About Me

I am a member of the Wespac Middle East Committee and have made two trips to Gaza. I've also made two unsuccessful attempts to cross from Egypt into Gaza. The most recent was Jan/Feb 2011. As a result of the Egyptian revolution, the border between Egypt and Gaza was closed.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

From Egypt to the Promised Land

I went to Egypt at the end of January to meet up with a group of 18 people organized by CodePink to go to Gaza. The Egyptian revolution caused the Egyptian government to seal the borders with Gaza. So I stayed in Cairo and had an incredible front row seat on the most amazing grassroots uprising you can imagine.

Saturday, January 30

Kit Kittredge and I arrived in Egypt about 5 pm Friday, went thru immigration and customs with no signs of abnormality, got our bags and came out to look for our pick up from the Lotus Hotel. No sign of anyone. We tried to get a cab to take us to downtown Cairo, but rejected the outrageous (it seemed to us at the time) offer of a ride for E 250. It still didn’t dawn on us what was happening. We tried calling the Lotus, but couldn’t get through. Only after noticing that, in the huge crowd of people that was building at the terminal, no one was using a cellphone did we realize that the government had shut down the cellphone networks and the internet as well. The cabdrivers told us it was impossible to get to downtown Cairo. The entire area is cordoned off. We settled for an offer of a cab and a hotel room for the two of us in Heliopolis for $90. It seemed like a bargain given the circumstances.

The road out of the airport was eerie. Almost no cars when normally it would be choked with traffic. The same on the main boulevard thru Heliopolis. As we neared Mubarak’s palace, we were stopped by a roadblock. Our ingenious driver turned around and found a way to our hotel thru the side streets.

It’s a very strange feeling to be cut off from communication with anyone while watching an uprising taking place on television. Athough I imagine Mubarak’s aim is to prevent the organization of demonstrations, the feeling induced is not one of passivity. Rather, I think, it makes you feel like it is worth taking risks. You have to go out and join up to find out what’s going on.

Everyone we talked to at the hotel – the desk manager, the bell boy, the waiter, and the guests who understood what was going on – were quietly or loudly supportive of the demonstrations – albeit with not much political sophistication. “35 years of Mubarak – he has to go” would be representative of the general feeling.

The next morning we talked to Tighe Barry who was already in Cairo and learned that it was possible to get to downtown Cairo. We got a driver, for a fairly exorbitant price, and took off. Again, almost no traffic on the road at all. We arrived on Talaat Harb St., which had been the center of demonstrations and police action the prior day, and went into our hotel. Tahrir Square, just a few blocks away, was already starting to fill with demonstrators. We went out to join the crowd. The army had blocked most of the main streets leading into the square to separate the police from the demonstrators. The police, other than some undercover plainclothesmen, were nowhere in sight. The demonstration was almost like a be-in from the 1960s. People of all ages were out on the street. Old people, young people, parents with small children, men in suits, men in workclothes, and a surprising large number of women – maybe 10%. Contrary to what the US media was saying, this was no Islamist exercise. When the hour of prayer came, you could make the count. No more than 15% percent of the demonstrators were praying. We saw several signs with both the Christian Cross and the Muslim crescent on them. (We learned later that this was the symbol of the Revolution of 1919 against British rule). Some people were sweeping the streets to pick up litter. Some others were bringing drinks to the soldiers.

The overall feeling was one of peace, joy, and excitement. People were jumping up on tanks to shake hands with the soldiers. Many people said to us, “This is the real Egypt.” They lifted their children up onto the tanks.

We were constantly asked where we were from. When we said the US, people welcomed us to Egypt and asked us to spread the word at home that this is a peaceful revolution, and that all the Egyptian people want is the right to choose their government and to live normal lives.

There were at least 100,000 people in Tahrir Square, with more people joining in the demonstration all the time until close to 5 o’clock. There was massive applause and rejoicing when firefighters joined the demonstration and even greater excitement when an army captain came over to the demonstrators.

There were other areas where demonstrators gathered as well. They hoped to take over the state run media and gathered in front of that building which is on the Corniche, along the Nile. The army clearly wasn’t ready or willing for that to happen and had stationed soldiers with machine guns and automatic weapons on the balconies of the building, ready to shoot down into the crowd if necessary. The soldiers were backed up by tanks and APCs. Again, the spirit of the crowd was one of friendly determination and there were no efforts to break into the building.

The only building in Cairo that was burned was the headquarters of the National Democratic Party – Mubarak’s party. That large, high rise building was set on fire yesterday and was still burning today. Firefighters made no attempt to put out the flames, which also incinerated the cars parked in the lot in front of the building.

Just as we were about to return to the hotel, the crowd learned that Mubarak had chosen Omar Suleiman as president (turned out he was appointed vice-president). They were not happy. Immediately the chant began “Out with Mubarak, Out with Suleiman.” It is clear people are looking for a regime change, not just a different face. I think the appointment of Suleiman, rather than seeking a compromise, is a major challenge to the people. Suleiman is the head of intelligence/secret police and has long acted as Mubarak’s right hand man. Darth Vader might be an accurate archetype for him. He is the one responsible for the repression.

We went back out to Tahrir Sq. about 8 pm. The crowd was significantly diminished but there were still thousands of people. We walked up towards the area where the police had made their last stand two days ago, before going into hiding in the Interior Ministry complex. The army was barricading the streets that ran into the Interior Ministry in what looked to us like an effort to protect the police from the demonstrators. However, people were gathering on a side street that lead to the entrance to the Interior Ministry complex and no soldiers were there. We walked on to take a look.
Some students from the American University of Cairo told us the police were shooting into the crowd with live ammunition and that some people had been killed. As we walked a little closer, a fusillade of shots was fired into the crowd we were approaching, followed by tear gas. We ducked down a side street to get out of the way. We continued hearing gunfire for several minutes. Later we heard a report, which we couldn’t confirm, that 10 people had been killed.

Some very interesting things are happening here. Most impressive is the self-organization which has taken place. We saw people cleaning up, directing traffic, and everywhere neighborhood watches were formed – almost on every block – to guard against looting and thievery. All of this is happening with the greatest good humor and respect. The only violent action we saw was when a crowd of about 20 demonstrators caught an undercover policeman, and dragged him into a building – presumably to beat him up.

There is good reason for neighborhood watches. Not only are the police not on the streets, but the police opened the prisons and let criminals out to help them with their attacks on demonstrators. Nada Kassass, one of the organizers of the protests, told us that a group of young people, including her, were chased into the Press Syndicate building by police and criminals, some of whom had not even changed out of their prison uniforms. When they got inside the building, thugs and plainclothes police demanded the security guards open the doors. They refused. The thugs tried to force the doors but weren’t able to. She also told us that some looters entered the Egyptian Museum – the home of priceless treasures and the demonstrators barricaded the building to keep them from escaping with stolen goods. When the Army came to search the building, the thieves they found were two police officers, three soldiers, and some employees of the Museum. In Alexandria, she said, two police officers were caught robbing a bank.

The role of the Army, she says, is a bit ambiguous. They have clearly refused Mubarak’s orders to disperse the demonstrators, but it is not clear what the next step will be. The danger is a military coup. She felt that a military government would only be acceptable to a small portion of the demonstrators. Although the formal political process has been gutted over 35 years by Mubarak, there is an informal political structure which could play a role in forming a new government. The two trusted groups she cited are The Popular Committee for Change, and the Popular Parliament. The Popular Parliament came out of the last fraudulent parliamentary elections, where many candidates were prevented from running at all, and others had their votes stolen. It is 91 people who, had there been an honest election, would have been chosen for Parliament.

However, Egypt is a client state of the US, and certainly the US will try to control the outcome of a regime change. The US government is much more likely to favor a military government than a popular government.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Crowds are just starting to gather in Tahrir Square to continue voicing their demand that the Mubarak regime go. The army remains stationed on the roads leading into the square, preventing cars from gaining access. Everything appears very calm, but we are warned by the demonstration organizers that “something big” could be in the works – good or bad we don’t know.

