When I get to the border

3 February 2010

PCS deputy general secretary Hugh Lanning records his thoughts on his efforts to join the latest Viva Palestina convoy to Gaza.

Monday 28 December

News at last – the convoy might be on the move in the morning. Unfortunately it is heading away from us.

It has been a frustrating few days – arriving on Boxing Day thinking we would have to rush to catch up, only to be waiting around.

A night squashed in a single room in downtown Sharm el Sheik before travelling to Nuweiba. We had hoped to meet up with the convoy and travel north with them.

Maybe the shootings, the March for Gaza or Israeli pressure – whatever, the Egyptian authorities weren’t playing ball.

The convoy, 250 vehicles, 500 people, were stuck at Aqaba in Jordan – almost in sight across the Red Sea.

Thursday 31 December

The convoy is struggling. Negotiations with Egyptian authorities result in little progress. The convoy has to go back through Syria to pick up boats to enter Egypt through El Arish.

One of the purposes of our visit is to meet humanitarian and other organisations in Gaza so the Palestine Solidarity Campaign can establish better relations and communications for the future.

Everything goes smoothly until the first checkpoint. Our cover story of meeting friends lasts all of 30 seconds when I confess we are planning to get to Gaza.

One and a half hours later we are allowed to proceed. We go the long way round to the tunnel – not being allowed to travel the direct route through Sinai to El Arish.

The long drive passes through barren land, sand and finally fertile areas nearer Suez where a fight is on to reclaim land by growing crops.

The El Arish checkpoint starts friendly. Finally as darkness sets in we are turned around, denied entry and a refusal to talk.

Our taxi driver takes us to Ismailia – a fascinating bustling town. We are the only tourists. Mohammed – the driver – tracks down the security police HQ and we arrange to come back at 9pm.

The security chief is very friendly – but says he can do nothing – it is Cairo. They will need confirmation that it is OK.

Monday 4 January

Morning phone calls confirm we are on the lists the British Embassy supplied to the Egyptian authorities as part of the convoy.

There are security problems as participants in the freedom march make unauthorised dashes for Gaza.

Our request from reception for a taxi to El Arish produces quizzical looks, delays – a driver, questions. Then the tourist police and security arrive.

Eventually they say it’s OK – we can proceed. After such a long haggle they give in too easily. We soon discover why.

Our quiet driver takes the right route – back to the Mubarak bridge – alleviating our fears that we would be taken back to Cairo.

At the bridge – as usual – we are waved out of the queue. This time someone in uniform, announcing himself as a ‘general’ – shouts through the window.

“We’ve had a call – you’re not to be allowed through – no discussion, you must go back.”

The taxi is turned around and before we have time to take stock we are heading back to Ismailia.

The taxi driver is on the phone telling the police of our plans. Clearly the whole thing is a charade. “Do we want to go to Cairo?” No.

The convoy is still stuck – problems getting boats and flights sorted; so there is time.

We get advice from the Foreign Office that we should present ourselves at the main police station and declare we are part of the convoy, not the march.

We relocate to a new hotel. A request for a taxi to the main police station is met with confusion. Not the tourist police? No – the main security police.

Our ‘taxi driver’ appears: ‘Tiger’, a tourist consultant who does work for the hotel. The police too it turns out.

It is explained we have to go through channels. Back to the tourist police then off to the security chief.

He understands we are not part of the march. The problem is Cairo; we need confirmation/clarification from Cairo.

Overnight emails and phone calls to the British Embassy in Cairo; the Egyptian Embassy in London.

Tuesday 5 January

It is increasingly clear what a police state feels like. Everyone works for them, talks to them, lives in fear of them.

Effectively we are under hotel arrest. We can’t move without being reported, accompanied or ‘escorted’.

We agree with the police to be escorted to the bridge to give it one last shot. The taxis won’t leave until the police arrive.

We are passed from one escort to another up to the bridge. Waved to one side; no shouting, but the same charade.

Overnight the position of the convoy has become very serious. An earlier flight had to go back.

The Egyptians were challenging 60 vehicles. The camp had become a compound faced with 2,000 riot police. Violence and arrests gave real cause for concern.

As darkness falls and the bridge re-opens it is clear we are going nowhere. As always Tiger is on hand to escort us home.

We have decided we can be best use in Cairo. Time is running out on our tickets.

Daylight brings further negotiations and allegedly an agreement is imminent.

More relaxed, we decide to see the pyramids. A grumpy traipse around a wonder of the world eventually brings good news – an agreement is struck.

We hear the convoy is on the move and finally reaches Gaza.

Thursday 7 January

Jubilation as Al Jazeera shows the arrival. The BBC shows the contretemps between Egyptian border control and Palestinians at Rafah.

One dead Egyptian becomes the lead story – 30 shot Palestinians was commonplace.

Frustration and disappointment sets in as we are not with the convoy.

Should we have taken more risks? Should we have gone to Aqaba, flown to Syria – given it one last shot?

With hindsight, many things might have been possible. The reality was, we didn’t properly understand the nature of the Egyptian state.

When Jeremy Corbyn MP phoned the Egyptian Embassy to make representations on behalf of the convoy, he was mistakenly given chapter and verse of where we had been stopped, turned back.

The stakes are high for Egypt. The last thing it wants is an open border with a radical Gaza.

So it facilitates the siege rather than undermine it. Humanitarian aid is a problem, not a requirement.

Despite the problems – the march, the convoy, the Egyptian escapade – have been successful.

They have highlighted that one year on, nothing has changed. The siege is just that – trying to starve Gaza into submission where they rely on international aid – not self reliance.

What next? It must be variations of the same – learning the lessons but keeping the pressure up.

An edited version of this appears in print in the February edition of Activate. Hugh travelled with Sarah Colborne, director of campaigns at Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Bellavia Ribiero-Addy, NUS black students officer.



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