“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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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”