Ellen Rosser describes odyssey of the Gaza Freedom March

Ellen Rosser describes odyssey of the Gaza Freedom March

 The following is a dispatch from Ellen Rosser, Ph.D. from Al-Arish. Rosser a professor of English and veteran peace activist is taking part in the Gaza Freedom March. She describes her tour of Gaza and how the Egyptian authorities are hindering the caravan’s efforts to reach Gaza and help stricken Palestinian civilians. KA 

4-January, 2010 
Dear Friends,

The Gaza Freedom March organized by Code Pink was a memorable experience—in several ways:  it revealed the tribulations the Gazans suffer, it revealed the police-state nature of Egypt ameliorated by the humanitarian First Lady Suzanne Mubarak, and it revealed the complicity of the Palestinian Authority in the sufferings of the Gazan men, women and children.

Our first morning in Gaza was devoted to traveling to the Erez border crossing with Israel —by way of the buildings destroyed by Israel in its war against Gaza called Operation Cast Lead.  We drove past the  government buildings that  were totally destroyed,  some dating back to  the British  Mandate period,  past the U.N. buildings destroyed,  past the hospitals damaged, past the  mosques  damaged and destroyed,  and past the many homes destroyed or damaged.  We ended up in a refugee camp near the border with Israel where the most homes were destroyed and where families are still living in the large tents supplied by the U.N. since Israel and Egypt do not allow building materials to enter Gaza.    All along the route, our bus passed pedestrians—men, women and children—with whom we exchanged the V peace-victory sign   they looked very happy to see us even though only two busloads of us had managed to enter out of the 1340 who came to Egypt to cross into Gaza for the Freedom March.

The march itself took place on the road leading to the Erez crossing.   We were in the front of the march with the Code Pink banner and the four Naturei Kartae rabbis in their big fur hats, tuxedos and long white cotton stockings.  Their signs opposed the existence of Israel since it was created by bloodshed instead of by the messiah.  David and I were right behind them, David with a big Palestinian flag and the rest of our group followed mixed with Gazans.   We sang We Shall Overcome Some Day as we began to walk up to the point after which Israel said it would shoot at the marchers. There we had a welcoming speech by the Minister of Social Affairs, who subsequently told me how to locate Hanniya to have a meeting with him.   Then there were photographs, press conferences and dispersal.

David  and I, after some problems with the security people who did not want  marchers going places on their own,  were picked up by Ibrahim Al  Rifae and taken to his home  for a late lunch with his lovely  wife Seham and their three children,  the older two of whom speak English very well.  Since the boys had midterm exams the next day, we did not linger too long.

The next morning some of us went to visit refugee camps or an orphanage, and David and I joined the group going out on a fishing boat.  We breasted the waves until we neared the border with  Israel and  saw the  Israeli gun boats that fire on fishermen who go out further than 3 km. (a mile and a half) in search of fish,  even though the US negotiated that the  fishermen could go out  to the
international boundary of 12 miles. Several fishermen have been killed or wounded chasing tuna further out than Israel allows.

In the afternoon we went where Kathleen was installing on a U.N. wall her large mosaic picture of people looking up at the 1430 stars in the sky, which represented the 1430 Gazans killed in Operation Cast Lead.   It is a beautiful memorial to those people, and Kathleen, who is Jewish, did an outstanding job of installing the 6’x9’ mosaic in the two days we were there.

We had planned to attend the Haj festival at five o’clock since Haniyeh was supposed to speak and I planned to catch him for a few minutes afterward.   However, we were told that he would not appear there after all, and we also did not go.

In the evening we went to the Culture Museum to celebrate the New Year by meeting Gazans and some stayed to hear Gaza hip-hop.

