Sunday, July 19, 2009

Gaza: unbreakable

“We are strong persons and we are still here, but we need you to stand up with us.” These words that I heard from a student at Gaza’s Islamic University echo in my mind upon my return from the besieged region of Palestine. The statement encapsulates the message I garnered from people who I encountered during Viva Palestina US’ trip to Gaza, which began on July 15 at 9:30 pm and ended twenty-four hours later. Our convoy, involving 200 US citizens who entered Gaza with medical aid in defiance of the Israeli imposed blockade of humanitarian goods, was restricted to a full day by the Egyptian government. Despite the limits imposed upon us, twenty-four hours in Gaza was enough time to appreciate a beleaguered but resilient people, whose pursuit of life and freedom in the face of utter brutality is a testament to the spirit of humanity.

Upon entering Gaza, I expected to witness a shattered society. I could imagine no other condition for a society that had endured nearly two years of suffocating embargo, was then subjected to one of the most savage aerial bombardments of our lifetimes, and then forced to continue life under the blockade, which extends to this day. Beyond these broad overviews of some of the more recent crimes of the Israelis against Gaza come the aspects of daily life under Israeli terror, which are too innumerable to list but include survival by Gazan fisherman of constant fire from Israeli warships, enduring terrifying sonic booms made deliberately by Israeli pilots flying overhead in American fighter jets, and working to make do without killed or imprisoned loved ones. Expecting a Gaza broken by Israeli brutality though underestimated Palestinian resilience, which is formidable beyond words. I have read many reports from Gaza of the toll that Israel has taken on the people of Gaza, and I hope that this piece speaks to the endurance of the Gazan people despite the inhuman condition forced upon them.

To be sure, the devastation wreaked by Israel’s aggression is staggering beyond description. Shells of high-rise buildings tower alongside functional and occupied ones. Piles of concrete rubble and twisted rebar dot Gaza city. Whole neighborhoods in the city seem to have more damaged or destroyed houses than unharmed ones. In addition to the bombed and half-destroyed legislative assembly and the obliterated Ministry of Justice buildings, we saw utterly destroyed buildings that played purely social functions, including homes, hotels, mosques, and even hospitals. Our bus passed by the rotten corpses of livestock animals, decaying over the past six months and recognizable only by their hides. The Gazan man narrating our tour through the destruction from the front of our bus asked, “I wonder Israel, were these animals terrorists?” Educational facilities seemed to be a favorite target of the Israelis, who damaged the Ministry of Education, leveled schools—including the American School of Gaza and a UN-run school—and destroyed 74 laboratories at the Islamic University, among other buildings on campus.

Beyond the prepared presentations regarding the siege, it was difficult to elicit personal experiences of the bombing from the Gazan residents I spoke with. When I asked one of the people who were taking us around Gaza if he could talk about how the war affected him, he simply said no. I asked another, who I had spent quite a bit of time with what the war was like for him and his family. He told me that there were no words to describe how horrible it was, and he did not try to find them. Indeed, mixed with the excited faces of people, young and old who flashed smiles and peace signs to us as our buses rolled through the Strip with Palestinian and American flags flying out of the windows, were the weathered faces of people who have been through hell. Many such people who we saw on the streets were victims of Gaza’s incredible unemployment rate. The wreckage of bombed out factories and the scores of unfinished construction projects, on hold until materials like concrete are allowed through the borders, exist alongside these idle workers. To add insult to injury, functioning Israeli factories bellow smoke visibly from Gaza’s northern border.

Despite the devastation and depression, life goes on for the people of Gaza, who seemed to be living it as vivaciously as possible in the given circumstances. Children play soccer in the streets. Shopkeepers open their stores and display their wares, despite the fact that very few can purchase them. Hordes of people swim in Gaza’s gorgeous, Mediterranean beaches. In our exit of the strip, we passed numerous weddings, complete with sound trucks blasting celebratory dance music and overflowing with smiling family members.