This can hardly be a surprise. Mubarak threw down the gauntlet by appoint Suleiman as his number two. Omar Suleiman is the head of the hated secret police (Egyptian intelligence), works closely with Israel and the US, and is clearly just another face of the Mubarak regime. The key question here is the relationship between the army and the police. They are reputed to hate each other. On the other hand, Suleiman has held the rank of General in the Army. What kind of deals are being cut among Egypt’s elite and will the rank and file in the Army accept any order they receive? So far their actions have tilted slightly towards the people. That is, they have prevented the police force from deploying against the demonstrators. But they have not definitively taken sides against the police. For example, last night, when demonstrators went to the Interior Ministry to rout out the police hiding in there, the procession was led by Army APCs and possibly a tank. But when the police began firing live ammunition at the demonstrators, the Army did not fire back, despite pleas from demonstrators to do so. Also, demonstrators would like to take over the state run television stations to get their message out. The state media has portrayed the demonstrators as thieves and criminals to the extent they have shown anything at all. But the Army deployed to protect the state television station building from takeover. Their ultimate role in this revolution remains to be determined.

Possible alternative political leadership to Mubarak does exist, but may not be able to surface in the face of American machinations for “stability.” That alternative leadership does not rest in a single person, but rather in the Popular Council for Change and the Popular Parliament I described earlier. Most people seem to feel Egypt needs a little time to develop a real political process.

Later Sunday afternoon – one amazing event after another continues to unfold. When we left the hotel early in the afternoon, we met a human rights activist/reporter that Medea knew who invited us to come to the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Justice and the Hisham Mubarak Center Law Center, which he said was a center for the organization of the protests. (This Center was the organizer of the April 9th Movement protests in 2008). We went into an unprepossessing building in a narrow street, climbed up about six flights of stairs and came into a room that was filled with young organizers/activists.

We met with Nada Saddek, a middle aged woman who is a key person at the center. She told us a number of interesting things pointing to the conclusion that Mubarak is trying to save himself by creating chaos. At least four prisons, 3 in the Cairo area and 1 in Alexandria were emptied of their prisoners. Her daughter called her on the way from Alexandria to Cairo to tell her men in prison uniforms were trying to hitch rides along the road. This fits right in with Nada Kassass’ story of the police using criminals in prison uniforms to attack the press syndicate. She also told us that the police had seized ambulances which they were filling with police officers who jumped out with automatic weapons and killed people. We saw some concrete evidence of that at the Interior Ministry. As we walked towards the demonstrators there last night, we saw that the crowd was trying to roll over an ambulance – quite shocking since we had seen nothing like that before. The ambulance was literally thrown up in the air, and emptied of whoever was inside it. The driver then frantically backed it down the street away from the crowd with the back door hanging ajar. Now, it turns out, the ambulance was being used to smuggle police out of the building where they were holed up. Finally, several people told us that the army arrested police officers for several criminal acts – attempting to loot the Egyptian Museum, robbing a bank in Alexandria. Of course, the lack of almost any communication, and my inability to understand what is broadcast on television, makes it impossible to substantiate anything I haven’t actually seen.

We also discussed with Nada the possibility that the almost complete disruption of internet service was an effort to sow chaos. February 1 is payday, and the banks have no way to transfer money to people’s accounts without the internet. Many people who can ill afford it will go with no pay. Nada told us she is conserving her money because of this worry. Her daughter needs surgery for injuries from an auto accident but Nada is postponing it until she knows whether or not money will be available. People are also worried that the government will stop shipments of food into the city.

Other rumors circulating are that the Minister of Interior was arrested by the Army. He had been hiding in the Interior Ministry, which may have been why the police took so many lives shooting live ammunition into the crowd. (The New York Times said the police at the Interior Ministry fired rubber bullets, but live ammunition was clearly used. We interviewed an 11 year old boy who had been shot twice, and produced the bullet that had been extracted from his arm. It was not a rubber bullet.

Another rumor was that the Minister of Defense was arrested. We were told that he had ordered the army to shoot live ammunition at the demonstrators on Friday. A general refused the order, creating the rift that led to the army tilting towards the demonstrators. Later this afternoon, the chief of the army came to Tahrir Square to tell the demonstrators not to worry, things will move forward. Again, I can’t substantiate any of this. But people very much want to trust the army and believe that it is with them. This afternoon, the air force staged continuous flyovers with fighter jets roaring and rolling across the sky. Some people took this as a very positive sign. Others saw it as a show of strength after the arrest (if it took place) of the Minister of Defense.

Regardless, Tahrir Square began to fill up again with people streaming in all afternoon, and the crowd growing particularly after work. It seemed a little smaller than yesterday, but not by much. And many more women and children came out to join in.

People have so much to say. Thirty five years of being muzzled means you have a lot to say. Everyone wanted to talk to America via the video camera.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Another day in the peoples’ revolution. Staying in touch with the rest of the world is life’s biggest daily challenge. Down to the street to look for the guy at the kiosk who sells cellphone cards – closed. Around the corner to the Internet Café, whose owner told us he would open at 9 – closed. Off to Tahrir Square to check in on the revolution and there are alarmingly few people there – maybe a few hundred. Don’t worry we are told, people will come. And they did. By the time we got back by 2:30 or so, the crowd was amazing. Much larger than on Sunday. In any case, we had to have a more optimistic outlook. The internet café had opened (probably the only place in Cairo where the internet is working and we know where it is)! Unfortunately, other people are starting to find it as well so it was a challenge to hold our space while we slowly, ever so slowly uploaded pictures. We had found food. A fast food khoshary place is, I swear, feeding all of Tahrir Square. I would like to take a movie of the guys behind the counter dishing out orders at a dizzying pace. But if I did I would probably be crushed by the enormous crowd trying to elbow its way in to the counter to order.

The contrast between the joyous, collaborative, self-organized environment of Tahrir Square and the elite area nearby is profound. We walked over to the Semiramis Hotel on the Corniche to see if we could snag a mainstream media person who would help us upload video. The place was barricaded like a fortress, with a huge desk across the entrance, guards everywhere, metal detectors. They weren’t buying any of our excuses to get in and appeared to be expecting attack imminently. We had already seen tanks blocking the road two or three blocks from the American Embassy. It all smells of an extremely guilty conscience. And yet we must have been asked 100 or more times by demonstrators “When will Obama support the Egyptian people?”

I saw some news stories in the Arab world that the demonstrations have been organized by “outsiders.” If there is any truth in that, the “outsiders” are not very well organized. The signs are all hand written, and we watch people gather in small groups with cardboard and magic markers to decide what their signs should say.

Support is not universal, but it certainly is widespread. We have talked to men, an amazing number of women, children, students, lawyers, salesmen, printers, teachers, professors, engineers, farmers, social workers, policemen, soldiers, activists, Muslims, Coptic Christians, returned émigrés, etc. all with the united opinion that Mubarak has stayed too long, that the entire regime must change, and that the people should have the right to choose. It’s reasonable to assume that the supporters of Mubarak may have made themselves scarce in this environment. But we have talked to some shopkeepers and people dependent on the tourist trade who are not happy about the protests. Their opinions vary. Some support Mubarak as a strong hand that has protected Egypt from Israel, which they believe would like to invade. Others feel that the disorder has ruined the country. Some support the idea of change, but not the way it is being achieved.

Because of the curfew, which was imposed at 3 pm today, we had to go away from Tahrir Sq. to find an open restaurant. We found an excellent one about 10 blocks away, crammed with people. But other than the shops being closed and little traffic, there wasn’t much curfew observance.

Shopowners and others in the neighborhoods are out on the street all night to protect their area. The police have disappeared from the streets and, before they left, they let the criminals out of jail. At least 3 large prisons were emptied. In some cases, escaping prisoners were killed. (Some activists said these were the political prisoners but we don’t know). Two people told us they personally saw escaped prisoners still wearing their convict uniforms. However, after the first few days of pitched battles with police, in downtown Cairo we have seen no signs of new looting. And most of the neighborhood guards don’t seem to begrudge the revolution for their having to pull the all night shift.

A huge march is planned for tomorrow (Tuesday) – a “million man” march. But in Tahrir Sq. tonight the protesters who planned to spend the night numbered in the several thousands. There is a tent camp, blankets have been widely distributed, food is available, and the atmosphere is festive. Many people believe, especially after the Army’s announcement that it would not fire on peaceful demonstrators, that Tuesday is the day Mubarak goes.

People of all ages, classes, genders are together out in the square to hold the space for tomorrow’s demonstration. One group of young people began putting together a collection of all the varying slogans, reflecting the many differing opinions (El Baradei is okay, he is not okay, there should be Islamic government, there should be civil society government, etc.) united around a single goal – Mubarak and the current regime must go and people will stay protesting until that goal is achieved. Political discussion is constant, passionate, and civil. On our way back to the hotel with our friend Yasser, who kindly translated for us all night, we stopped to ask some neighborhood guards their opinion. They were very much against the protests, saying change was okay but not this way, and some saying “Mubarak is a good man.” But still there was a civil debate with Yasser.

