Gaza Freedom Marchers vs Egyptian Police

March 25, 2010 by  


By Susan Schwartz, MMNS

Gaza has become the central focus of the human rights struggle. Many groups have called for its liberation, and many are striving to bring aid to that beleaguered area. This concern has accelerated since the launching of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead last year and the devastation that this operation wrought.

A coalition led by Code Pink had announced plans to enter Gaza through Rafah during a three week period which would coincide with the first anniversary of Israel’s destructive campaign. While in Gaza the group planned to march from Rafah to the Eretz crossing – the entry into Gaza from Israel – and symbolically link there with marchers from Israel.

Mary Hughes-Thompson, familiar to readers of The Muslim Observer and to activists worldwide, was a participant in the planned Gaza Freedom March. Ms Thompson is a member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and has travelled to the Occupied Palestinian Territories several times. She  is co-founder of the Free Gaza Movement and was on the first ship to reach Gaza in August 2008, breaking a decades long siege. She has given The Muslim Observer an interview.

The story of the Gaza Freedom March (GFM) and its failure to achieve its announced goal is a story whose central factor and key players are Egyptian collaboration. The Egyptian police used an intimidating physical presence to thwart the peaceful demonstrators.

In late December some 1400 international activists assembled in Cairo prepatory to travelling to El Arish and then on to Rafah.  On arriving in Cairo they were told by the Egyptian authorities that they would not be permitted to assemble or to travel to Gaza.

Code Pink as speaker for the Gaza Freedom Marchers announced a press conference. Immediately after the announcement they were told by Egyptian authorities that they could not hold a press conference.

TMO:  Am I correct that the Gaza Freedom Marchers went to Cairo with the expectation that the proper protocol had been observed and that they would be permitted to travel to Rafah?

Ms Thompson:  The Egyptian authorities had agreed to facilitate our travelling to Gaza.  They had asked that the names and passport information for all participants be provided to them by November 30th, and this was done.

TMO:  What reason did the Egyptian authorities give for disallowing a press conference?

Ms Thompson:  I do know they had originally granted permits for both the press conference and for the orientation meeting which was scheduled to be held December 27th.  A few days earlier Egypt suddenly withdrew the permits which meant we could not hold either event.

TMO:  Could you tell us what threats were made to taxi cab drivers and/or bus drivers to prevent the group from using these means of transportation?

Ms Thompson:  They were told their licenses would be revoked.

TMO:  Could you tell us the behavior of the Egyptian police when they blocked the exits from a number of hotels where activists were staying?

Ms Thompson:  They blocked exits from a number of the hotels where activists were staying.  We had several policemen stationed outside our hotel at all times, and every time we left we were asked where we were going and when we would be back.  The first couple of days a policeman came with us in our taxi and stayed with us all day.  Each time we took a taxi from our hotel, a policeman questioned the driver, took his license number and ID, and, on one occasion, sat on the hood of our taxi refusing to let us leave.

TMO:  Did the GFM group at any time engage in or threaten violence?

Ms Thompson:  I would definitely say no to that. There was not a great deal of violence at all but what there was was on the part of the Egyptian police trying to control the crowds and trying to lock us into our hotels to prevent us from assembling.

TMO:  Did you have an opportunity to interact with the Egyptian people?

Ms Thompson:  While in Egypt we met several high profile people who were actively engaged in protesting. In fact, we went to the courthouse one day to support a local lawyer who was part of a group trying to challenge the Egyptian government’s building of the wall along the Rafah border. At the end of our trip Yvonne Ridley hired a van to take us to the pyramids (so she could videotape Hedy). {TMO: Hedy Epstein, an 85 year old Holocaust survivor and a Palestinian activist}, and our driver pointed to the spot on which we had been roughed up a few days earlier and said:  “The other day there was a revolution there.”

TMO:  Would you describe for our readers the details of the Egyptian police activity vis a vis your group at Tahrir Square?

Ms Thompson:  We decided that on the day we had planned to march to Erez crossing, we would hold a symbolic march in Cairo, and go as far as the Egyptian police would let us.  We started in Tahrir Square, opposite the Museum, and we ended there.  We came in small groups of two or three, from all directions, and the police were waiting for us.  They stopped my group (me, Hedy, and her two friends from St Louis, Sandra and J’Ann) and wouldn’t let us go to the meeting point.  We refused to leave, and insisted we were tired and needed to sit on a bench on the sidewalk.  Suddenly we saw a swarm of people crossing the street, and we ran to join them.  We were immediately surrounded by policemen three deep, and they wouldn’t let anyone in or out.

Generally the police didn’t use rough tactics, and I think my grey hair and cane might have helped me.

Even assembly in small groups was not permitted and any such gatherings were quickly surrounded by Egyptian police in riot gear.

Eventually through the intervention of Susan Mubarak, the head of the Egyptian Red Crescent Society, 100 of the Gaza Freedom marchers were told they could travel to Gaza and bring with them the supplies they wanted to provide to the people there. This happened before the event at Tahrir Square.

TMO:  Thank you Ms Thompson on behalf of The Muslim Observer. You have given us an insight into events in Cairo, an insight not readily accessible in the media.

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