I should have known that my trip to al-Arish was not going to be straightforward. The last time I set foot in the usually sleepy Sinai tourist town, just 40 kilometers away from the Egypt-Gaza border (or, should I say, iron wall of oppression) at Rafah was back in March 2009, when I met up with the first Viva Palestina convoy.
Launched by UK Member of Parliament George Galloway a demonstration during Israel’s assault and massacre on the Gaza Strip a year ago, Viva Palestina was a call to all those who felt that their words were not enough, and wanted to take direct action to break the siege. The first convoy was an unprecedented success, opening borders that had been closed for more than 15 years (as in the case of Morocco-Algeria) and taking over #1 million worth of aid to Palestinians in Gaza.
Ten months later, another convoy was on its way to the besieged Strip. With the chaos in Cairo when the Gaza Freedom March was denied entry to Gaza, my first challenge was even getting to the Sinai, as all foreigners had been barred from entering by the Egyptian authorities. An Egyptian woman I had been staying with helped me escape the prying eyes of the undercover state security in a Cairo bus station, and four checkpoints later (the first of which saw the removal of all other foreigners from the bus) I was in al-Arish.
Unfortunately, the convoy encountered major obstacles upon its arrival at the al-Arish airport. The Egyptian authorities were determined to split the convoy, with attempts including a suspicious “emergency landing” in Damascus for one of the flights. The first group of participants to arrive were given exit stamps in their passports and ordered to leave for Gaza immediately without the rest of their comrades, which was met with a sit-down protest by the group and the subsequent canceling of all exit stamps and the returning of passports. They were allowed to book into hotels until the rest of the convoy arrived, but the delays meant that they would not make it to the sea port, where myself and the vehicles loaded with aid were now waiting for them, until the next day.
The Egyptian police at the port didn’t seem too pleased by my presence. As the head of security kindly informed me the moment I arrived, there was no way, even once they did arrive from the airport, that I would be able to join the convoy inside the port area where all the vehicles were being held.
I spent a sleepless night in a small office just outside the gates of the port, talking to an Egyptian student named Ahmad who worked night shifts “to pay for cigarettes.” He shared my distress over the Egyptian government’s role in the siege of Gaza, although he said a lot of Egyptians felt powerless to speak out in the face of such an oppressive state. He said that people in al-Arish, despite the negative economic consequences, were generally happy when the Gazans made a brief breach of the wall in January 2008. At the time, every shop in Arish had sold out of everything it had, and prices skyrocketed. However, as Ahmad explained, if anything, the real negative consequences were caused by the subsequent decision of the Egyptian government to halt all supplies to the Sinai. He told me that most local residents understood going without for a few days, when Palestinians in Gaza just a few miles away face the same situation every day of their lives.
The next morning, members of the Viva Palestina convoy began to arrive, and were gradually allowed into the port area to be reunited with their vehicles. But without a stamp from al-Arish airport, it seemed as if my journey was coming to an end. I sat on a stone step outside the port gates all day, desperately wishing I was with my brothers and sisters inside, who were by now busy waving Palestinians flags, blaring ambulance sirens and chanting in support of the Palestinian people.
It was late afternoon when I saw the head of security walking away from the gate. Seizing the opportunity, I casually strolled up to the guards, explaining that I was actually a member of the convoy and that I was just waiting for a friend of mine. Seconds later, a passerby willingly became the aforementioned “best friend” of mine, and I was inside.
It wasn’t long before the trouble started. Word started to spread that the Egyptian government was trying to ban 59 of our humanitarian aid vehicles from entering Gaza, and an impromptu demonstration quickly made its way to the building where negotiations between convoy organizers and the Egyptian government were taking place.
But in true Viva Palestina direct action style, people soon moved on to the entrance of the port, and ripped one of the huge gates from its hinges. Only a few meters in front of us, thousands of Egyptian riot police, who had clearly been waiting nearby, surrounded the area where the vehicles were being kept. Fearing an invasion, members of the convoy were organized into three rows, standing arm-in-arm, just in front of the gates.
A standoff ensued, and tensions were rising. Our brothers prayed and recited from the Quran, our sisters defiantly sat down in front of the police lines, and some offered the cops — young, poor guys from the town who clearly didn’t want to be there — chocolates, but they didn’t accept. But when we saw them removing the barriers that they had previously erected in front of themselves, we were back in formation and ready to defend our vehicles full of medicine intended for a strangled, starving population.
I was standing at the far left of the front row of people. Over to the right, I saw a scuffle between police and members of the convoy quickly escalating. Within seconds, hundreds of riot police were charging at us, screaming and beating us with batons. I felt batons laying into my left side. Seven members of the convoy were arrested, and were held for 15 hours without food, water or access to a toilet. From behind the lines of riot police emerged hundreds of undercover police who threw sand in my eyes and sprayed pepper spray into the eyes of others. The moment they had forced us back inside the gates, undercover police quickly moved onto huge piles of rocks and bricks that they had prepared in advance and began hurling them at us through and over the gate. I dove under a nearby lorry for protection, as hundreds of their bricks rained down from the sky, and members of the convoy bravely fought back with stones of their own. Many suffered serious head injuries, literally giving their blood for the cause.
Later in the evening, things had calmed down, and the political negotiations continued. The next day, after further hours of delay, every member of the convoy travelled to Rafah, and crossed the border into the Gaza Strip. The 59 vehicles that had originally been banned were still forbidden from entering Gaza, but we had exposed the complicity and active involvement of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship in the oppression of the Palestinian people in Gaza.
Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, this article originally identified George Galloway as Minister of Parliament. The article has been updated to reflect his correct title of Member of Parliament.
Jody McIntyre is a journalist from the United Kingdom. Jody has cerebral palsy, and travels in a wheelchair. He writes a blog for Ctrl.Alt.Shift, entitled “Life on Wheels,” which can be found at www.ctrlaltshift.co.uk, where a version of this article was originally published. He can be reached at jody.mcintyre AT gmail DOT com.