It would seem impossible that the lives of the people of Gaza could get worse, but indeed they have— from an improbable source-an Arab neighbor, formerly sympathetic with the plight of the people of Gaza under the brutal Israeli land and sea blockade of Gaza, but now with a decidedly hostile attitude toward the government of Gaza, and a seeming indifference to the effect of their policies on the struggling civilians in Gaza.
I have just returned from Egypt as a member of the recent International Women’s Delegation to Gaza, one of only 16 of 82 delegates from seven countries that ended up being allowed entry into Egypt by Egyptian national security officials. The remainder of our delegation, including Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire, were denied entry into Egypt and given no reason for the denial. CODEPINK: Women for Peace co-founder Medea Benjamin was brutally assaulted by security officials at the Cairo airport as they forced her onto a departing flight.
Upon reflection, we can surmise the reason the Egyptian officials denied us entry, but the manner of the military government in implementing their denial of entry is difficult to understand for us as longtime travelers in and out of Egypt over the past decade. As with previous delegations, we had spoken in person with the Egyptian embassies in Washington (and this time in Paris) and had provided, as requested, the names and passport numbers of members of the delegation. If the Egyptian government had concerns about the timing of our delegation, we would have much preferred that they would have told us before we had departed for Cairo rather than denying entry to Egypt to the majority of our delegation. Many in the delegation previously had made numerous trips to Gaza through Egypt, but now after the international publicity of the treatment of our delegation of women, one would anticipate that some people who may have wished to travel to Egypt may delay their travel-much to the dismay of the floundering tourism industry of Egypt.
I write this article with sadness as I have been told by US Embassy officials that many persons, not just members of our delegation, are now denied entry into Egypt, particularly those who have written articles that are critical of aspects of the current military government. Under the four Egyptian governments during the past six years, I have traveled through Egypt seven times with CODEPINK: Women for Peace and other organizations and have found the people of Egypt warm and friendly, coping with grace, dignity and courage the challenges that successive governments have placed on their daily lives.
Knowing full well that because of this article, I may be denied entry into Egypt on my next trip and therefore be unable to enter Gaza, I still feel a strong responsibility to write about my observations of current conditions in Egypt and their effect on the people of Gaza.
Six of seven times, we have been allowed by the Egyptian government to travel through northern Sinai to the Rafah border crossing and to attempt to enter Gaza. The one time we were denied entry into Gaza was in December, 2009 with the Gaza Freedom March that brought 1350 persons from 35 countries to Egypt in an attempt to join the civilians of Gaza in solidarity one year after the 22 day Israeli attack that had killed 1400 Palestinians in Gaza, wounded 5,000 and left 50,000 homeless. Actually, not everyone on the Gaza Freedom March was denied entry to the border with Gaza. The Mubarak government allowed two buses carrying 90 delegates, mostly journalists and Palestinians with family in Gaza, to travel across the Sinai and then enter Gaza for 48 hours. The remainder of the 1200 delegates were not allowed to go to Gaza.
Egyptian Response to Militant Attacks in the Sinai
Because of increasing militant attacks on Egyptian military, police and security facilities in the Sinai and around Cairo, Egypt’s latest military government has blocked movement of people and goods through the one border crossing of Gaza not controlled by the Israeli government. The Egyptian government believes that militants are, in part, trained and equipped from Gaza.
Militant groups in the Sinai, which include historically disenfranchised Bedouins, Islamic Jihad elements from North Africa and Gaza, and Muslim Brotherhood supporters have killed hundreds of Egyptian military personnel and police in the Sinai and around Egypt in the past three years, with the number of attacks increasing in the past 18 months. The Egyptian government is attempting to put down the “insurgency” with typical tactics, restricting civilian access to the Sinai by operating endless checkpoints in Cairo and throughout the Northern Sinai to question passengers and search for weapons, imprisoning anyone suspected of ties with the militant groups, conducting military attacks on suspected militant bases and rounding up and imprisoning persons accused of involvement in past and current and any political “activism.”
After the July, 2013, overthrow by the Egyptian military of the administration of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the new military government designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and began an aggressive crackdown on Brotherhood supporters, arresting most of the senior leadership of the Brotherhood and killing hundreds of pro-Morsi persons during street demonstrations.
In March, 2014, an Egyptian court banned all Hamas activities in Egypt, but did not classify it as a terrorist organization.