People came together here in many ways.

The picture above is a group of Facebook friends from a number of smaller cities and towns at least 100 miles away from Cairo. These young women were staying by themselves all night in the square. When we left, they were entertaining themselves reading books on their Kindle.

Take a look at the number of women and families.

Take a look at how people organized to make it possible to remain in the square.

Take a look at the individual creativity. The picture on the bottom left is a man whose protest sign says he does not have a job, the money to get married, to get an apartment. On the bottom right, two young men are portraying the plight of the ordinary Egyptian – no job, no money, no healthcare, poor education, lack of public services, no freedom to speak or write, etc.

By Tuesday, the Mubarak forces began to stir themselves a bit. We decided to go down to the state television building on the Corniche to see if the Army was still holding off the pro-democracy protesters who had hoped to take it over. When we arrived, we saw a major shift. The army had created an much wider defensive perimeter, sealing off access from the side streets and closing off much of the area in front of the building along the Corniche. There was a demonstration of a few hundred young people off to the side. When we went over to talk to them, we realized this was a pro-Mubarak demonstration -- the first we had seen. The demonstrators were holding printed signs (much different than the scrawled cardboards of Tahrir Square) and chanting “We love Mubarak” and “Mubarak stay”. I asked one young man why he loved Mubarak. He could only say, “He is our father.” Asked why he was there, he said, “For state television to take pictures of us.”

That was the benign side of the Mubarak forces mobilization. The next morning, Wednesday, we saw the dark side. Early in the morning, Talaat Harb Square -- just four blocks from Tahrir Square -- began to fill with an angry, shouting mob. Initially about 50 men, many of whom looked like undercover police, surrounded by about 10 taxicabs circling the central statue of Talaat Pasha Harb (the founder of the Bank of Egypt). We tried to talk to them, asking why they were there and what they wanted. After a few formulaic replies of “Mubarak is our father” things started to get a bit tense and we walked away. Hours later, this same crowd, armed with stones, knives, and molotov cocktails ran down Talaat Harb St. to attack protesters in Tahrir Square.

I missed most of the buildup because I had taken a taxi out to Orouba, near the airport, to leave the materials I had planned to take to Gaza with a friend. I got back to our hotel a little before two, learned that Medea, Tighe and the others were just returning from a solidarity demonstration they held near the US embassy, and ducked into the neighboring internet cafe, down a little alley. Not ten minutes later, I heard shouting and people running down the street. The internet cafe owner began to pull down his steel shutters. Medea, Kit, Billy, Tim and Jase appeared in the doorway as the shutter was going down and ducked under it to come inside. Tighe had gone into the hotel.

This turned out to be an excellent division of labor. Tighe observed the street battle from the hotel balcony and called a blow by blow description in to us in the internet cafe so that we could post.

Here’s what he told us: Mubarak supporters began a battle by throwing stones at the human chain protecting the square and at people in the square. This seems to be coordinated by two men with walkie talkies. The crowd of thugs throws stones and then retreats back towards Talaat Harb Square. For the first twenty minutes or so, the pro-democracy protesters just formed a double line, with locked arms, to keep the thugs from breaking through. Their only protection from stones was heavy blankets thrown over their heads. Finally, The Mukhabarat (secret police) are on the roof across the street from our hotel, directing the street thugs by cell phone. They are motioning to Tighe to stop filming them. Molotov cocktails are now being thrown into Tahrir Sq. by Mubarak thugs. A tank has pulled up where Talaat Harb St. enters Tahrir Sq. It’s not clear what its purpose is, but both sides are using it as a shield. Finally, the pro-democracy protesters counterattacked with rocks. Tighe watches a dozen thugs beating a young man with a metal pole, then jump on another man who tried to protect him. Theres no question people are being seriously hurt here.

The battle raged up and down Talaat Harb St. and spilled into the little alley where we were holed up in the internet cafe. The owner had left a four inch gap at the bottom of the door and one young guy began shooting video through the tiny crack. Via his video, we see five or six men beating a boy lying on the ground. He tries to crawl under a dumpster for protection, but they drag him out and away. There is a pool of blood on the pavement.

For the moment, Mubarak has succeeded in his effort to sow chaos. He seems willing to set the country on fire to stay in power. Certainly the US gave him the green light for this by not insisting he step down.

By the late afternoon, the Mubarak thugs had been driven away. The street was littered with glass from the windows they smashed as they retreated and rocks.

When things calmed down we left the internet cafe and went around the corner onto Talaat Harb to our hotel. The protesters began building barricades to protect the entrances to Tahrir Square.

All the managers in our hotel were very pro-Mubarak, telling us that a strong hand was needed to keep Egypt from descending into chaos, complaining that the protests had ruined the tourist business, but there was only one -- the assistant night manager -- who was happy about the Mubarak thugs attacks on the protesters. He was thrilled -- a little brown shirt wannabe.

In the evening, we went out into Tahrir Square with two banners “The Whole World Says Its Time to Go Mubarak” and “Solidarity with the Egyptian People”.

Generally, I hadn’t thought I had much role to play in this revolution other than to document the actions and people’s demands. It’s their revolution. But these banners, which we carried around the entire square, made a huge difference. Hundreds of people had been hurt in the rock throwing melee and they clearly felt besieged as well. The banners were a very clear sign that the whole world is watching, and watching with sympathy and admiration for the protests. We were very warmly received and were joined by hundreds of people who began chanting, “Mubarak out”, “Down with Mubarak”, etc. sometimes in English, sometimes in Arabic.

The next morning, Kit and I left for the airport. We arrived quickly, with the interruption of just one checkpoint at the airport. To my surprise, the departure halls were not packed with people. Rather, it just looked like a busy day at the airport. Our plane, which had been specially scheduled by Delta, was almost empty -- a huge airbus with no more than 40 or so people on it. I was so happy that we hadn’t asked the US embassy for help in getting a flight. They were charging everyone they evacuated $400 and dumping them anywhere between Istanbul and London to find there way home. Why didn’t they use the Delta flight we took? Well, why didn’t they support the peaceful, pro-democracy protesters rather than the Mubarak kleptocrats?

The US never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity....

Back in the U.S. after an amazing front row seat in Cairo at the Egyptian revolution, I have had to translate my point of view from the street to the news stream. But I can’t help being informed by what I saw in the streets of Cairo and in Tahrir Square. It’s a parallel world out here, with mainstream media coverage of Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman as the U.S. approved man for the transition to democracy. Clearly an amazingly versatile politician, Suleiman -- Egypt’s chief torturer and leading advocate of autocracy -- has morphed into a bridge builder to the opposition. It must be time and distance that lets the press and the White House seriously propose this with a straight face. It certainly isn’t flying in Tahrir Square where the pro-democracy forces are adamant they will stay until Mubarak leaves. One chant was, “We won’t go until you go.”

The U.S. government never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The fastest and surest course to the “stability” that the U.S. seeks in the Middle East is political reform. But, when the opportunity arises to shuck an aging, repressive, kleptocracy in favor of a popular democracy, the worried looks and frowns come out. The backroom meetings begin. As Hilary Clinton famously said in an interview with Al Arabiya “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family.” Indeed? Well, Hilary, we know it’s awfully hard to kick a friend of the family out into the cold. Maybe that’s why Mubarak’s own lawyer, Frank Wisner, was chosen as the U.S. envoy to “negotiate” with him.

And so our government has continued to do what it does so well --- deal only with the people it knows best, propping them up when they stumble over their own scheming greed. The people it knows best are the ones who created whatever problem/crisis is currently being faced. This is what brought us Goldman Sachs to manage the bailout of the financial system. It’s what brought us Halliburton to manage the occupation of Iraq. And now it brings us Omar Suleiman to manage the Egyptian governance crisis. It is a sclerotic approach that has attached the US to failed regimes over and over again.

The US blessed “transition” government in Egypt is trying to find ways to transition back to autocratic rule as fast as possible. This means continued arrests of activists, continued deployment of threatening thugs, meaningless stalling negotiations with the opposition, and efforts to isolate the pro-democracy forces of civil society in Tahrir Square. It’s a tactic that might work in the short run for the Mubarak kleptocrats. The disruption caused by the protests is a burden on all -- but least bearable for the middle and working class who live from paycheck to paycheck. Having had no political life for the last 30 years, Egyptians are not particularly politically sophisticated, and the state controlled media is working hard to create divisions.

