stop on his “democracy tour” of the Middle East.
Bush wanted to firm up an alliance of pro US-regimes against Iran, Hamas and Lebanon’s Hizbollah movement.
At the heart of this strategy was isolating any resistance to imperialism and its allies.
Israel took the cue from the visit to unleash a new round of murderous attacks on the Gaza Strip. The cutting of fuel supplies would be the final blow, and as the territory descended into darkness the Palestinians would see the “error of their ways” and turn on the Hamas government.
But instead of humbling Hamas, the resistance movement blew holes in Israeli policy.
The siege was undone. A frustrated Israeli minister announced on Thursday that Israel was “washing its hands” of the Gaza Strip.
“We need to understand that when Gaza is open to the other side we lose responsibility for it,” the minister said. “So we want to disconnect from it.”
These mealy mouthed words indicated that after 38 years of occupation, settlements and a rule of terror, the Israelis are finally admitting defeat.
The Israeli statement set off alarm bells in the White House.
The under secretary of state Nicholas Burns called Mubarak and demanded that the “border be sealed”, while the US Congress threatened to withhold $100 million in aid if the Egyptians did not reimpose the siege.
Meanwhile the Egyptian government denounced the Israeli statement saying that Palestine “was Israel’s responsibility”.
The Egypt/Gaza border was transformed into a festival. According to the United Nations by Thursday morning, “roughly 350,000 Palestinians – or more than 20 percent of Gaza’s population of about 1.5 million – walked, drove or rode on donkey carts into Egypt”.
By Sunday this reached 750,000. Many families were visiting loved ones, stocking up on supplies or enjoying the atmosphere of freedom.
The Egyptian state set up a new, temporary border in the city of El-Arish, about 37 miles from Rafah. The panic caused led US and international military observers stationed near the Egyptian city to abandon their base. As the Palestinians moved in, the troops and their equipment moved out.
On Friday Mubarak ordered his police back to the border while security forces rampaged through El-Arish attacking Egyptians who were giving aid to Palestinians. They set up roadblocks across the Sinai to stop any more supplies from reaching the Gaza Strip.
That afternoon the Egyptian riot police attempted to reassert control over the Rafah border. A cordon of riot police nine deep formed along the breached fence in an attempt to stop any more Palestinians from escaping their Gaza prison.
They were met with a barrage of stones while militants used a bulldozer to demolish another section of the border fence. By Sunday the border fortifications had been reduced to rubble.
The Egyptian government has been forced to invite representatives of the Hamas government to talks, breaking the boycott imposed by the US and Israel. The Israelis have agreed to allow supplies back into the strip.
The siege and the occupation of the Gaza Strip are over, for now.
The following should be read alongside this article:
» London protest for Gaza