Jul 21, 2009

US Tax Dollars at Work

This is what remains of the American International School in Gaza, bombed by an Israeli Air Force pilot sometime in the early morning of January 3, 2009. The Israeli military spokesman told Ha'aretz that the "American College" site was a munitions storage dump, and therefore the bombing was justified. No weapons remnants have been found. There were no secondary explosions or fires. Anyone with an ounce of intelligence can figure out that a munitions dump would have rendered more destruction than this. I suppose one can argue that the timing of the bombing was humane in that it took place during the night when no children were present. Actually, they failed to take into account the janitor who lived on the premises. But what's a janitor compared to imaginary munitions?

We toured the site. I walked around and saw the athletic fields--and again thought what this could look like undamaged and filled with children and teenagers.

As Amira Hass, the Ha'aretz correspondent, pointed out the "College" is a school for children in grades 1-12. According to its director, the school opened for operation the day before Ariel Sharon led his troupe of policemen to the Al Aqsa mosque, seen by many as the precipitating event of the Second Intifada. It will cost $7.12 million to bring the school back to operation, over $5 million of which will be needed to reconstruct the building itself. Of course, the Israeli government is refusing to allow construction materials to enter the Gaza Strip, but what's the problem?

According to Hass, the school was intended to attract international families moving to Gaza after the Oslo accords, but in fact it became a school for the children of the upper classes of Gaza, the political leaders. It had "a Western look and feel to it: a full day of studies, class size limited to only 20 students at most, lots of open space, boys and girls in the same classrooms, universal and liberal education, English as the language of instruction (Arabic and Islamic or Christian studies were taught in Arabic), music, computers and physical education." Though the international clientele never materialized due to the political turmoil, the local Gazans sending their children to school there suggested that the overcrowded public schools were not adequate.

Ironically, the school was trashed and vandalized in April of 2007 and January 2008 by unknown parties. The motives apparently were religious, because the school represented a departure from more traditional (and religiously based) values. You would have thought that Israel might have spared the school in order to sow ideological divisions. Hamas is ideologically opposed to the school, and yet promised to protect it after the vandalism. The school still operates in an older building in an older section of Gaza City.
About the man who was killed in the attack, the school janitor. His father lived nearby and went looking for his son immediately after the bombing. Had there been munitions exploding secondarily it might have been difficult to enter the rubble and call for his son. This was his second son to be killed. A third son was seriously injured by Israeli flechettes fired into a crowd of people, and is hospitalized in Egypt. Flechettes are little darts bundled together into a munition. This is the modern version of the thousands of arrows that you see in movies about medieval warfare. Flechettes were fired by a tank a few years ago and killed a TV journalist in his clearly identified vehicle. The Israeli military explained it by saying that the hand held camera was mistaken for a rocket launcher.

All of this material about the American International School was mentioned to Senator John Kerry when he was in Gaza. So where is Kerry when you need him? Speaking of assistance, where is the first dollar of the billions in reconstruction aid pledged by various nations to rebuild Gaza after the Israeli onslaught? Oh, that!

We send millions of dollars in aid to Israel every day, but there is no accounting. This is another example of collective punishment that we encourage by our uncritical support of the Israeli government. The auditing and accountability are long overdue.

Jul 17, 2009

Gaza Farewell

We left Gaza on a bus to the Rafah crossing on the evening of the 16th, watching the sun set in the Mediterranean, a few people on the beach and in the surf, trying to cool off. The shore of the Gaza Strip could be developed into a resort if there were any substance to the economy. Along the shore road south of Gaza City, you can see the ruins of buildings, targets of the Israeli warships: they are, for the most part, the villas of leaders of the PA. Within the borders of Gaza City, there was an industrial zone. All of the factories have been destroyed by the Israeli onslaught. I have done risk management and safety surveys on concrete factories, and one of the factories first bombed into oblivion was a cement factory--the burned hulks of cement mixing trucks and crane pumpers lay in the yard of the factory--crumbled cement walls and twisted rebar all around. I find this significant, because I know for a fact that the Israeli government refuses to allow the delivery of construction materials into the Gaza strip as part of their siege.