But where will that leave Egyptian society? Just as in the occupation of Iraq, the US is a pursuing a policy that is likely to result in wiping out secular civil society. The only opposition that is organized to survive an onslaught by the secret police is the Muslim Brotherhood -- the bete noire of Obama and Clinton.

Everything I saw in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Cairo during the days of protest was concentrated in a passionate desire for freedom of expression and a desire for democratic, accountable government. And almost every single person I talked to believed this was what America stood for. “We just want the same rights you have,” was a frequent refrain. Almost no one was interested in a religious government. This may have been the least radical revolution we have witnessed. The protesters are simply asking for their human rights. If it doesn’t succeed, it will carry a lesson for everyone in the Middle East.

The US government’s willingness to back the Mubarak regime and its failure to recognize their legitimate demands has been baffling to the protesters. But the same players and the same foreign policy have kept the US standing shoulder to shoulder with oppressive regimes around the world. Just in the last twelve months -- Iraq, Honduras, Haiti -- every time the US has backed the kleptocrats against the democrats.

It’s way too early to give up on the possibility the protesters will prevail. Their support is so broad-based, their demands so legitimate, and their commitment to a grassroots movement so strong that they may succeed without outside pressure in pushing Mubarak out. The Egyptian revolution may proudly be able to say that it won on its own.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Brief History of the Cairo Protests

I am embarrassed that it has been impossible for me to post stories about The Gaza Freedom March while I was in Cairo. My own limited access to the internet, the constant harassment by the Egyptian police which hampered our ability to communicate with each other and to meet, and the need for repeated street demonstrations and other organizing efforts all soaked up huge amounts of time. I have copied below an excellent article that summarizes almost all the events of the Gaza Freedom March, and added a few annotations in brackets and italic, e.g. [annotation].

This was an historical event. 1,360 people convening from 43 countries to demand justice for Palestinians. Repeated street demonstrations targeting all the responsible state actors. Ongoing negotiations with government officials, US, French, and Egyptian that documented who is responsible for maintaining the siege of Gaza. I do not think there has been a global movement like this seeking justice for a single people since the international volunteer brigades that went to Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

We aim to maintain our global connections and work together to win justice for Palestine. To that end, many of the participants signed on to The Cairo Declaration, proposed by the South African delegation. You can read about that in the article below and it will be posted on this blog.

By Sharat G. Lin

04 January, 2010

“Life is resistance.” French delegation of over 300 camping out in front of the French Embassy in Cairo behind a solid wall of Egyptian central police in riot gear.

Cairo: The international delegation of the Gaza Freedom March had originally planned to arrive in Gaza on 29 December 2009 to join a march against the Israeli blockade together with residents of Gaza on 31 December. Instead, most of its delegates remained in Cairo, having been blocked from going to the Rafah border by the Egyptian government, and found itself marching against the Egyptian blockade on Gaza instead.

The Gaza Freedom March sought to highlight the plight of the 1.5 million residents of Gaza on the first anniversary of the Israeli invasion of the densely-populated Palestinian territory by entering Gaza with humanitarian aid for water purification, school materials, medicines, and other much needed supplies. After Israel tightened its blockade on Gaza after the election of a Hamas majority in the elections of January 2006, Egypt has refused to give open permission for foreign citizens to enter Gaza through Rafah until the last minute. Organizers of the Gaza Freedom March had been hopeful of obtaining permission, but were disappointed when Egypt closed the Rafah border in December 2009 under intense pressure from Israel.

The French ambassador to Egypt, Jean Félix-Paganon, told members of the French delegation of the Gaza Freedom March that the Egyptian government was preparing to grant permission for the March to proceed to Gaza until the deal was rejected by Israel. With 1,360 delegates from 43 countries converging on Cairo, Egypt revoked the permit to hold a large meeting in Cairo and the permits for buses to take them to the Rafah border via El-Arish.[The Egyptian Foreign Ministry informally told the Gaza Freedom March organizers that no meetings of the Gaza Freedom March would be permitted -- that any effort to obtain meeting space would be blocked because no "permits" would be granted for a meeting of more than six people. The GFM organizers responded to this by holding meetings in public squares, and by creating a system of delegates to meet with as many as 150 people crammed into a hotel restaurant designed to seat 40.]

Protesting the Egyptian Blockade

In response, the Gaza Freedom March launched protests in the streets of Cairo on 27 December 2009. The day began with a silent action, tying letter cards expressing solidarity to the people of Gaza to the railings of the Qasr el-Nil Bridge. Many Egyptian passersby stopped to add their own messages of friendship to the people of Gaza and Palestine. When police finally broke up the vigil, they ripped the cards off, leaving only the strings by which they were attached.

In the late afternoon, a plan to sail in dozens of feluccas (traditional Nile sailboats) was aborted by police, who closed off an entire section of the Corniche el-Nil where the feluccas are docked. The purpose of going onto the Nile River was to float 1,400 candles in biodegradable cups in memory of the Palestinians who died in the Israel assault one year ago. Gaza Freedom March delegates held their candlelight vigil anyway along the busy Corniche el-Nil street.

The more than 300-strong French delegation had gathered in front of the French Embassy in Giza, expecting to board buses for El-Arish. When the buses failed to arrive because their permits had been pulled, the delegates in a courageous act of defiance sat down in the busy four northbound lanes of Murad Street and set up tents. Hundreds of riot police from the Central Security Force were mobilized to enclose the protesters and move them onto the footpath in front of the French Embassy. Not knowing what the police would ultimately do, there was a great deal of fear at the beginning of the action. At one point the security force cordon increased to three layers. However, the French ambassador was apparently supportive, discouraging Egyptian authorities from using force and pressing for permits to travel to Gaza. Towards the end, the security cordon was relaxed, allowing anyone to freely enter and exit the encampment. The encampment lasted continuously for four days.

French delegate, Amar Aknouche, said he decided to join the Gaza Freedom March because of the injustice in Palestine. He noted, “Israel is the only ‘democracy’ which goes and kills children and erects an apartheid wall. I came here to express my solidarity with Gaza.”

Other large delegations – U.S., Canadian, British, Italian, etc. -- approached their own embassies to appeal for support in pressuring the Egyptian government to open the Gaza border. The U.S. and Canadian embassies were particularly unhelpful because their governments had taken an official position of not dealing with Gaza because they classify Hamas as a “terrorist” organization. An additional special delegation went to the offices of the Arab League to seek its intervention. [The US embassy appears to have violated US law by refusing entry to US citizens seeking assistance from the consulate. Instead, Egyptian riot police were called, penned in the more than 100 people seeking the assistance of their government, and used some physical force against them. It is particularly shameful behavior for the US government to refuse to aid its own citizens in favor of the demands of a foreign country (both Israel and Egypt).]

Non-violent Civil Disobedience

Meanwhile, other Gaza Freedom March participants defied the lack of permits to travel to Al-Arish. Thirty arrived successfully and checked into a hotel, after which they were placed under house arrest. After diplomatic negotiations, they were allowed out of the hotel, but blocked from going to the Rafah border. Over several days another fifty delegates boarded commercial buses at different times in Cairo and successfully passed through the multiple checkpoints outside of Cairo and along the highway from Bur Sa’id to Al-Arish. However, they were all halted at the bus stand in Al-Arish or at the final checkpoint before entering Al-Arish. Police forced all foreign travellers, including those holding Palestinian passports, back towards Cairo under police escort at least up to the Suez Canal. Eight Europeans refused to go back, choosing instead to camp out at a checkpoint. A subsequent directive of the Ministry of Interior blocked all non-Egyptians from travelling east of the Suez Canal.

On 28 December, while negotiations continued with the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for permits to enter Gaza, a new avenue was opened through the United Nations office in Cairo. A negotiating team led by Philippine parliament member Walden Bello met with U.N. officials, but to no avail. Bello confided, “I know it's a bit difficult right now with the situation here, but I don't think they will be able to keep us away from there [Gaza] forever.”

The negotiating team was supported by nearly a thousand delegates rallying in front of the World Trade Center Cairo where the U.N. office is located. The scene was abuzz for hours with chants of “We want to go to Gaza,” “Free Gaza,” “We shall overcome,” and many more. There was music led by guitarists and an accordion player. Meanwhile, organizing meetings in the various national delegations were constantly going on in the background.

