Thursday, 7 January 2010

Of the 1,300 internationals who entered Egypt via Cairo to proceed to Gaza a selection process was initiated following the intervention of Suzanne Mubarak requesting that those with humanitarian purpose could proceed- 100 only. This caused anger and disagreement amongst the Gaza Freedom March participants many of whom staged protests boycotting those that intended to take the opportunity of going by coach. This proved caustic as messages were conveyed that the people in Gaza wanted all of the participants or none to proceed therefore the nominated group were in a quandary; many were persuaded to disembark from the coaches in Cairo. The old tactics of playing one section off against another were working. Two buses holding around 88 proceeded, those left in El Arish and Cairo held protest demonstrations. In El Arish the protesters were joined by many Egyptians leaving the crowds of bystanders to express their dismay at the obstructions caused by the Egyptian authorities, despite Egypt imposing severe penalties on those who demonstrate. I was chosen as I was taking in humanitarian aid in the form of resources for the Palestine Trauma Centre.

Entered Gaza 2 am 31 12 09.
Freedom March proceeded with approx 1000 Gazans and 60 of the freedom march participants. This proceeded towards the Israeli Erez border. At the first checkpoint approx 400 metres from the Israeli wall the march was stopped. The participants negotiated to proceed to the next checkpoint after which was Israeli controlled. The march, led by orthodox Jews proceeded the next 100 metres and received a message that any further progress would incur military action from the Israeli side in the form of live rounds. We knelt down and called for the borders to opened to lift the siege and for a peaceful end to the blockade.
Friday 1 Jan. Visit the port of Gaza: Fishermen outlined the way in which Israel has restricted movement to 3 km, 8 km inside the international boundary. We witnessed Israeli naval vessels patrolling the horizon.

Preliminary meeting with Palestine Trauma Centre staff to form programme: Saturday visit to PTC, outreach centre and areas affected by bombardment. Sunday teaching and sharing practice session. Monday art project with children and staff.

On return to hotel informed we must all leave Saturday 9am as further time spent in Gaza may affect use of crossing by Palestinians.
Saturday negotiated with representative and Hamas to have until 3 pm before leaving.
Rapid visit to PTC and devastated areas in north and east of Gaza and outreach centres.

  • Palestine Trauma Centre. Briefing. 45,000 referrals since attack, and 400 referrals a week. Serious lack of qualified staff: 5 psychiatrists 3 in admin posts but practising due to massive caseload, 1 child psychiatrist.
    Symptoms and diagnoses: fainting attacks, dissociative disorders, emotional amnaesia, hearing voices, visual hallucinations, complete freezing, panic attacks and panic disorder. PTSD.
    No anti-psychotic medication to treat these disorders available.
    Tertiary phenomenon; Addiction to Tramadol by young people following treatment -at catastrophic levels amongst youth.
    PTC follows holistic model of psycho-social intervention with trained staff of psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists using play, verbal interventions and art and music.
    Visit to north and east Gaza to witness devastation following the attacks. Attacks started at 11.30 am on Saturday 27th December 2009, Jewish Sabbath. First hit school with children at 11am at exam time children in playground. Police station hit killing 100, factories, cemetery and residential areas killing several hundred people in first day.
    Visit to north Gaza which experiences frequent Israeli incursions. Visit to hill overlooking Gaza city from which Israeli tanks shelled the city. House which was hit by phosphorous shell and burnt out which was being used as classroom for children affected by the bombardment. The group of children were with PTC staff member singing and chanting to improve their psychological strength and social cohesion and process some of the trauma they experienced.
    Visited empty building with children drawing their experiences and sharing this mutually and being praised for their courage.
    Following official instructions and much fruitless negotiations with government representative returned to Cairo after being stopped again by police.At 2am we were told to return to el Arish: we got out of the bus in protest and began walking towards Cairo, some flagged down a massive lorry which stopped and took us on board. The plain clothes police caught up and created a road block stopping any further procedure. Eventually allowed us to continue to Cairo by minibus with security services and armed military escort arriving at 4 am.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Gazans and Internationals march in Solidarity to end the siege

