Stopped at the “Peace” Bridge

July 13, 2009

On July 4, a delegation of solidarity activists set out from the U.S. to deliver desperately needed humanitarian supplies to the Palestinians of Gaza. The convoy was organized by group Viva Palestina, led by British Member of Parliament and antiwar activist George Galloway, who was part of a similar effort from London earlier this year.

The delegation arrived in Egypt and began assembling vehicles and supplies. But its progress has been hampered by Egyptian authorities, who stopped several buses filled with Viva Palestina members from crossing into the Sinai on the way toward the Rafah border crossing into Gaza. Organizers said they wanted to continue their journey on Monday with the cooperation of the Egyptian government.

Several SocialistWorker.org contributors are part of the Viva Palestina delegation and will be contributing to this journal. This entry was written by Karen Domínguez Burke and Brian Lenzo.

OUR GROUP of 200 activists, aptly named "Viva Palestina," encountered its first delay on July 12.

The delegation had divided into two teams, with half going to the city of Al Arish to consolidate humanitarian supplies and the other half to Alexandria to secure a fleet of vehicles to carry the aid across the border into Gaza.

The delegation sent to Al Arish was delayed at the Mubarak Peace Bridge on its way over the Suez Canal. About 100 members of the delegation decided to stay the night in their buses on the bridge on Saturday, despite pressure from the Egyptian security officials to return to Cairo.

When the convoy arrived at the Peace Bridge checkpoint, Egyptian authorities asked organizers to step off the buses for negotiations. The group remained on the buses, unaware that they were being detained. The first thing they were told was that the Interior Ministry had gotten word to the checkpoint to not allow the convoy to pass. Later, organizers were told that the convoy could not pass for unspecified security reasons.

Members of the Viva Palestina delegation form a human blockade in front of their bus to prevent it from being moved
Members of the Viva Palestina delegation form a human blockade in front of their bus to prevent it from being moved (Viva Palestina)

Checkpoint officials asked at least three times for a list of names of everyone present on the buses. They instructed convoy members to write their names in Arabic as well as English, even though all those present had passports in English. "That was a way to separate out and isolate the Palestinians and other Arabs among us," explained Ream Kidane, who was present at the bridge, "so everyone refused to do that, and wrote all their names in English."

After waiting on buses for over two hours, it became clear to the delegation that the Egyptian authorities had no intention of letting them cross. At that point, New York City Councilman Charles Barron, as well as a few others, joined the team to press for a speedy conclusion to the negotiations.

The final reason given at the checkpoint for the hold-up was that officials didn't have a full list of names of members of the convoy, despite their having collected a full list at least three times on site.

Furthermore, at the request of Egyptian authorities, before any of the convoy members set foot in Egypt, complete lists had been sent to authorities. The list was also sent, at their request, to Egyptian ambassadors in Washington, D.C.; London; and Tripoli, Libya. The U.S. embassy in Cairo was informed about the mission, as was the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.

Convoy to Gaza

Solidarity activists traveled from the U.S. to Gaza to deliver desperately needed humanitarian aid to the Palestinian victims of Israel's brutal war. SocialistWorker.org writers contributed to this journal during the Viva Palestina convoy.

After the delegation realized it would not be allowed over the bridge, members organized a protest. Everyone got off their buses, formed a ring around them, waved American and Palestinian flags, held banners, and began chanting "Viva Viva Palestina!" and "Free Free Palestine!"

Officials soon became agitated, and negotiations became heated. "At that point, we established that we weren't leaving the bridge, and we were going to stand our ground, no matter what they did to us!" said Ream.

British Member of Parliament George Galloway, a leader of the Viva Palestina movement, offered these words of encouragement for the delegation at the crossing:

This is an American convoy and Americans are used to refusing to give up seats on buses in the struggle for justice. I regard everyone who's putting themselves on the line tonight at the Suez Canal for the success of this humanitarian mission as nothing short of a hero.


AND SO they remained for over 12 hours.

First, the group had to ensure the safety of bus drivers, who, being Egyptians, could be threatened with arrest, detention or other punishment for cooperating with activists. The group decided to form two human blockades, one at the front of the convoy and one in the back, to ensure that the buses would not move without encountering the locked arms and bodies of activists.

What you can do

For ongoing updates, visit the Viva Palestina-U.S. Web site.

Viva Palestina has called on supporters in the U.S. to gather outside Egyptian embassies and consulates for possible protests if the convoy is faced with further obstacles. Contact organizations locally for more details.

Contact the Egyptian embassy and ask that the Viva Palestina convoy be allowed to make its journey to Gaza without further delays. Call 202-966-6342, fax 202-244-4319 and e-mail [email protected].

SocialistWorker.org reporter Eric Ruder and a number of contributors to this Web site are part of the Viva Palestina convoy. You can read blogs from some at TheSitch.com.

Throughout the night, spirits remained high. At midnight, convoy member Salma Elshakre celebrated her 20th birthday while the group sang "Happy Birthday" to her in seven languages. Later on, in the early hours of the morning, a few people organized a soccer game in the middle of the crossing.

As the sun came up, after enduring almost 12 hours of negotiations and stalling, the delegation decided to head to the American Embassy to procure and organize yet another set of names and documents now required by Egyptian authorities.

"There [was] a lot being done to discourage and intimidate us," Khury Peterson-Smith, another convoy member on the bus, said. "There were cops and security surrounding us. The fact that we stood our ground and made it clear that our intent is to go into Gaza is significant. The demonstration that we staged at the Peace Bridge may be one of the only demonstrations that these guards have ever seen."

A team of Viva Palestina delegates is working hard in Alexandria to take possession of 47 vehicles that will be used to drive the group's humanitarian and medical relief supplies through the Rafah border crossing into Gaza. A third Viva Palestina contingent is gathering additional aid and supplies in Cairo.

Tomorrow, Viva Palestina plans to gather all its forces in Ismailia, load the collected aid on its vehicles and make final preparations for the drive through the Sinai.

Khury described the dilemma facing the mission clearly: "After hours of sitting on the Peace Bridge with medical supplies that could spoil, I realized something. In a rational world, a convoy like ours bringing aid to people who desperately need it would be welcomed. There are powerful people in this world who would rather we not succeed, but we have the power to stop them."

As Kevin Ovenden, the Viva Palestina tour coordinator, declared with confidence back in New York City at the send-off event held at House of the Lord Church:

We are going to go to Al Arish, we are going to the Rafah crossing, we are going to go through that crossing. Those who might like to stop us have to bear this in mind. Do they want to stand against this? That we will be handing over wheelchairs and walkers to people who have been left amputated from the bombing in December/January. That we will be handing crayons to children, taking messages from children in Chicago to children in a refugee camp in Khan Younis.

In his speech in Cairo last month, President Barak Obama said conditions in Gaza are "intolerable," and called the situation, "a humanitarian crisis." Viva Palestina is determined to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza, and show the world that an intolerable situation can and must be challenged.

Let them try and stop us.

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