Eighty-five-year-old Holocaust survivor, Hedy Epstein, used the occasion to announce her hunger strike to demand passage to Gaza. She explained, “I have come to a point in my life in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, especially the Gaza issue, where I think I need to do something else because what I have done so far has not really caught the attention of my own government or the governments of the world who are silent on this issue. And so I've decided to go on a hunger strike.” She was quickly joined by others.

As at the French Embassy, the rally was visually contained by a solid wall of black-uniformed members of the Egyptian Central Security Force. But the wall could not hide the banners, Palestinian flags, and chants that flew high above the security cordon. The young recruits frequently expressed sympathy and smiles with the delegates. One symbolically crossed his wrists, signalling that his hands were tied. The Central Security Force recruits carried no arms, and have not done so ever since a 1987 mutiny. However, police (some of whom are armed) did filter the crowd and remove three Egyptian nationals. They also removed one Palestinian American woman, punched her in the face, and then released her. Twelve international delegates remained camped at the World Trade Center overnight.

Many Egyptian passersby and people in buses and cars also signalled their sympathy by waving to the delegates, for the Gaza Freedom March was exercising a limited freedom of assembly and speech accorded to internationals that would not be permitted among Egyptians.

On 29 December, the Syndicate of Journalists invited the Gaza Freedom March to join their members at their trade union headquarters for a rally for Gaza that lasted into the evening. Some Palestinian and Egyptian speakers moved beyond lifting the blockade on Gaza to chanting “down with Hosni Mubarak” and calling for “revolution.” The combined voices of Egyptians and internationals sent a powerful message of unity and solidarity on Palestine and opposition to the Egyptian government’s role in upholding the blockade on Gaza.

Divisive Breakthrough

Code Pink organizer, Jodie Evans, used her personal contact with Suzanne Mubarak, wife of President Hosni Mubarak, and chairwoman of the Egyptian Red Crescent (ERC), to appeal for permission for the Gaza Freedom March to carry its humanitarian aid into Gaza. The response from Mrs. Mubarak’s office was positive with instructions to “help in any way possible.” After reviewing the details of the request, by the next day Mrs. Mubarak secured permission for 100 delegates and two buses to cross into Gaza on 30 December morning. Code Pink organizers were given only two hours to come up with a list of names.

The initial acceptance of the offer proved to be tactically divisive for both the Gaza Freedom March and for the Egyptian government. After raging internal arguments and Palestinian calls for “all or none,” the Gaza Freedom March belatedly, but wisely, decided to decline the offer and allow only Palestinians with family in Gaza, key media personnel such as a Telesur team, and a handful of individuals to deliver humanitarian aid to board the buses. [Most of the Gaza Freedom Marchers listed to go to Gaza got off the buses and declined to go once they learned that our Palestinian partners in Gaza felt the Egyptians offer to permit only a humanitarian delegation through should be declined.] Meanwhile, Mrs. Mubarak’s intervention reportedly enraged Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abu al-Gheit for having undermined his ministry’s monopoly over political decision-making on the Gaza border crossing. He, in turn, tried to drive a wedge through the Gaza Freedom March by praising those selected (falsely as if by the government) to go to Gaza as “good and sincere,” while denouncing those remaining in Cairo as “hooligans” “acting against Egyptian interests.” Fortunately, that divide-and-rule tactic only served to unify delegates.

Free Gaza Square

On the day of the actual Gaza Freedom March from both sides of the wall (Gaza and Israel) to the Erez Crossing, 31 December 2009, delegates in Cairo planned to symbolically “march to Gaza” by walking peacefully in the streets of downtown Cairo. But because of the official ban on public political demonstrations, organizers adopted the tactic of initiating the march with “flash mob” and “swarm of bees” techniques. It worked for only about twenty minutes before the “swarm” became trapped between the traffic and hundreds of police.

In the ensuing melee, a solid wall of Central Security Forcers first began pushing demonstrators away from trapped buses, with officers attempting to ram the human wall from behind. Once the buses were cleared out of the way, police (not Central Security Forces) began grabbing delegates and throwing them onto the footpath. Some officers used fists to hit delegates, including several women. Two reported that their headscarves were ripped off. Seven delegates were reportedly injured. One American man had blood on his face that required treatment at the medical station set up by march organizers. He had been clubbed with a two-way radio by a plainclothes police officer. [After this incident, in which the Egyptian police beat old and young (a child of only 12 and at least one women in her 70s were injured), the US embassy appears to have told the Egyptian police they were not to club demonstrators. However, later demonstrations continued to be met with substantial physical force -- ex-clubs.]

Once confined to a 500-square-metre area of footpath, Gaza Freedom March delegates erected banners and Palestinian flags, and proclaimed the site “Free Gaza Square.” Within its confines they spoke about the political accomplishments of the week, and the unfinished tasks ahead. Challenged by the lack of democratic rights in Egypt, delegates were more determined than ever to break the siege of Gaza and challenge their governments’ acquiescence to the blockade.

Ali Abunimah, a founder of Electronic Intifada, observed, “Gaza is harder to visit than a prison. They are turning back all the buses. It is too bad we didn’t get into Gaza. But the most important thing is that Al-Jazeera has carried it [Gaza Freedom March protests in Cairo] throughout the Arab world.”

Another participant observed, “One positive development is that we raised more media attention about the plight of Gaza by demonstrating in the streets of Cairo that we would have by marching in Gaza” due to the comparative lack of media access to Gaza.

Late in the evening, hundreds of Gaza Freedom March delegates gathered once again in the open plaza in front of El-Mogamma, the monolithic state office building that houses the public entry point into much of the central government bureaucracy, to hold a candlelight vigil to celebrate the new year. They held candles and arranged more candles on the pavement to create the luminous word “Gaza” within a circle. People spontaneous began passing out sweets. The novelty of this action was immensely popular with Egyptian passersby who joined in the hundreds, swelling the crowd. Then plainclothes police moved in to filter out and sweep away all Egyptian nationals. Even simple collective celebration of the new year is a “luxury” not available to Egyptians. A double-row contingent of the Central Security Force also moved in, until senior commanders were told to back off, removing the contingent to a distant corner of the plaza. The state itself held no official new year festivity, as if fearing its own future.

The Cairo Declaration

In the new year, the Gaza Freedom March concluded with three important events. First, it convened an ad hoc convention to ratify the “Cairo Declaration” jammed into a small hotel restaurant. In a move spearheaded by the South African delegation, an international working committee drafted a document putting forth a globally-unified plan of action for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israeli apartheid and “to compel Israel to comply with international law.” With the concurrence of civil society representatives in Gaza and the West Bank, the document reaffirms commitments to “(1) Palestinian self-determination, (2) ending the occupation, (3) equal rights for all within historic Palestine, and (4) the full right of return for Palestinian refugees.” The historic document includes 128 initial signatories from 16 countries.

Second, the Gaza Freedom March hunger strikers held a press conference at the Syndicate of Journalists to conclude the official hunger strike, although a few vowed to continue their hunger strikes until they returned to their home cities. Over the course of the hunger strike, the number of participants had swollen to 27. Hedy Epstein said that she felt “strengthened” by her actions seeking justice for the people of Gaza.

There was the usual Central Security Force cordon. But it was plainclothes police that disconnected and took down the al-Jazeera video camera and escorted the cameraman away from the scene. In previous incidents during the Gaza Freedom March, three Egyptian journalists had been arrested for photographing demonstrations, and one was arrested in the midst of interviewing a Gaza Freedom March delegate. One Egyptian photojournalist asked me to send a photograph, saying that, “I would be arrested for taking photographs of the demonstrations. Egypt is no democracy.”

Third, a flash mob demonstration was organized in the afternoon in front of the high-rise building housing the Israeli Embassy. Demonstrators rapidly appeared from the south side of the traffic circle between the University Bridge and the Giza Zoo. For at least ten minutes, demonstrators swarmed throughout the crossroads and the end of the bridge before Central Security Force personnel in riot gear arrived to move them onto a narrow strip on the south side of the bridge opposite the Israeli Embassy. While there was little police intimidation inside the security cordon, aggressive harassment by plainclothes police outside the cordon was particularly severe. One French cameraman was physically threatened on the University Bridge even as he was walking away from the demonstration and showing his French passport.

Shortcomings and Accomplishments

Mass media coverage of the Gaza Freedom March in Cairo had reached around the world, even though many major western media networks refused give more than cursory attention. In Egypt, the events received front-page coverage in opposition newspapers like Al-Wafd, Al-Sharouq, al-Dastur, and the independent Al-Masri al-Youm and Daily News Egypt. But newspapers like the semi-official Al-Ahram, and government-owned Al-Akhbar and Al-Gumhuriya ignored the events as if they did not exist. Yet even the pro-government Egyptian Gazette could not avoid publishing a front-page photo of the demonstration at the Israeli Embassy. While avoiding day-to-day coverage, Al-Arabi and Al-Karama end up splashing headline photos of Gaza Freedom March activities in their weekend editions.

Except for the Syndicate of Journalists, the relative absence of Egyptian participation and solidarity with the Gaza Freedom March could have been interpreted by delegates as the result of either severe political repression or political indifference. But anti-government Egyptian activists pointed out that Gaza Freedom March organizers failed to reach out to them and establish coordination. In fact, Egyptian labour unions, students, and organizations of civil society have a long history of struggle in the streets of Cairo and other towns for democratic rights in the face of the overwhelming force of the state apparatus. Nevertheless, six full days of political demonstrations in Cairo by a large group of visiting internationals is without historical precedent.

The struggles in Cairo and the new construction of a steel wall deep into the earth at the Rafah border also highlight the fact that the Egyptian government has been bought by U.S. aid following the Camp David Accord of 1978, in this instance to help enforce the Israeli blockade.

Delegates of the Gaza Freedom March were defeated in their desire to travel to Gaza, but, as a result of the struggles in the streets and embassies of Cairo, they were more determined than ever that the blockade of Gaza by both Israel and Egypt must be lifted. Bitur Nabi Tammam of Bahrain saw the bright side, “Even if they don't allow us to cross, I think it has accomplished the purpose that from all over the world you see people left their families, left their homes, to come here to say 'freedom for Gaza,' 'freedom for Palestine,' 'open the gates!'”

Sharat G. Lin is president of the San José Peace and Justice Center and writes on global political economy, the Middle East, South Asia, and labour migration. He wrote this report from Cairo.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Kafka's Characters are Back in Charge

I am beginning this trip under what should only be described as surreal circumstances. We spent weeks meeting with officials from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, answering all their document and information requests. Of course, they provided no real indication to us of whether or not we would be allowed to enter Gaza. The Foreign Ministry appears to be mainly a public interface and document processor for the secret police.

The secret police, who so kindly paid me a visit the last time I was in Al Arish, are a combination of domestic control and foreign relations arm. For example, the chief, Omar Suleiman, has been brokering efforts to get a prisoner exchange concluded between Israel and Hamas.

In any case, rather abruptly last week, the Egyptian foreign ministry told us that, due to “security concerns” resulting from tension at the border, the Rafah border would be closed until sometime after January. We asked people around the world to call their local Egyptian embassy to ask the government to permit the Gaza Freedom Marchers to enter Gaza. Thousands of phone calls tied up the switchboards. We know one consular officer alone received 1,500 emails.

We then were told that the Viva Palestina convoy, a 500 person group bringing large amounts of vitally needed humanitarian aid to Gaza overland, would be allowed to enter Gaza as they had planned, on Dec. 27. So much for “security concerns.” Great, we said, but what about us? Well, said the Foreign Ministry, they are bringing humanitarian aid. So are we, we said. No answer….

However, when Viva Palestina arrived at Aqaba, Jordan, a new obstacle was invented for them. The normal route from Aqaba to Egypt is to take the ferry to the port of Nuweiba. However, the Egyptian government refused to allow the convoy on the Nuweiba ferry. Viva Palestina was given the three choices of returning to a Syrian port and taking a ferry to the port of Al Arish, taking a ship around the entire Sinai peninsula and through the Suez Canal to Al Arish, or asking Israel to permit the humanitarian aid to go through the Israeli crossings. Of course, all three “alternatives” are impossibilities. First, the port of Al Arish does not have the capacity to receive freight. Second, Israel blocks almost all humanitarian aid from transiting its crossings. That’s why the Viva Palestina convoy is necessary. Third, the cost and time involved in any of these alternatives is prohibitive. Probably the key condition was that the convoy must get Israeli permission. An interesting admission of who is in charge.

By the way, this decision about Viva Palestina was communicated to us by Egyptian officials as “Viva Palestina will not be allowed into Gaza.” In the same meeting we were told the secret police’s position had “hardened”, that we would be denied entry to Gaza, that the permit for our orientation meeting in Cairo was cancelled, and that any protests or demonstrations in Cairo would be met with force. It’s difficult to say exactly what the Egyptian secret police definition of “demonstration” is.

The final twist in this bizarre story of siege is that the Palestinian news agency Maan published a story that the Rafah border would be open in both directions from Dec. 29 through Jan. 1. We have no confirmation of this from Egypt.

So will we get to Gaza? An experienced American embassy official told me earlier this year that it is almost impossible to figure out what is going on inside the Egyptian bureaucracy. In this case, I will hazard a guess. Egypt has been using a carrot and stick approach with Hamas for some time to achieve a prisoner exchange agreement that would free Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. It seems likely that Hamas has now agreed to the exile of some 100 or more of those prisoners upon their release. In exchange, a four day border opening. However, as usual, Israel has a new demand to put forward in exchange for every concession. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is supposed to visit Cairo on Dec. 29, is saying an exchange is not imminent. He has also said that the release of Shalit will not end the siege, even though that was the ostensible reason for imposing it. So there may not be a four day border opening.

Even if the border is opened, my guess is that Egypt will continue to block our entry to Gaza. A non-violent protest organized by civil society simply does not fit the scenario design of the US and Israel. They much prefer to frame the conflict in terms of Hamas vs. Fatah, Palestinian violence vs. Israeli self-defense. If the US does not value the non-violent activism of civil society, it will not tell Egypt to let us in.

Words are cheap. President Obama, in his Cairo speech, promised a different approach to US relations to the Muslim world, and cited the non-violent activism of the civil rights movement as a model. In practice, however, the US has been mum as Israel has cracked down on non-violent resistance in the West Bank thru midnight raids, detentions, and torture. I would expect more silence as non-violent resistance in Gaza is deprived of crucial solidarity with international activists.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Back to Gaza at Year End

At the end of the year I will be going back to Gaza, this time accompanied by 1300+ people from 42 countries around the world who are coming to protest the Israeli siege. A nonviolent march to the Israeli border is planned with the 1300 internationals to be joined by an expected 50,000 Palestinians. What is this woman doing, you may ask? How many times does she have to go to Gaza?

In return, I would ask, How long will our government continue to countenance and assist in the imprisonment and suffocation of 1.5 million civilians? The siege of Gaza has not been eased, civilians continue to be killed (farmers working in their fields near the borders, fishermen trying to pull some food out of the sea, and people in the smuggling tunnels struggling to bring cooking gas, food, and other of life's necessities into Gaza). Now, as you can see from the article quoted below, babies are being born half dead from their mothers' exposure to contaminated water.

Please wish me a safe journey, pass this story on to everyone you know, and ask your Congressional representatives why they are appropriating money to help Egypt build an 18 meter deep subterranean "fence" at the border to insure the success of Israel's siege. I'll be writing about what I learn.

“Who will save Gaza's children? Never mind Copenhagen, an environmental catastrophe is going on right now – contaminated water is poisoning babies in Gaza,” Victoria Britain, The Guardian, 12/9/09


Excerpt: In Gaza there is now no uncontaminated water; of the 40,000 or so newborn babies, at least half are at immediate risk of nitrate poisoning – incidence of "blue baby syndrome", methaemoglobinaemia, is exceptionally high; an unprecedented number of people have been exposed to nitrate poisoning over 10 years; in some places the nitrate content in water is 300 times World Health Organisation standards; the agricultural economy is dying from the contamination and salinated water; the underground aquifer is stressed to the point of collapse; and sewage and waste water flows into public spaces and the aquifer.

The blockade of Gaza has gone on for nearly four years, and the vital water and sanitation infrastructure went past creaking to virtual collapse during the three-week assault on the territory almost a year ago.