The people of Gaza are living as human beings placed in inhuman circumstances. They have the strength to endure, but they should not have to do it alone. The solidarity of those abroad matters now more than ever. “Please tell them,” a student at the Islamic University told those of us students from the US and UK who visited their campus, “that we’re not terrorists. We have ambitions like any other students in the world. We went to university so we can make things better for ourselves and our people. All we want is a chance.”

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Twenty-four hours in Gaza

Flight to and from Cairo: about $1,000
Tax to cross the border from Egypt into Gaza: 95 Egyptian Pounds
Chanting "With our soul, with our blood, we will save you, Palestine" in Arabic IN PALESTINE: Priceless!

Thanks to all of you for your help in pressuring the Egyptian and US governments to let Viva Palestina into Gaza. We came in last night and it has been...incredible. They let all of us in, including the Gazan Palestinians (who we were afraid might be denied). The mood was jubilant.

There's so much more to say, but for now I will say this: the Egyptian government let us into Gaza on the condition that we have twenty-four hours. (We were supposed to stay for three days.) Twenty-four hours to see Gaza, twenty-four hours to share solidarity. For the Gazans among us, twenty-four hours to see their families.

More later. Sunny, blue sky over Gaza.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Viva Palestina needs your help

In the statement from Viva Palestina below, you will see an update on our situation. We need people in the US to encourage the Egyptian government to let the aid through. Please hold demonstrations, make calls, send emails, etc. Time is of the essence. Also, please spread the word about Viva Palestina and this blog. When Viva Palestina UK came through a few months ago, a huge part of their success came because so many people were following what was happening; we need as many people as possible aware of Viva Palestina US and standing in solidarity with our project to break the siege of Gaza.

Navigating Egypt's obstacle course

An official statement from Viva Palestina

THE VIVA Palestina U.S. convoy has been facing barrier after barrier in recent days despite having initially hoped to cross into the Gaza Strip this morning. The Egyptian government, collaborator in Israel's severe blockade for the past two years, has set up a course of administrative obstacles that will delay the group's entry into Gaza.

George Galloway, the British Member of Parliament (MP) who organized this effort, as well as the first Viva Palestina caravan which drove from London to Gaza in March, sent a letter to President Mubarak of Egypt prior to the departure of the U.S. convoy. This letter informed the president that over $1 million dollars had been raised with the intention of purchasing vehicles, medical supplies and other humanitarian aid to bring to Gaza. Viva Palestina was also in contact with the Egyptian ambassadors in London, Washington, D.C., and Tripoli, Libya, who, at their request, were provided with a list of the names and passport numbers of all convoy participants.

Yet when the first contingent attempted to cross the Mubarak Peace Bridge to the Sinai Peninsula Saturday evening, they were denied entry. That group spent 12 hours at the checkpoint and entered into a standoff with authorities as they negotiated the length of their stay in successive increments. Members of the delegation demonstrated at the bridge, obstructing access to the vehicles, and also held keys and occupied driver's seats in order that the four buses could not be moved.

Although Egyptian officials first stated that the convoy could not pass due to unrest in the region and potential danger to the delegates, ultimately Viva Palestina was informed that each of its members required a Gaza affidavit signed and notarized by an official at the U.S. Embassy in order to pass. That contingent decided to return to Cairo to obtain the affidavits and regroup with other delegates, thereby strengthening their numbers for the next crossing.

The Gaza affidavits are essentially indemnity agreements asserting that the individual has signed away the inalienable right to the protection of the U.S. government. Previous delegations of U.S. citizens to Gaza have not been required to sign these, and these were not requested prior to reaching the Mubarak Bridge checkpoint, despite Viva Palestina's well-publicized plan. The Egyptian government refused to accept one group affidavit on behalf of the entire convoy. Each individual affidavit will cost convoy members $30.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

YESTERDAY, JULY 12, Egyptian officials asked for a detailed inventory of all aid items, which has now been compiled and will be submitted to border officials at the Rafah crossing.

