Saturday, May 08, 2010
“Innocents Abroad” Trek from San Diego to Gaza
Break the Blockade, Bring In Supplies Despite Egyptian Opposition
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTO, L to R: Larry Hampshire, Faith Attaguile, Hany El-Saldany
They called themselves “innocents abroad” when Larry Hampshire, Faith Attaguile and Hany El-Saldany of the Free Palestine Movement (www.freepalestinemovement.org) spoke at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest Thursday, May 6. When they joined an international caravan of over 100 people almost literally on the spur of the moment — “Faith said, ‘I’m going to Gaza, would you like to come?’” Hampshire recalled — and set out last December on their trip, they really didn’t know what they were getting into. They’d see enormous public support not only in the Arab countries they went to but throughout Europe as well — British Member of Parliament George Galloway was the prime mover in organizing the caravan — and they’d also see horrific opposition, mostly coming from the government of Egypt.
That’s right: Egypt. In case you’re wondering why the Arab world’s most populous country — and the only nation on earth besides Israel that has a land border with Gaza — would be doing the bidding of Israel in helping blockade Gaza and starve it into submission, Hampshire, Attaguile and El-Saldany would reply with the classic words of the Watergate informant “Deep Throat”: “Follow the money.” It’s well known that Israel is the largest single recipient of American foreign aid; it’s less well known that the second largest recipient is Egypt. But that aid comes with a price, Hampshire said; Egypt gets it only “as they’re nice to Israel.” Not only has Egypt fully cooperated with Israel in blockading Gaza, they’re extending the long-standing wall on the Egypt-Gaza border 20 feet down to stop the Gazans from digging tunnels with which to smuggle badly needed goods.
“We had many roadblocks, mostly from the Egyptian government, including a police riot,” Attaguile recalled. Noting the broad-based support of the effort, she said, “There were a lot of different religions represented, including Muslims, Jews — including three Orthodox rabbis — and humanists. Many of the vehicles from the U.K. were paid for by donations from communities like Manchester, Bristol and Cambridge. I drove an ambulance from London to Istanbul, Turkey, where most of the Americans joined. In 10 days we went through 11 European countries, then traveled across Greece to Turkey. According to Attaguile, the support they’d received in Europe was nothing compared to the reception that greeted them at the Turkish border. “Two hundred people were waiting with flags and hugs,” she said.
Hampshire explained that their convoy was the third in a series of efforts to get vehicles and supplies to Gaza. The first was a convoy George Galloway organized right after Israel’s massive attack on Gaza. The second took place in July 2009 and the third, the one they went on, started in December and — mostly because of delays caused by the Egyptian government — didn’t get to Gaza until January. Hampshire said “the convoy in July tried to get 55 trucks in. The Egyptian government said O.K. — and then confiscated them. A Turkish group was allowed to ship the trucks out of Egypt, but the Egyptian government lied and the trucks never did come.”
“As we were moving along, we were received as heroes,” El-Saldany said. “People did receptions in the streets, bands were doing music for us and there was a lot of food. In Turkey we were joined by seven vehicles and 200 volunteers, including members of the Turkish parliament.” They reported they also got a more tangible source of support from the Turkish government: they were given access to a sports arena and allowed to sleep there, in sleeping bags, on the floor — a much better accommodation than the leaky tents they’d had to use at rest stops during much of the European leg of the trip.
Thanks to the Egyptian government’s opposition — or, rather, their bizarre and unpredictable alternation between grudging tolerance and outright opposition — the caravan had to take a circuitous route from Turkey through Syria to Jordan, then back to Syria, then on a plane to Egypt and only then into Gaza — and even then their actual crossing had to wait a week and they were only allowed to remain in Gaza for a day and a half. “In Syria and Jordan we stayed in hotels some nights,” El-Saldany recalled. “In Syria we had lots of press coverage. Faith was interviewed with the governor of Hamman [a Syrian province].”
Things were harder for the group in Jordan. “When we arrived in Amman, the police started a roadblock and tried to change our route,” El-Saldany said. “So we blocked the freeway for three hours. We kept going until we reached Aqaba, Jordan, where we were supposed to cross the Red Sea into Sinai. But the Egyptian government stopped us for five days and insisted we ask for Israeli permission to enter Gaza” — which they knew the Israelis would never give. The Egyptians imposed two other conditions on the group: that they turn over all their vehicles and supplies to the United Nations instead of giving them directly to Gazans (which they didn’t want to do because Israel confiscates most aid given to the U.N. on behalf of Gaza) and that they backtrack 120 miles back to Syria and then fly into Al-Ansh, Egypt on the Egypt-Gaza border.