Two coaches arrived in Gaza city at 1 O'clock in the morning after long delays picking up a small group of extra people from Al Arish. The Egyptian authorites had been obstructive to the last creating delays and confusion and giving incorrect and misleading information. Arguments had divided many of the Gaza Freedom March participants as some chanted "All go or no-one goes. Everyone or no-one!"The Spanish contingent were particullarly vociferous in their dismay that only a small proportion of the 1,300 would be allowed to proceed.
31st December. We took a speedy coach trip through the city in which we witnessed the effects of the Israeli bombardment which hit schools as it commenced at 1130 AM, in which the children were in the playground and most were killed and many injured, cemeteries and factories were hit many of which still show the missile holes. We then passed an area which held some 3,000 homes which was raised to the ground by the bombardment; the surviving members are now living in a ramshackle encampment consisting of plastic sheets and scraps of corrugated metal.
About 1,000 Gazans assembled with Palestinian flags and banners in the brilliant sunshine calling for an end to the siege which is strangulating this narrow strip of land and crippling the economy, these were joined by the majority of the GFM participants. With banners fluttering and the speakers blaring the marched proceeded noisily in the direction of the Israeli Erez crossing. Gazan security forces stopped the march at the Gaza border checkpoint about 400 metres from the separation wall. Following passionate speeches calling for an end to these crimes against the Gazan people the marchers called to move forward towards the Israeli zone another 100 metres on and we were told that the Israelis had sent a message that they would take military action against us and open fire if we proceeded further. The marchers called out in resounding chants for the borders to be opened, the siege to be lifted and to stop these crimes against humanity.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Hope for Gaza Freedom marchers?

Yesterday the delayed Spanish and French contingent of the Gaza Freedom March was joined by other internationals and protested in the centre of El Arish 40 k from the Rafah crossing.

Sadat Square became the centre of controversy as political demonstration, banned in Egypt, arrived in the centre of this Mediterranean town. Protesters called for the lifting of the Siege of Gaza by chanting, raising banners and singing the famous Lennon Ono composition 'Give Peace a Chance' along with other protest songs. Many hundreds of local Egyptians, Palestinians and other Arab peoples flocked to the Square to watch the spectacle. Egyptian security services responded by blocking any movement as the demonstration moved up July 23rd Street and scuffles and angry confrontations ensued. Locals who moved to express their support were forcefully restrained except one who, overcome by the feelings expressed, joined the protesters at serious personal risk. Political protest carries 5 years imprisonent.
The army, uniformed and plain clothes police blocked their passage. The demonstration continued until dusk and as the call for prayers echoed around this ancient square the protesters dispersed under heavy security services escort.

  • Meanwhile in Cairo negotiations have been ongoing regarding the several hundred GFM participants. Suzanne Mubarak, the President's wife and chair of the Red Crescent, was instrumental in promoting an agreement to provide 2 buses and the passage of 100 people qualified by their humanitarian purpose to proceed to Gaza today.
In Cairo protests erupted amongst the GFM movement as hundreds of participants tried to establish their legitimacy to join the buses to proceed north to Gaza. Priority had to be given to Palestinians with relatives in Gaza many of whom had not met for years or ever seen their families due to the entry restrictions imposed and those proceeding for humanitarian purposes.

Doctors, priests, teachers, Hasidic Jews against Zionism (currently in Arish) lawyers, therapists, NGO workers and those with an humanitarian purpose were to be given priority.

