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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As the Academic Year Opens in Israel:

November 1, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Ayman Quader, www.peaceforgaza.blogspot.com

Wednesday, October 21, 2009 – Once again, following the start of the academic year at many institutions of higher education around the world, some 838 Palestinian students are still waiting to leave Gaza to study abroad. The students cannot leave due to the Israeli-imposed closure of the Gaza Strip and the rigid criteria for exit via the Erez and Rafah border crossings.

According to figures provided to Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement – by the Palestinian Interior Ministry in Gaza, 1,983 students who have been accepted into educational institutions abroad have registered for permits to exit via the Rafah crossing since the start of the year, but only 1,145 students have managed to pass through the crossing. 69 additional students have left via Erez crossing.

Overseas travel is no simple matter for Palestinian students because passage through Israel is extremely limited in accordance with a long list of criteria determined by Israel, which include the possession of a “recognized” academic scholarship and enrollment to study in a country which has a diplomatic presence in Israel. In addition, since June 2008 Israel has made the exit of students from Gaza to study abroad conditional on a physical diplomatic escort (see Gisha’s report: “Obstacle Course: Students Denied Exit From Gaza”). The students also have difficulty leaving through Egypt via Rafah crossing due to the fact that it is closed most of the time. The rare openings of Rafah Crossing permit travel for only about 12% of people wishing to pass.

As a result, 838 students are still waiting in Gaza for permission to leave. An additional unknown number of students were not even eligible to register for a Rafah exit permit since they were unable to attend a visa interview in Jerusalem or the West Bank – a prerequisite for passing through the Rafah crossing. Below are three examples of students harmed by the infrequent opening of the Rafah crossing and the strict exit criteria set by Israel:

Mohammed AbuHajar, 29, was accepted into an MA program in Information Technology and Communications at the Center for Information Technologies in Athens in July 2009, and was even awarded a full scholarship by the Center. Since Israel does not consider this to be a “recognized university” or a “recognized scholarship,” and despite requests by Greek officials on his behalf, all of AbuHajar’s attempts to leave Gaza have so far led nowhere. He only just managed to register with the Palestinian Interior Ministry, but it is not known when the next opening of the Rafah crossing will take place or whether AbuHajar will be able to get through the crossing at all.

Ihab Naser, 38, who holds a graduate degree in Biochemistry, was accepted into doctoral studies in Community Nutrition at a Malaysian university in May 2009, but he has not yet managed to leave Gaza. Since Malaysia has no diplomatic ties with the State of Israel, so long as Israel continues to insist on the diplomatic escort requirement, Naser has no chance of getting out of Gaza via Israel to study abroad. Despite the fact that Naser has been on the list of students with a permit to exit via the Rafah crossing for a long time already, due to the huge crowd of hopeful travelers that converges on the crossing every time it opens, his exit has been delayed time and again.

Wesam Kuhail, 28, who holds a BA in Business Administration, was accepted into an MBA program in the USA, but has been forced this year – for the third time – to renew his application for the program. This is because Kuhail has not yet managed to get an exit permit from Gaza in order to attend a visa interview at the US Consulate in Jerusalem: “I don’t know if I’ll ever make it to the consulate under these circumstances. This wait has prevented me from making important life decisions… All I am doing is waiting for my entry permit to be approved by the Israelis.”

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