On Saturday two buses left for the border in the morning and those of us who wanted to stay longer remained in the hotel. Julie, who had collected $17,000 to bring to Gaza, mainly from her local mosque, was frantically trying to finish filling backpacks with pens, rulers, copy books, crayons, toothbrush and toothpaste, and a toy, and was arranging to take them and many boxes of goods to the school at Zeitun Refugee Camp.  When we were told by Ahmed Al Najar, the non-Hamas International Relations person from the Ministry of Education, that Egypt was going to hold the two buses of people at the border until everyone arrived,   Julie burst into tears because she was afraid that if she did not deliver the goods herself, that Hamas might take over the job and then she could be arrested and jailed in the U.S. for providing goods to Hamas. Julie’s fears were well founded since the two heads of the Holy Land Trust are serving 45 year jail sentences for sending money to an orphanage that happened to be run by Hamas, which the U.S., totally unjustly, classifies as a “terrorist” organization, When she phoned people on the buses later and learned that they had passed into Egypt, we thought that the problem was solved.  We could stay after all and she could deliver the goods herself.  However, Ahmed Al Najar told us in the afternoon that Egypt had said that anyone who did not return by midnight on Jan. 1 would be blacklisted and deported immediately when they returned to Egypt.   Julie burst into tears again.  Someone called a highly placed Egyptian official, who said it was not true.  But we were afraid to risk staying. Eventually, she talked to Ibrahim al Rifae and the Red Crescent, and arranged for them to pick up the goods at 7 am and distribute them according to her instructions. I will testify for her in court, if it comes to that.    And in the meantime, I urge everyone to urge the U.S. government to take Hamas off the terrorist list where it does not belong.  Indeed, Hamas has been offering a two-state solution, Israel and Palestine, officially since 2004, and they have very effectively observed the ceasefire, even preventing the small parties that used to fire the Qassam rockets into Israel from shooting them.  It is madness that Hamas is on the terrorist list.

Finally, at 8 pm our bus was ready to leave for the border with the four rabbis in fur hats, who could not violate the Sabbath by traveling on it, their documentary film maker, Julie, and five others of us, all people committed to non-violence. A Gazan, who must have belonged to Fatah party, came on board and was shouting that he was sorry about our problems and told us that if we coordinated with the Palestinian government in Ramallah, Egypt would not harass us. It was indeed enlightening to discover that Egypt and the Palestinian Authority coordinate what happens at the border. In   other words, the Palestinian Authority is complicit in keeping the Gazans locked in and everyone else locked out—unless they go through Ramallah to get to Gaza.   The Palestinian Authority is therefore partly responsible for the siege which violates international law by causing suffering for the 1.2 million children and women in Gaza as well as the 400,000 men. Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority all bear the shame of causing that suffering.

When our bus finally arrived at the Rafah border crossing, we gathered our luggage and entered the Palestinian checkpoint.   After passports were stamped, we reentered the bus and went to the Egyptian side.   There a strange thing happened:  after the Egyptians has stamped our passports, the security guards wanted to keep them instead of returning them to us. We protested by returning to the terminal, sitting down and calling the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to inform them  about what was happening.  Finally, security after many phone calls relented and gave us our passports. We then squeezed into a minibus and left for Al Arish.

The four rabbis wanted to stay in a hotel in Al Arish and David, I and two of the women planned to stay in our two chalets on the beach, which we had rented until Jan. 16. We first became aware of our next problem when the minibus passed the rabbis’ hotel without stopping.   We began shouting at him to stop, and finally many blocks later near a large beach hotel, he pulled over, and the police vans began arriving and surrounding us. A security man who spoke English informed us that we all had to go to Cairo. All but three of us protested strongly, and in the ensuing debate, I grabbed the keys to the minibus and stuck them in my shoe.   Julie and two others demanded to go to the bathroom in the nearby hotel, I was demanding that David and I be allowed to go home to our chalets, and the rabbis were trying to work out a compromise to stay at the expensive nearby hotel.   Then the riot squad arrived.   Twenty-two riot police in grey uniforms and helmets carrying big grey shields surrounded the minibus with the four rabbis in fur hats, weeping Julie demanding to go to the bathroom, and six other non-violent people.   I started to laugh at the absurdity, but some of the others were afraid or outraged and didn’t appreciate my amusement.

Eventually the security guards wanted to know who had the minibus key.  Someone said “Ellen.” An English—speaking security guard whom I had met before came to the window and asked me for the key. I replied that when the rabbis’ luggage which was stored in my chalet was put on the minibus, when I was given back the 1300 Egyptian pounds I had paid for the chalets, and when the three people could go to the bathroom, I would return the keys.   He promised everything would be done and asked again for the keys.  I replied with the others that we didn’t trust them.   We debated the matter a few more minutes and then I asked him to swear by Allah that he would do all he promised.  He swore and I handed him the keys. Our kind and friendly rental agent Atef arrived at two in the morning and arranged for the luggage to be brought from the chalets and went downtown to the ATM to get money to return to me.   And weeping Julie and two others went to the hotel to the bathroom—one at a time–running the gauntlet of the riot police.

Finally at 2:30 am, all conditions having been met, we left for Cairo, carrying with us truly memorable images of what “welcome to Egypt” really means.

Peace and blessings, Ellen