Sunday, July 19, 2009

Patience and Hope at the Border

By Sarah Ikhmayes, Al-Awda-NY
(Written while sitting in Customs waiting to cross)

In the first minute of reaching the Egyptian Rafah border, I witness Palestinians, Americans and Europeans all waiting. Waiting to cross, waiting to eat, waiting to see the atrocities that humans can commit against each other.
I can't get the image out of my head. A father stranded for more than two weeks, holding up his baby girl crying to us through the window so we can see the pain and the suffering that they have been enduring for the past few days.
There were probably hundreds waiting to get in. As soon as our bus reached the gate, they swarmed around us. Raising peace signs, taking pictures, crying and praising Allah.
Can you imagine what I'm telling you? imagine being within a couple of hundred feet away from your home and being denied the right to return. Imagine being stranded steps away from your homeland and having to return to a foreign country. I can never imagine myself in such a situation. As tears rained down our faces, we took pictures of our fellow comrades. The brave ones withstanding the hundred degree temperatures to return home. Our beloved brothers and sisters, a few feet's distance separating us and we can't offer them water. Water, the bare necessity of survival.
Humans deprived of every possible right out here. Our people dying before our eyes and all we can do is offer them a smile. A smile that symbolizes our forever solidarity with them. A smile that symbolizes patience and hope. Patience for them to wait as long as necessary to get back home. And hope for a better tomorrow and a sooner return home.
God bless our brothers and sisters that endure such suffering on a minute to minute basis. We have not entered Gaza yet. We have only merely passed the border and I feel as if my heart has left me to be in their arms. Gaza, Palestine, gates will never keep us from our given right to return home. It just takes patience and hope. And this is what this border has given me.

The Battle at Salam Bridge

[For an eyewitness account of these and other Convoy events, come to Salam Church, 345 Ovington Avenue, Brooklyn, Monday, July 27th, 7 pm.
[Photos at bottom of post.]

By Dahlia and Dima Abi Saab (Al-Awda-NY)

After four days of attempting to leave Cairo, we were finally on our way to Gaza! These four days were truly a test for everyone's patience, determination, and resistance. However we succeeded in all categories thanks to every person's help, and all the negotiations that took place.

Saturday the 11th, a group of approximately 50 of us decided to make our way toward Al- A'areesh to wait for the people following who were in Alexandria and for some of the folks who stayed at the hotel. There were four buses that were draped in Palestinian and American flags, ready to hit the road. As we were driving on the road, people began singing and clapping at disbelief that we were actually, FINALLY going to Gaza! Most of the songs that people were singing were about Gaza, and emotions were getting high. Many people who hadn't been there for years, for they haven't been permitted to return, and many people like us who where entering Palestine for the first time, were extremely emotional, and we could not hide those emotions no matter how hard we tried.

As we arrived at the Suez Canal, Mubarak Peace Bridge, our trucks were directed towards the side of the bridge, for there was a checkpoint. An officer came onto each bus and told everyone to write his or her full name and passport number on a piece of paper. After about half an hour all that work was done and we were told we should be out of the area at 11 PM (we had arrived at 9). After waiting two hours, we were told we were not allowed to cross the bridge, and that we needed to turn back to Cairo (which was about three hours back). After arguing and yelling, the authorities agreed to allow us to stay by the bridge for two hours, just until our paperwork of passports and names were submitted to the government. (Despite the fact that all this was already submitted and done even before our arrival in Egypt.)

The authorities were not allowing us to do much by the bridge. We weren't allowed out of the buses, if we had to use the restroom, we needed an escort to walk us there, wait for us, and then walk us back. After an hour of sitting in our buses, we all slowly began coming out and sitting on the side of the street. People began conversing, and then we decided to make the best out of the situation. A group of us held hands and began doing the debka in the middle of the street, in an attempt to show the cops that our spirits would not be broken. After a little debka, someone brought out a soccer ball and a large group began playing, until the cops confiscated the ball.

The paper work was submitted and we were all just hanging around waiting for permission to go. Here and there, there were arguments because the authorities would come back and tell us to leave and we would all refuse. At one point, the security official of the bridge came and told everyone to get on the bus, that we were allowed to cross the bridge. After everyone began jumping and screaming because of excitement, we all heard loud bangs on our trucks from one of the members of VP-USA telling us to get out. One member heard the security official tell the bus driver to pretend we were heading toward Al-A'areesh but to really take us back to Cairo.

