My first encounter with the EDL

3rd Sept 2011

Firstly, this title is slightly misleading, I’ve been on a fair  few demos against the EDL over the past two years, but as you’ll read, this is the first time I’ve actually come face to face with them.

Also, this is written as a personal narrative because this is just a witness account, I can’t verify much here apart from what I saw.

The counterdemo organised by UAF was superb.  Starting at 11am by Whitechapel tube, it had a carnival atmosphere – the sun was blazing, a music truck was blaring out some fantastic tunes, and the demographics of the anti-fascists was overwhelmingly young and multicultural. There were some great speeches,including  a message read out from the local synagogue, a local vicar, speakers from the Muslim community, and someone from OutEast – the main LGBT group inEast London. It really did show how the community were united against the fascists, many whom the EDL was claiming to ‘defend’.

As is standard in a lot of these rallies, the speeches went on for ages, and the area was absolutely rammed, I’d say a minimum of a thousand people were there by midday.

Some fantastic news was coming through twitter – an EDL coach at a service station near Oxford had its tires slashed. The RMT tube workers’ union was refusing to allow the EDL to assemble at Liverpool Street station, and at Kings Cross they were surrounded by police. Later in the day someone set the fire alarm off so the whole station had to be shut down. One coach dumped the EDL in Hammersmith apparently! (For those who don’t know, that’s west London).

However there were rumours that the police were going to escort the EDL to Aldgate, just 10 minutes from where we were and on the border of Tower Hamlets. In groups we began to work our way up Whitechapel Road to assemble near their meeting point. They were being corralled at a pub in Liverpool Street (almost every other pub they tried refused to let them congregate, one pub in Kings Cross reportedly had a sign: “No Dogs, No EDL”). So it was clear the police were going to wind them through the City.

There was by now about 50 antifascists stationed at a big junction near Aldgate station. The police began to catch on and politely asked us to move on “as it won’t be safe here soon”. As we walked back down the road towards Aldgate East station, the police almost immediately closed the road off and had 3 lines of police keeping us from returning to Aldgate.

After a while we had hundreds of anti-fascists come from the rally to this police blockade.

Myself and my mate Rob decided to go round the backstreets to see if we could work out whether the EDL really were being allowed to march. The police were prepared for this, but our white skin and inconspicuous clothing must have made the police believe we were EDL, and so we walked through one police cordon, and sure enough, there were the EDL being allowed to march, escorted by the police.

I have to admit at this stage I was terrified – more about being arrested than being beaten up. The context to this is that it has barely been a month since the riots, where the law book was thrown out the window and people were being charged 4 months in jail for taking a bottle of water. A mother was jailed for receiving a pair of shorts which someone else had robbed. People weren’t getting bail, judges were passing sentences without even reading the case. As I type this, this practise is still going on.

We were on the edge of the pavement watching these thugs march by singing racist chants, and we were maybe 500 yards from their rallying point where speeches began being blasted with the usual rubbish about Islam. They were letting off sound bombs which sounded like a bomb blast. At one stage they crowded round an Indian shop with the stewards begging them not to trash it.

We then saw three guys near us, two of them Asian, the other guy I knew from Goldsmiths, they were clearly on our side. So 5 of us there, really not knowing what we should do. Shout abuse? Throw something then leg it?

Then without warning the three of them walked to the back of the rally point and began chanting “Shame on you!”. Right next to them were a bunch of skin heads sitting on guard. This was bravery on another level. Here’s a brief clip of when they started chanting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s6443ndIOps&feature=youtu.be

At least a hundred turned round and began roaring. Me and Rob immediately walked towards them, who then promptly turned and belted it. At this point I didn’t run and I have no idea why, probably coz we were surrounded. Immediately one of these EDL thugs marched up to me, literally with eyes like a lion that’s spotted a gazelle. He paced up to me, and stood on my foot to stop me from moving then grabbed my throat and pulled me right up to him. I looked down and assumed I was about to get stabbed – this hysteria has a context too. Last year I was at the protest outside the BBC when Nick Griffin, BNP leader, was invited on Question Time. A few hundred of us stayed to the end, going to a side road in the hope of blockading his car as he tried to leave. As we were there, with only a couple of police, two BNP guys came up to us doing the Hitler salute. A couple of us began shouting in their face, until we were pulled away by some comrades, warning us that one of them had a knife.

Anyway, eventually this EDL guy let me go, with no knife luckily, I could smell the beer on his breath, at which point two EDL stewards squared up to me. Finally a police officer, all of whom had stood by and watched this, came up to me and I said that one of their lot had grabbed me by the throat. His response: “If you’re claiming you’ve been assaulted, report it to your local police station.”

I then found Rob, and we found a side street to escape.

