Hundreds of activists with the Gaza Freedom March are staging continued demonstrations and sit-ins in Cairo to protest the Egyptian government’s refusal to allow them to cross the border into Gaza. Organizers say an offer by Egyptian authorities this morning to allow just 100 members of the group to go to Gaza was not sufficient. More than 1,300 people from over forty countries are in Cairo as part of the Gaza Freedom March. We go to Cairo to speak with Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Hundreds of activists with the Gaza Freedom March are staging continued demonstrations and sit-ins in Cairo to protest Egypt’s refusal to allow them to cross the border into Gaza. Organizers say an offer by Egyptian authorities this morning to allow just a hundred members of the group to go to Gaza was not sufficient.
More than 1,300 people came from over forty countries. They’re in Cairo as part of the Gaza Freedom March, planning to cross the border last Sunday to commemorate the first anniversary of Israel’s assault on Gaza that killed 1,400 Palestinians and thirteen Israelis.
Around fifty to eighty people with the group did take up the deal and boarded a bus to Gaza this morning. Egypt’s border crossing point at Rafah is the only entrance point into the Gaza Strip not controlled by Israel.
Egypt’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit had hash words for the marchers, saying, quote, “Those who tried to conspire against us, and they are more than a thousand, we will leave them in the street,” he said.
Meanwhile, the demonstrations continue. On Tuesday, forty US citizens marched to the American embassy in downtown Cairo but were quickly met by riot police who cordoned them into smaller groups. Earlier in the day, members of the Gaza Freedom March joined with Egyptian activists in a protest against Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s one-day visit to Cairo for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
We go now to Cairo, where we’re joined on the phone by Ali Abunimah. He’s the co-founder of Electronic Intifada and is taking part in the Gaza Freedom March. He’s the author of the book One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.
Ali, welcome to Democracy Now! Is it true that CODEPINK had met with the wife of President Mubarak, and that’s what led to a hundred people being allowed to cross the border?
ALI ABUNIMAH: Good morning, Amy.
What we were told is that, through the intercession of the Red Crescent, which is headed by the wife of President Mubarak, they had arranged for a hundred people, two buses, to go. This was something that came through yesterday.
But what happened during the night is it became very clear that many of the country delegations who are part of the Gaza Freedom March and civil society organizers in Gaza felt that this offer was not enough, that it was designed to simply take the pressure off Egypt. And there was — it became clear that this was unacceptable. And what, for many people, was the tipping point was the statements by the foreign minister of Egypt, which did refer to the Gaza Freedom Marchers as hooligans and gave the impression that those who would have been on the buses — and I would have been one of them —- you know, were somehow handpicked by the government, while those remaining behind were hooligans. And that was certainly unacceptable. The people who initially planned to go on the buses were not, in any way, picked by the government. It’s the impression the government wanted to give.
And I think it was felt by most people, certainly a very, very strong contingent, that this would not advance the goal of the Gaza Freedom March, which, as far as I’m concerned, is not about getting a hundred people into Gaza or 1,400, but to breaking the siege. And that’s really where the focus has to remain, on breaking the siege and on exposing the complicity with the siege that is really suffocating the Palestinian people in Gaza.
AMY GOODMAN: Ali Abunimah, you got on the bus this morning and then got off?
ALI ABUNIMAH: That’s correct. I did get on the bus, because I had [inaudible] to go to Gaza, very much wanted to go. But as we boarded the buses, it became very clear that there had been long discussions throughout the night in Cairo among delegates and organizers, and so it became clear that there was a great deal of opposition to this. And what really was the bottom line for me was talking to friends and trusted colleagues in Gaza who have worked very, very hard for this march, but who felt very strongly that this would not help them and that we would be of more use remaining in Cairo and continuing to put pressure on Egypt and on other countries that are supporting the siege.
But I have to say, it was a very emotional, difficult scene for this morning at the buses, and people were very, very torn. And there were people who did go on the buses who were Palestinians and others who had reasons to be in Gaza other than the Gaza Freedom March, people who had been separated from their families for a very long period. And there may be others. It’s not exactly clear to me who did go on the buses, but I think the majority of those people [inaudible] -—
AMY GOODMAN: Do you know if Hedy — do you know, Ali Abunimah, if — Ali, do you know if Hedy Epstein went? We have been following her journey from St. Louis, the eighty-five-year-old Holocaust survivor who started a hunger strike in Cairo because they weren’t being allowed to go through.
ALI ABUNIMAH: What I have heard — and, you know, this is something that should be confirmed separately — but what I have heard is that Hedy Epstein did not go. But, you know, there’s quite a lot of information swirling around, and I think it’s important to double-check it. But that’s what I have heard.
AMY GOODMAN: Ali Abunimah, can you talk about the meeting between Mubarak and Netanyahu, the heads of Egypt and Israel, yesterday?
ALI ABUNIMAH: I don’t actually know what happened in that meeting, because I have, you know, along with really an incredible contingent from so many countries, been out in the streets here in Cairo. And, you know, just a short while ago, I came from the encampment at the French embassy, where hundreds of French citizens and others are still camped out on the sidewalk in front of the French embassy, absolutely surrounded by phalanxes of riot police in Cairo.
Yesterday we were at the US embassy for many hours, surrounded by police. But I think really the responsibility in that situation has to lie with the US embassy and the United States, which absolutely stonewalled and was unresponsive to the demands of its citizens to speak to their representatives. And when we finally did get a meeting, it really became very clear, from the US representative that we met, the senior political officer at the US embassy in Cairo, Greg Legrefo, that the United States was not going to do anything to support our effort to break the siege, that the policies of the United States remain unchanged.
And Mr. Legrefo did confirm in that meeting that the United States Army Corps of Engineers is providing technical assistance to Egypt to build an underground barrier along the border with Gaza to prevent the digging of tunnels, which have become the last lifeline for people of Gaza in circumventing the siege. And it’s absolutely outrageous that instead of complying with its obligations under international law to work to lift the siege and to bring to justice the war criminals who inflicted the massacres on people in Gaza this time last year, that the US Army Corps of Engineers is helping to tighten the siege, helping to prolong the suffering of the Palestinian people in Gaza. I really think the US Army Corps of Engineers should be doing its job in rebuilding and protecting New Orleans, rather than besieging and further victimizing the Palestinians in Gaza.
AMY GOODMAN: Ali Abunimah, I want to thank you for being with us. He’s speaking to us from Cairo, author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse and co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, usually based in Chicago.