To end the supply of weapons and training of militants from Hamas, the government of Gaza, the Egyptian government has collapsed/blown up/destroyed, by some reports, over 1,000 tunnels that have honeycombed the land under the Gaza-Egypt border. The tunnels have provided access for Gaza merchants to goods and materials from Egypt that have kept the commercial sector and the people of Gaza afloat during the Israeli land and sea blockade of Gaza and the “diet” that Israeli officials proudly described the drastic reduction of food they allowed to be imported from Israel.
The tunnels were also an important part of the commercial sector of Egypt, as huge quantities of food, construction materials and merchandise bound for Gazafueled the economies of the northern Sinai towns of El Arish and Rafah. Payments to Egyptian government officials, from regional chiefs to local police, to turn a blind eye to the obvious booming Egyptian trade with Gaza, kept the informal economy of the Sinai in business.
The military government believes that the tunnels were also used for smuggling weapons and people into Gaza for training and then used as an exit for militants who then turned their military skills on Egyptian security personnel. Since July 2011, 129 Egyptian security personnel (military, police, border) have been killed in the Sinai. Egyptian security forces have killed 347 persons considered by the Egyptian government as “militants.” During this period, 22 Egyptian civilians, 7 Israeli civilians and 4 South Korean civilians have been killed by militant action in the Sinai.
The “Peace Bridge” across the Suez Canal has been closed to all traffic for over four months to prevent groups from blowing up the bridge by hiding explosives in a truck traveling over the bridge. Vehicles going into the Sinai must wait 6-8 hours in line to go onto a ferry across the Suez Canal. During that time passengers and cargo in the vehicles are closely inspected by police and anyone falling under suspicion is arrested.
Over 20,000 reportedly have been arrested and are in jail in the nine months the new military government has been in power. Many we spoke with in Cairo referred to the coup as the “people’s coup” and explain that the military did what the people wanted—to stop the Morsi government that had assumed unprecedented powers, even more than the previous Mubarek and 2011 interim Armed Forces military government. The comment by Morsi that the Brotherhood would remain in power for “500 years,” was an ominous threat that outraged secular Egyptians.
As the border with Egypt becomes a part of the blockade of Gaza, the lives of civilians in Gaza gets harder and harder. The border with Egypt is closed most of the time. In the past 45 days, the border has been open for only one day. Travel medical reasons, for students on scholarships, or for visits with family outside ofGaza is virtually impossible. Import of construction materials is available on an extremely limited and expensive basis through Israel. Food products must now be ordered only through Israel. Gasoline and petroleum products come only through Israel.
Gaza’s only power plant was closed again over the past weekend as fuel supplies had run out. The government of Qatar has provided funds for purchase of more fuel from Israel, now the only source for fuel since the tunnels under the Egyptian border have been destroyed.
At the end of 2013, the power plant was closed for 43 days due to a fuel shortage when Egypt closed off the tunnels through which a large amount of Gaza’s fuel was moving. Israel eventually allowed in fuel paid for by Qatar when a large storm hit Gaza causing massive flooding and sewage running in the streets because pumps were unable to operate due to lack of electricity. Raw sewage flows into the ocean frequently when the parts for the sewage plant break and replacement parts are not allowed into Gaza.
Although our International Women’s Delegation was not allowed to travel to Gaza, our attempt underscores our solidarity with the people of Gaza as they face “collective punishment” from both Israel and now Egypt and certainly from the United States.
Solidarity with those kept in the “open air prison” called Gaza comes in many ways, including the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) program against Israeli produced goods from occupied Palestinian territory and actions during anti-apartheid weeks. Another solidarity action is the challenge to Israeli’s illegal naval blockade of Gaza. The renovation of Gaza’s Ark is almost complete and goods are being purchased from Gaza crafts persons to be consigned to the Ark to be exported aboard Gaza’s Ark likely in the summer of 2014. www.gazaark.org
Despite all the hardships, bright lights abound in Gaza. A new book, Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine, is written by members of the “young articulate Palestinian generation born stateless, under occupation, and growing into adulthood under siege in one of the world’s most oppressed and dangerous environments.. a generation that is physically confined within Israel’s walls and emotionally scarred by Israel’s relentless bombings and incursions. Despite the horror, the frustration, the physical and emotional scars, the voices in Gaza Writes Back have not given up on their ambitions and still dream for a better future,” writes reviewer Palestinian writer Samah Sabawi.
We in the international community cannot give up on our solidarity with the people of Gaza..and their ambitions… held during the worst of circumstances, no matter what Israel, Egypt, or our own governments do or say.