What would it take to start the two UN sewerage repair projects approved by Israel; a UN water and sanitation project, not yet approved; and two more UN internal sewage networks, not yet approved? Right now just one corner of the blockade could be lifted for these building materials and equipment to enter Gaza, to let water works begin and to give infant lives a chance. Just one telephone call from the Israeli defence ministry could do it – an early Christmas present to the UN staff on the ground who have been ready to act for months and have grown desperate on this front, as on so many others.

Earlier this year, just one question face to face to the Israeli government, from Senator John Kerry after he visited Gaza, allowed pasta into Gaza. Who from Europe or the US will ask the Israeli defence minister the face-to-face question for the blue babies? Sarah Brown, the British prime minister's wife, would be the perfect candidate – an independent person who has the ear of the powerful, a mother who knows something about grief for babies. And she could be accompanied by Lord Mandelson in case there was any bullying.

The science on all this is unchallenged. Last September a UN report spelled it out in stark detail, including the regional implications for Israel and Egypt if the shared aquifer is not "rested" and alternative water sources found. The United Nations Environment Programme estimated that $1.5bn could be needed over 20 years to restore the aquifer, including the establishment of desalination plants to take the pressure off the underground water supplies.

Gaza's huge pale sandy beaches used to be society's playground and reassurance of happiness and normality, with families picnicking, horses exercising, fishermen mending their nets, children swimming and boys exercising in the early morning, but these days they are mainly empty, and not just because it is winter. Between 50m and 60m litres of untreated sewage have flowed into the Mediterranean every day this year since the end of the Israeli invasion in January, the sea smells bad and few fish are available in the three nautical mile area Palestinians are allowed in. This resource seems as ruined as the rubble of Gaza's parliament and ministries.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Yet Another Outrageous Congressional Pander to AIPAC

Please call your Congressional representatives now and tell them to vote against H.RES. 867 that directs the President to do whatever is necessary to deep-six Judge Goldstone's UN report documenting the war crimes committed in Gaza. Congress expects to pass this "bi-partisan" legislation by Halloween. (How appropriate!).

The entire bill is here below, for your education and amazement.


Calling on the President and the Secretary of State to oppose unequivocally
any endorsement or further consideration of the ‘‘Report of the United
Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict’’ in multilateral

OCTOBER 23, 2009
Ms. ROS-LEHTINEN (for herself, Mr. BERMAN, Mr. BURTON of Indiana, and
Mr. ACKERMAN) submitted the following resolution; which was referred
to the Committee on Foreign Affairs

Calling on the President and the Secretary of State to oppose
unequivocally any endorsement or further consideration
of the ‘‘Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission
on the Gaza Conflict’’ in multilateral fora.
Whereas, on January 12, 2009, the United Nations Human
Rights Council passed Resolution A/HRC/S–9/L.1, which
authorized a ‘‘fact-finding mission’’ regarding Israel’s
conduct of Operation Cast Lead against violent militants
in the Gaza Strip between December 27, 2008, and January
18, 2009;
Whereas the resolution pre-judged the outcome of its investigation,
by one-sidedly mandating the ‘‘fact-finding mission’’
to ‘‘investigate all violations of international human
rights law and International Humanitarian Law by . . .
Israel, against the Palestinian people . . . particularly in
the occupied Gaza Strip, due to the current aggression’’;
Whereas the mandate of the ‘‘fact-finding mission’’ makes no
mention of the relentless rocket and mortar attacks,
which numbered in the thousands and spanned a period
of eight years, by Hamas and other violent militant
groups in Gaza against civilian targets in Israel, that necessitated
Israel’s defensive measures;
Whereas the ‘‘fact-finding mission’’ included a member who,
before joining the mission, had already declared Israel
guilty of committing atrocities in Operation Cast Lead by
signing a public letter on January 11, 2009, published in
the Sunday Times, that called Israel’s actions ‘‘war
Whereas the mission’s flawed and biased mandate gave serious
concern to many United Nations Human Rights
Council Member States which refused to support it, including
Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cameroon, Canada,
France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, the Republic
of Korea, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland, Ukraine,
and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern
Whereas the mission’s flawed and biased mandate troubled
many distinguished individuals who refused invitations to
head the mission;
Whereas, on September 15, 2009, the ‘‘United Nations Fact
Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict’’ released its report;

Whereas the report repeatedly made sweeping and unsubstantiated
determinations that the Israeli military had deliberately
attacked civilians during Operation Cast Lead;
Whereas the authors of the report, in the body of the report
itself, admit that ‘‘we did not deal with the issues . . .
regarding the problems of conducting military operations
in civilian areas and second-guessing decisions made by
soldiers and their commanding officers ‘in the fog of
war.’ ’’;
Whereas in the October 16th edition of the Jewish Daily Forward,
Richard Goldstone, the head of the ‘‘United Nations
Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict’’, is
quoted as saying, with respect to the mission’s evidencecollection
methods, ‘‘If this was a court of law, there
would have been nothing proven.’’;
Whereas the report, in effect, denied the State of Israel the
right to self-defense, and never noted the fact that Israel
had the right to defend its citizens from the repeated violent
attacks committed against civilian targets in southern
Israel by Hamas and other Foreign Terrorist Organizations
operating from Gaza;
Whereas the report largely ignored the culpability of the Government
of Iran and the Government of Syria, both of
whom sponsor Hamas and other Foreign Terrorist Organizations;
Whereas the report usually considered public statements
made by Israeli officials not to be credible, while frequently
giving uncritical credence to statements taken
from what it called the ‘‘Gaza authorities’’, i.e. the Gaza
leadership of Hamas;

Whereas, notwithstanding a great body of evidence that
Hamas and other violent Islamist groups committed war
crimes by using civilians and civilian institutions, such as
mosques, schools, and hospitals, as shields, the report repeatedly
downplayed or cast doubt upon that claim;
Whereas in one notable instance, the report stated that it did
not consider the admission of a Hamas official that
Hamas often ‘‘created a human shield of women, children,
the elderly and the mujahideen, against [the Israeli
military]’’ specifically to ‘‘constitute evidence that Hamas
forced Palestinian civilians to shield military objectives
against attack.’’;
Whereas Hamas was able to significantly shape the findings
of the investigation mission’s report by selecting and
prescreening some of the witnesses and intimidating others,
as the report acknowledges when it notes that ‘‘those
interviewed in Gaza appeared reluctant to speak about
the presence of or conduct of hostilities by the Palestinian
armed groups . . . from a fear of reprisals’’;
Whereas even though Israel is a vibrant democracy with a
vigorous and free press, the report of the ‘‘fact-finding
mission’’ erroneously asserts that ‘‘actions of the Israeli
government . . . have contributed significantly to a political
climate in which dissent with the government and its
actions . . . is not tolerated’’;
Whereas the report recommended that the United Nations
Human Rights Council endorse its recommendations, implement
them, review their implementation, and refer the
report to the United Nations Security Council, the Prosecutor
of the International Criminal Court, and the
United Nations General Assembly for further action;

