Entering Gaza: an interview with Viva Palestina activist

Dan Winters in Cairo standing near one of the trucks of the Gaza-bound Viva Palestina convoy packed with medicines. (Photo courtesy of Dan¬†Winters)

On 15 July, a humanitarian convoy organized by Viva Palestina entered the Gaza Strip via Egypt with medical supplies and blankets. The convoy of 200 included British MP George Galloway, former US representative and Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney, New York City Council member Charles Barron, award-wining filmmaker Travis Wilkerson and anti-war veteran Michael Prysner. The convoy was the second organized by Galloway and Ron Kovic, a Vietnam veteran and prominent antiwar activist. A third convoy is planned for December 2009.

Among those in the July convoy was Boulder resident Dan Winters, a 72-year-old retired computer scientist who has been on several humanitarian missions to war-torn countries. The Electronic Intifada contributor Ida Audeh interviewed him about how his latest mission fits into his long history of activism.

Ida Audeh: The Boulder, Colorado Daily Camera had a very nice article about you before you left, in which it stated that you’d been on nine humanitarian missions to various war-torn countries.

Dan Winters: I was fortunate to come to this country as a young child and have benefited from the many privileges I received. In return I feel that I can give some of my time to work on peace and justice issues especially in areas where I feel my country is wrong.

My family came to this country in 1939; they fled Italy because of Nazism and the war. I grew up in the Bronx as the only Catholic kid in a mostly Jewish neighborhood. There was a high level of consciousness on human rights and civil rights in our neighborhood. The first act I remember doing was in 1957. I was in the army when the Little Rock, Arkansas integration efforts were going on, and I heard that President Eisenhower nationalized the guard and brought in the 101st Airborne. I wrote to him from Korea in support of what he had done. So I guess my activism goes back to 1957.

IA: Could you talk about some of the places you’ve been to?

DW: In 1991 I went to Iraq with what was called the Gulf Peace Team. We were there on 15 January 1991, which was the deadline date given by President George Bush for Iraq to pull out of Kuwait. We were supposed to fly out on the morning of 17 January, but at 2:30am the war started, and the airport was hit. The Iraqis took us to the al-Rashid Hotel to stay in their bomb shelter. We were very moved that the women and children there made room for us in the shelter while our planes were killing their people. We finally got out of Iraq after two weeks. The second time I went to Iraq was with Ramsey Clark in 2001. Two of us on that delegation later tried to take donations to the occupied [Palestinian] territories, but at the Allenby Bridge [the land border crossing between Jordan and the West Bank], the Israeli customs people confiscated the money. In 2003, I spent all of January and part of February [in Iraq] with Voices in the Wilderness, Kathy Kelly’s group.

I was in Bosnia in 1993 during the Bosnian war and again in 1995 with a grant from George Soros to bring back professors from Mostar. Fortunately, the war was just almost ending at that time. And we did bring some professors back. I went to East Timor in 1999 as a UN elections observer. I was in Lebanon in 2006; I had collected money in Colorado and took it to a prosthetics plant in Sidon.

IA: Why did you decide to go on the Viva Palestina trip?

DW: I had wanted to go to Gaza two years ago, when I heard about the Free Gaza Movement boats, but the timing never worked out. When I heard of the Viva Palestina convoy being led by George Galloway, who I admire tremendously, I saw my opportunity. We raised about $16,000 in Colorado for that trip. I wanted to take money, be a witness, and come back and speak or write about what I saw.

I arrived in Cairo on 9 July. It took us roughly a week to get into Gaza. We had bought 50 vehicles, including two ambulances, in Alexandria, and they were waiting there to get the OK to meet us and go on into Gaza. We paid $500,000 for the vehicles and bought about $400,000 worth of medicine. One day, the Egyptian authorities said we couldn’t bring the trucks in and we couldn’t go. Finally, they said we could take two ambulances and we could go, but not for three days as we were scheduled, but only for one day.

IA: Did they ever give you any reasons?

DW: No, they kept changing things without giving reasons. In general, we felt that the Egyptian authorities were making things difficult because they didn’t want any more convoys. The first one Galloway took sailed through very quickly; we think it is because he took the authorities by surprise. Our convoy took nine days to get through, and the time we could stay kept getting shortened.

We headed for Rafah twice. The first time we took off in four or five mini-buses and a couple of pick-up trucks filled with medicine. And we got to … the Freedom Bridge [to cross the Suez Canal], and the authorities wouldn’t let us through; we didn’t have the right paperwork. They kept us there 12 to 14 hours. At first, they wouldn’t even let us get off the buses. Then they let us get off the buses, and we could go to the bathroom with a guard. The guy in charge ordered the drivers to take us back to Cairo. And so we surrounded the buses and refused to do that. The police came up and told each one of us to get on the bus, and each of us said no. That went on for a few hours. And then eventually they brought out the ministry police. We discussed whether to have a sit-in, and we decided that doing so might preclude the possibility of getting the trucks in. So we got back in the bus and went back. By the time we got back to the hotel, it was roughly 20 hours since we left.

We stayed a couple more days and had discussions about what should we do with the trucks. Galloway was still negotiating. Then he told us, the Egyptian authorities told him we could bring the trucks in through the Israeli side but not through their side. At one point, they said that they needed permission from Israel to allow us to take the vehicles to Gaza. We discussed our options. Most people felt that the Israelis would not let them through, or that even if they gave the OK, they would renege on it and would keep the trucks once they got there. I argued for taking the medicine in to the people that needed it rather than focus on the vehicles.

The next day, we left at 10am. This time we sailed through the Suez Canal. No problem at all. Got to Rafah on the Egyptian side, and it wasn’t too bad, but they dragged the process.

IA: Did the US Embassy offer any assistance?

DW: The Egyptian authorities had told us we needed a form from the US Embassy. The form says, Gaza is dangerous, we advise you not to go, and don’t expect consular services in Gaza. To get this form that says that we are on our own, they charged us $30 each. So they made about $5,000 for about five hours of work. When I returned, I complained to my congressman about this, and his chief of staff is going to check with the State Department. Incidentally, no one even asked for that document again.

IA: What did you see in Gaza?

DW: We had a very short tour by bus to see the damage. As we progressed north, the damage got heavier and heavier; that was where the Israeli military had physically entered, as opposed to bombing and firing rockets from helicopter gunships and F-16 fighter planes. The industrial areas were pulverized. Unless someone told you that buildings had been there, you would not be able to tell, that’s how badly they were hit. In Gaza, the Israelis crippled any industrial capability, and they destroyed the American School. It was startling to see block after block of obliteration.

Our last stop was at al-Shifa, the main hospital. We brought all our medical equipment there. And we had 15 suitcases filled with blankets. I took with me a 50-pound suitcase full of medicine, donated by people in Boulder. The whole courtyard was just packed with people and reporters. There were buildings on three sides of the courtyard and open on to the street. I saw bullet marks on the upper part of the hospital, big pock marks. So I asked, and it turned out [that] an Israeli helicopter gunship had come into this plaza, hovered there, and just raked the three buildings with bullets.

IA: The hospital was clearly labeled, wasn’t it?

DW: Yes. From what we were told, and it would seem reasonable, there were no anti-aircraft guns there, there weren’t any in all of Gaza. They were brutal in shooting at people and at houses.

We met with people who were actively working to release Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Israel has about 10,000 Palestinian prisoners; some have been there for up to 20 years. So people are waiting for their relatives to be released.

At 7pm we rounded up all the people who planned on leaving, got on the buses, and headed back for Cairo.

IA: Did you feel you were meeting a defeated people?

DW: No, I didn’t get that impression at all. Of course, I saw mainly people involved with NGOs [non-governmental organizations]. I spoke to some of the Palestinians who came back with us, and I got the feeling that people in Gaza were resolute about staying in Gaza. Some want to leave, of course, the ones with relatives elsewhere, but the majority are going to just keep on keeping on.

IA: What are the images from your journey that stay with you?

DW: On our way to Gaza, we got to the checkpoint on the Egyptian side and found dozens of people waiting, holding up children in the air, asking us to let them on the buses so they could go with us. Some had waited there the whole week, just waiting for the gates to open and not knowing whether they would or not. When the gates opened and our buses were getting ready to go, this mob of people ran to the gate. So the Egyptian authorities closed that gate again, opened up another gate, and had more security, more guards, more people to keep the Palestinians from crossing over into Gaza. There was one man holding up a three-year-old girl asking to get on the bus. We knew if we did, they wouldn’t let us through. We felt really bad about that.

The family reunions at Rafah were very emotional for us to witness, too. And then all the people waving goodbye when we were on the bus and ready to leave. They were glad they got to see us for a few hours, but sad that we were leaving, and you could tell they were trying to put a good face on it even though they were sad.

IA: You talked about the lack of cooperation of Egyptian bureaucrats, but how did ordinary Egyptians treat you?

DW: There was a man who sat behind me on the plane to Cairo, and when he saw my [Gaza solidarity] pin and learned why I was flying to Cairo, he asked me how he could help. At customs, he paid the $20 for my entry visa and then put me in a cab to my hotel, and he refused to let me pay for any of this. Whenever an Egyptian saw my pin or my Viva Palestina T-shirt, he asked me about it and was 100 percent supportive. Some convoy people said they went to a restaurant and when the owner learned about the mission, he would not let them pay for the meal. Even a plainclothes police officer gave me a high five when we returned to the hotel after successfully entering Gaza.

IA: All of us who in the US who are trying to do something about the situation in Palestine always face the question, why should Americans care? How would you respond to that question if someone asked you that?

DW: There are a number of reasons they should care. Our tax dollars help pay for the jets that bomb Gaza and the helicopter gunships that do this. So there is a personal reason. Then there is the purely humanitarian reason: people need help, and if you are capable and can help and can go, that’s fine. I’ve always believed that there is no hierarchy of activism; in other words, going there is no better than calling your Senator and demanding that he or she take action. But you should do something. I get a little short with some who, when they were in college were too busy studying to do anything, and when they graduated they were too busy starting a new job to do anything, and then they were too busy because they started a family, and then too busy because they had to take the kids to soccer practice or further their careers. And now they are 40 or 50 and have never done anything. I always like Mother Theresa’s statement that people aren’t required to succeed, but they are required to try.

Ida Audeh is a Palestinian from the West Bank who lives in Boulder, Colorado. She can be reached at idaaudeh A T yahoo D O T com.

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