Egypt continues to deny aid into southern Gaza

Over the weekend, a convoy of buses and cars began their trek to the Egyptian Rafah crossing, the only non-Israeli border with the Gaza Strip. The aim was to provide humanitarian assistance for the wounded people in Gaza and to pressure the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to open the crossing permanently. However, the convoy was stopped four times on their way, and turned back 50km away from the border. MENASSAT correspondent Salma Elwardany was with the convoy and has this report.
Activists, journalists and aid workers stage a sit-in at one of four checkpoints set-up to prevent aid into Rafah. © Per Bjorklund

RAFAH BORDER CROSSING, January 13, 2009 (MENASSAT) - Over 900 people have been killed and 4000 injured since the bombardment of the Gaza Strip began on December 27. Human rights organizations have called the conditions in the territory a humanitarian disaster or on the brink of such a catastrophe. Yet another convoy to deliver humanitarian aid was stopped by Egyptian security forces, and turned back over the weekend.  

Organized by the Cairo-based Committee to Support Palestinian People about one hundred people, including journalists, public figures, lawyers, students, political activists and bloggers boarded aid vehicles bound for the border crossing at the Rafah gate in southern Gaza. 

After setting off from the Association of Journalists’ offices in Cairo the convoy ran into its first problem when approaching the city of Ismailiya – 120 kilometres east of Cairo.

Police halted the convoy and demanded that the convoy’s organizers produce the needed permission documents from state security to carry out such an activity.

Organizers threatened to take the aid to Rafah by foot, and within minutes the convoy was allowed to pass.

At Kubri Al Salam (the Bridge of Peace), security forces again intercepted the aid convoy. Rather than waiting for an official explanation, participants closed the road off and blocked traffic with a sit in, until they were granted permission to pass. 

When the convoy eventually approached the Rafah crossing, they were met with a much stiffer security presence in the Lawza region some 100 kilometres from Rafah.

Again the convoy participants stopped traffic and staged another sit in, chanting slogans that denounced what they said was the complicity of the  Egyptian and Arab governments in the on-going two-week Israeli onslaught on the Gaza Strip.

Part of the Egyptian security presence at the Bir el Abed checkpoint. © Per Bjorklund

They demanded an immediate opening of the Rafah crossing for humanitarian assistance to be let into Gaza.

An hour later, the security forces allowed the convoy to pass through but threatened everyone on board with arrest if they continued on to the checkpoint at Bir el Abed – warning of a heavy security presence when the convoy arrived there.

Eyewitnesses said that at each of the checkpoints prior to Bir al Abed, there were no clear decisions taken by guards on the ground. At each point, decisions came from telephone conversations with unseen officials on the other end.

When the convoy reached Bir el Abed, indeed some 30 heavily armed soldiers met the convoy. Italian, British, French and American participants holders had their passports confiscated, and journalists were told they could not proceed for security reasons.

According to the TV crew of El Ashera Masa’an, a BBC Arabia production team that was with the convoy, Egyptian security officials rebuffed their entry because they didn’t have a “Sinai permit.”

It was a move seen at the time as a strategy to separate the convoy from the media. Media representatives with the convoy told MENASSAT that barring journalists from getting to the Rafah border crossing was indicative of an overall strategy of blacking out media coverage from both sides of the Gaza border.

60 kilometres later, with no participating media presence, the convoy was stopped by what eye-witnesses said were more than 100 soldiers in full riot gear in the town of Al Arish, some 50 km west of the Rafah border crossing.

There were some 10 paddy-wagons on-hand to cart away “unruly” activists, as Egyptian security forces stopped traffic, and armed security agents forced themselves onto aid vehicles – confiscating keys and preventing any of the convoy participants from moving about.

“Turn back and go home,” was the only order issued. There was no negotiation with the convoy organizers.

A statement issued by the Popular Committee in Support of Palestinian People read, “What the security forces did with the convoy, which only intended to support the Palestinian people, is no different than what the forces did with hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who took to the streets, all over the country, against the official position Egypt has taken on what is happening in Gaza,”