Monday, December 28, 2009

Gaza Freedom March--Second Letter

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.

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