“By now we were adept at demonstrating and protesting,” Attaguile recalled. “We had a protest in Aqaba and the people were so supportive the police had to block the intersection. We had a fantastic experience at the Shveiki Hotel.”
“We had the support of the governments of Syria and Jordan, but most of all we had the support of the people,” Hampshire recalled. “When we left Istanbul and got into a town at 3 a.m. people were standing in the rain, waiting to greet us.”
Hampshire also mentioned the fantastic experience at the Shveiki Hotel. Tired of the al fresco accommodations — when they first went to Aqaba they were put up in a mosque — “I said to Faith, ‘Let’s get a hotel.’ The visitors’ center said there was a whole street of hotels and gave us directions. We went to the first one and said, ‘We need a room for three or four days.’ The desk clerk said, ‘Are you with the convoy?,’ and gave us five rooms that could each hold four people — at no cost. Then other people wanted to come in and we agreed we’d all chip in for extra rooms, and the hotel manager said, ‘You’ve got more people. Go and look at the rooms.’ The manager said he’d talked to the owner, and the owner, who looked like Boris Karloff in a robe, said, ‘We’ll take as many people as you have, for as long as you need, for free.’”
According to Hampshire, the hotel owner apologized to the group for having to put them up on such short notice he couldn’t give them a proper meal that night, but he said, “Tomorrow I shall have a feast for you prepared by the fingers of my very own wife” — an Arab proverb meaning a meal made with extra-special loving care. “People were always coming up to us expressing their support for what we were doing,” Hampshire said. “It was really amazing and moving. … People would come up very often and say, ‘You’re very brave to do this.’ I’d say, ‘The really brave ones are the ones in Gaza. We’d have 7 to 10 kids talking to each other and they came up and gave us two pieces of hard candy covered with nice, tasty lint. They gave 100 percent of what they had.”
“We stayed in the refugee camps [for Palestinian families whose ancestors were displaced from their lands by the formation of Israel in 1948] with 7,000 people, and they were so forthcoming they would give us coffee for free, shake our hands and wish us well.”
El-Saldany said that the convoy had started on December 6 but didn’t get to leave Aqaba until December 29 — largely due to roadblocks from the Egyptian government. “They said they would let us in if we went back through Syria,” he explained.
“In Latakia [the Syrian city from which they were to fly to Egypt], we met up with the 47 vehicles the Egyptian government had impounded from the previous caravan in July, and they released them and they were loaded by the Turkish charity IHH,” said Attaguile. “The plane was chartered by the Syrian government. If they hadn’t, a lot of us wouldn’t have been able to make it because some of us were running out of money. We got into Al-Ansh and the Egyptian government threw up a blockade and confiscated our passports. So we demonstrated for eight hours until they got sick of us and gave them back.”
Attaguile explained that Al-Ansh is “a beautiful port” but it can be turned into a virtual prison at a moment’s notice; it’s surrounded on three sides by walls and there’s an iron gate the authorities can close any time to lock people inside. While the convoy members were being held there, she said, “the Egyptian government decided they wouldn’t let us bring in 59 vehicles unless we went through Israel. At 2 p.m. the Egyptian negotiators walked out, and we were stuck there with no food and water. Larry and I and 10 other people got authentication to go into town and eat. The negotiations had broken down, and 200 riot police and 200 plainclothes police with sticks came in with a water cannon. Three trucks came in loaded with large rocks and dumped them in piles behind everything. They brought in seven holding vans. People were very upset and started peacefully demonstrating on the other side of the gate. The police attacked.”
“We went to dinner and then sat at a sidewalk restaurant while there was a riot going on,” Hampshire recalled. “We got two cabs and hit the back end of this big commotion. We couldn’t see the rocks and we were immediately surrounded by plainclothes police with blackjacks and clubs. Faith, a 16-year-old, a 20-year-old woman and I locked arms, so when they grabbed me we pulled back.” Hampshire said the police attacked with rocks — some of which members of their group threw back at them — as well as the water cannon and a “dust machine” the cops were also using. “They pushed us in 100 yards,” Hampshire recalled. “We were in an alcove and the rocks stopped, and George Galloway and three people from our side came out. Four people from their side came out and the four of us slipped out.”
