Friday, March 6, 2009
Arrival in El Arish
After a six hour ride thru Sinai, we arrived at El Arish, just a few miles from Rafah and the border. There are a number of checkpoints between Cairo and El Arish – I think because the area near the border is considered a military zone, and Egyptians who don’t live there require a permit to go there. At the first checkpoint, there was a major confab between our assigned Egyptian security agent and the checkpoint police. It turned out that, because there is a contingent of internationals, including 10 Americans, camped out at the Rafah border demanding entrance to Gaza, they were afraid we were going directly to the border to support them. We explained to them we were going to El Arish. They demanded particulars – like the names of the hotels we were staying in – but eventually were satisfied that we would not skip directly to the Rafah border. (I have no idea why that was the big issue for them, rather than that we definitely planned to go to the border the next day).
We crossed the Suez canal, filled with large container ships, and drove on to Sinai. The Sinai is almost all erg desert – looking just like the movies. Along the highway, there are small villages, and some oases, but we saw very few people and very little activity. The villages mostly seemed linked to natural gas producing facilities. We entertained ourselves on the bus with Egyptian music and a little, very amateur belly dancing -- in which we were joined by our Egyptian security agent once the cameras were turned off.
El Arish is a seaside resort town that, in addition to tourism, used to be supported by trade with Gaza. Since the siege began 18 months ago, the local economy has really suffered.
It is amazing, when you think of yourself as one of a small, hardy band of peace activists, to discover yourselves celebrities. Everyone in El Arish seemed to know about us. My first clue was when I walked out of the hotel, and an older women stopped me with a question in Arabic. I don’t know what she asked, but she included the word Gaza in her question. I wasn’t sure I heard properly, but then we passed a barber shop with a sticker saying “Long live Gaza.” As we walked by, the barber came out to greet us. Then we stopped to shop in a Bedouin store, and, when we told the woman there we were going to Gaza, she said, “Of course, I know that.”
The delegation went to dinner at a Bedouin restaurant, and then retired to an outdoor tent room for tea. There we were greeted by El Arish reporters and notables who were there for a political discussion. They asked plenty of hard questions.
I cannot convey how angry Egyptians, at least in Sinai, are about the Gaza war and the U.S. role in supplying weapons and giving Israel the green light to attack. Their ability to protest is sharply limited by their own government, but there is no mistaking their anger. Their first question was – did you come with humanitarian aid or do you respect the political rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, i.e., why don’t you respect the free and democratic election of Hamas?
The next question was -- Are you like the U.S. government and the European Union that furnish Israel with weapons, and then offer humanitarian aid to rebuild what has been destroyed? The subtext was, "we are not beggars. We need our political rights more than anything else."
The third question was – what is wrong with your press? Why does it not report what is going on here? It is hard for an American, coming from the land of freedom and democracy, to explain why our press is not free, why reporters cannot do their jobs. The best we could was say there can be a substantial difference between the stories a reporter reports and what gets published in the newspapers. But we also said that the reporting of individuals, through blogs and personal accounts makes it increasingly difficult for the mainstream media to completely ignore stories.
I think Cindy Corrie won everyone's heart when she said that we are going to Gaza to witness what is happening there, and to use that information to change our government’s policy. It was clear everyone there had immense respect for the Corrie's loss of their daughter and their ongoing commitment to Palestinian self-determination.
The conversation moved further to the need to open the borders, to respect the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, and to end the occupation.
When we got back on the bus we were joined by two journalists who told us they had been at the border, and that fifty internationals had succeeded in crossing – including 10 Americans who had camped at the border until allowed across! (Thanks to all who called the State Department and U.S. embassy in Egypt demanding they be let through).
Posted by Felice Gelman at 4:35 PM