Wednesday, 22 April 2009
I arrived at the Gaza exit point at Rafah on sunday am with Van. Calls through the British Embassy and to Egypt made it plain that the Van would not be allowed to leave because of the 'Galloway Agreement', so in the pm made the decision to store the van, travel to UK, where I need to get this exhibition thing moving, and 'wipe out' this Galloway Agreement that's been hanging over my exit, and which the Egyptians are so keen to enforce.
It's good to see that they can keep agreements, and set such store by them, but I hope that future convoys do not sell out the principle of getting the gates open IN PRINCIPLE, for the quick political gain of the media coverage of getting in now. FreeGaza boats, for instance, haven't said that in return for being allowed access to Gaza they will agree to sell out the rights of others to cross the border and travel by sea. They demand unreservedly open sea access, and I urge everyone who travels to Rafah, to also settle for nothing less.
I remember discussing with my convoy group in Libya, whether or not , and for how long, we would camp on the border. The answer was not universal, but generally we were committed to a long stay. My perception is that most people feel that, after a long build up on the journey, they were rushed in and out of Gaza, achieving little personally, and certainly the situation on the border hasn't changed in the slightest: for aid, all of which, despite assurances to the contrary, is still rotting in El Arish; for Palestinians, most of whom cannot pass, or can pass with difficulty - see below; and for exports, which are simply not allowed. Pity that the Egyptians only want to keep the parts of agreements that don't involve doing nice things to Palestinians.
Worse, the British Public believe that George Galloway HAS achieved something, so there is less need to think about Palestine. But this is a long long struggle, full of sellouts and political opportunism, and we must be ready to recognise it. We all want a saviour, a hero, but really they don't exist; there are plenty willing to wear the robes, though, for the celebrity. Lets make sure that when we have a smidgeon of power we don't cash it in by signing away everyone else's rights. The struggle is to Free Palestine, not enslave it.
So, I arrived again on foot on Monday Morning, was processed with a friendly cup of coffee, and put on the bus to Egypt. This bus only travels about 500 metres, but you must be on it, you cannot walk. The bus took 12 hours to cover this 500 metres the day before, during which time everyone got on and off several times, scrambling to get back on when it moved forward 100 meters, then getting off again to sit in exactly the same place as before, or walk back to the departure lounge to use the toilet.
On the Monday we got through to Egypt at an early 3pm, only 5 hours after arrival. The delay is caused by the Egyptians, who call through the buses when they want them.
On arrival we fill out visa applications, and our passports are taken away for processing. I am, as expected, interviewed by the police who explain that the Galloway agreement is that Convoy members will only be allowed to enter Egypt under police supervision, leave Egypt directly on departure, either through Libya if taking back their car, or through Cairo Airport. No other routes will be permitted. However, if I leave Egypt, having complied with this rule, that ends, and if I come again, it will be under the same rules as any ordinary person.
So I meet someone who entered Gaza by boat, and the Egyptians have no Galloway rule for them, so they are given their passport and told they are free to travel under their own steam, but I am sent to the transit point, which is the Departures lounge, now closed for the day, where my passport is retained and I am made to wait with an increasing number of Palestinians, more than 150 in the end. Departing members of the convoy will have had similar treatment on departure, except that, because of the larger numbers, I feel sure they will have had a pleasant ride in a reasonable time to a comfortable transit lounge in the airport. Because I am the last of the convoy, travelling alone, I will be transitted with the Palestinians.
They, many having been down this route before, tell me that we will be put on buses, taken under police escort to Cairo airport and deported - sorry, transitted to our country of destination. All, or nearly all, Palestinians seem to be treated this way. Most of my group are travelling to Saudi where they used to work, until the border was sealed. now after several attempts by most of them, they are being allowed to go back there, but the Egyptians have not, and seemingly will not, grant them visas for Egypt, so they have to travel by escorted transit, which is, to be fair, a not uncommon procedure, and is one that I have certainly experienced widely.
