Dear Open Democracy/Rosemary,
During the course of the last year Az Theatre's Gaza Drama Long Term project, a ten year partnership with Theatre for Everybody in Gaza that began in 2009, has supported an original production in Gaza based on Arrabal's GUERNICA called THE TREE. It includes an intensive programme of drama workshops for young people. This programme is designed to last for eight weeks and involves 40 young people who were considered to be in special need of this work. The workshops centre around two questions: 'What is the use of theatre?' and 'What is the impact on future generations of organised violence?'
Maysoon Pachachi and I have travelled to Egypt on our way to Gaza in order to develop our project and film the work that is now taking place. This work reaches out into the community and involves the families of those young people. Our film would provide a unique portrait of the Gaza community, 'one and a half million human beings living through one of the most extraordinary blockades in human history' by a leading UK-based filmmaker, Maysoon Pachachi, whose prize-winning films made in the Middle East have brought worldwide acclaim. Maysoon’s remarkable film school in Baghdad is currently an inspiration for young Iraqi filmmakers and others, as we learn from the latest reports of the touring Film Festival that opened in Baghdad last week and is taking these films to audiences in Iraq.
Our aim with the Az Theatre project is to make a cultural exchange that will develop a creative space for work in Gaza and be an inspiration to artists in the UK. Our emphasis is on solidarity and mutual learning. It was in response to the 2000 Intifada that Theatre for Everybody turned their attention from producing plays to using their theatre skills in working for the wellbeing of young people, particularly those badly disturbed by the violent situation in which they were living. I found this decision inspirational and we have worked with them ever since - helping in any way we can to develop this work.
Although this work would appear to be charitable and humanitarian in its intention, I have to say I have a deep antipathy to people who think they are good. Our work is experimental and investigative and rejects the idea of Palestinians as victims. These are people from whom we have much to learn, especially from young people who have to cope and love and bring up children and work to secure their lives in an extraordinary situation. Our questions revolve around resilience, resistance, coping strategies, imagination and creativity.
I am writing to you to say that we have been refused permission to get into Gaza and that this is a great blow to our work. As we travelled to the Rafah Crossing last Thursday, the murder of Juliano Mer Khamis was in our minds. We were saddened and sickened to hear about his death and though the immediate intentions of his killers (what was in their hearts as they killed him) is a mystery - somehow the cause of his death is less obscure.
At the end of a day spent waiting at the border, there was a mortar or some explosion nearby and two Israeli helicopter gunships began to strafe the fields near the border post. Of course death and the destruction of human life takes many forms in our world and is present in this region as a deliberate element of political strategy. You said you might publish some of the letters relating to our experiences and thoughts and ongoing efforts to get into Gaza, so here they are.
Open letter to our colleagues in Gaza, sent on Saturday, April 9
Cairo, Saturday 9th April
Dear H and J,
I understand that the situation in Gaza is unstable and that there is some kind of action impending. Deep down, as in other instances, my thoughts are for your well being and that of your families.
Finally after all our attempts, we have not managed to secure permission to pass through the Rafah border crossing. This is the same as the situation in 2006 when I made extensive inquiries through our Foreign Office and was told that they would not support my trip. This time the way I approached it was different. However in the end it has come down to the same thing. I will try again tomorrow when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Office opens here in Cairo. I do not hold out much hope for our success. So what's going on?
This time, unlike 2006, the advice we had received was that gaining the prior permission of the Egyptian authorities was advisable but that the situation with the interim regime here in Egypt may allow the gaining of permissions. We had good contacts in the League of Arab States and all whom we talked to said that my strategy may lead to success.
I informed the British Authorities of my intentions through the British Council and made contact with the British Embassy here as a supplementary strategy. We gained letters from the Palestinian General Delegation in London.
All our efforts and those in the League of Arab States involving ambassadorial participation in the communication with the Palestinian Directorate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were met with willingness. The problem was that the Egyptian State Security would not come through with the permission.
Although I cannot confirm what the procedure is, I believe that the Egyptian state security and the Israeli intelligence and, indeed, the British intelligence services will be co-ordinating their actions. I believe that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here will not move without permission from the Foreign Office of the national concerned. I would estimate that the British will be taking advice from the Israelis and will obey their instructions in matters of this kind. And the man from the British Embassy with whom I spoke on Thursday advised me that, in this instance, they would not be giving us permission. Effectively he was telling me that gaining this permission was impossible. They would not issue a request to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.
On Thursday, he told me that there were two conditions that had to be satisfied before they would make a move on behalf of a request of this sort. One was that the person concerned was working with UNWRA: the other was that the mission being undertaken was of clear humanitarian benefit. He told me that our work fulfilled neither of these conditions, and advised me that his organisation, the British Government, was not willing to exhaust their good offices by making requests that might be turned down. What he did not say was who it was that would be turning down the request ultimately.
As the Ambassador from the League of Arab States engaging on our behalf with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here was met with friendly powerlessness, he was heard to exclaim 'There's something going on and we don't know what it is'. The intelligence communities operate by a system of levels of alert and they pass on these alerts from one service to another. I believe that there is a heightened state of alert at the moment and this may have influenced the ability of the Ministry to pressurise their counterparts in State Security. This may have to do with some impending action in Gaza. You yourself said, H, that there have been constant rumours of a sequel to the Cast Lead operation of the winter of 2008/9.
We know that there were a series of rocket attacks from Gaza a couple of weeks ago and revenge attacks by the Israelis and this led us to hesitate in our plans for our trip. We also know that Hamas had a brutal reaction to the solidarity demonstration by Gazans to the revolution here in Egypt. I remember the caution in your voice, J, when we spoke about the events here following the January 25 uprising. I think you suspected that the events would show no immediate benefit to people in Gaza. We have seen photos of the demonstration in Gaza against the separation (of Gaza from the West Bank, of Hamas from the PLO), and heard that, at this demonstration at which only the Palestinian flag was to be waved, an attempt by Hamas to wave its flag was prevented.
The European Union gave up responsibility for the co-ordination of the Rafah border crossing in 2007 when they obeyed the US and Israeli demand for the isolation and siege of the Gaza Territory on the accession to power of Hamas. Ever since, the work of policing this border has fallen more definitively into the hands of the Israelis. When the Palestinian people made the mistake of electing the 'wrong' government in those elections the blood started to flow through the umbilical connection between Hamas and the Israeli state that in this immediate period seems to be flowing more vigorously. At the same time as the European Union left Gaza to its fate, Hamas started to make moves to take over from the Palestinian Authority the responsibility for the control of the adjacent border gate. The proxy, false war of Hamas versus the Israelis began.
The policy that guides the British government in relation to Gaza is in line with the Israeli perspective that 'there is no humanitarian crisis' in Gaza. In other words 'genuine' humanitarian aid will always be allowed in. The reduction of the inhabitants of Gaza to complete dependency on international humanitarian aid with no economic nor social nor political life is the ideological goal of the Israelis. Bare human existence is what they are after for the Gazans. This is an ideological goal because they know it is only theoretically possible. It is as impractical as the German Nationalist Socialist Party's 'final solution' during the early 1940s.
It is true that our work is not strictly humanitarian, though I have to admit that I have calculated that the humanitarian aspect of it would be useful to secure the progress of the work. This lay behind our invitation to a child psychotherapist from London to join us, to talk to us and to write a report on the work. What we are concerned with in our project, Gaza Drama Long Term, is the creation of another kind of space in Gaza, a space of possibility and creativity. We are interested in asking what use is theatre in this situation and in general. We want to engage with the question of the long term intergenerational impact of organised violence. It is inspired by your decision to use your theatre skills for the well-being of young people in Gaza. We want to open a channel of cultural exchange blessed by solidarity.
We have cancelled our colleague's trip. We will make another attempt to come to Gaza by calling the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here in Cairo. I will also make another approach to the British Embassy and engage them in a conversation about their responsibilities in the situation.
Just being in Cairo, talking to our friends, getting a sense of the change here due to the January 25 process may provide some help in understanding what is going on. The blackened smoke-damaged burnt-out National Democratic Party headquarters right next to the National Museum in the background when you stand in Tahrir Square is a part of a new tour of Cairo. Add to a visit to the Pyramids, a journey over the Palace of the Nile Bridge where on January 25 the youth of Cairo defeated the police in a running battle and fear evaporated in a breath of freedom, the square where the Battle of the Camels took place and the Mubarak thugs did their murderous work, then on into Tahrir Square where even at midnight on Tuesday, when we arrived, the crowds were milling around. Everywhere there are hoardings greeting the revolution, cars with back window stickers remembering the martyrs of January 25, a new gentleness between people on the streets, proclamations of a new pride, dignity and unity amongst all the Arab people and beyond, and calls for caution in the face of provocation, thuggery and corruption. People here yesterday during the Friday demonstrations in Tahrir Square expressed their distrust of the governing army council but we also know that an important appointment has been made in the interim government. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been placed in the charge of a man who was intensely critical of the Camp David agreement. The Israelis are faced with uncertainty all around but their immediate concern must be for their border with Sinai, the frontier with Gaza.
Remember the silence from Israel as the January 25 events unfolded here? Their only stated concern was that whatever government was formed here in Egypt should hold to the Peace Accord worked out by Sadat and others at Camp David when Egypt started its strange collaboration with the Israelis and ditched its Arab friends. The practical detail of this Peace Accord is in the collaboration between the Egyptian and Israeli Intelligence Services in policing the Gaza border and in the assurance gained that the Sinai, won back by Sadat in the 1973 War, would remain like a buffer zone. This is all looking extremely vulnerable now.
The commonplace of the January 25 events here is that, amongst the young people who have been in the vanguard of it, the key events have been the inspiration of the 2000 Intifada in Palestine and the final discrediting of the Mubarak regime in the support given to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. We may well ask how long it will take for new policies arising on the basis of the movement here to reach into the inner sanctum of the State Security services. When will the reappointment of personnel be made? When will the army and the government cease to be directed by these services? The movement here is irreversible but how thorough will it be? Nobody knows for sure the answers to these questions and the insecurity must be giving the Israeli state food for thought. They can no longer rely on Egypt to deliver the assurance of stability on their southern border. Hamas will also be destabilised and asserting itself in the only way it can and that is by provoking violence. And this suits the Israelis. This is a part of their strategic apparatus. The blood that flows in the umbilical cord uniting Hamas and the Israelis is 'war' blood, is 'either-you-are-with-us-or-against-us' blood.
The Israelis will want to secure this border with Egypt and we could well be seeing the opening skirmishes in a longterm campaign. Their apprehension after the Camp David agreement was that the danger to their existence lay on their northern border. They have fought on a number of fronts at the same time before but in different circumstances. The military options are narrow and limited. There too in Israel the tail is wagging the dog and the army are determining policy and the army is being ultimately controlled by their Intelligence Services. But the army have lost credibility on a number of occasions on the northern front just as it did on the southern front in losing Sinai to the Egyptians in 1973.
We will try again tomorrow to seek permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but don't hold your breath. Meanwhile our little gifts for A, Y and S, the gifts for Aser's family including the trainers for his nephew, the little teddy bear for Abed's new grandchild lie ungiven in our suitcase. Also big questions hang over our project. We need to talk about what our next move might be. It may be back to talking on Skype.
As we waited there at Rafah on Thursday, powerless, without the required papers, experiencing in incomparably small measure what millions of Palestinians and others suffer daily, witnessing the comings and goings, the swell of fractious violence between the youth who attempt to make ends meet by carrying baggage or selling almonds, the objects of occasional curiosity, approached by a group of little girls and offered impromptu hospitality ( 'Will they not let you in? No. You are welcome at our house!') or by a slightly older boy ('Do you not have papers? No. Then may god help you!') - at the end of the day we were beckoned over to a quiet corner in the border cafe and an offer was made for entry by tunnel. We graciously declined.
Yours as ever,
Open letter to my MP
I am currently in Cairo and have been refused permission by the Egyptian government to pass their checkpoint at Rafah to gain access to the Gaza Territory.
As you know I am a resident in your constituency and Az Theatre has had a partnership with Theatre for Everybody in Gaza for over ten years. The most recent phase of this partnership is called Gaza Drama Long Term and we have recently been working with our colleagues in Gaza to deliver a programme of drama work with young people. This programme is called GAZA:BREATHING SPACE. The project is focused on working for the well being of young people in Gaza.
On Thursday April 7, my partner, Maysoon Pachachi and I spent eight hours waiting at the border crossing at Rafah. We had made a request to the Egyptian authorities and obtained letters from the Palestinian General Delegation in London. We were being assisted here by the League of Arab States and requests were being made at an ambassadorial level to the Palestinian Directorate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here in Cairo. However we were denied entry.
By what right do the Egyptian authorities prevent a foreign national leaving their territory?
There is no question that the Palestinian border authorities on the other side of the Egyptian checkpoint would have given us entry permission.
Please make representations on my behalf to the Egyptian authorities in London to grant this permission or make a clear statement of the basis on which they are denying this permission.
I have been in touch with the British Embassy here. Of course the FCO advice is not to travel to Gaza so they can be of little help. The other matter I wish to gain assurance about is that the UK embassy is not consulted in these matters. The UK Embassy have already told me that they cannot make a request to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here on our behalf because they only do so in cases where there is a clear humanitarian need.
We know that the MFA here in Cairo need permission in these instances from their State Security Services. We know from the border officials at Rafah that 'other parties' are involved in these decisions. Can you find out what these procedures involve. Also can you find out what the Foreign Office directives are that determine what is and what is not 'humanitarian'.
I am staying at the Flamenco Hotel in Cairo
Second letter to our colleagues sent on Sunday, April 10
Sunday, April 10th, Cairo
Dear J and H,
We telephoned the Palestinian Directorate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs today but could not get through. We will keep trying though we believe there is no chance of us gaining permission to enter the Gaza Territory. I have received an email from the British Embassy and will continue our conversation with them about the status of our project.
It was good to get your messages yesterday.
H, I don't really believe that Hamas has no control over the other armed groups that may be launching rocket attacks on Israel. Neither do I believe that Hamas and the Israelis are wanting to achieve peace or some kind of settlement. But what do I know!
I believe there will a continued gradual escalation of military activity in the border area with Egypt as the Israelis prepare themselves for the changes here in Egypt that will follow the election of a new government and will confirm a new policy with regard to Palestine. I assume they have not yet built the underground steel wall that will successfully seal Gaza from tunnels. This was one of the measures agreed to by the Mubarak regime to gain the US consent to the succession of Gamal Mubarak.
What will be at issue is the Protocols of the Camp David agreement determining the degree of Egyptian military presence in Sinai. In other words, will the Egyptians continue to accede to this limitation on their sovereignty? The key question in this is whether the new movement here will be able to disperse the power of the State Security organisation and thus dissolve the control exerted by Israel by this means over the Egyptian state.
We are also, of course, aware of events in Syria where the regime has responded in a disastrously vicious way to the movement for democracy. The fight there could be dreadful and the west will not be able to declare a no-fly zone or interfere in the way it has in Libya. This movement will leave the Israelis even less room to move.
Our well informed friend here is off to a conference in Beirut where the question of regional economic integration of the Arab world will be moved forward. Specifically the question of how finance will work in relation to economic development will be discussed. This is the organisational and socio-political co-ordinate of the democratic movement taking place on the ground and in the city squares of the Arab world. He was to go on to Damascus, but now there is a change of plan and his Syrian colleagues will meet him Beirut. This is a small sign of the gravity of the situation in Syria.
He told us last night that, despite what for us were worrying signs of conflict in Tahrir Square early on Saturday morning, the Army Council here has agreed to close all the offices of the National Democratic Party and has issued arrest warrants for a number of businessmen associated with corruption connected to the Mubarak regime. All of these moves may simply be a way of appeasing the democratic movement, whose suspicions are keen that the regime is being protected by Field Marshall Tantawi and the Army Council.
Nabil al-Arabi is the Foreign Minister in the new interim government. He has stated that the foreign policy of the country has been conducted without consistency and principle. In April he called for Israel to pay back the difference for the reduced price the Mubarak regime had accepted for gas. At a democracy forum on February 25, 2011, he said foreign policy should be based on Egypt's interests, including "holding Israel accountable when it does not respect its obligations”. In relation to Gaza he has made it known that Egypt should no longer be acting in contravention of International Law.
As I say, what do I know! Next to nothing.
The times are changing with extraordinary rapidity and you may well be right, H, when you say that everything feels frozen and tense and nobody knows what is going to happen. The immediate prospects for Gaza look very volatile because it will find itself at the centre of the storm. We will keep our strange project going, continuing to work together and making space for creativity and thinking. I also have it in mind to talk to theatre practitioners here in Cairo and see if we can build a creative link for our project here.
Let's see. Who knows. Let's keep working out what we can do together.
Love and best wishes to your families. We think we have found a way of getting the gifts to you. Aser's nephew will receive his trainers and Abed's new grandchild will get the teddy bear: so our trip has not been in vain!!
P.S. Cairo, Wednesday, April 13. Thanks for your text last night, H. Yes we are still in Cairo. Let me tell you what has been happening.
This morning we spoke to both the British Consul here and to the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). This feels like a major victory. The British Consul told me that the state security organisation here in Egypt has been disbanded and that all the governmental processes were in disarray. This has been confirmed by other people here who have told us that aspects of the state security functions have been taken over by the army. When we spoke to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs this morning the representative told us that they were still waiting for permissions for our entry. When pressed about who would be granting these permissions we were told that they were not at liberty to tell us. So in fact we got nowhere.