Late this afternoon, the head of the Palestine Desk of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who has been tasked by the Foreign Minister with logistical planning, informed convoy leadership that only the two ambulances--out of the 47 total vehicles which were purchased earlier in the day at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars--would be allowed to enter Gaza. The people of Gaza, with whom MP Galloway has been in frequent contact, have indicated that new vehicles are sorely needed in Gaza for various public services.

Viva Palestina organizers were also informed that convoy members would be permitted to spend only 24 hours in Gaza. Individuals overstaying that time period will not be permitted to leave until the next general opening of the Rafah crossing, which has been continuously closed since June 2007.

New York City Councilmember Charles Barron, who is traveling with the convoy, believes the reason behind these new requirements and restrictions is clear. "They don't want this to be successful because they don't want any more convoys," Barron said. "They want to set an example with us. They were hoping that they would discourage. That's why the delays, that's why adding on stipulations. Because they want us to implode."

Viva Palestina leadership has emphasized that these tactics will not dissuade the group from its avowed purpose of breaking the siege on Gaza, nor will future convoys be canceled. MP Galloway has announced that he intends to lead caravans this year from Venezuela and Moscow, as well as a second U.S. convoy in December to commemorate the first anniversary of Israel's brutal attack.

At a private meeting of the Viva Palestina delegation this evening, an agent of the Egyptian government was found to be present taking notes. His notes were confiscated and he was escorted out of the room by MP Galloway.

Convoy members Barron and Cynthia McKinney, former U.S. Representative and 2008 Green Party Presidential candidate, will be contacting President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tomorrow to pressure the Egyptian government to allow additional vehicles through the border and a longer stay in Gaza for convoy members.

Additionally, Viva Palestina is calling for supporters to organize demonstrations at Egyptian consulates in the U.S. and to call on the White House and the State Department to support Viva Palestina's effort in bringing medical supplies to what Obama called the "humanitarian crisis" in Gaza during his June 4 speech in Cairo.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Night on the Suez Canal

I won't write much about last night because I'm too tired to.  Below are the press releases sent by the Viva Palestina leadership throughout the night, which cover the basic facts.  I look forward to sharing details when I'm back in the U.S.  For now I'll just say this: I am heartened beyond words to be present and in solidarity with this magnificent group of people on the convoy.  Yesterday and last night were a day and a night of learning about each other, talking politics, laughing, and working through a very challenging situation.  Through frustration, hunger, and exhaustion, we kept each other in good humor, and most importantly, kept each other focused.  Our goal is to break the siege of Gaza.  As we strategized together to resist the pressure to abandon our objective, and I looked out on the vast bridge that arches over the Suez Canal, I remembered the old Black freedom song, which, among other places, was sung on the marches across the bridge from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965:

"Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around..."

Last night

Viva Palestina US update – July 11, 2009

Update #1

The largest ever US humanitarian aid convoy is now gathering in Egypt to head across the border into Gaza on Monday, July 13. 

Vehicles are coming from Alexandria, the medical supplies from Cairo and the advanced party of nearly 100 US citizens is heading for the staging post of Al Arish, just before the border with Gaza. 

That group, of four buses, has, however, been stopped from crossing over the Suez Canal and into the Sinai region, which leads to Gaza. 

The buses, carrying people, medical aid and bearing US, Egyptian and Palestinian flags in a spirit of international cooperation, have been held at a security checkpoint and given various, conflicting reasons for why they cannot proceed to their destination at Al Arish. 

New York Councilman Charles Barron is leading the group and is negotiating with security officials to resolve the situation. He has contacted Washington and other elected officials in an effort to clarify the reasons for the delay and address any concerns as efficiently as possible.

Former US Congresswoman and Presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney will join the convoy on Sunday, July 12, and British Member of Parliament George Galloway will also be heading to meet up with Councilman Barron and the advance group.

He and the rest of the advance group of the convoy, however, are insisting on their right to travel with their supplies to Al Arish, where the rest of the convoy is to rendezvous with them before heading for the border crossing into Gaza.

This medical convoy is on the way to Gaza a month after US President Barack Obama described the situation in Gaza as a “humanitarian crisis.”

