Saturday, January 16, 2010

Sailing a Liferaft Into Gaza

Sailing a Liferaft Into Gaza

As I write this, I am still in Cairo. The Gaza Freedom March is officially over - most delegates flew home January 3-5. There are about 30 of us "die-hard" individuals who have the flexibility to try to wait out the Egyptian government and the dedication/commitment to stay in for the long haul. There are six of us who have planned our lives (at least in the first half of the year) on jobs (paid or voluntary) in Gaza, two journalists/filmmakers, and one whose husband lives there and she hasn't seen him in more than six months. The rest are an eclectic combination of the curious, compassionate, political and adventurous.

The problem is that the Egyptian government is like a "black box." There is no way of knowing what works and what doesn't, or why. There seems to be one type of document that will get you to the border; without it, you'll be stopped at one of the multiple checkpoints between Cairo and Al-Arish (the town just before the border crossing) and sent back. But even that letter won't get you across the border. No one is quite sure what will open that door. And it doesn't help that almost every day there is some report of unrest along the border or in Gaza. The other day it was the shooting of an Egyptian soldier and two Palestinians (casualties of a protest over the delayed arrival of the Viva Palestina convoy) and today it was Israel's bombing attack on the tunnels and other sites.

Gaza Attack

Israeli warplanes carried out a series of raids throughout the Gaza Strip late Thursday night and Friday morning.

I am waiting through a forced period of inactivity (due to three days of government holidays) to hear the status of the application I filed with the Foreign Ministry Sunday night for 12 of us with letters of invitation from NGO's. In addition, I will apply for a press pass. With one or both of those approvals, three of us will head to the border on Monday - hopefully a day when all the hullaballoo has quieted down and the checkpoints have been relaxed.

The unfortunate thing is that as time passes and people with approaching flight reservations get desperate, it becomes increasingly "everyone out for themselves." There is competition for every new little bit of intelligence, and if someone hears of a good route, or a good time, to make it to the border, off they go, without saying a word to anyone else, for fear of too many people coming along and somehow jinxing it. And that brings to mind the dilemma we faced during the march itself.

The situation is rather like the tale about the liferaft. At first, everyone sticks together, with a strong feeling of comradeship and shared purpose - everyone helping each other. But then, once it becomes obvious that not all of you can survive - that one or more must be sacrificed if any are to live (or to achieve their goal), then that team spirit quickly begins to unravel. Should you all prepare to go down with the ship out of solidarity, if that is what is required? If not, how do you choose who is lucky, and who is not?

Lifeboat

This is the dilemma faced by almost every large delegation or convoy that tries to bring aid or moral support into the Gaza Strip. Egypt selectively allows in smaller groups, but any numbers approaching critical mass are stonewalled - and if that doesn't work, riot police. If you still resist after that, they get savvy and try "divide and conquer." And it almost always works.

The Gaza Freedom March is the latest example. Citing reasons that varied from day to day - ranging from security at the border to the mundane "lack of appropriate paperwork" - the Egyptian government announced just days before everyone began leaving home that the 1,300-plus marchers would not be allowed into Gaza. As an added disincentive, consular officials from participants' countries were called in, and during the following days, marchers in Canada, Spain and Portugal were duly notified that they should stay home. When most of the marchers descended on Cairo anyway and began to peacefully protest Egypt's refusal to let them into Gaza, the riot police were brought out. At every location, and every action, the marchers were at first subdued by plainclothes "infiltrators" armed with billy clubs, then surrounded and contained by rows of conscripts.

Egyptian Police

The protests continued nonetheless, and that's when Suzanne Mubarak (wife of the Hosni, the president), made a compromise offer: permission for just 100 of the marchers to cross into Gaza. What followed next is a pitfall that is natural, disastrous and needs to be anticipated (and debated) in advance. Under the pressure of an imposed deadline and fast-changing events on the ground, the offer was rapidly accepted with little consultation with other representatives of the diverse coalition that fed the Gaza Freedom March. When it came time to announce this decision, and to choose the "lucky 100," broad and deep disagreement was instantaneous. Countries ranging from symbolic South Africa to Scotland and Canada declined to appoint any participants at all, and the hard-won unity among the various coalition partners began to disintegrate.

The pros and cons of accepting such a compromise are fairly simple:

Pro: At least some people/aid get in, avoiding total defeat and providing some level of relief to the Palestinians of Gaza.

Con: If the offer accepted is only a small fraction of the original delegation or payload, Egypt gets a PR "win" while the siege suffers nary a dent.

Ruth James, who joined the march in the hopes of establishing contacts in Gaza for her British clown troupe, recalls a similar dilemma when she was traveling with the European Campaign to End the Siege of Gaza last year. The campaign consisted of 50 truckloads of aid and 105 people. After arriving at the Rafah crossing, the group was suddenly told that no one - or their trucks - could enter. That initial flat refusal was met with a sit-in, and the Egyptian government soon offered to allow 10, then 16, then 20 people (plus all the trucks) in. It was at that point that the consensus to hold fast broke. Similarly to the Gaza Freedom March, the decision to accept a compromise offer was made "behind closed doors" by a small, questionably representative group and came as a complete surprise to the rest of the delegation.

