Gaza Freedom Marchers vs Egyptian Police

March 25, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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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Israel Attacks Humanitarian Ship, Hijacks Crew

July 2, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Susan Schwartz, MMNS

Editor’s note:  This event occurred in 2009.  If you are looking for the attack that occurred in June of 2010, please look at the following posts:

http://muslimmedianetwork.com/mmn/?p=6280 (Erdogan’s Speech to Turkish Parliament)

http://muslimmedianetwork.com/mmn/?p=6279 (Paintballs to pistols, Israel admits ship blunders)

http://muslimmedianetwork.com/mmn/?p=6278 (Turkey calls for punishment of Israel for killings)

http://muslimmedianetwork.com/mmn/?p=6277 (Egypt Opens Gaza Border After Israel Clash)

While sailing from Cyprus to Gaza on a humanitarian mission as part of the Free Gaza Movement, the SS Spirit of Humanity, an unarmed vessel with only civilians aboard, was attacked and boarded by Israeli Naval forces and its passengers and crew kidnapped. Prior to this the Humanity had been surrounded by ships of the Israeli Navy. The Israelis had jammed the ship’s navigation system, its GPS, and its radar. This took place in international waters, and the initial hostile action from Israel put the ship and its passengers and crew in grave danger.

Early Monday morning (June 29, 7:30 am local time) , the SS Spirit of Humanity left the Cyprus port of Lenarca to sail to the beleaguered nation of Gaza. Aboard are 21 human rights activists from 14 countries. The ship also carries three tons of medical supplies, crayons and coloring books for the children of Gaza and reconstruction kits for 20 homes to be rebuilt in Gaza.

Former Congresswoman, Cynthia McKinney, a vocal proponent of the rights of the people of Gaza, is aboard. Ms McKinney attempted to make the trip in December 2008, a trip that was interdicted by an attack from the Israeli Navy. Also aboard are Huwaida Arraf and Adam Shapiro, a husband and wife team who founded the International Solidarity Movement and Mairead Maguire, a Nobel Prize winner.

The destruction in Gaza inflicted by the Israelis during Operation Cast Lead (December 2008-January 2009) resulted in the loss of over 2400 family dwelling places, educational and medical centers, cement factories and charitable establishments.

The Humanity is carrying kits which attempt to compensate in arenas of need destroyed by Israel and that have, thus far, been closed off to aid from outside forces. These arenas include, but are by no means limited to: agriculture, education, electricity, water and sanitation. While billions in aid was pledged by other nations, only a trickle of money has come to Gaza, none of it for the acutely needed rebuilding efforts.

This past Thursday the Humanity and its sister ship, the SS Free Gaza, were both poised to depart for Gaza. They were unable to leave Cyprus  when they were denied departure credentials by Limasol, the Cyprus Port Authority. The activists learned from a source in the government of Cyprus that the Israelis applied pressure to prevent the departure. Strangely, the letter of refusal was dated two days before the actual inspection was made.

The Free Gaza Movement was created to break the siege of Gaza by sailing ships into its port via Gaza’s Mediterranean border. In August 2008, two ships, the SS Free Gaza and the SS Liberty accomplished this and became the first ships to enter Gaza by sea in 41 years. This current voyage is the eighth attempt. Two attempts were thwarted by the Israelis. One ship, the SS Dignity, left Cyprus in December 2008 and was rammed by the Israeli Navy. But for the ability of the captain and crew, it would have sunk with the probable loss of life of all aboard. In January 2009, subsequent to the Israeli invasion of Gaza, the SS Spirit of Humanity attempted to make the journey was forcibly turned back by the Israeli Navy.

The SS Free Gaza, one of the ships that made the first voyage, and the SS Spirit of Humanity had between them 36 passengers and crew from 16 nations and were carrying 15 tons of cement,  three tons of medical supplies and crayons and books for children. Gaza desperately needs cement for rebuilding, but Israel has denied it to them. The cement being carried by the activists is but a token, a small percentage of what is needed. Crayons and books are also forbidden to the people of Gaza by the Israelis.

The organizers of this trip include Greta Berlin, an internationally known human rights activist and a veteran participant in the International Solidarity Movement; Huwaida Arraf , Mary Hughes Thompson, another veteran of humanitarian activity in Gaza, and Ramzi Kysia, an American of Lebanese descent.

Past voyages have seen the activists tour hospitals, in critical condition even prior to the Israeli invasion. They have watched patients fight for their lives when necessary electronic equipment could not function as Israel did not permit a constant supply of electricity. They have accompanied fishermen into the Mediterranean beyond the limit permitted by Israel so that they could pursue their livelihood. They have helped farmers plant olive trees. They have brought hope and friendship to the world’s largest outdoor prison.

Two recent incidents have highlighted the danger posed to the brave people of the Free Gaza movement. Free Gaza activist, Hedy Epstein, an 84 year old Holocaust survivor was brutally attacked in St Louis on her way home. She required a hospital visit for her injuries. Ms Epstein has been an active supporter of the rights of Gaza and has been the recipient of numerous telephone and email threats.

Recently the SS Dignity suffered damage during a storm and sunk to the bottom of the Mediterranean while in port in Cyprus. Shortly before this happened, two men made a threat regarding the boat. It has still not been determined whether the force of the storm resulted in its destruction or whether the storm provided a convenient cover.

The travelers have made promises to the people of Gaza. They promised to return, they promised to exit with residents of Gaza who yearned to be re united with family and residents of Gaza who had secured acceptance in colleges outside of Gaza but whom Israel would not permit to leave. And, they promised to carry to the rest of the world the story of Gaza under siege.

A Gaza volunteer gave a poignant account of her experiences in Gaza where brave and resilient people struggle to obtain the basics of existence. “I’ve done work in prison” she said “This is worse than being in prison.”

The public is urgently asked to contact the following groups:

Israeli Ministry of Justice; tel  +972 2646 6666 or +972 2646 6340; fax +972 2646 6357.

Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs;      tel +972 2530 3111; fax +972 2530 3367

Red Cross Israel; tel +972 3524 5286;      fax +972 3527 0370.

Also readers and members of the public should contact the White House and their Senators and Congresspersons.

Free Gaza may be accessed at: www.freegaza.org.

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