If you are carrying goods, or are just a citizen who the authorities are worried about, then you are escorted by police through to the next border. It happened to me in Cyprus when I was young, where I was released into the country, but had to report to the Authorities every day. In Syria, where lorry convoys are escorted from campsite to campsite by police to stop contraband, and elsewhere, including Europe, and of course, the extremely luxurious transit arrangements made for the convoy as it travelled without any customs papers through the countries of North Africa. The convoy paid little, but it is normal to charge the costs of the service, and reasonable to do so. Any passenger travelling through the UK, changing planes at say Heathrow, is held in a secure transit area from which they cannot access the UK, but can get to their flight gate. While waiting, they have a choice of coffee shops and other services, including airline desks and the internet, telephone and toilets that they can use.
I want to make it clear that Cairo does have a secure transit Lounge that is up to International Standards, and when I eventually saw it, had a wide range of internationals in it.
So I was not unduly concerned about being in the transit buses, although the enormous waits and makeshift conditions were less than perfect - but hey! we were moving. So my free friend went off in her Taxi to a destination that she had not yet decided, despite her 'illegal' entry to Gaza, whilst I moved to the transit lounge at about 7pm, after only three hours waiting! A further 5 hours or so lolling about there saw us being loaded up in to the buses which were not totally uncomfortable, and a further 4 hours on the parked bus, about 3 or 4 am found us begin slowly moving towards Cairo. Daylight found us stopping for half an hour at a cafe, the first opportunity to buy food other than sweets since entering the whole system, and the first opportunity to use the toilet in about 8 hours, and then onward to Cairo Airport where we arrived at 10 am or so. We were then processed through passport control twice, making a total of perhaps six times on the journey, and were led outside the terminal building to our Transit Lounge.
I think the Palestinians were not expecting me to be taken there with them, and when I arrived, I was warmly welcomed and given scraps of bread and cheese which people had saved from their journeys. People told me, partly with satisfaction that a Westerner was experiencing their plight, at last, and partly with a sense of concern for my delicate constitution, that NOW, I could understand the Palestinian condition!
The collection of rooms was a maximum of 13 metres by 27 metres, but this was divided into rooms in haphazard fashion, some of which were locked and a large one of which was a toilet and shower room, the only one. The only windows were the double entrance doors, at the end of a corridor leading into the complex. The ceiling was low, about 8 feet, although there did at least seem to be some ventilation. There was no facility for rubbish disposal, and internally, the rooms were entirely unsupervised, so that any intimidation or racketeering could not have been controlled.
Our buses deposited about 150 people into this space, but it was not empty when we arrived, there were people there who had spent days, and one man claimed a month, though I could not verify it. These long termers had staked out scraps of prayer mats as beds on the dirty stone flagged floor, and sat there guarding their spaces. I took a couple of photos, but was warned against it. But here they are.
The problem for the Saudi workers was that they had expired visas, and no-one has political representation in Gaza (except the UK!), so to get a new visa, Palestinians must travel to the embassy in Cairo!!!! They cannot get into Egypt to do this however, without convincing the Egyptian authorities that they will, indeed get one, so they have to get a pre-visa pass authorised by the Palestinian representation in Cairo and passed to the Egyptians, and then keep turning up at the Rafah crossing until, magically, one day their name is on a list. When they get to Cairo, they are kept in this dungeon until the Palestinian representative meets them gets some paperwork, takes it the Saudi Embassy, and then returns it to them, usually two days later. But even when you get the visa, or work permit, or if you already have it, you must still stay in the hole until it is time for your flight.
In my group there was one American citizen, and apart from me, two British subjects, but no-one took any notice of them! Why?, because they were joint Palestine nationals, and thus 'Palestinians' as far as the Egyptians are concerned. The Brits contacted the Embassy, and were actually allowed to sit outside the dungeon in the sun 'because they had a small child', although I noticed that other mothers with small children did not manage to achieve this, so maybe being British does have its use. They had already booked a flight - for Sunday, five days time, and they were to be detained until then. I asked why they booked so far ahead, and they answered that they had no idea how long their processing would be, and indeed, it had taken three days already, so taking a gamble on an earlier flight would have been foolhardy. They had rung the Embassy to try and get the flight re-arranged, but were not being allowed to go to the real transit lounge to do it by themselves. This means that they were under arrest, as far as I can see, by any meaningful definition.
I do not know by what rules a married couple with a child of 2 can be detained in a mixed sex prison for five days without beds, separate bathing, child facilities, rubbish disposal, daylight, privacy, or even food, unless they can afford the inflated prices charged by the runner who goes to the local cafe and brings food back. They are under arrest, not in any sense in transit, and their only crime, as usual, is that they are Palestinian -(even if they are British as well)
One of the things that you can do in Transit is buy a ticket. But you cannot do this in The Palestine Palace. There the guards say simply - when your flight is due we will tell you. Persistence identified that for London flights departed at 8am (and they simply would not entertain any other destination, not Manchester, not anywhere in Europe, although this, I think was due to the intellectual limitations of my Captor) . So I was detained until tomorrow, then!
I have a small support network outwith Egypt, and I decided to phone and check for flights. First, I needed to charge my phone, which had not seen a mains socket for about 30 hours, and had been roundly abused in that time. I identified three working electric sockets in the dungeon, and they were all occupied. It was clear that this was the sort of situation where gangsterism can grow, but I managed to get into a queue and get about 15 minutes before being levered away, and so I was able to discover that there was a flight at 1630.
This timing was similar to the Damascus flight for which there was a small band of takers, so we were all taken under the supervision of a single policeman, to the real transit lounge. Getting my ticket was an interesting experience, but the main point was that I had no freedom of action. Sit here, stand there, bags here, go there, that's the flight and price, take it or leave it and go back to prison.
I was very sorry to leave my acquaintances there:
Ali, the American citizen with an open ticket to Dallas, who had had to wait months for permission from the Egyptians to leave Gaza. The American Emabassy had efused to co-ordinate his exit throough Rafah, insisting that he go through Israel. He agreed and duly filled out an application for a crossing through Erez, he received an acknowledgement from the embassy that they were processing it, but in five months he had heard nothing else, so had made his own way to Rafah; Sahal, who had been working in Saudi for 30 years and who had not been able to make his annual visit to his parents and family in Gaza for two years before he gave up everything to go back nine months ago, for his daughter's wedding and because his father was 90. He realised that he risked never going back, and indeed his return was after a gap of nine months, and three attempts at the border; and Mahmoud, also a Saudi worker, also waiting for his renewed visa from the Saudia embassy, and the man in charge of the battered fragments of Bread and cheese that I was regaled with on arrival.
These men, sat disconsolately in a shallow side corridor, on their scraps of carpet, because they had staked out these quieter spots the day before. Along the end of the wall was a row of 'lifers', the long term residents who had been there for up to a month. One of these men had a family, the woman staying in a side room that had become women only, and joining him only when someone got some food. They had a girl of about 10 who carried things between them with a skip in her step.
These long termers had the deep recesses and the new arrivals congregated around the entrance, where there was light, and also police. It was there I met the man in the camel hair coat, going to Dubai, who said 'Fuck hamas, if it wasn't for them we wouldn't have to go through all this shit' which is both true and false at the same time, and for the people there a popular complaint. 'Abu Mazen pays our salaries and there was no problem when he was in charge' is simply false, of course, but those few interested in the English language debate seemed supportive. I tried to suggest to the man that the streets were safe in Gaza now, but then I realised that he didn't want to debate with me, he wanted to paint me as a Hamas apologist, and he was doing this in a loud voice. Why?
People saw me taking photographs and measuring the size of the room, and some at least rallied round and helped. All asked that I 'Tell the World About this", while many more were resigned and weary, but at least looked with a flutter of interest. He was trying to discredit me in front of these people.
Actually, it wasn't the first time that I had met him. He was at Rafah too, but each time near the soldiers, as he was here. Perhaps he was trying to ingratiate himself with the soldiers to get a cushy ride, perhaps he was an agent provocateur, but I told him that I couldn't talk to him anymore when he said 'Fuck Gaza, it's finished, I'm going to Dubai". Dangerous pressure cookers, prisons, especially if you have to live there for a month.
TELL THE WORLD ABOUT THIS. You know, I don't believe that at the time of the worst persecutions of Jews in Russia they were treated any worse than Palestinians are today. Perhaps we should have a declaration that to end the suffering of the Palestinians, we will give them a homeland in Palestine.