I should have known that al-Arish was not going to be straightforward. The last time I set foot on the usually-sleepy Sinai tourist town, just 40 kilometres away from the Egypt-Gaza border (or, should I say, iron wall of oppression) was back in March, when I met up with the first Viva Palestina convoy.
Ten months later, and another convoy was on its way to the besieged Gaza Strip. With the chaos in Cairo after the attempted Gaza Freedom March, my first challenge was even getting to the Sinai, which all foreigners had been barred from entering by the Egyptian authorities. My adopted Egyptian mum, a friend of Sara’s family, helped me escape the prying eyes of the undercover state security in Cairo bus station, and four checkpoints later (the first of which saw the removal of all other foreigners from the bus) and I was in al-Arish.
Unfortunately, the convoy had stumbled into major delays upon their arrival at al-Arish airport. Attempts to split the convoy, including a suspicious “emergency landing” in Damascus for one of the flights, meant that they would not make it to the sea port, where I was now waiting for them, until the next day.
The Egyptian police at the port didn’t seem too pleased by my presence. As the head of security kindly informed me the moment I arrived, there was no way, even once they did arrive from the airport, that I would be able to join the convoy inside the port area where all the vehicles were being held. Oh dear.
I spent a sleepless night in a small office just outside the gates of the port, talking to a student called Ahmed who worked night shifts there, “to pay for cigarettes”. He shared my distress over the Egyptian role in the siege of Gaza, although he said a lot of Egyptians felt powerless to speak out in the face of such an oppressive state. He said that people in al-Arish, despite the negative economic consequences, were generally happy when the Gazans made a brief breach of the Wall in January 2008. Oppressed people sharing a common struggle for freedom.
The next morning, members of the Viva Palestina convoy began to arrive. I briefly saw Caoimhe at the gates, an inspirational woman in all senses of the word, before she entered with the first group of people to be re-united with their vehicles.
I sat on a stone step outside the gates all day, desperately wishing I was with my brothers and sisters inside and feeling pretty depressed.
It was late afternoon when I saw the head of security walking away from the gate. Seizing the opportunity, I casually strolled up to the guards, explaining that I was actually a member of the convoy and that I was just waiting for a friend of mine. Seconds later, and random Bradfordian bystander with a long beard quickly became aforementioned “best friend” of mine, and I was inside.
It wasn’t long before the trouble started. Word started to spread that the Egyptian government were trying to ban 60 of the 250 humanitarian aid vehicles from entering Gaza, and an impromptu demonstration quickly made its way to the building where negotiations between convoy organisers and the Egyptian government were taking place.
But in true Viva Palestina direct action style, people soon moved on to the entrance of the compound, and ripped one of the huge gates from it’s hinges. I remember talking about the importance of militant action only a couple of hours before, and now realised that I needn’t have opened my lips.
Only a few metres in front of us, thousands of Egyptian riot police, who had clearly been waiting nearby, surrounded the compound where the vehicles were being kept. Fearing an invasion, members of the convoy were organised into three rows, standing arm-in-arm, just in front of the gates.
A stare-off ensued, but tensions were rising. The Muslim brothers prayed, the sisters defiantly sat down in front of the police lines, and some offered the cops, young, poor guys from the town who clearly didn’t want to be there, chocolates, but they didn’t accept. But when we saw them removing the barriers that they had previously erected in front of themselves, we were back in formation and ready to defend our vehicles. Vehicles full of medicine intended for a strangled population.
I was standing at the far left of the front row of people. Over to the right, I saw a scuffle between police and members of the convoy quickly escalating. Within seconds, hundreds of riot police were charging at us, screaming and beating us with batons… I felt batons laying into my left side. Seven members of the convoy were arrested, later to be kept for 15 hours without food, water or access to a toilet. From behind the lines of riot police emerged hundreds of undercover police, throwing sand in my eyes and spraying pepper spray into the eyes of others. The moment they had forced us back inside the gates, the mukhadarat, as the undercover police are locally known, quickly moved onto huge piles of rocks that they had prepared in advance, and began hurling them at us through and over the gate. I dived under a nearby lorry for protections, as hundreds of missiles rained down from the sky, and members of the convoy bravely fighting back with stones of their own. Many suffered serious head injuries… literally giving their blood for the cause.
By later in the evening, things had calmed down, and the political (negotiations) continued. The next day, after further hours of delay, every member of the convoy travelled to Rafah, and crossed the border into the Gaza Strip.
I had finally made it.