“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.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism