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:

Friday, 25 December 2009

We’re here in Cairo and things are hopping. People are coming in from all over the world with all sorts of great ideas. Can’t wait to see you all here!!!
As you may have heard, the Egyptian government has denied our request to go into Gaza and has cancelled our permits for our orientation meeting at the College of the Holy Family for December 27 at 7pm.
From Gaza Freedom March organisers:
'To update people we will do briefings each morning at 8:30 am, starting on Sunday, at the Lotus Hotel, Sun Hotel and Select Hotels and share evolving plans. We have come too far to be tourists as the Egyptian Government has suggested. Recognizing that our creativity and flexibility are one of our most powerful tools we are exploring new and exciting ways to get our message out and keep the pressure on!
This may mean some increased risks. We are asking you and your group, if you are part of one, to consider what kinds of risks you may be willing to take. In theory any gathering over six people is considered illegal. But challenging laws is part of our work and the worse consequence you could expect is arrest and deportation which becomes an action itself. If we do it right, this may be politically difficult for Egypt to do. We need people who are willing to take such risks, people who are willing to support them and people who will take minimal to no risks. No matter what risk you are willing to take, there is important work for you to do here. Around the world people are watching and are taking action demanding that Egypt open the border.'
What risks are we willing to take? Today I bumped into Ian, Charlotte and Ali from the original meeting in London and we discussed what we're to do and aims and priorities. Our main objective is getting into Gaza and following a meeting with an Egyptian journalist it was decided to move north as soon as possible as the security situation is increasing by the hour.
Cairo is very warm anarchic and fluid.
Viva Palestina has been given authorisation via Al Arish:
Cairo, 24 December – The Egyptian government dismissed calls from the Palestinian government headed by Ismail Haniya to facilitate the arrival of the international Lifeline convoy of Vivapalestina on its way to the Gaza Strip, declaring that the convoy, consisting of 250 trucks loaded with European, Turkish and Arab donations for the Gaza Strip population, will not be allowed to enter Egypt through the Red Sea port of Nuweiba, as it had planned. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry however released a statement saying: "The Egyptian government welcomes the passage of the convoy into the Gaza Strip on December 27, on condition that it abides by the mechanisms in place for humanitarian aid convoys to the Palestinian people, including most importantly the entry of convoys through the port of El-Arish." From Arab website.
We are awaiting latest outcomes following the revocation of permits by the Egyptian authorities for the convoy of coaches to take us to El Arish.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Saturday things are busy, trying to get to grips with amazing Blackberry and getting kit together - a larger rucksack to hold art materials and photographic equipment and keep inside the luggage allowance of 30 kilos -how do I way my luggage? Go buy some scales, and water purification tablets, and sun blocker.... New phone: Blackberry, new camera ( video camera-which the shop assistant assures me is so very easy to use and to download the footage "directly onto your TV " - if you have compatibility" -always read the small print!) Everything is so easy and with such an abundance of choices!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Home blog

NSTW meeting tonight: discussed future plans regarding departure via the Gaza Freedom March, costs, involvement, structure, detainment Egyptian government's postition.