When you travel through Gaza City you see wide boulevards and what could be neat paved roads on a set of gentle hills, stone buildings (unlike the concrete and brick tenements you find everywhere in Egypt--some sections of Gaza City look more like towns in the West Bank or in Amman or Damascus--but there is so pavement, only sand, no evidence of the means of creating infrastructure. The pockmarks of bullets and shells are almost everywhere--sometimes in a jagged line leading up to a window and then on the other side, the last evidence of some Israeli soldier spraying his ammo. As we are finding out now in testimony from Israeli, it may or may not have been a response to a sniper or attacker. Soldiers were instructed to shoot at any movement at all, shoot first and don't ask questions later might be the phrase.

I must be an optimist, I decided, because in looking at all of this wreckage and devastation from the Israeli attack, I kept thinking to myself that if the Palestinians were in possession of full economic independence, this might be a town to compete with Haifa or Beirut for middle class vacation hordes, or how neat this one divided boulevard might be if it were paved and the stunted palms given the water to grow. And because despite this devastation and this very high unemployment, the people welcome us, smile at us, wave at us, greet us warmly and continue in their persistence--sumud is the word for this.

We were headed back to the Rafah crossing at the end of the 24 hour limit set by the Egyptian Government (and we assume also with the consent of the Israelis and the US State Department). By ten we reached the Gaza side of the border, retrieved our passports, and then bussed over to the Egyptian side of the "no man's land" for another slow and expensive re-entry into Egypt. When you first arrive, the cost of a visa is US$20. When we left Egypt for Gaza, there was a 92 Egyptian Pounds charge (the exchange is 5.6 pounds to the dollar), and now when we return there is another exit fee of 42 pounds just to leave the terminal. They get you going and coming.

By the time the buses were loaded, head checks done, security services settled in, it was after midnight and we crossed the Sinai, over the magnificent Mubarak Peace Bridge over the Suez Canal, the cargo vessels still moving slowly through, and back to Cairo airport, a trip of over 6 hours, and this despite the police escort vehicles who quickened our passage through the checkpoints that appear on the major roads every 30 kilometers or so. At dawn we were at the airport. Some on earlier flights headed to change to later or next day departures. The rest of us ate, exchanged last minute thoughts, names and addresses, shook hands and hugged. We had done it, and now, framed by long busrides in the night, it all felt like a dream.

In the US, mid afternoon of the 17th, we passed through immigration and customs with nary an inquiry. I understand that one or two people were detained, but apparently that was easily handled. And so back in the US, we have memories, and pictures, and the determination to tell the story of the Israeli siege of Gaza, the slow dying and the collective punishment of 1.5 million people who are kept from developing their own land.

Now, exhaustion is high, but so is determination to tell the story as often as we can to the American public. The mainstream media are not telling it. The idea that brings hope to all of us is that we are on the side of fairness and justice, and that will keep us going, as it has kept the Palestinians going. Our lesser sumud. When next I see Gaza City, I hope it will be for a stroll along the beach, fisherman coming in with catches from further out than two kilometers (where the Israelis now cordon off their boats) and no rubble and destruction in sight when I look inland. Viva Palestina!

Jul 12, 2009

Viva Palestina Convoy at Suez Crossing

From Alexandria I write, getting ready to go into a meeting regarding the pickup of the vehicles and the departure. We have been receiving contradictory information regarding what happened to the Cairo contingent of the convoy last night as they tried to cross the Suez Canal into the Sinai and head for the rendezvous point at Al Arish. Because I hear contradictory statements, I send on the official press release.

We are all hoping that this will be the last night in Alexandria, but what appears to be more important now is that we are running out of time. The return flight to the US leaves Cairo on the 17th, so we have five days to rendezvous at Al Arish, deliver the supplies across the border, and high tail it back to Cairo airport for the afternoon of the 17th.