"Bedlam broke out," recalls Ruth. "We had told participants we would stand together, that it was all or no one. There was no preparation, no attempt to explain before the chosen 20 were announced, that we had changed our minds." In retrospect, says Ruth, who was a team leader for the convoy, she thinks the campaign - and the march - should have discussed with the larger group in advance how this scenario would be handled and held out for a better (larger) compromise. "Even a Palestinian woman on my team who hadn't seen her family in years agreed we shouldn't have accepted the offer," says Ruth. "That wasn't the purpose of our mission."

Ruth identified an issue at the heart of the dilemma faced by both the European Campaign and the Gaza Freedom March: What is the main purpose of the mission?

In the case of the European Campaign - as well as of Viva Palestina, now in Gaza - it was clearly the delivery of humanitarian supplies; the number of trucks and tonnage of goods far outweighed the human escorts. However, while the Gaza Freedom March carried school supplies, children's clothing and other items with it, the amount was small compared to the number of marchers. Our primary purpose - in my mind - was to help break the siege by bringing world attention to the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza and to demonstrate our solidarity with them. The split occurred when two representatives of one of the main partners in the coalition assumed that their definition of the mission - and what defines success - was shared by everyone and that they therefore had the authority to unilaterally accept the offer of 100. From their point of view, getting even a few people into Gaza was a success.

When the decision to accept the offer was reconsidered at the 11th hour (too late, as it turned out, to reverse it effectively), I voted against it. My reasoning was this:

1) The Egyptian government would use our acceptance as a PR ploy, and media attention would dissipate once the perception was created that an acceptable compromise had been reached. And in fact, Abu Al-Gheit of the Foreign Ministry announced at a press conference that the 100 marchers the government had "graciously allowed" to enter Gaza were from organizations that Egypt considers "good and sincere," whereas the majority left behind were "from organizations that are only interested in subversion and acting against Egyptian interests, to sow havoc on the streets of Egypt, not to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians." He added that the Egyptian public was wise enough to see these remaining marchers as "hooligans." (I am planning on making a customized T-shirt when I return home: Hooligan for Palestine.) Although I doubt the international media covering the march - BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN among them - bought this propaganda, the story line became a bit confused after that, as if the media weren't sure which contingent should be the focus or how to characterize the end result.

2) Given the nature of our march ("people power" vs. aid), it seemed to me that we would do more actual good for the Palestinian cause by challenging one of the primary jailers - Egypt. Mubarak rules with an iron fist; standing up to him requires international "cover." CODEPINK, one of the main partners in the march coalition, had already successfully brought seven delegations as large as about 60 members into Gaza for four to five days. This march had to break new ground. The Viva Palestina convoy was slated to enter with a delegation of 500-plus, so 100 would be a mere token. But by holding out for more and continuing to demonstrate in Cairo (which we did nonetheless, albeit with unhappiness in the ranks) we did. Egyptian labor unions, students and organizations of civil society have a long history of struggle for democratic rights in the face of the overwhelming force of the state apparatus. Yet, six full days of political demonstrations in Cairo by a large group of visiting internationals is without historical precedent.

Headline

A front-page headline in an Egyptian daily proclaims the "first-time ever" that the Israeli embassy in Cairo was picketed - by the Gaza Freedom March.

3) Perhaps one of the most important considerations is what do the Palestinians want? After witnessing the "use" to which the 100 compromise was put by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, the leaders of the Palestinian coordinating committee sent us this message:

Our longer-term interests as Palestinians is not to allow the regime to get off the hook this easily. Either they allow all 1,400 participants into Gaza - or we strongly urge you to reject the deal out of hand as too little, too late and too ill-conceived.

We cannot possibly decide on this matter, as ultimately this is up to ALL of you. If a CLEAR majority among you feel that you want to go through with the deal, we shall always welcome you in Gaza and deeply appreciate your solidarity. But we feel your solidarity without coming to Gaza, exposing the Egyptian siege against you and us, may bear more fruit for us and towards ending the siege, at least from the Egyptian side.

In the case of the European campaign, which was delivering a substantial amount of aid, the Palestinians signaled that the offer of all trucks and 20 people (out of 105) should be accepted. And to me, that makes sense. On the other hand, though, there is something to be said for sticking to your demands and refusing to be splintered when you have the advantage of the world stage. For instance, George Galloway's Viva Palestina convoy finally managed to enter Gaza largely intact (with the exception of 50 trucks that were forcibly rerouted through Israel), despite Egypt's many attempts to separate and splinter them. They can claim a true victory (although Egypt later tried to get in the last word by deporting Galloway - which I am sure will make another of his convoys more difficult).

But perhaps even more important than the end decision is the process used to reach it. The Gaza Freedom March coalition failed to anticipate this now-common scenario, and thus there was no advance consensus on what to do if a lesser offer was made. We should have decided in advance what number less than 1,326 would be acceptable, how we would debate and reconfirm that decision on the ground, and how the "lucky ones" would be selected if we were to agree to a compromise. Personally, I think perhaps the only fair way to choose a subgroup is to draw names out of a hat (proportionate to the countries represented), with an exception for members separated from family in Gaza.

The bottom line: The focus must be on the Palestinians and Gaza, not on infighting among the ranks. If that happens, Egypt, Israel and the governments that support them win. We are together in this liferaft, and it's up to us to keep it afloat.

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