Then as we were walking down this side road, we witnessed an incredible thing. A group of about 7 women, all dressed in black and riding bikes, began picking out EDL members. They would ride up to them screaming in their face, and would drive their bikes full-pelt into them. It was one of the most inspiring sights I’ve seen firsthand. 40 year old skin heads getting battered by this gang, too scared to fight back, and being completely humiliated. We followed this anti-fascist vigilante group as they picked more out, even going to a pub near Liverpool Street where a group had congregated. Absolutely superb.

Exhausted and sunburnt we called it a day. I got back to Croydon and, walking through the town centre, saw that the local mosque had a stall in the town centre. It was incredible, 20 minutes earlier watching the EDL nutters desperate to start a race war in London, then being in Croydon with everyone living together normally.

However looking at twitter later it appeared that, as per usual, the EDL had splintered off and a group were attacking some Asian youths further East. Talking to friends from the area later, it appears this wasn’t true, and what actually happened was locals battered an EDL coach as it left East London. A superb video of this can be found here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AP9DTdIDn5A&feature=player_embedded

There was then a stand off with the police who attacked the locals, whilst EDL were trying to get out the coach to fight them. In the end they were taken to a double decker bus, watch the Master Race running for their lives to get on the bus: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9y29PfgKWU&feature=youtu.be

 

And finally, take a look at the escort the fascists needed to get out of London: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5PnrmDGaqgM&feature=youtu.be

To top it all off, UAF ended the day by marching back down to Whitechapel, defying the Government’s ban.

So I’d say all in all this was a successful day for anti-fascists. Anti-fascist victories are always bittersweet as they shouldn’t be needed in the first place. However:

  1. The EDL didn’t get to march in Tower Hamlets.
  2. They marched through the empty office blocks of the City of London
  3. Being a first-hand witness, I’d say they had a maximum of 500 people at their rally
  4. They had over 70 arrests compared to zero arrests from UAF’s side
  5. A huge broad coalition worked together to hamper their day – from pubowners to underground workers.
  6. We had a huge anti-fascist turnout, which was young and diverse. They had the usual suspects – white middle aged men.
  7. The EDL were splintered around London and faced huge delays everywhere they went
  8. We had a group of bikers mopping up fascists in the area around Aldgate and a group of locals gave their coach a good pounding on the way out

In short, massive love to Unite Against Fascism.

Check out another account, with great pictures, here: http://russwood.posterous.com/covering-the-english-defence-league

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All Power to the Students?

An article I wrote recently, attempting to trash the recent White Paper on Higher Education. Enjoy!

 

http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/james-haywood/all-power-to-students

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My Grandad: Working Class Hero

Two people died last week. One was Amy Winehouse, the other was my Grandad. I’ll explain the significance of this at the end.

My Grandad was everything that Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative party, and Tony Blair and New Labour, despised. He was working class through and through, and he was proud of it. He grew up in the harshest of circumstances: born in Castleford in Yorkshire, his impoverished family moved to Brighton and spent the rest of their lives there, on a tough estate in Whitehawk. They were so poor that his mother, employed at the Workhouse, would steal scraps of food to supplement the scare supplies they had at home.  His dad was horrible, a violent drunk who treated the family brutally.  Despite this troubled background, Grandad was an exceptionally intelligent young boy, and got a scholarship to a fee-paying grammar school in Brighton.

However, when he was just 17 years old he enlisted into the Marines, with the Second World War ravaging the European continent – his first active service would be the bloodbath known as D-Day. He remembers waiting at Portsmouth to set sail to France, and being absolutely terrified. He was to sail a landing craft back and forth, deploying men and equipment to the beaches. On his second journey his landing craft caught an underwater obstacle which destroyed his landing craft. He thought he was going to die, but somehow waded ashore (he couldn’t swim). The only survivor from the wrecked craft, he spent the next 24 hours cowering in a crater on the beach.

He was eventually picked up by an American company, and worked for them until he was re-assigned to a British battalion and then joined the Allied push through Western Europe, liberating the territories from the Nazis. This included arriving at Belsen concentration camp soon after it had been liberated. He never discussed this much with us, but when we were able to get some words out of him, Grandad just described witnessing walking skeletons, barely human in appearance, and piles upon piles of dead bodies being bulldozed into mass graves. The rest, of course, is history, and Europe was liberated from the Nazi war machine. However, during this time, word had gotten to his mother that her son’s boat had sank and he was declared missing presumed dead. Imagine then, my Grandad’s mother, outside the family house  and seeing a young Des Haywood strolling up the road. The best Hollywood script-writers in the world couldn’t come up with something as beautiful as that.

After this truly traumatic experience, Grandad embarked on a life of happiness. He joined the Co-op as a milkman – the primary reason being that he could join their football team, and he did, playing for them every Wednesday afternoon and for Whitehawk every Saturday. He was renowned locally as a very good player, as was his brother Ken – one of the few siblings he got on with. He soon supplemented his milk-round also working the afternoons for the Evening News- collecting the newspaper delivery from Brighton Station and distributing it to sellers around the city. Despite his Grammar school education, he was perfectly happy and content with working manual jobs, whilst continuing his intellectual interests in art and culture.

