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Egypt lets some demonstrators into Gaza

Egypt has agreed to allow 100 pro-Palestinian demonstrators into blockaded Gaza, but they do not appear to include any of the Marylanders who were planning to participate in the "Gaza Freedom March" on Thursday.

Brookeville resident Jean Athey, one of three members of Peace Action Montgomery now in Egypt for the event, e-mails that demonstrators shut out of the Gaza march are planning to march in Cairo instead.

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"We are expecting that the Egyptians will not be pleased," Athey writes. "So, we are prepared for anything."

Agence France-Press reports that some 1,300 demonstrators from more than 40 countries are in Cairo for the Gaza march, which comes on the first anniversary of the three-week conflict between Hamas and Israel that left more than 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.

AFP reports that the Egyptian offer, which follows demonstrations and a hunger strike, has divided demonstrators. Egyptian authorities initially had refused to allow demonstrators to cross into Gaza.

"It's a partial victory," American activist Medea Benjamin told AFP. "It shows that mass pressure has an effect."

But others expressed anger.

"This just gives the Egyptian government a photo-up and the chance say we allowed people through," Canadian activist Bassem Omar told AFP.

Athey has written three letters from Cairo, which we reproduce after the jump.

Gaza Freedom March

On the Flight to Cairo, December 26, 2009

Our goal: to draw attention to Gaza and end the blockade.

We intend to shed light on the terrible suffering of the 1.5 million people subsisting in the desperate little piece of land called the Gaza Strip. We hope that if people world-wide understand what is happening, something will be done—and the people of Gaza can once again live like human beings.

On the anniversary of last year's horrific attack on Gaza by Israel, we had planned to join with Gazans on a three-mile non-violent solidarity march, at the same time that people in many countries around the world hold their own local demonstrations and vigils. Over thirteen hundred people from 412 countries are on their way to Cairo for the march, and we had planned to board buses on December 28 for the five-hour drive to Rafah, the border crossing between Egypt and Gaza. Our historical models for the Gaza Freedom March are Gandhi's salt march and Martin Luther King's Selma march.

We have all agreed to abide by non-violence guidelines. We know, of course, that the forces for violence in the region are entrenched and powerful, but we believe that our non-violent witness will be part of a moral force pushing back against war and injustice. We hope that our presence can show the world that change is both possible and necessary. Because of this hope, we have given up our Christmas holidays, and each of us has dedicated two thousand dollars or more for expenses—a small cost, indeed, given what we would like to accomplish.

Everyone has packed a few items to bring to people in Gaza, items that are now either unavailable to Gazans or so expensive that, in a region with 74% unemployment [i], impossible for people to purchase. I packed several sweaters for children, a few packages of markers, a couple of toys, and calcium supplements for pregnant and nursing mothers. Some people are bringing books and laptops, desperately needed by students.

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My offerings are pathetic, given the vast need, but it is all I could carry.

A few days ago, we learned that the Egyptian government has decided to prevent us from entering into Gaza. Previous delegations have been allowed in. Of course, those delegations were much smaller than the thirteen hundred coming for the Gaza Freedom March.

Even after learning of the Egyptian decision, almost everyone decided to go ahead and travel to Cairo, hoping that Egypt will relent and allow us entry, and if that doesn't happen, that we can mount a public protest in Cairo, even though doing so might well lead to our arrests.

Egyptian authorities have told March organizers that if anyone displays banners or protest signs, or if people gather in groups larger than six, we will be arrested. None of us want to be arrested, especially in Egypt, a country known for its harsh prisons and torture. But, it hardly seems that we can travel to Egypt and just go look at the pyramids. While contemplating what I felt comfortable and brave enough to do, I happened to read a statement on-line from the leadership of a group in the West Bank town of Bil'iin. Bil'in has held weekly demonstrations for months in non-violent resistance to the construction of the illegal Israeli wall that will impoverish and destroy the village. As a result of these demonstrations, villagers are regularly tear-gassed, shot with rubber-coated steel bullets, subjected to sound bombs, beaten up, arrested and even killed. Here is what the people of Bil'in wrote to us:

"Egypt has announced that the Rafah border into Gaza will be closed over the coming weeks to the 1,300 international delegates attempting to march in solidarity with the people of occupied Palestine . . . on the anniversary of Israel's horrific Cast Lead massacre that killed over 1,400 people. The powerful and diverse collaboration of international support must now choose its response to this horrific injustice. Will you stand waiting permission at the gates of Gaza? We say that you need not wait; if Egypt will not open their border, then the time for action is now. We encourage and support the escalation of non-violent direct action. It is up to you to take the next steps. It is no surprise that Egypt is not allowing the march to continue, so the natural progression towards a victory over this injustice is creative tactical escalation. If you cannot march on the roads, then set up camp and sleep on them instead; fast in solidarity with the people who are dying of starvation; refuse to be stopped by their temporary boundaries. We can look to the lessons, the creativity, and the determination of our sisters and brothers from historical resistance movements.

