Gaza Freedom March: detained at the US embassy

Medea Benjamin (left) and Kit Kettredge outside the US embassy.

Egyptian police in uniform and plain clothes surround US citizens attempting to visit the US embassy.

On the afternoon of 28 December 2009, I was with several persons who accompanied CODEPINK cofounder Jodie Evans to the US Embassy in Cairo to present a letter from Massachusetts Senator John Kerry in which he expressed “strong support” for citizens of his state who were traveling to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and requesting they be given “every courtesy.” In fact, we were turned away at the first checkpoint at a side street off Corniche al-Nil leading up to the embassy, and told to come back the next morning.

At 9:45am on 29 December, Evans, myself and two other Gaza Freedom March participants came back to the embassy. We explained that we wished to see Ambassdor Margaret Scobey to discuss why Egypt had prohibited more than 1,300 persons including hundreds of Americans, from going to Gaza to take part in a peaceful march with Palestinian civil society against the siege of Gaza.

We were allowed through the first checkpoint, and told we would have to be sniffed by dogs. But as the dogs finished their task, an Egyptian police officer came running up, and demanded we leave. We stood our ground. We explained that we were Americans, and wanted to visit our embassy. If they would not let us, then they must send someone out to explain why.

By this time dozens of other Americans began to arrive at the embassy — all with the same request: to meet representatives of their government to talk about the situation in Gaza. A stand-off quickly developed as detachments of riot police arrived and surrounded and tightly barricaded a group of 31 persons just inside the first checkpoint. A second group of seven, closer to the street, attempted to hold up signs but police pulled them down, and surrounded them. Others, who arrived later, were kept even further away.

As I was among the earliest to arrive, I had somehow avoided being trapped inside the barricades (although on at least two occasions Egyptian police physically grabbed me and attempted to push me into an enclosure). Others were pushed and shoved. A plain-clothes officer who appeared to be in charge made it clear that no one was allowed to leave unless everyone agreed to leave and disperse completely. A young woman who said her leg had been injured when she was shoved inside the barricade area by police said she wanted to leave and go to the hospital. I watched as she was physically prevented from doing so. A man in his 80s who was not feeling well, was also prevented from leaving.

Eventually, a representative of the embassy emerged and stated that three and only three persons would be allowed to enter. Through an on-the-spot, ad hoc process, CODEPINK cofounder Medea Benjamin, activist Kit Kettredge and myself were selected. We made clear to other marchers that we did not view this “concession” as binding them in any way — they still had the right, as they demanded, to visit the embassy and represent themselves, and we would make that point.

The “delegation” was ushered through the checkpoints until we found ourselves outside the door of the building. There we were met by three officials who said they were ready to hear what we had to say. (At that point, a young woman who had made it that far separately, identified herself to the officials as an American and said she had been struck in the face by police the previous day. She said that the embassy had been unresponsive to her complaints and wanted to see them take an active role to protect Americans against police harassment.)

Benjamin, Kettredge and I said we would not meet in the street; we wanted to be received inside the building. Eventually we were told that there was a small room near the entrance where they would agree to see us, but only the three of us.

Just beyond the airport-style security checkpoint inside the building, was the door to a small room with a table, three chairs and a heavy steel door that resembled a holding cell or an interrogation room more than anything. In a strangely petty gesture, our request for a glass of water was adamantly refused. In that room, we were met by three officials, including Gina Cabrera, head of US citizen services, and Gregory D. LoGerfo, First Secretary in the Office of Economic and Political Affairs. The third official, whose name I did not note, identified himself as a “regional security” official.

Our first request was that the embassy immediately intervene to free US citizens being held against their will by Egyptian police, and invite any American who wanted to visit the embassy to be heard or seek assistance to do so. Cabrera constantly reassured us “we are taking care of it,” although she herself was taking no action, and not apparently communicating with anyone else in the embassy who might do so. At the same time, Medea Benjamin was in constant phone contact with those held outside; they reported that no embassy staff had come to assist them, people were still being forcibly detained, and occasionally rough-handled. Eventually, only after repeated requests, Cabrera left the room saying she was going to find out what was happening, though as we found out when we left the embassy, she had done nothing to change the situation at the gate. At this point, several hours had passed and people had pressing needs for water or to use bathroom facilities.

LoGerfo, as a senior political officer, addressed our demands about Gaza: that the US work with us to lift the siege on Gaza and allow the Gaza Freedom March to proceed. This discussion went on for an hour and made little headway. LoGerfo insisted that the embassy would take no action to facilitate our passage to Gaza because of a State Department travel warning advising US citizens against traveling to Gaza. We responded that we were not asking the embassy to violate its travel warning; in the past, the embassy had not objected to US citizens traveling to Gaza provided they signed affidavits stating that they knew the US embassy would do nothing to help them if they got into trouble. We were prepared to sign such affidavits. We simply wanted the embassy to ask Egypt not to prevent a peaceful civil society initiative from proceeding to Gaza.