Ten years later, he met my Nana. She was an Italian immigrant, and had only recently entered England, barely speaking a word of the language. Despite his quiet and introverted nature, he worshipped the ground she walked on. When he proposed to her, she stated that due to her family background she could only marry a Catholic, so he promptly went away to church and converted to Catholicism. Soon afterwards they had their one and only child, my dad. Despite the couple both working manual jobs, they saved money to regularly go travelling abroad, a rarity for working class people at the time. My Grandad loved other cultures, especially Italian and American, and his love for travelling no doubt came from the war, as his career in the Marines had ended in him stationed in Sri Lanka for a time.

As I said before, he encapsulated everything that the Tories and New Labour hate. He was proudly working class; he didn’t ‘aspire’ to a posh, high-paying job and infact he spent the rest of his working career as a janitor at the Brighton Polytechnic University. Instead, he aspired to live a happy, comfortable life. He wanted to see the world, appreciate art and culture, to be with his family, and follow his passion of football – he was a devoted supporter of Arsenal.  He loved music, art, and was an avid reader – from fiction books to history. We even found an LP of Martin Luther King speeches in his collection. And in the height of racism towards Irish people in the 1970s, he was building an impressive collection of Irish rebel music. He also loved films and ended up accumulating a huge library of videos and DVDs.  He also adored my Nana and my Dad, and later my Mum too, who he effectively emotionally adopted as his own daughter. And then me, my brother and sister came along. Again, I cannot begin to describe to you how much he showered us with love and affection. To this day we cannot recall a single unhappy moment spent at their house.

So there is Desmond Hugh Haywood. Unlike Amy Winehouse, there was no live coverage of his simple terraced house in Brighton when he died. There were no outpourings of sorrow from celebrities. There’ll be no full-page obituary of him in the broadsheets. Yet at 18 years old he had sacrificed everything to help liberate the world from what has to be one of the most horrendous regimes humanity has ever bore witness to. As he became mentally ill by the end of his life, we began to realise how much his experiences at D-Day had effected him. I remember him saying that it was worse than anything we could imagine, young dead boys, blood and guts, absolutely everywhere on that beach. At that tender age he was seeing thousands of his peers mowed down in the space of a few hours. And he had helped liberate a genocidal death camp.  Just a dozen of us at his funeral didn’t seem right, given the enormity of his sacrifice for humanity. Yet this was exactly how he would have wanted it. After the trauma of WWII he had made the decision to live a simple life of happiness. He didn’t have many friends, he enjoyed his own company, and loved his family very much. That was enough for him.  What a wonderful example in contrast to the consumerist, celebrity-obsessed, fragmented, society we live in today; where being working class is something to be despised and feared, not cherished and appreciated.

You won’t find me quoting American army generals often, but this is a bit of an exception. It is Eisenhower’s speech just before D-Day, and was read out at Grandad’s funeral. If nothing else, it accurately portrays the unbelievably huge sacrifice that these youngsters gave to free the world of barbaric racism and oppression (a fight on-going to this day). I have nothing but pride to know that Grandad was one of those brave heroes.

“Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened, he will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man to man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our home fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to victory!

I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory!

Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”

— Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower

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Gaza Diary – Day 5 & 6 – Palestinian Gandhis, Refugee Camps and Goodbyes

Thursday 17th June

After a needed lie-in, we met together and headed to our friend Amani’s house for more food and more laughs. We were sad to leave them, as they truly are a one in a million family! But after this we drove to Jabaliya refugee camp, the largest in Gaza. It seems bizarre to talk about refugee camps, since 80% of Gazans are refugees anyway, but these camps are something to behold. They are truly the most densely populated strips of land on the earth’s surface. Jabaliya is 1 km by 1km, yet holds 120,000 residents. It is a jungle of concrete blocks, interspersed with the occasional UN school. The playgrounds in these schools are quite literally the only open space, except for roads and a large crater which in fact used to be a water well; it was here that Israeli soldiers in 1967 lined up all the men of the camp and infront of them all, shot dead around a dozen.

Jabaliya is also host to Al- Fakhoura school: a UN school which was famously photographed being rained down on by white phosophorous during the massacre. We met a resident who had been jailed for being a member of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a secular, Marxist group. For this crime, he spent 15 years in an Israeli jail. We then went into the house of a refugee who’s family had been in the camp for more than 50 years. He was jailed in 1991 for participating in the nonviolent intifada (uprising) which had started at this very camp. He was tried in an Israeli military court, and was not released until 1999. Here was the one of thousands of Palestinian Gandhis, who had rotted in Israeli jails whilst the world declared that peace between Israel and Palestine was imminent; away from their homes and families for years, with no celebrity advocates, no stadium concerts in their aid. It was sadly a stark example of Gandhi’s Satyagraha (nonviolence) failing miserably.