“About 40 people were injured by the rocks, and they weren’t prepared to be attacked,” Attaguile said. “The next day, negotiations began again. The Turkish prime minister and some members of the Turkish parliament were involved, and they still didn’t allow the 47 trucks from July to go into Gaza — but they said we could donate them to refugee camps in Syria. Seven of our people were arrested. We still had 150 vehicles, and the Egyptian authorities insisted on checking out each one for five minutes” — which meant the process took well over an hour. Ironically, Attaguile said, “we felt like we were leaving prison in Egypt and being free in Gaza.”
Hampshire stressed how crowded and small Gaza is; its 1.5 million people are crammed into a land mass one-twenty-ninth the size of San Diego County. “When we got to Gaza, the streets were lined with people,” Attaguile recalled. “They had flowers and were cheering us. The joy washed over us and the people hadn’t had their spirits broken in the least” — despite incessant bombing raids from Israel, which were going on while the group was there. “We had won,” Attaguile boasted. “We had broken the siege of Gaza and done what we set out to do. But we found a lot of devastation.”
The devastation, the group members explained, came not only from the Israeli’s continual bombing raids on the civilian population of Gaza but also from their blockade, which keeps the Gazans from getting wood, cement, rebar or anything else that would allow them to rebuild the homes and other buildings the Israeli bombs destroy. “The U.N. has seven large building projects in Gaza and they can’t get supplies in,” Hampshire said. “They can’t clear the wreckage because there’s nothing with which to rebuild.” Hampshire said that while they were there the Israelis targeted a graduation ceremony for the Gaza Police Academy, killing 98 people and showing the Gazans “that they live at the Israelis’ pleasure.” Ironically, one reason Israel gives for continuing the bombing and blockade of Gaza is that they’re allegedly unable to maintain security.
“When we were getting the vehicles ready, we heard three big explosions,” Attaguile said. “Two people were killed in the 36 hours we were in Gaza. We had to leave early because the Egyptian government was making trouble. One young man said that on January 15, 2009 he had awakened to the sounds of explosions. The Israeli F-16’s [an American plane, supplied to Israel as part of U.S. foreign aid — our tax dollars at work] were bombing again and had completely destroyed a house, killing 11 people, including his six-month-old baby sister. One boy died at his computer, and another was helping his mother in the kitchen. He said, ‘We will continue to challenge the occupation. They will not steal our joy or our freedom.’”
“I never had so much fun or laughed so much,” Hampshire said. “The people were just so great — the people on the convoy and the people we met — and we did break the siege. When we left, seven of our people were arrested at the Egyptian border, and we demonstrated against the Egyptians and Israelis until they were released.” Hampshire said that the IHH, the Turkish charity who helped the convoy, is sponsoring a fleet of large boats to get supplies into Gaza by its one border besides Israel and Egypt: the Mediterranean Sea. A previous attempt to do that with one boat from Greece in the summer of 2009 ended when the Israelis rammed the boat and confiscated it — but the IHH is hoping that they can do with an entire fleet what the Greeks weren’t able to do with one boat, and land steel, cement and other building materials to give the Gazans a fighting chance to rebuild what the Israelis have destroyed.
The audience questions and comments after the presentation ranged widely, from people asking why the event organizers hadn’t invited pro-Israel speakers as well to debate on both sides of whether a separate Palestinian state alongside Israel is either politically or economically feasible. Hampshire said that Hamas, the political party which won the 2006 elections in Gaza — a victory which sparked the current crisis after the U.S. and Israel refused to accept their win because they have a military arm which the U.S. and Israel consider a terrorist organization — would, contrary to popular belief in this country, agree to accept Israel’s existence. He cited a remarkable article by the head of Hamas’ political bureau, Khalid Mish’al, published January 31 in the British newspaper The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/jan/31/comment.israelandthepalestinians) and also in the Los Angeles Times (a rare crack in the usually solid pro-Israel, pro-Zionist line of the U.S. corporate media).
Mish’al’s piece suggested that Hamas would never recognize the “right” of Israel to exist — since that would mean accepting the “justice” of Israel driving the Palestinians off their land in the 1947-48 conflict — but might accept the fact of Israel’s existence and negotiate on that basis. “We shall never recognize the right of any power to rob us of our land and deny us our national rights,” Mish’al wrote. “We shall never recognize the legitimacy of a Zionist state created on our soil in order to atone for somebody else’s sins or solve somebody else’s problem. But if you are willing to accept the principle of a long-term truce, we are prepared to negotiate the terms. Hamas is extending a hand of peace to those who are truly interested in a peace based on justice.”
