This is an account of my trip to Egypt and Gaza from 23-27 July which was organized by the Council for European Palestinian Relations. The trip’s purpose was to promote understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict in general, and the situation in the Gaza Strip in particular. Thirteen parliamentarians representing the Commons, Lords and the Scottish and European Parliaments attended.
Saturday 23 July 2011 – Cairo, Egypt
Meetings with two groups who could end up playing a decisive role in Egypt’s future.
The first was with Mohamed Morsy, a long standing and important figure within the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) & the President of a new political party ‘Justice & Freedom’. MB hope to capture the spirit of revolution within Egypt. As an already established party, with the political infrastructure in place, they have a chance of securing a significant amount of the vote in the forthcoming elections, promising the country a new constitution. While the MB was promising an active role for women in the new Egypt, LGBT people were described as a ‘threat’ to Egyptian society.
The other face of the Egyptian future was seen in the inspirational form of the Coalition of Resistance, who have been instrumental in facilitating the long standing demonstrations for democracy in Tahrir Square. These protests which triggered an 18 day revolt involving the military services are credited with hastening the fall of the President Hosni Mubarak.The revolution has so far led to 846 deaths and 6,000 injuries.
Armed with little more than the strength of their arguments, the demonstrators stood up against armed militia and led to an unpopular president’s downfall. These people were set on improving democracy and possessed an almost evangelic zeal. They described the struggle for Egypt’s future as the Nasser generation vs the Facebook generation.
After these meetings we piled into the bus and made our way toward the crossing into Gaza at Rafah. After four hours in the coach we were still trying to get out of Cairo! The traffic was in a state of horrendous anarchy. Eventually we arrived at a hotel in a place an hour from Rafah. It was 2am, and we had to be back on the coach by 8am!
Sunday 24 July 2011 – Gaza
It was a groggy crew that were checking out of the hotel just six hours later, and our tribulations were only just beginning. When we got to Rafah (the only crossing into Gaza) it took us four hours to get through the border. Mind you we were the lucky ones. For Palestinians a wait of two or three days in the full glare of the sun and 35+ degree temperatures is commonplace. The Egyptians are not doing Palestinians any favours. Someone told me Egypt has 31,000 staff in its Security team, and a lot of them seem to have been at Rafah, shuffling papers about as if it were a new Olympic sport with the deliberate intent of delay and obfuscation.
I have never seen people treated quite as badly as the Palestinians were, and felt quite helpless that I couldn’t intervene.
Our entrance into Gaza was heralded by the sights of a territory under siege; public services not working, high unemployment and high poverty. The rubbish was piling up in the streets, in the rivers and on the beach. Just as hot as Cairo, the air was heavy and thick.
Our first meeting of the day was with a Palestinian prisoners families group. They told us of their husbands, brothers and sons incarcerated in Israeli jails, of harsh sentences on flimsy evidence and of refusals to allow families to visit their loved ones. Many of the families carried pictures of those imprisoned, and others momentos. One man even brought the blood spattered clothes his son was arrested in.
The girl in the picture below is cared for by her grandmother after losing her mother to illness. She hasn’t seen her father for six years, and the Israelis say she is a threat to security and won’t grant her permission to see her father.
Next we visited UNWRE, the UN agency for refugees, and spoke with the Acting Director there. UNWRE provide lifeline services to Palestinians. Education for 400,000 with 9,000 teachers, healthcare to 951,000 via 20 health centers, micro finance and rental assistance, 10,000 new homes and 1,000 new schools.
We heard about unemployment standing at 45%, that 29% of agricultural land lay within restricted military areas. We heard that Israel had prohibited exports from Palestine and imposed a long standing blockade which is strangling the economy. And what’s more, we heard that UNWRE funding was under threat and they faced having to cut back on the services they deliver, starting this October.
Our final meeting was with the Prime Minister of Gaza, who briefed us on the current situation in Gaza. He spoke passionately about his belief that peace is the only way that a settlement will be reached with Israel and within Gaza and the West Bank. He called for the lifting of the siege so that the economy can start working again.
Part 2 will be posted next week. Read about meetings with a Palestinian womens group. OCHA (UN coordination of Human Affairs), Palestine National Authority, the independent presidential candidate Jamal Naji EL-Khoudary, the Palestinian Legislative Council, NGOs and Fatah.