Ehab Lotayef, a Montreal writer, activist, and engineer arrived in Gaza on February 19 after two unsuccessful weeks of trying to cross the Egypt-Palestine border, which was closed during recent conflict.
According to Lotayef, Egyptian control of the crossing has made access to Gaza unpredictable, leaving many aid workers and activists stranded at the border for days on end. He said, however, that government at the crossing can be swayed by the presence of large groups, because they do not want to see too many international travellers stranded at the border.
“It is very difficult to cross the border. You have no recourse. If they decide the borders are closed, there is nothing you can do about it,” Lotayef said in an interview from Gaza.
Lotayef was repeatedly turned away from the border until he joined a delegation of 60 aid workers organized by CODEPINK – a women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement. The delegation was the first of its size to cross the border since July 2007.
He noted that border restrictions have had a severe impact on civilians, as all goods entering the region are now brought through tunnels – resulting in skyrocketing inflation.
“The needs of the people of Gaza are not satisfied…. These tunnels also support weapons smuggling. If you want to stifle the tunnels, then open the borders. It would be much more difficult to smuggle weapons across an official and legally monitored border,” Lotayef said.
His real work will begin now that he is in Gaza. Delegations such as CODEPINK allow activists from around the world to collect photographs and first-hand accounts of their experiences, so that they can be taken back to their local communities.
Mohamed Boudjenane of the Canadian Arab Federation – one of the groups sponsoring Lotayef’s travel – commented, “Lotayef is well-respected within the Canadian humanitarian community. By sending someone like Lotayef, we will have a first-hand report of what is taking place in Gaza.”
Lotayef said he has spent his time connecting with Gazans, documenting cases, taking photographs, and blogging in order to better inform Canadians about the current humanitarian crisis.
“The devastation is enormous. I believed that I had a good idea of what the devastation was like, but over the last few days I have seen more destruction than I expected: of agricultural areas, houses, and city centres. In the north of the Gaza Strip, the American School of Gaza has been completely flattened,” he said.
“I met a 12-year-old who told me how many of his friends had died in the conflict. He told me, ‘I don’t want to make friends anymore; it is too painful when the die.’ This alone was the most striking moment for me so far. I just froze; I didn’t know what to say.”
The CODEPINK delegation is composed of 50 women and ten men from the United States, Canada, Australia, Pakistan, Turkey, and Egypt. They were joined by the Viva Palestina Caravan led by British MP George Galloway that arrived March 9, after travelling 5,000 miles from Hyde Park in London.
According to Lotayef, the arrival of both these delegations has helped to uplift spirits in Gaza for the moment.
“The Palestinian people need to see that there are people in the world far away, people of different colours and nationalities that understand their plight and support them in their struggle.”