Archive for December, 2009

All, or Nothing? Appendix

December 31, 2009

This is the letter from the organizers of the March in Gaza, regarding the events I wrote about in my last post. I thought it might be of some interest. Oh, and to all who have left comments, thank you. It feels good to know that people are paying attention. I look forward to having the time to answer some of your comments.

Dear Gaza Freedom March organizers and participants,

After a lot of hesitation and deliberation, we are writing to call on you to reject the “deal” reached with the Egyptian authorities. This deal is bad for us and, we deeply feel, terrible for the solidarity movement.

We initially felt that if representatives of all forty plus countries can go to Gaza and lead a symbolic march along Palestinians it would convey the message to the world public opinion, our main target. However, after listening to the Egyptian Foreign Minister’s press conference last night on Aljazeera and the way he described the deal in details, we are unambiguous in perceiving this compromise as too heavy, too divisive and too destructive to our future work and networking with various solidarity movements around the world.

Mr. Abu Al-Gheit described the 100, that they graciously accepted to allow to enter Gaza, as those from organizations which Egypt considers “good and sincere in standing in solidarity with Gaza the same way as we [the regime] do.” He described the rest as “from organizations that are only interested in subversion and acting against Egyptian interests, to sow havoc on the streets of Egypt, not to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians.”  He also said that the Egyptian public was wise enough to see that those were hooligans and stayed away from them. Other than the obvious divisiveness that agreeing to this deal would cause, what’s wrong with this picture:

1) The Egyptian government in this press conference painted a picture of the great majority of the internationals participating in the GFM as hooligans and agents provocateurs, not real solidarity groups. This is a grave insult to all of us, to all our partners and to the entire GFM, as it depicts us all as partnering with “fanatic,” “destructive” forces, not forces for ending the siege and for the rule of law;

2) Arab and international public pressure on countries imposing the siege on Gaza are rising dramatically due to the actions that you ALL have engaged in and the excellent media messages that you have sent. This deal is being used now to release pressure .

Either they allow all 1400 participants into Gaza (if they are “hooligans,” best to get rid of them from Egypt and “ship” them to Gaza, right?) or we strongly urge you to reject the deal out of hand as too little, too late, too divisive and too ill-conceived.

We cannot possibly decide on this matter, as ultimately this is up to ALL of you. If a CLEAR majority among the international delegations feel that you want to go through with the deal, we shall always welcome you in Gaza and deeply appreciate your solidarity. But we feel your solidarity without coming to Gaza, exposing the siege against you and us, may bear more fruit for us and towards ending the siege, at least from the Egyptian side.

We have repeatedly argued that the march itself is not supposed to be only a symbolic gesture, but rather a key part of a process, a series of events, which may ultimately lead to lifting the deadly siege. We want to intensify and continue building an effective solidarity campaign, not divide it.

We salute you all and thank you from our hearts for the indescribable work you have all done for Gaza!

Respectfully,

Haidar Eid,

Omar Barghouti,

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All, or Nothing?

December 30, 2009

So much has been happening, that I’ve gotten behind in my writing. There have been some dramatic 180 degrees turns in the past day. Just as I start to write, that which I am writing is already obsolete. I’ll try to convey a bit of what is happening in the limited time I have:

