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.