We all brought our flags out and held our American passports in our hands and began a protest at 6 AM on the side of the Salaam Bridge. We were chanting and screaming and the officials looked dumbfounded. They were all standing on the side just staring at us for about 15 minutes. The security official of the bridge told all the drivers to return to Cairo, so we all went to the back of the bus, locked hands and stood in the way of the buses. The security official was screaming at the bus driver to keep going, basically indicating to run us over, but no one even flinched.

After 12 long, sweltering, hours the convoy as a whole decided to go back to Cairo and get done the new paperwork "necessary" to be filled out before our venture onward. (That paperwork was a whole other issue that we will explain in a little.)

During our campout we called the U.S. Embassy in Egypt numerous times questioning why it was that even though we had paid for and received an Egyptian visa to stay in the country, we were being held and refused crossing over the "Salaam (PEACE)" Bridge. The answers we received were useless and did nothing to speed up the process. Our rights as U.S. citizens in Egypt were not protected or demanded by the U.S. Embassy, however we were less then surprised. A good seven to eight hours into our protest a designated convoy leader and two other convoy members attempted to cross the street in order to hop in a cab and head back to Cairo and finish the necessary paper work that the authorities demanded before giving permission to cross. It was then that three members got swarmed by Egyptian police, undercover agents and random men in suits. They did not kindly ask the convoy members to go back or explained that they could not leave, they shoved, pushed and in some cases slapped people in order to move them back to the other side.

After this disgusting display by the authorities and their blatant refusal to let us move forward, and their demand for us to "bring George Galloway and come back" (as we're assuming they did not believe we were members of his convoy we, as a group, decided the best decision would be to in fact head back, get the affidavits demanded done and come back as a larger group. We headed back into Cairo, most of us to the American Embassy where we signed affidavits that stated:

"I, name of representative, vice Consular officer, certify that on this day 12 July 2009, the individual named below appeared before me and, being duly sworn, made the statements set below:

"I have read and understood the travel warning issues by U.S. Department of State relating to travel to the Gaza Strip. I assume the risk for myself and I understand the Embassy does not recommend my travel to the Gaza Strip.

"I also understand that the Embassy cannot provide me with consular services in the Gaza Strip."

This "necessary" document took us three days to acquire for the convoy in its entirety and cost at the U.S. Embassy $30 -- 30 USD to sign off that OUR embassy will under no circumstances assist us while we are in the Gaza Strip. It will however provide the state of Israel billions of dollars annually and the weapons to be dropped on the children of the Gaza Strip, just no services for American citizens traveling to the region.

For three days after our stand off with the Egyptian Authorities at the bridge, we woke up at 6 AM and told that we were going to leave for Al-A'areesh. And for three consecutive days, we were waiting in the lobby of our hotel, after we had checked out and all, and the authorities would not let us leave our hotel lobby for several hours - and we were forced to check in again and wait for the following day to attempt to leave. But finally we had all the necessary paper work, and we finally were on our way to Gaza! Although those four days were draining and tiresome, all that we experienced would be the last thing on our mind once we entered Gaza.

Photos: 1. Doing debka while waiting; 2. still waiting; 3. Charles Barron; 4 and 5: Blocking the bus; 6: Black nationalist, US and Palestinian flags on the bus.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Twenty-four hours in Gaza

By Soozy Duncan
Allowed only 24 hours in Gaza under threat of not being allowed to return to Egypt, the Viva Palestina convoy has been a whirlwind of activity since crossing the border at Rafah Wednesday night. Organizers have attempted to compress 3 days of planned activities into a single day.

Thursday started by watching a press conference featuring Gazan Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh with members of the Neturei Karta, an organization of anti-Zionist Rabbis from Munsey, New York, who traveled with the caravan. Haniyeh emphasized that the government and the people of Gaza take no issue with Jews, but rather with Zionism and the ongoing oppression and blockade by Israel. Rabbi Dovid Weissman concurred that Jews, Christians and Muslims had coexisted peacefully in Muslim countries for centuries prior to the birth of Zionism, and asked for the people of Gaza to join him in praying for the peaceful dismantlement of the state of Israel.