Fareed woke me up in the middle of the night. “Do you want to go to Gaza?” he asked excitedly. Fareed is a Palestinian poet and percussionist (which makes for a lot of Ps) now living in New York. We have become friendly over the past few days. “What?” I said, half-asleep and confused. “You’re David so-and-so, right?” “No. Symons” “Oh. Sorry” he said, and dashed off, presumably to find the correct David. To everyone’s surprise (and immediately after the Israeli Prime Minister had left Egypt) the Egyptians suddenly announced that they would allow two busloads, or 100 people, to enter Gaza. Apparently, a protracted appeal to Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of the Egyptian Premiere and Chair of the Red Crescent, who seemingly wields significant power in this otherwise macho country, had paid off in the 11th hour. She arranged this offer to the delegation, reportedly enraging the Foreign Minister, who felt his authority to have been undermined. The March coordinators on this side of the border consulted with their counterparts in Gaza, who urged them to move forward with the offer. They were given less than two hours to submit the names of those who would be going. With such a small window of time, and everyone spread throughout the city and unable to meet, a consensus decision was obviously impossible. The organizers quickly selected 100 people, attempting to proportionally represent as many countries as possible, while giving priority to people who had never been to Gaza before, particularly Palestinians who had never been to Gaza. The list was submitted to the government and accepted, and the 100 packed their things and prepared to board a bus at 7:00 the next morning. As word got around, a strong dissidence began to emerge. The Canadians refused to go unless everyone was allowed to do so. A meeting was called (which I did not know about and did not attend) that went into the wee hours of the morning and apparently was very emotional. Many felt that the government was trying to buy us off with a cheap token delegation, which obviously rendered absurd all of their pretexts for denying entry to the whole group, i.e, that it was not safe and that certain documents had been filled out incorrectly. It was felt by some that Code Pink, the women’s peace group which has been the main organizer of the March, had sold out the movement. As the mini-delegation boarded the buses to Gaza, a regiment (or “mob”, according to one of the woman on the buses) of dissenters headed to the bus depot to stop them from leaving. I was not there, and cannot go into detail, but there was a vehement stand-off between the two factions. This went on for about three  hours, with the dissenters surrounding the buses and chanting “GET OFF THE BUS!” over and over, and many of the people on the buses getting off and on again in anguished indecision, and many ferocious arguments going on at once,  until a remarkable thing happened. An organizer on one of the buses received a phone call from Gaza. It seemed that a parallel debate had been taking place on the other side of the border. The Gazan organizers had just seen the Egyptian Foreign Minister’s press conference on Al Jazeera, in which he explained the “deal” that had been made. According to the Foreign Minister, only the “good and sincere” activists were being allowed through the border, the rest were just “hooligans” who sought to “sow havoc on the streets of Egypt”. The absurdity of his remarks hardly needs to be pointed out, particularly as all of the 100 delegates were chosen by the “hooligans” themselves. The Gazan organizers, though stressing that it was our decision to make, urged the international delegation to reject the “deal”. When this was announced most people (apart from a handful of hold-outs) immediately got off the buses and unloaded their bags. It was becoming clearer that this had been a tactic to divide the movement and, intentional or not, it succeeded beautifully. We had walked into a trap, and the movement was devouring itself. The steering committee immediately issued an apology to all of the delegates.

I was in a meeting at my hostel as this was unfolding, and we kept getting reports from visibly upset people who were coming from the bus stand-off. The meeting was interrupted by a phone call, from which we learned that the 100 delegates were getting off of the buses. After that, more and more emotionally strained people began pouring into our meeting in the small, dingy, smoke-filled lobby of the Sun Hotel. The room was completely packed and chaotic. Code Pink was no longer in a leading role, that was clear. Some new-age type person tried to take charge, to get everyone to hold hands and feel each other’s energy or some bullshit. I was doing my best to keep my mouth shut, as everyone was trying to talk, as I fantasized about catching the next bus out of town. I had been feeling more and more ineffectual and frustrated since it became clear a couple of days ago that we would not be going to Gaza, and that all we could hope to do was hold increasingly fragmented performances for audiences of police officers. I had lain awake the past three nights agonizing over how to do something useful with my time here, to not let down everyone who has supported me on this mission, to say nothing of the suffering Palestinians, who seemed so far away now in the midst of our struggles with Egypt and with each other.

A thin, mild-looking older woman, one of several who had been on a hunger strike for the past couple of days silenced everyone with a story about a man she had met in Gaza a few months before. This man was the mayor of a town which had been literally levelled. The Israelis bombed nearly every building, and then obliterated everything that was left with giant bulldozers which, incidentally, are custom-made by the US Caterpillar Corporation for this exact purpose. The mayor had lived in a large, multi-story building with 30 members of his family. Showing her around the remains of the town, he pointed to an unrecognizable pile of rubble. “That is my house” he told her flatly. The story put a lump in my throat, indeed, it does now as I am remembering this woman telling it, yet it is an utterly unremarkable one in Gaza. This was the reason we had all traveled across the world.

Eventually, our commonality of purpose began to edge out our differences. It is testament to the righteousness of this cause, I thought, that so many people of so many different types, philosophies, ages, and persuasions are all here, so far from their homes. Irish anarchists, Palestinian poets, grandmas from the American mid-west, holocaust survivors, Egyptians (the bravest of all, to dissent here), at least one Chasid, new-age nut jobs, old, bearded hippies, South African anti-aparteid activists, lawyers in khaki pants, professors, and taxi drivers are all here. The energy in the room began to focus on what may be our “last stand” in Cairo, the march we are planning hold tomorrow, to coincide with the march in Gaza. We are going to march “toward” Gaza. It’s possible that you won’t hear from me for a few days, but please don’t worry. The Egyptian police have shown a great reluctance to arrest or in any way harm the foreigners. A passport from a wealthy country acts as a sort of magical protective amulet, and we have a responsibility make use of a privilege that Palestinians and Egyptians do not enjoy. I would like to suggest to whoever is reading this, that they should feel free to contact the Egyptian Embassy at 202-895-5400 and ask for Omar Youssef, or ask your congressperson and senators to do so, and let them know the world is watching.

