The Gaza freedom standstill

Over 1500 international activists from more than 40 countries are continuing to appeal to Egyptian authorities, foreign embassies, and the offices of the United Nations in Cairo to be allowed to enter the Gaza Strip through the Rafah border crossing.

The activists, who plan to deliver humanitarian aid and express solidarity, are affiliated with the Gaza Freedom March and the Viva Palestina convoy. They have petitioned Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, staged a sit-in demonstration outside the UN mission in Cairo, and held a sleep-in protest outside the French Embassy. Several individuals have also launched hunger strikes with the aim of pressing the Egyptian government for travel permits.

The Viva Palestina Convoy, which consists of 250 vehicles loaded with humanitarian aid and some 500 people from 20 countries, has been stranded in the Jordanian port of Aqaba since 27 December after being denied entrance to Egypt’s port of Nuweiba. Egyptian authorities insist that humanitarian aid enter Rafah by way of el-Arish–on the other side of Sinai. Meanwhile, the Gaza Freedom March is being denied permission to travel from Cairo to Rafah through el-Arish. A Foreign Ministry statement issued last week cites the “sensitive situation along the border with Gaza” as the impetus for the travel ban.

Gaza solidarity activists are, unsurprisingly, frustrated with the Egyptian government. "I think that unfortunately the Egyptian government is showing a very bad face to the whole world. We are lucky to be foreigners since we are in a better position than Egyptians but that doesn’t hide the negative position of the Egyptian government to us," said Olivia Zemor, leader of the sit-in at the French embassy.

"This position is manifested by the fact that they are preventing us from crossing to Gaza and they are even building this wall in Rafah, while oppressing their own population. The Egyptian government is committing serious violations against human rights."

Irish citizens Caoimhe Butterly and John Hurson of Viva Palestina have begun a hunger strike in Jordan to protest Egypt’s decision to re-route their convoy through Syria. The 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, has launched a hunger strike in Cairo to protest the closure of the Rafah border.

Around 800 Gaza Freedom March activists demonstrated outside the offices of the UN mission in Cairo on Monday demanding a green-light into Gaza from the Egyptian government. Police officers prevented journalists from taking photos or speaking with activists there, and even threatened them with arrest and confiscation of cameras. State Security officers explained, “We have been issued orders to keep all journalists without authorization permits from the [Ministry of the] Interior from taking photos today."

Non-Egyptians were allowed to take photos and to film the events, however.

Gaza Freedom March organizer Ehab Lotayef told Al-Masry Al-Youm in a telephone interview that the march’s leadership called off protests at the UN offices. "However, 15 people have expressed their intention of sleeping-in here. We called upon the representatives of the UN mission to formally contact Foreign Minister Abul Gheit, yet again, in order to relay our requests of travel through Egypt and into Gaza.”

UN representatives managed to reach the Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson, explained Lotayef, “but the message from the ministry was basically, ‘we will not be able to arrange anything for you any time soon.’”

March organizers were in touch with the Foreign Ministry seven months before their arrival. “Initially the indicators were positive, now they’ve suddenly changed their minds,” said Lotayef. "We don’t want any problems with the Egyptian government. We only want to realize our goal of arriving in Gaza by December 30. People there are awaiting our arrival.”

Rows of riot police cordoned off the approximately 300 French nationals who were conducting a sleep-in protest in front of the Embassy of France. French activists have been demanding that their government assist them in attaining authorization for travel to Gaza. In a fit of frustration several hundred of these activists blocked-off Murad Street, between the Zoo and the French Embassy, for nearly four hours on Sunday.

On Monday night State Security officers briefly detained three journalists from Al-Masry Al-Youm (Ahmad Ragab, Mustafa Bahgat, and Jano Charbel) who were covering the protest outside the embassy. These journalists were held in a police micro-bus and released within three hours. In heavy French accents, demonstrators chanted "sahafa, hurriya," or journalism, freedom, in solidarity with the detained journalists. Upon release, the journalists were told to "immediately leave the area or else be subjected to arrest.”

Activists have pledged to continue the sit-ins and sleep-ins until they are allowed to enter Gaza. Egyptian activists, meanwhile, have their own actions planned, including a demonstration outside the Journalists’ Syndicate scheduled for 6 PM Tuesday to protest Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Cairo, and to commemorate the first anniversary of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s three-week offensive on Gaza that left more than 1300 Gazans dead, over 5000 injured, and tens of thousands more homeless.

Additional reporting by Lina Attalah

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