"We are the voice of the voiceless, the arms of those physically held captive, the eyes of those blinded by hate.

"There are those of us who resist because we have no choice, we resist to live. And there are those of us who know that no one is free until we are all free, and we use our bodies and the privilege of our relative freedom to resist oppression in all its forms.

"There is no time for words without action. Here in Bil'in, we will be demonstrating in solidarity with Gaza and all those trying to enter."

We have learned that Egypt has forbidden the bus companies to transport us to the border. Egyptian authorities have cancelled the space that had been rented for our group meeting scheduled for the evening of December 27. It is becoming increasingly unlikely that we will be able to get anywhere near Gaza.

So, somehow, we will take a stand in Cairo.

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Gaza Freedom March

Second Letter: December 27-28

The first day in Cairo was a bit chaotic: Organizers struggled to communicate with over 1,300 people dispersed in various hotels throughout Cairo, many of whom did not have email or phone service. Some of us found that our hotel reservations were imaginary, and so we had to make alternative arrangements. Despite the challenges, it was an amazing day.

In the morning, about a hundred people brought flowers, ribbons and poems to leave on the Kasr el Nil Bridge that spans the Nile River, in memory of the hundreds of Gazans killed by the Israelis exactly one year ago. People walked onto the bridge in groups of six or less—a gathering of more than six is illegal, we had been told. Nevertheless, the police soon came and ordered everyone off the bridge.

We planned another action for the early evening: An ancient type of sail boat called a felucca has plied the Nile for centuries. March organizers had rented ten of these, reserving them in advance, and we intended to sail our feluccas on the Nile and place candles in paper cups in the water. We imagined hundreds of candles floating in the Nile at sunset, each candle commemorating an innocent person killed in the Israeli assault on Gaza. But in the end, we were unable to get to the boats; the police closed down the felucca operations and surrounded our group on the sidewalk, where we remained for a couple of hours, chanting "Free Gaza" and waving banners and flags.

Months ago, March organizers had obtained a permit for our entire group to meet in a church in downtown Cairo in the evening, where final decisions would be made and instructions given. However, a week ago, the Egyptian government revoked the permit, and so, after leaving the felucca protest, we all converged in a large, open-air square for our meeting. It was a bit difficult to hear, given the traffic noise and the size of our group, but we soon broke up into smaller groups where we could discuss our next steps.

In the meantime, a group of about 200 French people gathered at the French Embassy, where they were originally supposed to board buses to take them to the border. But the government prohibited the bus companies from transporting anyone from the Gaza Freedom March, and so the French mounted a protest in front of the Embassy. First, they lay down in the street—a major thoroughfare—and kept the street for about five hours. The French Ambassador, supportive of the protesters, negotiated with the police, and subsequently the group moved onto the sidewalk where they set up tents and spent the night. Over twenty-four hours later, they are still there. I went to the Embassy this morning to see the protest and found a double row of police in riot gear lining the entire block, with the French group inside the police line. Some 20 paddy wagons were parked across the street. I believe that the French protesters will stay camped out there for a long time, unless they are arrested.

We were all supposed to go to Gaza today, but as with the French group, our buses were prohibited from transporting us.

This afternoon, all of us except the French gathered on the plaza outside the offices of the United Nations. We chanted, waved signs, and planned next steps, encircled by police, for five hours. Several people initiated a hunger strike, including one 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, Heddy Epstein. While we waited outside, three of the March organizers negotiated with UN representatives inside, to see if the UN could persuade the Egyptian government to allow us into Gaza—or even allow some of us in—and to allow in the humanitarian aid we had brought with us. But these talks were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, six Germans attempted to get to the border via public transportation, but their bus was stopped at a checkpoint and they were taken off and detained. The bus, full of Egyptians, was held up for seven hours as the police sorted out what to do. The Germans reported that the Egyptian people on the bus were incredibly kind and appreciative, even though they had been greatly inconvenienced by the seven-hour delay. Finally, the Germans were put on another bus and returned to Cairo.