  • I am now at the heavily guarded 5 Star Swiss Inn, El Arish where we wait in anticipation to see whether the bus will arrive and who can get on, having been stopped twice and emptied of those that are seen to potentially threaten the peaceful integrity of the movement.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Today, under police escort we joined the Spanish French and International contingent in Sadat Square El Arish to protest against the continuing blockade and denial of humanitarian aid by Israel and the US client state Egypt.
The suffering of the Gazan's cannot be imagined. Last night I had the privilege to meet a young woman who, after two years of attempted entry had finally been allowed to enter Egypt from beleaguered Gaza to join her husband who resides in El Arish after being engaged in Gaza over two years previously. I met them as arranged in a pizza cafe near to the Sinai Hotel. After a journey through the darkened streets of Arish we arrived at the their modest apartment being decorated to greet the arrival of their first child, which she was expecting. They greeted me with the customary hospitality and warmth of the Palestinian people as they shared tea and she unfolded her story of the tragedy of Gaza and the impact of living for decades within a refugee camp with the rest of her family and I felt the travesty of relations between the governments describing themselves as abiding by international humanitarian law and calling themselves civilised. They were strict Sunni as is the majority of Egypt and Gaza and she spoke close to tears of her ordeal of proving to the Egyptian authorities her credentials for joining her husband, the tragedy is amplified by the fact that the rest of her family is in Gaza and that it will be unlikely that she will be able to see them again because of the increased prohibitions on entry and exit for the Palestinian people.
This meeting was arranged through mutual contacts following my concerns regarding getting the art materials into Gaza to the Trauma Centre and this young couple offered to help in whatever way possible.
Although invited for further hospitality on subsequent occasions through their natural warmth and kindness because of my being followed by the Egyptian police and the precariousness of her recent entry into Egypt following the two years of applications I decided that it would bring the couple the undue attention of the Egyptian authorities (I had managed to elude my police escort on this occasion but might not be so lucky on future occasions).
With warmth and sadness that the political wranglings of governments should intercede in everyday relationships in such a way, I said goodbye to them after they had escorted me through the sandy alleyways of El Arish to meet with the taxi to return me to the apartment.
Today we joined the Spanish and French contingent and other internationals on a protest in Sadat square El Arish. Protesters confronted Egyptian security services plain clothes police) as they pushed to march down 23rd July Street in downtown Arish. They moved forward chanting 'Freedom for Gaza' but were blocked by police as the people of Arish looked on. Demonstrations are banned in Egypt and any Egyptian joining us would be facing severe penalties: poss 5 years imprisonment; despite that we were joined by an Egyptian gentleman, so moved he was by the passion of the protest. As the call for evening prayers went out we gathered under the foot of the statue of the assassinated Sadat. A small contingent of Egyptian troops had arrived and were nonchalantly standing beside their truck. We determined to keep the Egyptian with us and invite him to stay back at the hotel with the rest of the internationals for solidarity.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Four of us are under house arrest in El Arish 40 km from Egyptian Rafah crossing i.e we can leave and walk outside but cannot leave with our luggage to attempt to move any further towards Rafah. [ Since I have been writing this I have received a message that if we try to leave at all now we will be arrested - I came into town by taxi earlier today]. I walked out of the apartment in the morning crossed the road and was hailed by a building worker cheering 'Arafat' and calling 'welcome!' I proceeded into El Arish after hailing a cab a few metres along the road. Having posted this blog I returned late afternoon to find the police presence greatly increased. Discovering that I was missing had raised the level of police containment. Police are now posted 24/7 front, side and back. They are using the next apartment as a base.
Road blocks have been set up around El Arish and activists are being stopped and taken off the buses or taxis in Suez and Ismalia as they try and move north etc. and returned to Cairo in a large operation by the Egyptian authorities and police.
(See below for Gaza Freedmom March actions in Cairo.)
Yesterday plain clothes and uniformed police came to the Hotel Sinai Star where we were gathering as a meeting point and stopped all (approx 25) GFM participants and internationals leaving the hotel at the time we had arranged to leave for Rafah (1130 local time). By prior aggreement with the police it had been arranged to hire a coach and proceed under police escort to Rafah but no coach arived just the police and blocked the only exit from the Sinai.
We were held for about 4 hours, some were manhandled and called for embassy support. The internet connection went down - later four of us got away with the help of Arabic speaking American nun peace activist Ellen Rosser. We were offered refuge in an apartment near to her, then invited to rent the adjacent apartment; the police appeared almost immediately as we moved in and set up surveillance and road blocks.
We planned to leave in the early hours but police were watching from the next apartment which they've occupied and are on watch outside. They are now watching front and back 24 hrs and won't let us leave with any luggage and only with a police escort. They have set up similar surveillance on the other internationals here. Two British GFM members have been stopped and detained at the road block down the road.
I am at the Internet cafe for this message but cannot move any luggage or the art materials I am attempting to take to the Palestine Trauma Centre in Gaza.
The UK contact for the Palestine Trauma Centre (Gaza) was stopped at Suez this morning and returned to Cairo by police.
I am now communicating with other members from the Palestine Trauma Centre from the UK stuck in Cairo and trying to establish the humanitarian case for the materials being allowed into Gaza. I am contacting Ahmed Tahbet, director of the Palestine Trauma Centre in Gaza to negotiate ways of delivering the art materials for therapy work there by some means.
Dr Mohamed Altawil of University of Herts (PTC UK founder) has said that what the internationals are doing is giving the people of Gaza a 'wonderful feeling of hope' and they are watching and waiting each day to hear news of us and the Viva Palestina convoy.
David, the UK Palestine Trauma Centre chair was coming north today and has been stopped at Suez and sent back to Cairo.
Our small group of four UK nationals and 2 Americans are staying together in the beach apartment of El Arish.
The local people, many of them Palestinian, are warm and welcoming and are effusive in helping us in any way and offering us friendship and hospitality and take the opportunity to share with us their experience of being part of Palestinian diaspora and are very proud that we are here trying to help in some way.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