We noted the irony that it was in Cairo last June that US President Barack Obama had lauded and recommended to Palestinians peaceful civil-rights-style actions. And yet here were 1,300 individuals from dozens of countries who had answered such a call from Palestinian civil society only to find their plans blocked by the Egyptian government while they faced constant police harassment.

Cabrera reminded us, “US citizens have been hurt in Gaza, you know, so we are concerned about your safety.” To this, I answered that I knew that Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American peace activist, had been killed by Israeli occupation forces in Gaza on 16 March 2003, and that the embassy’s protestations of concern for our safety would be much more convincing if the United States government had demanded proper accountability from Israel in her killing. Benjamin, Kettredge and I also pointed out that the main source of danger to people in Gaza is from attacks by Israel using weapons provided by the United States.

LoGerfo asserted that the the closure of the Rafah crossing into Gaza was a “sovereign” Egyptian decision and that the US could not interfere. I pointed out that Egypt claims that its closure of the border is in keeping with the 2005 “Agreement on Movement and Access” brokered by the United States, and that the US is helping Israel and Egypt to enforce the siege as part of its policy of putting pressure on Palestinian civilians in order to force a change in their leadership. LoGerfo acknowledged that the US Army Corps of Engineers is providing Egypt with assistance to build an underground steel wall designed to prevent Palestinians digging tunnels which have become a lifeline to break the siege. We also challenged LoGerfo that the United States, as a high contracting party to the Fourth Geneva Convention, has a legal obligation to help break the siege on Gaza — which remains an occupied territory — and to bring to justice those suspected of the massive war crimes and crimes against humanity described in the UN-commissioned Goldstone report. Sadly, however, US policy is to help tighten the siege and to actively obstruct justice.

Once it became clear that LoGerfo could not or would not provide any support to the Gaza Freedom March, we requested a meeting with Ambassdor Scobey. We were told the request would be passed on, but no commitments were made to us or to the dozens of US citizens barricaded by riot police at the gates of the embassy compound. Benjamin and Kettredge decided to remain in the embassy until they could secure a specific time to meet with Scobey — who had met CODEPINK organizers previously. I decided to leave the building to brief and rejoin the others detained by the police.

There, I found the situation unchanged — except for more riot police. There were still 31 persons penned in one area — which I dubbed the “West Bank” — and the seven barricaded about 30 meters away — which I dubbed “the Gaza Strip.” Egyptian police allowed me to move between the two groups and speak to them, but no one was allowed to leave. Still no one from the embassy had come to assist or intervene.

During this time, the correspondent of a major Arabic-language TV network phoned me and said that she and her camera crew had attempted to get near the area but had been physically prevented from doing so by Egyptian police. I witnessed another independent journalist being jostled by police and forced to leave the area.

Eventually, Benjamin and Kettredge emerged from the embassy — having failed to schedule an appointment with the ambassador. Like me, they were allowed to move freely between the “West Bank” and “Gaza Strip,” but at one point they were completely surrounded by police. At another point, several police officers grabbed me and tried to push me into the “West Bank” enclosure, but thinking quickly, Benjamin, who was standing nearby, dropped to the ground and put her arms out. I dropped to the ground and grabbed her. A man in plain clothes — I believe, though I am not certain, an Egyptian who worked for the embassy — rushed up shouting at the police in English “no touch, no touch!” This seemed to indicate that while the embassy was content to have us detained against our will for hours, it did not want us treated “too” roughly. (Indeed, journalist Sam Husseini recorded on his blog an Egyptian police official outside the embassy saying that the US embassy “told us” to prevent Americans from reaching the building.)

At about 3:30pm — almost five hours after our attempt to peacefully visit our embassy had begun — we were told that everyone would be permitted into the embassy to speak to a consular officer. After discussions with police, individuals were allowed out of the barricades one at a time, and those showing US passports were led in groups of 10 toward the embassy. Those wishing to leave the area completely were allowed to do so one at a time at five minute intervals. Having been held hostage, we were forced to negotiate our own release. It was a lesson — if we needed one — that when it comes to the siege of Gaza, the United States government is not part of the solution, but an active part of the problem. And, the United States is not beyond relying on the repressive police tactics of the Egyptian state to protect itself from the opinions of its own citizens.

Editor’s note: Since this article was published, The Electronic Intifada learned that Kit Kettredge and Medea Benjamin were able to meet with the embassy’s Deputy Director Matthew Tuellar, in command while Ambassador Scobey was on leave. Benjamin told The Electronic Intifada: “Kit and I got to see the person in command while the Ambassador was on leave: Deputy Director Matthew Tuellar, who told us that indeed, every US citizen has the right to see a consular officer, and he is the one who ordered the Egyptian police to let people inside. He also said that the embassy would do nothing to help us because it would go against the US policy of discouraging people to go to Gaza.”

All images by Ali Abunimah.

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.