Robert Burns' words keep repeating in my head: "the best laid plans of mice and men oft gang awry" (loose translation from the Scots); but in this case, it appears that some of the going awry is due to diplomatic machinations. The careful listing of passports that has been done all along now apparently is not good enough. That is my speculation. As I wrote in the last one--inshallah has resonance that I never clearly understood before. I hope I will be able to update this one more time, but it may well be that I will not get a chance as we drive and rendezvous.

Check the VP website below regularly for updates.

At least today is slightly overcast and less hot than yesterday, though all night long the power was out and I ended up sleeping on two chairs on the cool rear balcony of the rented apartment. Sorry for no pictures. Unfortunately my camera is incompatible with this internet computer, and the jpg. files are not transferring well from the flash drive.

So here's the latest update from the Viva Palestina group--link to the website is below the press release.

From: Kevin Ovenden Viva Palestina

The 100 Viva Palestina humanitarian volunteers have
decided to stay the night in their buses at the Mubarak Peace Bridge over the Suez Canal despite pressure from the Egyptian security officials to return to Cairo.

The official reason given at the checkpoint for
refusing to allow them to cross is that the officials there did not have a list of the names of the members of the convoy. Such a list was, however, at the request of the Egyptian authorities before any of the convoy members set foot in Egypt sent to the Egyptian ambassadors to Washington, D.C., and London.

The US Embassy in Cairo has now stepped in to forward
a newly provided list of those convoy members aboard the buses at the bridge to the Egyptian foreign ministry to clear the way for the convoy's passage.

Nancy Mansour Leigh, a spokeswoman for the Viva
Palestina delegation at the Suez crossing, says, "It's going to be an uncomfortable night, but it's nothing compared with what the people of Gaza must live through every day. We've already succeeded in securing internet access and are negotiating other necessary facilities. But whatever facilities are provided
or not, our determination will see us through the night and all the way to Gaza."

New York City Councilman Charles Barron is on the
scene at the Suez Canal and acting as chief negotiator with Egyptian security officials. "The Viva Palestina movement has had a great success this morning with our stand at the Suez crossing. We've now got an agreement for us to stay until the list of our convoy members reaches the foreign ministry. It shows what can be achieved with the determination and commitment of a collective body of people. We are determined to cross onto Gaza, and no matter what happens next, out of this first small confrontation, we've achieved a success for the movement
in support of the Palestinian people. The convoy is going to move on, and we ain't gonna let nobody turn us around."

British Member of Parliament George Galloway offered
these words of encouragement for the delegation being held up 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."

For more updates, visit

Jul 10, 2009

From Alexandria

Called "Alex," scene of the famous Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, home of the poet Constantine Cavafy, site of the famous museum and library burned and then destroyed by earthquake--no telling how different the texture of history might have been had all the volumes of papyrus survived--site of another famous seven wonder of the ancient world, the lighthouse at Pharos--well, there is a lot of history here in this seaboard town, the Mediterranan sea pounding against the stones and concrete, umbrellas by the seashore so closely packed that no sun penetrates. Millions on the beach and millions walking the streets, riding the trolleys and the minibuses that go everywhere and no tourist can tell where. The coptic church in the sun--where the women are not covered by a hijab. Cavafy's house in the shade of the small street, the view of the old Jewish Synagogue--but we cannot visit, and "No Camera" the instruction from the white-uniformed antiquities police.

The library has long gone, but the new spectacular Library, a large cap of concrete with incised and molded characters from all languages, Arabic, Greek, Latin, looks out over the old Harbor toward the entrance of the harbor,signified by crosses, an unexpected item. From the parapets of the fortress built on the traditional site of the lighthouse, you can see the fishing fleet at anchor in the late afternoon. From down the street, the smell of fish carefully stacked and laid out by the fishmongers.

And yet now not really as a tourist, here on a mission, twiddling my mental thumbs and walking in the sun in this interesting city as I wait to get into the vehicles, still standing about as we wait for the final release, and then on through the hot delta, cross the Suez Canal, head to al Arish where the rest of the medical supplies and the other members of the convoy who have been procuring them join up with us.