From Gaza Freedom March posting:
'Egyptian Security Forces Detain Gaza Freedom Marchers in
el-Arish and shut down Gaza Memorial in Cairo
What: Egyptian security forces detain internationals in el-Arish, break up memorial actions in Cairo
When: Sunday, December 27, noon: the Egyptian security forces detained a group of 30 internationals in their hotel in el-Arish and another group of 8 at the bus station. They also broke up a memorial action commemorating the Cast Lead massacre at the Kasr al Nil Bridge
At noon on 27 December, Egyptian security forces detained a group of 30 activists in their hotel in el-Arish as they prepared to leave for Gaza, placing them under house arrest. The delegates, all part of the Gaza Freedom March of 1,300 people, were Spanish, French, British, American, and Japanese. The Egyptian security forces eventually yielded, letting most of the marchers leave the hotel, but did not permit them to leave the town. When two younger delegates, a French and Japanese woman, attempted to leave el-Arish, the Egyptian authorities stopped their taxi and unloaded their luggage.
Another group of eight people, including citizens from American, British, Spanish, Japanese and Greece, were detained at the bus station of Al Arish in the afternoon of December 27. As of 3:30 PM, they were still being held.
Simultaneously, Egyptian security police broke up a commemoration of the Israeli invasion of Gaza organized by the Gaza Freedom March at Kasr al Nil Bridge, one of the main bridges connecting Zamalek Island, in the middle of the Nile, to Cairo. As a nonviolent way of commemorating the more than 1300 Palestinians killed in the Israeli assault on Gaza that began a year ago on December 27, 2008, Gaza Freedom Marchers tied hundreds of strings with notes, poems, art and the names of those killed to the bridge.
“We’re saddened that the Egyptian authorities have blocked our participants’ freedom of movement and interfered with a peaceful commemoration of the dead,” said Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK, one of the March’s organizers.
Benjamin added that the Gaza Freedom March participants are continuing to urge the Egyptian government to allow them to proceed to Gaza. They visited the Arab League asking for support, various foreign embassies and the Presidential Palance to deliver an appeal to President Mubarak. They are calling their supporters around the world to contact Egyptian embassies and urge them to free the marchers and allow them to proceed to Gaza.

  • Yesterday we travelled to the city of Arish. Getting there was no small feat. There were many checkpoints along the way and we heard stories from our colleagues of having to pay bribes to be allowed through.
    The situation intensified this morning when we discovered we couldn’t leave our hotel. As we attempted to leave with our luggage, police stood in the way of the exit preventing us from departing. No reason was provided, instead they repeated “just five minutes” as an hour and a half went by. One man who was outside the hotel was physically moved back in and another pushed to prevent his exit. On a personal note it was particularly concerning when I was, for some time, separated from the bag containing my insulin.
    Eventually we were allowed to leave the hotel, but police stood outside, following us when we walked off. Several times we attempted to board taxis, only for the police to step in and intimidate the driver to prevent us from travelling.
    Eventually we managed to travel away from the centre of the city and find alternative accommodation. The police already know where we are – in Egypt, hotels must take photocopies of passports and report the details to the authorities – a police car is parked on our street.
    My affinity group’s working principle at the moment is report what has happened, say nothing about the future. But be assured our story will continue to be documented here as our journey continues.
From Ian's blog: