“We give our lives to Gaza” - the Egyptians who entered Gaza from Egypt

Bel Trew and Nada El-Kouney report from the civilian convoy that travelled into the violence in solidarity.

It was a mad mission. On the bloodiest night of the latest Israeli onslaught on Gaza, over 550 Egyptian revolutionaries in 11 buses drove over the border to the besieged territory. The unprecedented expression of solidarity challenged their country's siege on the strip.

Activists, who had fought their own war for independence on Tahrir Square, watched for the first time, from the windows of the buses, rockets fall from the sky.

As regular as a heartbeat, the missiles landed on either side of the buses that drove through a pitch-black Gaza to the main city.

Surveillance drones buzzed a continuous base note in the background. 

Rocket lands metres away from the convoy, a building goes up in smoke in Gaza City 

It was reportedly the single largest number of civilians to successfully enter Gaza in a solidarity convoy since the creation of Israel.

"Egypt shares a border with the Gaza strip, the Egyptian regime is as just as much as a part of the siege on Gaza as Israel," said Philip Rizk, a member of revolutionary media collective Mosireen, about the significance of the crossing.

Currently Egypt prevents all trade with the Palestinian territory and there are month-long waiting lists for Gazans to cross, despite promises the border would open post-revolution.

Entrance into Gaza for Egyptians is also difficult: travelling via the tunnels has become a necessary and dangerous alternative. 

The coalition of leftist political groups who organised Sunday's convoy, never expected to get more than 50 people in – on the way they had drawn lots to determine who would enter.

In 2009, during the last Israeli offensive and under the Mubarak regime, a similar convoy fled as military police stormed the buses at the Rafah crossing.

This time, however, all 561 protesters were let through. Gazans cheered the buses on as we drove through the airstrike.

A shared history and objective was the topic of conversation when the Palestinians and Egyptians met at Gaza City's main hospital for a press conference about the historic convoy.

A child is rushed into the emergency room at Al-Shifaa hospital, Gaza City

Speaking to the crowds, who chanted “We give our lives to Gaza”, the Gazan Minister of Health Hani Abdeen, talked about Palestinians and Egyptians being one people with one history. 

"Palestine must be liberated in order to ensure the wellbeing and safety of Egypt," he said. Hamas and Israeli rocket-fire blasted in the background. 

The Egyptian activists echoed his sentiments.

Ragia Omran, a convoy organiser and lawyer who works with rights groups, thanked the Gazans for bringing Egyptians together.

“We came to the streets and united for the first time after the Second Intifada [in 2002],” she said, explaining how these protests were in many ways the beginning of the revolutionary movement in Egypt.

Later, sitting in the living room of one Gazan family who lived next to the hospital, the mother told me how she followed last year's Egyptian Revolution, obsessively online and on the television. The future of Egypt, she said, was the future of Palestine.

Trapped in her house for fear of the sky, she and daughters now track the explosions shattering her neighbourhood in the same way.

Over 500 protesters chant in support of Palestine in the Rafah border crossing

At night the shelling gets worse. It was deemed too dangerous for the convoy to cross back over to Egypt, so we stayed: hundreds of us sleeping on the streets.

In the thick of the onslaught, the hospital offered up their wards for people to camp in and opened a kebab shop to feed the 500.

Suddenly a rocket exploded metres away from the resting convoy and hospital.

The pressure change pummelled our chests and the world shook. People dived for cover in the food stand.

A few minutes later a second missile landed on the other of the hospital. The air smelled of charred metal and masonry.

Our Palestinian escorts later told us that they believed that the convoy was being targeted by Israel as a warning.

Just before dawn, the violence escalated. A three-storey building, in nearby a residential area, was hit killing 14 in one go. Three more houses collapsed.

“It was heartbreaking as most of the injured were children,” says Gigi Ibrahim, an Egyptian activist describing distraught families in the chaotic emergency room.

Injured toddler treated at ER in Gaza's main hospital

Children cloaked in rubble dust sat with blank faces, babies just a few months old were brought in with shrapnel wounds and people desperately searched for their loved ones.

The morgue, Palestinian doctor Zakaria told us, was filled with children. "The majority of the people the paramedics bring in now are civilians."

As the sun rose, we learned that night had seen the highest number of fatalities since the start of the offensive. 24 were killed that night. 

Rockets followed us all the way back to the border. One, landing directly in our path, forced the buses to change direction.

Injured woman rushed in past barrage of reporters, Al-Shifaa hospital

“The convoy getting through is a few steps forward for Egypt," said Ibrahim, “Although President Mohamed Morsi has phrased himself as a pro-Palestinian revolutionary, this has yet to be translated into action.”

Taking up Mubarak's mantle as the peace broker for the region, Morsi is currently negotiating a cease fire, however, Ibrahim argued this is not enough. Camp David, she added, must be rejected, referring to the contentious 1979 peace accords between Egypt and Israel. Relations in the region are still being shaped post-Arab Spring.

The final destination of the convoy was Mohamed Mahmoud Street, in downtown Cairo, which on Monday had become the scene of fierce street battles between Egyptian protesters and the police again: a stark reminder of the domestic conflicts still dividing Egypt. The convoy joined the protesters confronting the security forces. The Palestinian flags melted into the crowds.

All photographs by Gigi Ibrahim.

Labour lawyer and convoy organiser Haitham Mohamedain leads the chants at the Egyptian-Gaza border. Photograph: Gigi Ibrahim.
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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.