The lodgings are uncomfortable and red bites on my arms, despite the DEET, suggest that I may be the freshest meat for mosquitoes and flies; or worse, fleas, or worse than that, perhaps bedbugs. A good friend who had been in Alexandria caught dengue fever here, so I hope the bug spray keeps working. At any rate, it is hot and you live for those moments in a shady passageway when the breeze flows by and brings wanted relief. Hot, but not to the point of unbearabliity. Today on a balcomy we consumed kalamata olives, local green olives, sardines, pita bread, fruit juices and non-alcoholic beer, and a lovely ripe melon.

Inshallah, as they say here, and I am learning, very quickly, why they say it, we will be in the vehicles and heading out of Alexandria soon in the direction of the Sinai. From there, the opportunity to post to this extent or even to check emails will be limited, and I hope therefore, within a few days we will be able to deliver to those who need it the braces and wheelchairs and walkers and medicine. Inshallah, of course, always inshallah.

Jul 8, 2009

Viva Palestina Convoy Readying to Launch

The Viva Palestina Convoy members have been in Cairo since the fifth of July--having left NYC and other cities on the Fourth of July in order to declare independence from US policy of tacit support of the Israeli siege. The people of Gaza await our delivery of medical supplies and equipment. Over 180 Americans are in the convoy from all over the country with a very strong contingent of 34 from CA.

And now that the planning and various supply negotiations have been completed, we are beginning the convoy. One team remains here in Cairo to handle last minute procurement, packing, and inventory to add to the supplies already shipped from the US. Another team heads out tomorrow morning to procure the convoy vehicles, prepare and secure them for loading and transport.

British MP George Galloway, the inspiration for the convoy, has been interviewed by Al Jazeera in NYC before we left, by the AP here in Cairo when we arrived on Sunday. Wednesday at the Association of Egyptian journalists, Galloway and a contingent of 30 Viva Palestina participants answered questions regarding the convoy. Unfortunately, American media, despite some prodding by individuals, have not been very responsive up to this point, consistent with their usual ignoring of this continuing collective punishment of the Palestinian people in Gaza for the past three years, most notoriously during the onslaught of late December 2008 and January 2009.

Cairo is a thronging city, its downtown area on both banks of the Nile incrediby interesting. Activity never stops, and traffic is relentless. Our cab today taking into the older sections of the city just narrowly brushed by two women crossing the street as the cabbie, excitedly practicing his English started waving his hand in imitation of a cowboy movie. We traipsed through the market and furniture manufacturing areas of the city, looking longingly at the fruit, but with no surplus of bottled water to rinse it thoroughly, had to pass them up. Apricots, grapes, mangoes, cactus pears in abundance--donkey carts driven by young children or old men, people drinking their water out of brown decorated pitchers. I wondered how the women in the full veils, with their dark eyes peering out of the slits slaked their thirst--did theu have to wait until they returned home? Cabs and constant honking, downtown in the modern section of the city near the airlines and banks, someone is always ready to speak to you and even more, to accompany you, show you where the bookstore or the bank is for a few piastres.

Uniformly, the people are friendly and when you do get into conversation, their favorite president, above all, is Jimmy Carter, seen by everyone as a man of peace. President Obama is appreciated for his speech in Cairo, but people we spoke to, while appreciating its sentiments, unanimously express some reservations about actions speaking louder than words. From what they can see, the actual policy has not changed very much. They are, in fact, still waiting for the deeds.

Donations can still be made at the Viva Palestina website , and if you are in tune with the plight of the Palestinian people in Gaza, I encourage you to think about donating and sending this blog entry on to sympathetic friends and acquaintances. I am including the URL in case the hyperlink doesn't work, as this computer tends to slide in and out of Arabic, making the hyperlinks a bit difficult to fix firmly: www.vivapalestina-US.org). You will find on the website some pictures of our unloading some supplies at JFK on the Fourth the afternoon of our flight. Other sites with pictures and writing about the convoy are:

verbage.wordpress.com .