Thank You,

David Symons

Artificial Zebras

December 28, 2009

It is no simple matter to transform a run-of-the-mill donkey into a zebra. It takes two days, and a lot of sticky tape and hair dye. Of the 400 animals at Gaza’s “Happy Land” zoo, only 10 survived Israel’s assault last year. Some were killed when Israel bombed the zoo, others were shot by soldiers amusing themselves. The rest died of starvation or dehydration when an Israeli tank was posted at the entrance for three weeks to prevent zookeepers from tending to the animals. Among the few survivors are a lion and two ostriches, smuggled from Egypt through tunnels when they were babies, like trees grown inside a bottle. And of course, one can always make more zebras. The animals are on near starvation diets, and are often sick, with no medicine available. “If there was an animal protection group here, they would have us all arrested for mistreating the animals,” says the zookeeper. “I tell myself that it’s a sin not to take care of them properly, but I try to do my best.” The zoo was extremely popular before the offensive, with hundreds of children visiting every week. There is simply very little in Gaza in the way of leisure. The other main diversion, Gaza’s beach on the Mediterranean, is barely tolerable now. Since Israel destroyed the sewage treatment facilities, Gazans have no choice but to pump millions of liters per day of untreated sewage directly into the sea. I learned the story of the “zebras” from some filmmakers I recently met who were hoping to get into Gaza to make a documentary about the zoo.

Here’s one article about the Gaza Zoo: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7897385.stm

And some nice pictures of the ersatz zebras: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/10/14/gaza-zoo-too-poor-to-buy_n_321019.html?slidenumber=2

The lives of the animals in the Gaza Zoo are not so different from the lives of most of the humans in Gaza. It’s simply a matter of the size of the cage. Also, unlike other animals, humans are either gifted or cursed with a sense of justice, and know when they are being treated unjustly.

This Thursday, the 31st, tens of thousands of Palestinians will march in Gaza to call on demented Israeli zookeepers to stop starving, freezing, and killing them. The international delegation, 1,360 people who traveled from 43 different countries, will not be there. You have to hand it to the Egyptian authorities, they are extremely competent when it comes to being a pain in the hair-dye-striped ass. We are prohibited from traveling outside of Cairo. The buses we chartered were canceled, and no bus company will risk the consequences of dealing with us. The several dozen activists who managed to make it to el-Arish, which is the Egyptian city closest to the Rafah border crossing, were placed under house arrest in their hotel. 8 others were detained at the el-Arish bus station and are still being held. When activists have attempted to leave el-Arish by taxi, the police have stopped them and unloaded their luggage. In spite of this, many of the people to whom I have spoken are still determined to get into Gaza, although the organizers of the March have finally conceded that it is impossible. So overwhelming is the police presence here, it seems that every activist has their own, personal, heavily armed cop. Every gathering we attempt, no matter how small, is immediately encircled by dozens of them, many with machine guns. Yesterday, to mark the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the Israeli assault, a small contingent tried to tie little pieces of paper with names of the victims to the railing of one of the bridges on the Nile, but was broken up by police. Then, at sundown, we were prevented from chartering boats in order to float hundreds of candles in little paper cups down the river, and I missed what would have been a gorgeous photo-op. Maybe they were worried the river would catch fire. Instead, there was a sort of candlelight vigil/protest on the side-walk next to the bank where we tried to rent the boats. The police have an odd tactic, which I have experience several times already, of completely encircling the demonstrators by holding hands, and not allowing anyone to leave for half an hour or more. I’m not sure what the purpose of this maneuver is, since I should think they would want us to disperse, but I suppose it’s a kind of quarantine. Apart from a woman who said she was punched in the face by one of the cops today, I’ve not seen or heard of any violence. 

In spite of all this, there have been many smaller actions and demonstrations throughout Cairo. Many people have been going to their respective embassies and requesting their governments to ask Egypt to let us through the border. I spent a while outside of the US embassy this morning with a group of Americans, as they would only let two of us inside. There was a relatively large demonstration in front of the United Nations building today. Netanyahu is coming to Cairo tomorrow to discuss the “peace-process”, and one can’t help but wonder if Egypt’s stance originates in part from a desire to not embarrass the leader of this region’s superpower by letting us into Gaza. There will be a demonstration tomorrow centered around Netanyahu’s visit, though the location of his meeting is, of course, a secret.

I can’t help succumbing to a creeping sense of futility. It’s important to not let Egypt become the focus of our efforts, as I’m sure Israel would prefer. They are collaborators, but they are minor criminals in this scandal, a seal trained to do unpleasant tricks, compared to the US and Israel. The main difference, apart from the vastly different levels of military power, is that most Egyptians, probably even the police, hate Israel and sympathize with the Palestinians. Egypt just happens to have a corrupt, unrepresentative government. The same cannot be said for the US and Israel. We actually are responsible for the crimes of our governments, and we look the other way at our peril.

Thank you for reading.

David Symons

Nothing To Declare

December 27, 2009

Cairo is beautiful, grimy, delapidated, swarming. Everything is bathed in a dreamy, golden veil of smog, as well as the aural smog of non-stop car horns. There are armed police everywhere, looking intimidating with their black berets and large guns, yet seemingly no traffic enforcement. The “walk” signals feature a little animated green man, running frantically for his life. The Cairoans are a well-dressed, sharp-looking bunch. No tee shirts for them. It is easy to spot the peace activists, as they tend to be the most slovenly-looking people around.

I am here to try to get into the Gaza Strip with 1360 people of conscience from 43 countries (44 including Vermont) to march with 50,000 Palestinians to the Israeli border on December 31st. We are calling on Israel and its indulgent parent, the U.S.A, to end their near-universally condemned siege of Gaza. Today is the one-year anniversary of Israel’s 22-day Gaza massacre (let’s not euphemize by calling it a war), which ended the lives of around 1,400 mostly unarmed people, including over 300 children, left more than 5,000 maimed, many with permanant injuries, and nearly the entire civilian and industrial infrastructure in ruins. A year later, Israel maintains its 3 year-old blockade on the strip, and not one building has been rebuilt, and many thousands remain homeless. Gaza’s already fragile economy has been rendered nearly extinct by the bombing and siege, and 97% of factories remain closed. One could go on and on, but I’ll instead recommend reading one or more of several extensive investigative reports that have come out, such as the Goldstone Report, or Amnesty International’s “Operation Cast Lead: 22 Days of Death and Destruction. One should also read the report by the National Lawyers Guild, which conducted a fact- finding mission to Gaza just days after the “war”, and easily demolishes Israel’s self-defense argument. All are available on the web, of course.

I was a bit nervous going through customs, because the Egyptian government, no doubt reacting to U.S./Israeli pressure, has taken a hard line in recent days against the Gaza Freedom March. The organizers of the March have been in negotiations with the government here since September, but it was not until just a week ago when they announced that we would not be allowed to enter Gaza. Why they waited until over 1,360 had already bought plane tickets to Cairo, and many had already arrived, to announce this decision, is anybody’s guess. Shortly after officially refusing the international delegation permission to enter Gaza, Egypt continued hardening its position. Our permit to hold an orientation meeting was revoked. It is illegal to hold a political meeting in groups larger than 6 without permission. The March organizers had already rented fifteen 50-passenger buses to take some of us to the Rafah border crossing, and our permit to travel was revoked. The officials have made it clear that those planning to come to Cairo should either come prepared to be tourists, or they should stay away. Any public protest or dissent would be met with zero tolerance, we were told. People in the U.S. have a hard time understanding this, so much do we take for granted our right to meet and speak freely. I had no idea to what lengths the Egyptians would go to suppress our movement, and before my plane landed, I ripped out all the pages from my notebook in which I referred to Gaza and/or the March. I still had several books about Palestine with me, and it wouldn’t be difficult to figure out why I was there if I was searched. My paranoia proved groundless, though. The customs officer raised an amused eyebrow at my passport, which got wet and infested with mildew some years ago, and is probably the worst-looking passport he had seen, and suggested that I might like to get a new one. Nothing else to it.

We have not given up on trying to get into Gaza. Egypt’s embassies have been flooded with phone calls and emails asking them to let us in. The March organizers are appealing directly to President Mubarak to reverse the decision. We have been meeting in smaller groups in the lobbies of the various hotels where we are staying, since we cannot hold a general meeting. Everything is up in the air right now. Rumors are flying around, and our understanding changes hour to hour. Today there will be a few memorial demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the beginning of the massacre, and I will most likely write about these in my next post.

Thank you for reading.

David Symons