Local activist Nasser al-Barghouti said he and his group, Al-Awda — which promotes the right of the Palestinians to return to their homelands, even if they lie within the United Nations-recognized pre-1967 borders of Israel — made it clear that under no circumstances will he support the creation of a separate Palestinian state alongside a Zionist Israel which still defines itself as a “Jewish state.” “People who support the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish nation are saying they support an ethno-religious state,” al-Barghouti said. “In this country, we support equal rights for everybody regardless of race or religion. Why do we accept that Israeli Jews, because of the tragedy of the Holocaust, should be separated from the Palestinians?”
Al-Barghouti argued that Palestine is one country, not two, and should be treated as such. “If you look at the land, it is impossible to build a Palestinian state,” he explained. “There are 450,000 Israeli settlers on the West Bank, and they’re armed. Trying to get rid of them would start a civil war in Israel. There are also the five million Palestinian refugees who were driven out of Israel. Ethnic cleansing was involved in the creation of Israel. Hany came from Jaffa and I come from Ramallah, and we’re being told to forget our common heritage. Wouldn’t it be better to have a multi-ethnic, multi-racial state in Palestine like we have in the U.S. or Canada? Is what happened to the former Yugoslavia a good example for Palestine? Don’t get stuck with what the politicians are thinking.”
“We lived as Palestinians, not Christians or Jews or Muslims, until 1948,” said Nasser — a different one, who identified himself as from Nablus. “My father had a friend who was a rabbi. The idea that ‘these people have been fighting over this land for thousands of years’ is a myth.”
Other questions centered around the recent report by Judge Richard Goldstone, a South African Jew and Zionist who was commissioned by the U.N. to study Israel’s 2009 attack on Gaza and determine if either side committed war crimes. Goldstone’s report, issued on September 15, 2009, said they both did, but he devoted far more space to Israel’s — and for that Israel’s advocates attacked not only the report but Goldstone personally. “From what I saw and read, the Goldstone report was right-on,” Attaguile said. “The U.S. Congress voted not to accept the Goldstone report and President Obama called it ‘flawed,’ but no one has ever picked out what’s supposedly wrong with it.” Attaguile said the U.S. is partly to blame for Israel’s abuses because “as long as we give money and aid to Israel, they’re going to use it to take people’s land.”
“Gaza is a prison,” said al-Barghouti. “The people have nowhere else to go, so they have no way to flee when the Israelis attack. Goldstone said the Israeli army intentionally punished civilians to bring down the Hamas government and destroy infrastructure, including a school built by Americans. The former Israeli foreign minister wouldn’t allow her plane to land in Britain because she feared arrest for war crimes by the British government. Here’s a Zionist Jewish judge charging Israel with war crimes. That’s why it’s so crucial that the report. The U.S. government is killing it — with the complicity of the Palestinian Authority,” which is dominated by Hamas’s arch-rival, the U.S.- and Israel-favored Fatah party.
One of the last remarks at the meeting came from Jim Brown of the San Diego chapter of Veterans for Peace. “I know Faith has been interested in issues all her life, but going to Gaza?” Brown said. “This is better than any book you could read or TV show you could watch. War is usually forced upon us. Today I bear witness for it.” Brown recalled that in the war he actually fought, the Viet Nam war, “we unleashed overwhelming force against a country that didn’t have an army, and they got rid of us and straightened their country out. Overwhelming force creates an imbalance in an area. Israel was also a country formed as a result of a war, and it’s been festering ever since. I think it’s going to end horribly, but people like Larry, Faith and Hany bear witness and give us both sides of what’s going on. Far more people are dying of the aftermath than of the bombs.”
Hampshire, ironic to the end, noted what he called “two really bright spots in this.” The first one was that the U.S.’s staunch support of Israel has left us diplomatically isolated in the world community. He noted that every time there’s a United Nations vote on Israel and Palestine, the General Assembly overwhelmingly votes for the Palestinians and only the U.S., and maybe one or more of the South Pacific Islander countries that are nominally independent but really under U.S. control, votes with Israel. The second bright spot, he said, is that “the U.S. is going broke. We’re fighting wars we’re not taxing to pay for, and we’re going to go the way of all empires.”
Tanja Winter, organizer of the Peace and Democracy Action Group that presented the program on the convoy — and has been doing presentations on peace and justice issues since it was formed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001 — added a stark personal note at the end of the meeting. “I’m Jewish, and my father died in the Holocaust,” she said. “But I don’t think this issue is about Jews or Arabs. It’s about justice.”