Check them out and watch for further pictures and reports on the VP website and on this blog.

More follows from the delta and the road through the Sinai desert as we head towards Gaza and I sneak a few monents on someone's computer.

Now comes the hard and exhausting part--the heat and the sand and the mosquitos along the Meditarranean Sea desert scape, the loading and the driving and the convoy and the jump off in just a few days into the damage and heartbreaking sights: the recovering wounded, the cemeteries, the rubble of the bombed schools and hospitals and civic structures, and among it all, the people who just will not give up in their long struggle. After work, not rest but the sorrow of bearing witness. We realize that even this little penetration into that sandy prison called Gaza is just one of many things that must be done to bring justice. And we also know, as Reverend Daughtry said from his lectern, we also know that right is on our side.

Jul 7, 2009

From Cairo

The weather, believe it or not is not as hot as expected, no higher than 100 fahrenheit, though I was expecting to have to deal with 110. Little surprises continue to occur. Traffic as rapid and chaotic and unrelenting as can be and on a road with no sidewalks you really need eyes in the back of your head--since the frantic last minute beeps and honks don't come until the car is right upon you.

There are over two hundred of us here working on various tasks in preparation for our delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza, and the shared commitment of everyone is just accepted and part of the conversation. I am working on the media committee, and would hope that when my posts are read by my chosen friends that these entries will be passed around to all. My understanding is that the Viva Palestina website will start carrying a blog entry or journal within the next few days and I will post the link to it when it comes up.

Things are a bit hectic and I still am scrambling to find someone who can upload my pictures--though I have not had a chance to take that many of the local scenery or the heated and dusty turmail that is this gigantic city--so I can get them posted here.

One of the convoy members has been checking coverage in the local media, and while there is news here, the news in the United States has been absolutely minimal, even though press releases have been sent, inteviews have been given to the AP and to Al Jazeera. So I would suggest your going to either of those places to find some articles and then pass on to your local news outlets to see if some local cover can be stimulated for the Viva Palestina convoy. The tendency of US papers in general to ignore any news about relief to the Palestinians, especially in Gaza, is a given, and indeed one of the intentions of the convoy is to generate interest. That's why we have Americans of various faiths and origins here, most from the East and West Coasts, but a number from mid-western states as well.

As the week rogresses, computer time will diminish, but I hope to get something up every day to record the events, and will certainly continue to follow the movement to bring relief and humanitarian assistance to the long-suffering people of Gaza.

Jul 4, 2009

Piracy Off of Gaza

For three days now I have been scouring the US press looking for updates--no, actual mention--of the piracy, complete with armed masked men boarding the ship in waters off the coast of Gaza Port. (First reports said that the ship was hijacked in International Waters, but according to one of the participants, they reckoned to have been in Gazan waters.) The ship was carrying toys, crayons, medical supplies, and some construction materials to Gaza. On board were over 20 people including Cynthia McKinney, the former Congressional Representative, and Mairead Maguire, the Irish Nobel Prize winner. The ship is the latest attempt of the Free Gaza movement to provide relief to the besieged people of Gaza.

McKinney is still in jail awaiting a "deportation order" which she has refused to sign since it was presented in Hebrew. Since the people on board were arrested by Israel and put into prison in Israel, and Israel is threatening deportation because of their "illegal entry" into Israel, the only conclusion to draw is that the state of Israel regards Gazan waters as Israeli waters, showing once again the illegality and the deliberate choke hold of control over the Palestinian people.

All of the countries whose citizens were hijacked have raised heavy objections with Israel. Except the United States, which remains very quiet in the face of this obvious international violation. It makes you wonder how much pressure is actually being brought by the Obama administration to settle the conflict. Silence and neglect seem to be the policy. It certainly is the operating policy of the Mainstream Media. Cynthia McKinney was pretty outspoken Congressperson, and the US press was quite good at demonizing and marginalizing her, so it is no surprise that her incarceration has not received any attention.

More later as I get to the Middle East and get to a computer.