Whereas the report recommended that the United Nations
Security Council—
(1) require the Government of Israel to launch further
investigations of its conduct during Operation Cast
Lead and report back to the Security Council within six
(2) simultaneously appoint an ‘‘independent committee
of experts’’ to monitor and report on any domestic
legal or other proceedings undertaken by the Government
of Israel within that six-month period; and
(3) refer the case to the Prosecutor of the International
Criminal Court after that six-month period;
Whereas the report recommended that the United Nations
General Assembly consider further action on the report
and establish an escrow fund, to be funded entirely by
the State of Israel, to ‘‘pay adequate compensation to
Palestinians who have suffered loss and damage’’ during
Operation Cast Lead;
Whereas the report ignored the issue of compensation to
Israelis who have been killed or wounded, or suffered
other loss and damage, as a result of years of past and
continuing rocket and mortar attacks by Hamas and
other violent militant groups in Gaza against civilian targets
in southern Israel;
Whereas the report recommended ‘‘that States Parties to the
Geneva Conventions of 1949 start criminal investigations
[of Operation Cast Lead] in national courts, using universal
jurisdiction’’ and that ‘‘following investigation, alleged
perpetrators should be arrested and prosecuted’’;
Whereas the concept of ‘‘universal jurisdiction’’ has frequently
been used in attempts to detain, charge, and
prosecute Israeli and United States officials and former
officials in connection with unfounded allegations of war
crimes and has often unfairly impeded the travel of those
Whereas the State of Israel, like many other free democracies,
has an independent judicial system with a robust
investigatory capacity and has already launched numerous
investigations, many of which remain ongoing, of Operation
Cast Lead and individual incidents therein;
Whereas Libya and others have indicated that they intend to
further pursue consideration of the report and implementation
of its recommendations by the United Nations Security
Council, the United Nations General Assembly, the
United Nations Human Rights Council, and other multilateral
Whereas the President instructed the United States Mission
to the United Nations and other international organizations
in Geneva to vote against resolution A–HRC–S–12–
1, which endorsed the report and condemned Israel, at
the special session of the Human Rights Council held on
October 15–16, 2009;
Whereas, on September 30, 2009, Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton described the mandate for the report as ‘‘onesided’’;
Whereas, on September 17, 2009, Ambassador Susan Rice,
United States Permanent Representative to the United
Nations, expressed the United States’ ‘‘very serious concern
with the mandate’’ and noted that the United States
views the mandate ‘‘as unbalanced, one-sided and basically
Whereas the ‘‘Report of the United Nations Fact Finding
Mission on the Gaza Conflict’’ reflects the longstanding,
historic bias at the United Nations against the democratic,
Jewish State of Israel;
Whereas the ‘‘Report of the United Nations Fact Finding
Mission on the Gaza Conflict’’ is being exploited by
Israel’s enemies to excuse the actions of violent militant
groups and their state sponsors, and to justify isolation
of and punitive measures against the democratic, Jewish
State of Israel;
Whereas, on October 16, 2009, the United Nations Human
Rights Council voted 25–6 (with 11 states abstaining and
5 not voting) to adopt resolution A–HRC–S–12–1, which
endorsed the ‘‘Report of the United Nations Fact Finding
Mission on the Gaza Conflict’’ and condemned Israel,
without mentioning Hamas, other such violent militant
groups, or their state sponsors; and
Whereas efforts to delegitimize the democratic State of Israel
and deny it the right to defend its citizens and its existence
can be used to delegitimize other democracies and
deny them the same right: Now, therefore, be it
1 Resolved, That the House of Representatives—
2 (1) considers the ‘‘Report of the United Nations
3 Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict’’ to be
4 irredeemably biased and unworthy of further consid5
eration or legitimacy;
6 (2) supports the Administration’s efforts to
7 combat anti-Israel bias at the United Nations, its
8 characterization of the ‘‘Report of the United Na9
tions Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict’’ as
1 ‘‘unbalanced, one-sided and basically unacceptable’’,
2 and its opposition to the resolution on the report;
3 (3) calls on the President and the Secretary of
4 State to continue to strongly and unequivocally op5
pose any endorsement of the ‘‘Report of the United
6 Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict’’
7 in multilateral fora;
8 (4) calls on the President and the Secretary of
9 State to strongly and unequivocally oppose any fur10
ther consideration of the ‘‘Report of the United Na11
tions Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict’’
12 and any other measures stemming from this report
13 in multilateral fora; and
14 (5) reaffirms its support for the democratic,
15 Jewish State of Israel, for Israel’s security and right
16 to self-defense, and, specifically, for Israel’s right to
17 defend its citizens from violent militant groups and
18 their state sponsors.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Green Survival Strategies and the Brownfield Consequences of Military Attacks

A meeting with the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees, an umbrella group for grassroots farmers’ organizations, and centers for women and children, gave us some insight into the survival strategies of Palestinians under siege. Many of these involve green strategies like water conservation, community gardens, eating local. [As much as I admire the ingenuity, and appreciate the green strategies, I certainly would prefer to see them adopted voluntarily and not under the duress of a siege.]

PARC includes 15 local organizations and hundreds of volunteers. It works on the rehabilitation of agricultural land, on microfinance, on water and environmental protection, and on capacity building and advocacy.

The need to rehabilitate agricultural land is pressing. Years of occupation and armed incursion have destroyed much of Gaza’s arable land. In the most recent invasion, the Israeli army almost completely destroyed the agricultural land east of Rafah. Not only were the irrigation pipelines destroyed, as happens everywhere the Israeli army invades with land forces, but tanks and bulldozers were used to plow up substantial swaths of land – destroying the soil, animal herds were slaughtered and wells were destroyed.

In addition, the Israeli settlements, which were evacuated and destroyed in 2005, plundered the agricultural land. The acquifers were drained and became saline. The soil was exhausted by intensive farming. Of the 60,000 dunams occupied by Israeli settlements only 20,000-25,000 are now cultivatable. These are farmed with 4,000 greenhouses, and use intensive agricultural techniques. This has increased the number of greenhouses in Gaza by about 1/3.

PARC’s larger rehabilitation programs were disrupted by the invasion, but it continues to rehabilitate house gardens – helping families add drip irrigation and compost to improve the productivity of the land around their homes. It encourages the purchase of locally grown products – giving some of the 80% of Gazans who are unemployed a source of income, and distributes excess production free to displaced families. PARC microfinance projects focus in part on food processing.

Of course, the blockade has prevented the importation of seeds. Farmers are now producing their own seeds.

Israeli policies have also affected the water supply. Gaza depends on rainfall and the run off from the heights of Hebron to provide water and fill its acquifers. Israel has built reservoirs to capture the run off from the heights of Hebron before it reaches Gazan acquifers. PARC has projects to capture and reuse gray water and to increase the collection of rainwater.

The War on Gaza Isn’t Over – The Fishermen

Gaza’s fishing fleet has hundreds of boats.. The blockade has whittled it down to hundreds, but most of those boats are beached or remain at anchor in the harbor. Maritime law dictates a minimum legal boundary of 12 miles offshore for every country. The Oslo agreements, signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, gave Gazan fishermen the right to fish up to 20 miles from shore. By 2000, Israel, as part of was attacking fishermen who ventured beyond a 6 mile limit. More recently, as part of the response to Hamas' election, Israel announced a 3 mile limit. This, in itself, is enough to crush the fishing industry. Much of the fishing industry depends on migrations of fish that are at least 6 miles offshore. So, for example, between March and May, the height of the fishing season, is when huge schools of sardines pass offshore. The sardine catch within the 3 mile limit is less than 30% of what the fishing fleet would take if it could fish within Gaza’s internationally recognized 12 mile limit. In addition, the high price of diesel fuel – which must come in through the tunnels – makes fishing marginally economic. Nonetheless, the fishermen have not entirely given up their trade. They must pay for their boats and feed their families. Each day, a few fishing boats go out to try to fish. In mid May there was a demonstration of 25 boats, demanding their right to fish.

Here is what they meet. Israel has six gunboats patrolling the 25 mile Gaza coastline. According to the both the head of the fishermen’s union and to a fishing boat captain, Hassan, with whom we talked at length, fishing boats are targeted with both water cannons and live ammunition. Since 2000 15 fishermen have been killed and more than 200 wounded. Since the Israeli attack on Gaza, attacks on unarmed fishermen have been stepped up.

Even more common is piracy. The Israelis abduct the fishermen and steal their boats. The Israeli Supreme Court has ruled these boat thefts illegal. In November, the court ordered the release of two impounded boats, and the release of imprisoned fishermen and internationals. Despite this, in March, 16 fishermen were abducted and boats were impounded. In one case, fishermen were abducted leaving a child alone in a boat at sea. In another, two children were abducted. Typically, the Israelis attack the boat, force the fishermen to strip and to jump into the sea to swim to the gunboat. Then they are handcuffed and blindfolded. If the boats are returned after being impounded, typically they are heavily damaged, with the engines removed. If the fishermen refuse to follow the orders of the Israeli Navy pirates, their boat may be rammed. In one case, the side of a trawler was ripped off. In the case of the Free Gaza movement boat Dignity, the boat was rammed and damaged so badly it had to be evacuated. Since 2005, six fishermen have been killed, 30 injured, and over 300 abducted.

The Israeli Navy is not attacking to enforce its arbitrarily declared 3 mile limit. All the actions described above have taken place inside the 3 mile limit. In one case, a fishermen was kidnapped only 50 meters from the beach. The Israelis also fire on the beach and at swimmers. We heard that someone was killed on the beach not long after we left.

For a good look at what life is like for fishermen in Gaza, see Fishing under Fire at www.vivagaza.org. It is almost incomprehensible to me that any nation’s army can be given orders to fire at unarmed civilians pursuing their normal occupations. It is even more incomprehensible that this is not news. I cannot find any mention in searches of the press of the pirate acts of the Israeli Navy.