The group then drove around the Gaza Strip in buses to see the aftermath of the bombing onslaught 6 months ago before attending another press conference at the Legislative Assembly and traveling to Shafa Hospital in Gaza City to deliver the medical aid which was brought from the United States and gathered in Cairo. Finally, delegates met with families of some of the 11,000 prisoners being held in Israel at the Ministry of Prisoners in Tel Alhwa, where children of parents killed in December and January also addressed the group.

Fraser Gaspard of Denver, Colorado, said of seeing the devastation firsthand, “It really shows how effective the American weapons we give Israel are, and how deliberate Israel was in its attack from the spots that were hit, schools, hospitals, a cement factory, homes in refugee camps. You could see it was a war of terror against the Gazan people.”

For Mahmoud Elayan from New Jersey, the most impressive visit was the meeting at the Ministry of Prisoners. Elayan shared, “Three little girls spoke about losing 29 other immediate family members. I have 2 little kids, and I can’t imagine them going through anything like that. To see them still keeping hope like that when they’ve suffered so much, it was touching. I had to leave the room.”

Bringing medical aid was only one of Viva Palestina’s stated purposes. The convoy also sought to learn and share the stories of the Gazans who have lived under 61 years of occupation and the severe assault from December to January. Nour Mattar, a Palestinian born within the borders of Israel who now resides in Orange County, California, said of his experiences, “With all the blockade and all the pressure, if you drive around and talk to people you find they still have great spirit. They‘re not willing to give up or stand down, even though Israel has used every possible weapon they could, militarily, economically and politically.”

Having lived in Gaza for most of the years between 1997 and 2005, the journey was a homecoming for Bethany Gonzalez of Kansas City, Kansas. “Today I realized how much I really miss living in Gaza,” said Gonzalez. “The city and the people, everyone is so kind and hospitable, even with all they’ve been through.” She intends to return with the second Viva Palestina convoy from the U.S. in December, scheduled to coincide with the first anniversary of the attacks.

Mohamad, a recent graduate from the Islamic University, volunteered to serve as an interpreter for the delegates. Asked about the current state of the people of Gaza, he said, “The children now are still suffering from psychological pain and suffering. Whenever they hear any sound they say ‘Bomb! Bomb’ and start crying. For adults it is almost the same.” Mohamad expressed excitement about the past Viva Palestina convoy from London and the plans for future caravans from Venezuela, Moscow, Beijing, and the next from the U.S. “They decrease the suffering among the Gazans. The convoys break the siege and bring us medical aid. The people of Gaza feel really grateful and proud. These convoys uplift our spirits and help us feel stronger and more steadfast.”

Asked what he hopes for himself and all Gazans, Mohamad states simply, “We hope that we will have enough to live, and be able to live in peace, just as the other people of the world.”

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Cynthia McKinney: I Finally Made it to Gaza; No Wonder the Israelis Didn't Want Photos Taken

The Viva Palestina convoy, led by George Galloway, is about to leave Gaza after having been permitted to enter for a period of 24 hours after waiting 11 days in Cairo for permission to enter Gaza. That in and of itself is a major story when expanded to include the inability of Gazans to exit The Strip--even if only to enter another part of their country, the West Bank or to move about freely in the fictional "Palestinian State." I say fictional because it continues to dwindle even while peace talks are underway. Fictional, because Palestinian elections deemed by international observers to be free and fair, don't count if the US- and Israel-approved party loses, and the winners get to sit for years in an Israeli jail. Fictional, because they use Israel's currency here, the shekel, and the international roaming on our US cell phones indicates calls are from Israel. Gaza is beautiful. Gaza is full of life, despite Israel's Operation Cast Lead. And now, I have seen, Gaza has been bombed to smithereens. I think I've mastered my video camera enough to share some images with you. I'll post them on the sites below when I return. In the meantime, my fellow Americans and citizens of the world, we have a lot to do to put right all the wrong things done in our name. Much love to all of you who helped me, guided me, prayed for me, to make this successful entry into Gaza happen. Viva Palestina!!Free Gaza!!--,

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Photos of arrival in Gaza

Video of arrival in Gaza

George Galloway gives a speech alongside Charles Barron and Cynthia McKinney. Bus of delegates follow.

VPUS convoy enters Gaza!