Set Gaza Free: Report of My Trip to Gaza with Viva Palestina
This was my first trip to the Middle East, and it was an eye-opener as well as heart-breaker. It was an unforgettable experience filled with the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. Let me start with the good.
Our delegation of some 200 persons was a good one, a very good one, which consisted not only of Americans from every walk of life and every section of the country, but also a Canadian pediatrician; a Malaysian medical student; three French citizens; a German journalist; and two young British students from Sheffield. We were Christians, Jews and Muslims; young and old; Black and White; Democrats, Republicans and Independents; Latinos, Arab Americans and even one Native American all united in our patriotic duty and firm determination to help break the cruel siege of Gaza and alleviate the terrible suffering of its people. We were led by George Galloway, a member of the British Parliament; Charles Barron, a NYC Councilman; and former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, a 2008 Presidential candidate who spent the week before in an Israeli jail after being kidnapped by Israel in international waters on the Spirit of Humanity, a boat carrying humanitarian aid to the besieged people of Gaza. We became a family, and formed strong and lasting bonds of friendship, which helped sustain us during those very frustrating days of waiting to enter Gaza.
That brings me to the bad. Upon our arrival, we soon came to realize that our opponents included not only the Israeli government, but also the Egyptian and US governments as well. Delay tactics of every sort were thrown at us with the clear intent to sabotage our humanitarian mission and prevent our entry into Gaza. At one point, buses carrying half our delegation to the Rafah border crossing were stopped at the Suez Canal and forced to return to Cairo after spending a long night surrounded by Egyptian police and soldiers. The delegation of drivers (which included me and Raed) sent to Alexandria to claim our 47 vehicles ran into another roadblock. Paperwork problems prevented us from getting the vehicles on schedule, and we were forced to waste four days waiting for access, only to be abruptly informed that those vehicles would not be permitted to leave the Port of Alexandria. They remain stranded there to this day. The whole delegation was ordered to personally appear at the US Embassy in Cairo to sign affidavits, at a cost of $30 per person, relieving the US government of any responsibility for our fate in Gaza. That cost our delegation some $7,000 and another lost day. As a result of these bureaucratic delay tactics, we were not able to enter Gaza on Monday (7/13), as planned, when over 10,000 Gazans waited for over 9 hours, in vain, for our arrival. Instead of three days in Gaza, we were permitted a mere 24 hours and informed in no uncertain terms that if we did not exit Gaza within 24 hours then we would remain there until the Rafah gate re-opened in perhaps 3 or 6 months.
We arrived in buses at Rafah about 3pm on Wednesday (7/15); no affidavits were required for entry. Nor were any of the many Palestinians waiting at the Rafah gate permitted to enter with us. Instead, they were brutally beaten back by Egyptian guards when they attempted to approach our buses. This gross injustice is largely unknown. Hundreds of Palestinians, many of them US citizens, have been attempting for months to enter Gaza to be reunited with their families, but Egypt refuses them entry and, on occasion, beats them when they attempt to enter. Our treatment by Egyptian authorities was a variation of this injustice. They forced us to wait for over five hours for passport checks, a process that normally takes a few minutes. It was not until we staged a spontaneous demonstration shouting "Viva Palestina" for several minutes that our passports were returned. Upon exiting the customs building we could hear our hosts on the other side beating drums and singing songs. Many of use decided we would walk into Gaza to meet them, but the Egyptian authorities slammed the last gate shut on us and forced us back to the buses. Finally, at about 9pm that evening, we entered Gaza to a throng of well-wishers and a flood of cameras and photographers.
That brings me to the beautiful. The grace and kindness extended us by the Palestinian people in Gaza could not contrast more sharply from the contempt and disrespect shown us by Egyptian officials and petty thugs in uniform. We were all warmly welcomed; repeatedly embraced; showered with smiles; and given badly needed bottled water. Buses took us to Gaza City where we had a meal waiting for us at the Commodore Hotel. The next day we toured Gaza City; visited patients in a hospital; and met with families of the many prisoners languishing in Israeli jails, including kidnapped members of Parliament. We also saw the awful aftermath of the wholesale destruction unleashed upon Gaza by Israel six months earlier.
That brings me to the ugly. Large parts of Gaza today look like Ground Zero did on 9/12. The destruction is overwhelming, even now some six months after the world's 4th most powerful military machine unleashed its hell upon a largely defenseless population. Whole sections of Gaza City have been converted into a wasteland. Row after row of destroyed buildings; huge piles of concrete slabs, rubble and debris now mark what were once vibrant neighborhoods. The buildings laid waste by Israel include the American International School in Gaza, now nothing more than a pile of crumbled concrete and twisted iron. Hotels along the Mediterranean were routinely shelled from the sea; every house and apartment building along the coast had gaping bullet and shell holes in their walls. It is hard to imagine how anyone in these buildings could have survived the brutal assault from air, land and sea. We know that over 1,400 Palestinians did not survive, including over 400 children. Tens of thousands more were wounded and remain in immediate need of proper health care. We were informed of four children in Gaza who have free medical care waiting for them in the USA if they could only get out of this besieged land. However, our efforts to get these wounded children out were not successful and they, like hundreds of others, remain imprisoned by the blockade.
Gaza is the world's largest open air prison. Over 1.5 million children, women and men over three times as many people as were in the Nazi-controlled Warsaw Ghetto - are today compressed into a narrow strip of land which is locked shut to the outside world, one which has chosen to also lock shut its eyes, ears and mouth as well. We, members and supporters of the Viva Palestina delegation, refuse to remain silent, for silence is the voice of complicity.
We will raise our voices today and every day against this greatest atrocity of our times until Gaza and all Palestine is free.
We say to the Pharoahs of today what a prophet said long ago: Let My People Go!
We say to President Obama, who in Cairo last month called the situation in Palestine "intolerable" and made reference to the "humanitarian crisis" in Gaza: Actions speak louder than words. Practice what you preach!
If we are a nation under God, then we must end the siege and set Gaza free.
If we are a people of the book (whether the Torah, Bible or Qur'an), then we must end the siege and set Gaza free.
If we are a land of the free and the home of the brave, then we must end the siege and set Gaza free.
Finally, if we are all created equal with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then we must end the siege and set Gaza free.