Tomorrow, we Americans will go to the American Embassy to urge the U.S. to pressure Egypt to open the border to Gaza. Other nationality groups will engage in other actions.

We are determined to break the siege. The situation of the people of Gaza is intolerable, and the world must respond.

Gaza Freedom March

Letter Three—December 29

Free Gaza actions occurred all over Cairo today, and so the police, who are often in riot gear, have had a busy day—they show up wherever we go. They are incredibly young, maybe 18 or 19. Typically, when the police work a demonstration, they surround us with moveable steel fences, which they line up behind-- sometimes two deep--and they watch us with what seems to be curiosity, not malice. However, their innocent appearance doesn't mean they won't become aggressive; for example, police today were very rough with several Spanish protesters. As internationals, though, we have great protection, not enjoyed by locals. Some Egyptians have joined in these protests, and we find their courage astounding.

This morning, I was at the U.S. Embassy with a group of about 40 other Americans. We went hoping to see the Ambassador, but instead we were surrounded by Egyptian police in riot gear and kept penned in for some five hours. The police told us that they did this at the behest of the American Embassy, but later the "political security officer" of the Embassy denied it. So, who is lying? It is interesting that the French ambassador spent the night outside with the French protesters when they first occupied the sidewalk in front of their embassy, but the American ambassador refused to see us and apparently had us detained, and for no reason.

We went to the American Embassy to ask the U.S. to prevail upon the Egyptian government and allow our nonviolent delegation into Gaza. The U.S. has tremendous leverage with Egypt, of course, and if the U.S. asked Egypt to allow us to go to Gaza, the border would surely be opened immediately. Three members of our group were allowed inside the Embassy to speak to an American representative, while the rest of us were prevented from moving outside our temporary pen. Our spokespersons reminded the political officer with whom they met that when Barack Obama came to Cairo in June, he spoke movingly of the power of nonviolence as a way to resist oppression. The President said,

For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding.

The Gaza Freedom March embodies that "peaceful and determined insistence" about which the President spoke. I wonder if the Ambassador heard his speech.

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In that same speech, President Obama acknowledged the dire circumstances of Palestinians in general, and Gazans in particular. He said,

So let there be no doubt: the state of the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own. . . Israel must also live up to its obligations to ensure that Palestinians can live, and work, and develop their society. And just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel's security . . . Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress.

And yet, it seems that we Americans have turned our backs on the people of Gaza: we are doing nothing to end the siege, which is creating unimaginable suffering. And we have done nothing to compel Israel to end the siege. Indeed, the U.S. is presently facilitating a strengthening of the siege: it was announced last week that the Army Corps of Engineers is assisting Egypt in further isolating the people of Gaza by helping in the construction of a huge underground wall. This wall will cut off the only remaining sources of food, clothes, medicine, and all other necessities of life, which now enter Gaza through tunnels from Egypt. How shameful that the U.S. is working to increase the suffering of the people of Gaza rather than to diminish it.

In his Nobel acceptance speech, President Obama said,

As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life's work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak -nothing passive - nothing naïve - in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

Our President thus applauds nonviolent action and recognizes its strength. The Gaza Freedom March was conceived as a nonviolent response to what President Obama characterized as an intolerable situation and a humanitarian crisis—a crisis that has become increasingly dire since he spoke here in June.

Thus, we are attempting to do exactly what President Obama recommended, and yet when we went to our own Embassy for intervention with the Egyptian government, we were surrounded by police and detained for hours in an open-air pen, an appropriate symbol for Gaza itself, actually.

President Obama said in Oslo,

It is also true that security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine they need to survive. It does not exist where children cannot aspire to a decent education or a job that supports a family. The absence of hope can rot a society from within.

In Gaza, because of U.S. complicity with Israel in the blockade, people do not have enough food, clean water or medicine. There are no books or paper for school children, and the schools that were bombed cannot be rebuilt because building materials are not allowed into the Strip. Unemployment is at 75%. There is little hope in Gaza.

President Obama ended his eloquent Oslo speech with these stirring words:

So let us reach for the world that ought to be - that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls. . . Somewhere today, in this world, a young protestor awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, who believes that a cruel world still has a place for his dreams.

Let us live by their example.

And yet, when we U.S. citizens attempt to speak with representatives of our own Embassy--in a client state--about our desires to help alleviate a dire humanitarian situation, we are detained for hours like animals and refused an audience. Is this the audacity of hope? Is this change we can believe in?

We ask our government to live by the words of our President and to help us end the illegal and immoral siege of Gaza.

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