It was also interesting to find out more of Gazan politics. During the 1970s and 80s, the PFLP were strongest in Jabaliya, as well as influencial throughout Gaza. We spoke to adults who had said that during this time, you would not have seen any difference in fashion and culture from London to Gaza city. Many people wore jeans, western clothing, and secular groups like the PFLP were popular. Yet our experience of Gaza in 2011 was altogether different: religion and religious parties were dominate, culturally and socially the society was conservative. This change has come about due to political reasons, not tradition or culture per se. It was the disastrous decision by secular groups such as Fatah and the PFLP to join in the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, and effectively become collaborators with the occupation, that paved the way for the religious groups to become the leaders of the resistance. It was only groups like Hamas who refused to participate in the ‘peace accords’, and this is the crucial reason they won the 2006 Palestinian elections. Of course with this rise to power they brought their only ideological and cultural baggage, which is what has shaped Gazan society of late. Extremely interesting, and another example of how colonialism interferes with the cultural, political, and social development of colonies and oppressed peoples.

Our Palestinian Gandhi talked about the early days of the camps. When the UN made the racist decision that it would not help Palestinian refugees return to their homes in Israel (the only refugee group in the world denied this), the UN set up UNWRA, an agency to deal specifically with the Palestinians. Hence why Palestinian refugee camps are not tents, but big breeze blocks of semi-permanent stature. During the early days these blocks had no bathrooms, just outhouses which whole streets would have to share. And since there is such little space, the only way to build is up. We went to the top of one such structure, about 8 stories tall. There was a stunning view of the area, and you got a sense of how densely populated the area is. How could Israel fire rockets into an area like this and claim it was hitting military targets? Complete madness! On one side you could see the brow of a hill, during the massacre Israeli tanks pulled up to this hill and fired tank shells into the camp.

After Jabaliya we headed to Beach camp. This is 0.5 km by 1 km and host to 80,000 refugees. Again, there was simply no space inside the camp, everything is squeezed together so there is no privacy, and the alleyways to get around are incredibly narrow. As one resident said, the only saving grace to this camp is the beach, which he said, “allows us to breathe”. On a side note, the Prime Minister of Palestine lives in this camp, it was an illuminating juxtaposition when compared with the Israeli government, whom have several ministers who live in settlements in the West Bank. During the massacre the electricity of the camp was cut, which left them literally with nothing. The Israeli navy fired missiles into the dense camp, and as a resident was describing it, I noticed a poster of a young guy on the wall. I asked the man who this was, and he described the story of how this guy, 23 years old (my age) died. During the massacre he went to the beach to collect sand in a water bottle, for a mud oven they were attempting to make in their home, since they had no electricity. An Israeli drone spotted him carrying a bottle of sand, and blew him to pieces. One assumes they thought this bottle of sand was a rocket. And just like that his family will never see him again.

After this we visited the first ever modern art gallery in Gaza, established in 2009. This date for this launch is symbolic, you can tell that art is a well used tool of resistance by Palestinians. Gandhi weaved his own clothes in defiance of the British, the Palestinian Gandhis paint the horror of their experiences, in defiance of the Israeli narrative that so dominates the political scene. The works were truly stunning, even for someone like myself who is not that engaged by art. And although many issues were covered in the art on display, you can see the influence of the massacre, and the occupation in general, is never far away.

After this we had a final meal at my good friend Dr Nazmi’s house. He is a Vice-President for the IUG, and his house was stunning. In fact, as we tucked into food in their garden as the sun set, we could have been in a nice boulevard in America. Then Nazmi’s father arrived, and I was frozen in awe of this man. He is 91 years old, and has struggle and resistance etched into his aged face. He has lived through British, Egyptian and  now Israeli occupation. He was dressed in the traditional Arab garments dating back centuries, and had vivid memories of the Nakba and the British occupation. He remembers how the British allowed Jews in Palestine to walk around with rifles, but “if a Palestinian was found with one bullet, he was thrown in jail.” He described how Gaza was full of Orange trees, but the British refused them to export. I was truly humbled by him, and for me he personified dignity in the face of such brutality.

After this we headed back to our homes for a final sleep.