“Our convoy is on an aid mission,” says Galloway, “We come in peace; but we will not be stopped.”

Viva Palestina Convoy, July 12, 2009, 2:45 am Cairo

Update #2

The 100 Viva Palestina humanitarian volunteers have decided to stay the night in their buses at the Mubarak Peace Bridge over the Suez Canal despite pressure from the Egyptian security officials to return to Cairo. 

The official reason given at the checkpoint for refusing to allow them to cross is that the officials there did not have a list of the names of the members of the convoy. Such a list was, however, at the request of the Egyptian authorities before any of the convoy members set foot in Egypt sent to the Egyptian ambassadors to Washington, D.C., and London.

The US Embassy in Cairo has now stepped in to forward a newly provided list of those convoy members aboard the buses at the bridge to the Egyptian foreign ministry to clear the way for the convoy's passage. 

Nancy Mansour Leigh, a spokeswoman for the Viva Palestina delegation at the Suez crossing, says, “It's going to be an uncomfortable night, but it's nothing compared with what the people of Gaza must live through every day. We've already succeeded in securing internet access and are negotiating other necessary facilities. But whatever facilities are provided or not, our determination will see us through the night and all the way to Gaza.”

New York City Councilman Charles Barron is on the scene at the Suez Canal and acting as chief negotiator with Egyptian security officials. “The Viva Palestina movement has had a great success this morning with our stand at the Suez crossing. We've now got an agreement for us to stay until the list of our convoy members reaches the foreign ministry. It shows what can be achieved with the determination and commitment of a collective body of people. We are determined to cross onto Gaza, and no matter what happens next, out of this first small confrontation, we've achieved a success for the movement in support of the Palestinian people. The convoy is going to move on, and we ain't gonna let nobody turn us around.”

British Member of Parliament George Galloway offered these words of encouragement for the delegation being held up at the crossing:“This is an American convoy. And Americans are used to refusing to give up seats on buses in the struggle for justice. I regard everyone who's putting themselves on the line tonight at the Suez Canal for the success of this humanitarian mission as nothing short of a hero.”

Kevin Ovenden
Viva Palestina coordinator

Viva Palestina Convoy update #3
July 12, 2009, 7 pm Cairo

The Viva Palestina members who spent the night in their buses at the Suez
Crossing after they were stopped by Egyptian authorities on July 11 are now
making their way to the nearby city of Ismailia and are preparing to resume
their travels toward Gaza imminently.

British Member of  Parliament George Galloway, who has met up with former
U.S. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney in Cairo, was working with Egyptian and
U.S. authorities to expedite the passage of the convoy over the Suez Canal
and into Gaza.

New York City Councilmember Charles Barron, who led the group at the Suez
Canal, says, "Whether these requirements are genuine or not, we will get
around these obstacles.  We are going to Gaza."

Egyptians have held up the convoy on the grounds that it has not acquired the
necessary travel permits from U.S. officials in order to cross into Gaza.

"The Egyptian authorities want us to jump through yet another hoop, we
will, even though their ambassadors in Washington, DC, London, and Tripoli,
Libya were already supplied with this information, at their request.  The
U.S. embassy in Cairo was informed about the mission as was the Egyptian
Foreign Ministry."  said Galloway. "So now we expect that there should be no
further reasons for the delayed transportation of this urgently needed
relief to the people of Gaza.  We have hundreds of thousands of dollars of
medicine, which are time-sensitive and perishable and which need to reach
the children of Gaza.

Another group of Viva Palestina delegates is in Alexandria to take
possession of 47 vehicles that will be used to drive the group’s
humanitarian and medical relief supplies through the Rafah border crossing.
A third Viva Palestina element is continuing to gather additional aid in

Tomorrow, Viva Palestina plans to gather all its forces in Ismailia, load
all of the collected aid on its vehicles, and make final preparations for
the drive through the Sinai.

The Viva Palestina convoy expects progress on all fronts tomorrow, but is
prepared to call for solidarity protests at Egyptian embassies and
consulates should that not materialize.