Last night delegates met for the first time. Growing in size throughout the evening, eventually nearly the full 60 delegates — from the U.S., Canada, Australia and Pakistan — squeezed into a room at the Arabesque Hotel in Cairo. CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin explained that they have had wonderful support from locals in Egypt. For example, when they learned the nature of the delegation, the company renting the buses to drive us to the border offered to donate them. Companies selling goods to fill the 1,000 baskets Code Pink collected to deliver on IWD, donated by many when they learned we were going into Gaza, etc.
The key to the success of the trip, CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin told us, is flexibility: there are many unknowns, including most importantly the question of whether we will be permitted to cross the border at all. Many have been turned away, including Montrealer Ehab Latoyef who joined the delegation this week, after spending a fruitless week trying to get into Gaza on his own. The Egyptians have added a number of barriers to crossing, among them, requiring foreign nationals to sign a letter from their embassy, indicating their awareness of risk.
Letters from "officials" supporting the delegation are also, we are told, of influence at the border. Americans have come from letters of members of Congress. I have letters of from three MPs: Real Menard, Libby Davies and Paul Dewar.
The ambiguity of the Rafah border is a result of the bombings by Israel and Hamas, and an agreement made in 2005 between the EU, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt. A key element of the 2005 agreement requires the presence of EU representatives at the border. However, the EU pulled inspectors out 18 months ago, when rocket fire by Israel and Hamas intensified. Since then the border has been effectively sealed. According to the Red Crescent, unless Egyptian authorities get a message each day from Israel that they will not bomb, the border remains closed. To give a sense of the level of hardship, the Red Crescent estimates that to feed the people of Gaza they need 1,000 trucks of supplies a day. Currently, an average of 100 a day get through. Or, as one Egyptian activist explained, "there are 1.5 million people getting feeding themselves through the tunnels."
Today we drove six hours from Cairo to Al-Arish in a convoy of two buses, a truck loaded with goods, and an obligatory police escort. The bus trip turned out to be a terrific opportunity to meet and strategize with fellow delgates, both for this trip, and for follow up at home. Canadians on the delegation are from across the country: Ehab Latoyef is from Montreal, Dalia Shabib from Ottawa, Sandra Ruch from Toronto/London, Joanna Zilsel from Vancouver, and myself, living in Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver.
Tonight in Al-Arish we met with local journalists and activists, who shared their solidarity for Gaza, and challenged us to bring more than humanitarian aid with us, as one writer put it "Your aid, your money, your gifts are a nice gesture, but they are nothing. What is needed is political change, and for you to pressure your governments, especially the U.S. government, to change its policy towards Hamas and towards the people of Gaza."
We heard today that a European delegation was permitted entry today. Tomorrow morning we make our first attempt to cross the border.