Friday 18th June

It was a sad goodbye from where we started, at the Islamic University. We’d met some incredible people but, bundled into the car, we headed to the Rafah Crossing. It was another horrible experience; people lined up outside trying to get through, but being non-Palestinian we were waved through the first set of gates and found ourselves in the VIP lounge where we were just the other day. The Palestinians had our passports, and passed them over to the Egyptians. There need be nothing more to it, eight people crossing a land-border. Check the passports, scan the bags, simple. Three hours later we still heard nothing from the Egyptians. We heard that a couple of IUG academics had been turned away at the border. There was no reason for the delay other than the Egyptians teaching us a lesson in not coming to Gaza. Eventually, however, we were ushered through. The minute we stepped foot onto Egyptian soil we were surrounded by people begging for money. Yet 100 metres in the other direction was Gaza, an area with nearly 50% unemployment, and where we did not encounter a single person begging for money. I am writing this in our squeezed cars, with our wonderful drivers who have saved our lives again. The sun is setting over the Sinia desert, and right now I hate the Egyptian military with all my heart. I have the exact same feelings towards them as I did the first time I went through Ben-Gurion Airport. It’s the feeling of watching racism from the perspective of someone who does not suffer from it. However this is bigger than Egypt. Rafah is able to allow people and ambulances through, but not goods. The goods delivery crossings are all in Israel, so simply blaming Egypt isn’t enough. However I just feel sick that we have spent the week meeting people who are just like us in everyway, except their passport is Palestinian. With this cruel twist of fate they live 1% of the freedoms that we have. At the absolute bottom line that is plain wrong.

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Gaza Diary – Day 5 – Fun, Violence and Activism

Thursday 16 June

The morning started with the second of our oral Arabic classes with Karama from the IUG. It was very useful, and despite us being badly behaved students, learnt a lot of basic Arabic that we could try out at our next destination – the market.

We headed to a souk in the old city of Gaza, it was bustling, and just like any market you would see elsewhere in Palestine. I got a good taste of Arabic culture when a policeman who was helping us through the market came and chatted to me. As we were talking about football and Arsenal (of course!) he held my hand, fingers interlocking, as we continued our banter in broken English and my newly learnt Arabic phrases. There is a wonderful picture of the pair of us holding hands, looking like a newly-wed couple. Whilst chatting to him, like so many conversations I had, it transpired that during the massacre he had lost his brother, also a policeman, when Israel fired rockets into the station he worked from. Absolutely everyone we met had a family member murdered during the massacre.

During our visit of the souk we also walked past a one thousand year old mosque, and went inside an ancient Turkish bath, one of the oldest in the world. We really got a sense of how much of a history Palestinians have in this land, despite Zionist narratives to the contrary. We also stopped at an artist’s workshop. It was staggering. He had dozens of works on display, all of them created by simply burning a slab of wood. The pictures were truly stunning, it was hard to believe that they were done through the burning process alone. What an unbelievable talent, yet cruelly caged in like a bird, due to the siege. We also visited an embroidery shop, where traditional Palestinian clothing was made. It was beautiful but what impressed me the most was the cultural continuity that Palestinians have upheld, despite the Nakba and ethnic cleansing. So for example, the shop owner showed us dresses with traditional Palestinian design from Jaffa, Ashkelon and other Palestinian towns that were ethnically cleansed and now lie in Israel, barred for Palestinians to even visit. It showed the stupidity and racism that is embedded in the concept of the “two state solution” – as if Palestinians have no right to be a part of these lands that they have cultural, historic roots to. I could visit these towns next week if I wanted to; she, with her stunning designs dating back to her grandparents, cannot.

We then headed to an institute run for deaf people in Gaza. Their main work is organising workshops and production lines where deaf people can gain employment, the goods made varied from embroidery to ceramics. After a tour of the facility and purchasing some goods we met the director of the institute, who was also one of the biggest lawyers in Palestine, and had a fascinating discussion with him. He said that this organisation was proof that Palestinians don’t need aid, but political solidarity that will end the siege and gain freedom for Palestinians to look after themselves. He also made a piercing comment which will stay with me forever. It was a good metaphor for discussing the use of violence by the oppressed; “If you corner a cat, don’t get angry when it scratches you.” This theme of anti-colonial violence would continued later at Haidar’s house.

Our next stop was back to the UNWRA compound, meeting with Amani again and receiving a presentation from one of the staff members, herself a refugee. We then visited the site which was destroyed by Israeli fighter jets during the massacre. The site was a large warehouse for food, to be distributed to some of the poorest people in Gaza (today was also the UN announcement that Gaza officially has the highest unemployment rate in the world – 45% of working adults). The UN give all governments the coordinates to every one of their facilities in the world. At first Israel claimed it was simply a mistake, then they claimed their satellites had spotted someone running through the compound. Two points were raised here – one is that the compound has tight security, as we witnessed. The second was that modern military satellites are so powerful that they can read the time on a person’s watch – if the person was armed they would have known – yet no evidence of this was given (or even claimed). The warehouse was completely destroyed, we stood in the site, which is now used as a car park. Yet again another solid example of the urgent need for boycott campaigns to attempt to hold Israel to account in the face of this international intransigence.

After this we headed to our friend Amani’s house for an incredible lunch. It was the finest Palestinian food has to offer and we were completely stuffed. Her family are really incredible. Her father is a refugee, brought up in Gaza, however Amani’s mother is from the West Bank. They married before the siege, and spent some time in Libya (where Amani was born) before settling the family in Gaza. Since the siege Amani’s mother has been unable to meet her family in the West Bank, it was heartbreaking to hear that one of her brother’s had died, and to this day she cannot even see his grave, let alone visit her family. Amani has never met her uncles and aunts from that side of the family. In fact an uncle she has never met before from Libya had arrived just the other day, managing to slip through the siege.

Again we got a taste for life in Gaza, as midway through the meal the electricity cut out.

As we relaxed in their sitting room, Amani’s father began describing the family’s experience during the massacre. He described it as worse than hell, you simply did not want to be alive during that time. With such a wonderful family, god knows how a parent could endure that continuous bombardment for over three weeks. A tank was positioned near their apartment block, and Amani described how stink bombs were launched at their house, an unbearable smell that forced them to move to their Grandma’s apartment which was not facing the street.

The family were so much fun, and we had great fun there, especially with her sisters Hanadi and Sameera. Sameera is extremely intelligent, and speaks near fluent English (she is only a first year English student).  Hanadi is hilarious, the youngest sister, and spent most of the time taking the mick out of me and Soren in particular!

Our stay there was sadly cut short, and we headed to a youth centre called the “House of Wisdom”. Here we had a brilliant meeting with student activists from different universities in Gaza. They have launched a group called the Palestinian Youth Advocacy Network (PYAN) and we received an interesting presentation about their work of improving their advocacy work and how they present the Palestinian cause to the rest of the world. We had in-depth discussions about advocacy, how we could work together, and the boycott movement. We met some seriously good activists who we are hoping to work with for years to come.

After this we held an interview back at the Islamic University, then from there to Haidar Eid’s house for dinner. This was another great opportunity to talk about Palestinian politics in-depth, as well as the boycott work from inside the Palestinian HQ as it were. We had a fascinating discussion about violence. Despite being one of the leaders of a mass non-violent boycott movement internationally, Haidar held the right of the oppressed to use violence to liberate themselves as a key principle that Palestinians had a right to. It is interesting that we can read about the independence movements in Africa and Latin America, where the use of violence was a standard part of the movement, and not blink an eye-lid. Yet at the mention of Palestinian violence, the huge international racism towards them holds that they must not use violence for their freedom. For Haidar it was a question of what method tactically worked best at what time. Regardless of tactical questions however, he held that the right of oppressed peoples, including Palestinians, to use violence for their freedom, was an important principle to be defended. He gave examples. When Nelson Mandela was released, in his first speech to his people, he re-stated that the armed struggle must continue, despite negoitations with the apartheid regime taking place. In Sweden’s constitution, it is stated that if militarily occupied, Swedish citizens have an obligation to arm themselves to defend the country’s freedom.

We were also treated to a musical performance by Haidar’s young son, I had never seen this instrument before, it looks like a xylophone by with dozens of strings, rather than chimes. It is almost like a harp on its side, and the sound was beautiful. From here we headed to a seaside café; an academic who was with us at Haidar’s was driving us and told us how his father was the mayor Ashkelon before it was ethnically cleansed during the Nakba in the 1948. His family owned a huge amount of land in Ashkelon, which he now cannot even visit.

This again highlighted for us the crucial importance of the right of return for refugees. This isn’t some abstract, politically-indoctrinated, unreasonable demand imposed on poor little Israel. This is absolutely at the heart of the oppression and racism Palestinians suffer. Just like I may one day like to live in Brighton, where my grandparents lived, worked and socialised, so Palestinians want the opportunity to do the same. This man’s father was the mayor of a big town in Palestine, of course he should want to return to that town to discover his family history. Even more so since, unlike my family, his were forcibly removed from their home town through terrorism and coercion.

After tea at the café we sleepy headed back to our homes in preparation for what would be our last day.

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Gaza Diary – Day 4 – Debka and Air Balloons

Wednesday 15 June

The day started with the formal signing of the statement of friendship between IUG student council and Goldsmiths Students’ Union. From there I met with Nazmi and Husam, two senior members of the university, to discuss academic cooperation we could achieve between the two institutions. It was also an opportunity for me to know a bit more about them both.
Just the day before, Nazmi had been traveling through Gaza meeting children who had been orphaned during the massacre. It was part of a program the IUG were setting up, encouraging orphaned children to consider entering higher education. The statistics were shocking; over 20,000 orphans in Gaza, 1, 870 (almost 10%) had been orphaned during the massacre. Nazmi, as we were to find out on the last day, was one hundred percent Gaza.
Husam, however, like 80% of people living Gaza, was not. He was originally from Majad, a Palestinian village near Ashkelon, now in Israel. When he was younger he was able to go visit his village and the huge amount of land his family owns there. As an adult he had bought land near the Gazan border with Israel, he now has no access to it since Israeli snipers shoot at people who get close to the border, yet regardless of this the Israelis have since destroyed his land anyway. He described how he used to tend the land after work as a past-time and how his two storey house on the land had been destroyed by Israeli bulldozers.  The sniping of farmers on land near the border continues to this day. Husam also described how his brother had gone to a wedding in the town of Beit Hanoun, a town very close to the border; Israeli snipers had fired at the wedding congregation and people were literally crawling on the ground to escape the bullets.
Again I was reminded of the arguments against the academic boycott of Israel, claiming it threatens “academic freedom”, yet Husam told me that just last week eight American academics who had been scheduled to meet with the IUG had been denied entry into Gaza. Academic freedom indeed.

After this we headed to a fairly new university in Gaza, the University College of Applied Sciences (UCAS).  It was an inspiring visit, we had a great meeting with students at the university, discussing cooperation and general political issues. They showed us an animated video created by one of their students; in some ways it is similar to Goldsmiths, the students have real creativity. We got to visit a workshop where some interesting mechanical works were displayed, and was given a tour of the campus which included getting on the roof of one of their large buildings. Here one of the students pointed out the border with Israel in the distance, and small orange blobs in the air near the wall. They were air balloons, we were told, which Israel had deployed on the border with sensors which would fire at Palestinians who went too close to the border. The most innocent of objects as an air balloon, turned into a killing machine to enforce racism and occupation.
It was here that I got talking to one of the students, Ayman, who was one of the few lucky students that had managed to get out of Gaza last year to fulfil a scholarship in the UK. I was surprised to hear that he exited via Eretz crossing – through Israel. He told me it had been arranged by the British consulate in Jerusalem. Being the racist state that Israel is, Ayman was not allowed to use the airport, barely one hour’s drive away from Gaza; in fact he was not allowed to step foot in Israel at all. He had to be escorted the entire journey through Israel to the West Bank and from there to the border to Jordan (again controlled by Israel) until he could finally get to Amman airport.
During his time in the UK Ayman did advocacy work for Palestine, including speaking at the House of Commons. On his return to Gaza, again via Eretz, he was detained and questioned by the Israeli authorities. They produced to him a list of every single meeting he had spoken at during his time in the UK, and accused him of “delegitimising Israel”. Apparently this spying of Palestinians abroad was standard operating for Israeli secret services. Regardless of the intimidation and extensive spying however, Ayman said to them that he if went back again he would do the same; so they put him in a cell for three days.

Finally we headed to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) compound for the opening ceremony of their summer games, a sports event for youngsters. UNWRA symbolises the international racism that Palestinians suffer from, since UNWRA is for Palestinian refugees only, since every other race of refugees the UN helps return to their homes. UNWRA does not do this, however it does provide a lifeline for refugees who would otherwise be homeless, education-less, food-less and much more. I really enjoyed the ceremony, despite some pockets of typical Western-NGO arrogance, there were some fantastic performances including Debka, break-dancing and a flag waving opening.

We ended the day at Rawad’s place, we got to meet his family and stood on his rooftop watching an eclipse over the skyline of Gaza. It made me think of how wonderful a place Palestine could be, how painfully ironic it was that so much turmoil and oppression should be found here. As we looked over Gaza you could see a bustling, dense city, right next to the beach. One hour away to the East you could be in Bethlehem, one and a half’s hour drive you could be in the beautiful valleys of Nablus, an extra 30 minutes from here and you could be in the Dead Sea.  Drive South and you’d quickly hit the huge Negev desert. Drive half an hour north and you could be in the ancient city of Jaffa, a bit further on and you’d be in Haifa with its bustling port. Such a beautiful country, such an ugly reality.

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Gaza Diary – Day 3 – Gaza Used To Be

Tuesday 14 June

 

Today was described by Karama as, “the dark day”. Karama is an ex-student of the IUG, now working for their External Relations, and is a powerful person. She worked tirelessly to create the itinerary we have been going through so far, and we owe her a lot for this. Today we were to witness the devastation caused by the massacre over two years ago. We began my heading to the Ministries Zone.

This used to be where most of the Government buildings were; ministry for housing, public works, finance etc. It is one large empty plot of land now. Everything was destroyed, not a building left standing. There is still rubble from the buildings that has yet to be cleaned up. Words can’t really describe it, especially when you realise that the area is surrounded by residential apartment blocks, still bearing the scars of flying shrapnel. I can’t even contemplate what it must have been like, living in one of those flats with your family, hearing the roar of Israeli missiles pulverise this area next door. I began speaking to Isra about her experiences during the massacre. Isra is from the Student Council at IUG, and the fact that we are here is thanks to her, as she initiated the contact between our two organisations that has born fruit of cooperation agreements and this trip. She was at the IUG at the time the massacre began. They were scared to stay inside buildings, since nothing was off-bounds for the Israeli army, and so most people just stayed out on the street, there was simply nowhere safe to hide. She described her old place, an apartment similar to the towers we were looking at, and she recalled her block being surrounded by soldiers and bulldozers, who then stormed the building.

We got back in the van and soon drove past what used to be Yassir Arafat’s residency in Gaza. This was one of the first buildings to be attacked during the massacre, there was a meeting of local police taking place. When it was shelled 70 people died, just like that. We drove past a hotel, Jazeera, four stories tall, another victim of the Israeli airforce as it lay demolished by the side of the road. We headed north and stopped at a town called Beit Lahya, which is close to the northern border with Israel. This area used to export lots of strawberries, but since the siege this has effectively ended; since the massacre the ground is poisoned from the chemical weapons employed by Israel in this area, so not much grows here anymore anyway.

There is a huge area of empty land here, perhaps three football pitches big. It used to be an American school, completely destroyed by Israeli missiles during the massacre; you couldn’t hide the irony that this school even had the Stars and Stripes waving from it. 17 rockets were fired at the school, and two security guards inside were caught up in the destruction and died. There are some houses next to the school, and we were invited by one of the families to sit and talk with them. White phosphorus gas had been used in this area by Israel, and the father we spoke to, Abu Jalila, had lost his six-month old baby who had exhumed the fumes. During the massacre this area was invaded by Israeli troops, they forced all the men out their homes, stripped them naked and held them prisoner. The women and children were told to walk down the road away from the area, then were fired at by the soldiers. The house we were in was occupied by the soldiers, they ate, slept and relaxed in this house during the invasion. I will never forget what this man told me as we were leaving, “Next time we meet will hopefully be in Jerusalem”.

The tragedy continued as we visited brand new apartments, destroyed by Israeli warplanes, and the Eastern industrial zone, which was quite literally raised to the ground. Warehouses, factories, and farms in this area were completely destroyed. Almost all of the handful of workplaces we saw in this area were built post-massacre. Our next stop was to the Al-Samouni family, many of you, like me, would have heard this name, know that they suffered a massacre of sorts, but nothing prepares you for visiting them.

They used to be a large agricultural family, mainly illiterate and living off the land they worked on. On 5th January 2009 the Israeli army invaded their village, and rounded the entire family into one house. For over 20 hours they were sieged inside one room, with no food or water. After this, the Israeli army ordered in Apache helicopters, which swooped down and fired rockets into the house. 22 members of the All-Samouni family died instantly, with a handful surviving but trapped beneath the rubble. They described children trapped in the rubble, surrounded by the corpses of their parents and siblings. For four days the Red Cross were not allowed to enter the area, and when the survivors attempted to leave the village for help they were met by Israeli soldiers who were reported to have said to them, “Turn back and face your death”. In such a small village, 17 houses were completely destroyed, six were partially destroyed, and the village mosque was obliterated. Tanks had entered the village and destroyed all of the farmland, not a tree left standing, the entire family’s livelihood gone in a week. We spoke to two survivors of the Al-Samouni family, both middle aged men, both had lost their mother, father, sons, daughters and brothers. Both have been made disabled from injuries, so cannot work. The village is now populated with dozens of orphaned children and eight adults, all disabled from the massacre. For me, hearing their trauma, this was one of the most powerful arguments for the boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. They said they did not blame Israel, they blamed the international community. By all accounts this was a massacre, and if it happened anywhere else in the world there would be uproar. The UN judge Goldstone had visited and spoken to the survivors. They said he had cried hearing their story and hugged them. He wrote the famous Goldstone report which found that Israel had committed war-crimes, yet just last month, under Zionist pressure, he had retracted this statement. What hope had this family with behaviour like this from an international judge? The stories were just unbearable. One of the children was by his father’s side when the Israelis shot him dead; the boy cried for his father not to die and then was shot dead too. We saw a young boy who had had his face split in two, which was now sewn back together at the expense of his ability to smell. All the children, as would be expected, are psychologically traumatised by the whole event.

The day was ending and our final stop was at the Gaza port. A beautiful sunset fell on Gaza city, we had a panoramic view from the port itself. We spoke to a fisherman who described the daily struggle for Gazans at sea. Due to the Israeli siege, they are only allowed 3km from the shore, so fish is in very short supply; he used to employ thirty workers, he now only goes out with his sons. They catch just 25% of what they used to, and being Palestinian, have found an ingenious way of catching more; a common sight at night is to see large lights dotted along the sea, these are spotlights the fishermen use to attract fish from further away towards their nets. The Israeli navy now shoot out these lights when detected. When four Israeli settlers, illegally living in the West Bank, were recently knifed to death by an unknown assailant, it was broadcast across the world. This fisherman told us that just this year alone, eight fisherman had been shot dead by the Israeli navy, for the heinous crime of fishing whilst occupied. I consider myself a fairly well-researched activist, yet even I had no idea about this. We took a brief ride in a Gazan fishing boat then, emotionally and physically exhausted, called it a night and headed to our homes.

The true horror that we had witnessed has yet to really sink in. I’m thinking that in a similar way that I can’t conceptualise the size of the solar system due to its sheer scale, I am struggling to emotionally relate to the scale of devastation so many have had to endure in Gaza. The fact that people in Gaza continue to fight on despite this is yet more credit to the Palestinian struggle for liberation.

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