Monday, October 20, 2008

Days 1-2

On Sunday, Alice and I flew into Amman, Jordan. The airport was much more a third-world scene than Israel's (including the old Ben Gurion airport), and we soon learned that Alice's baggage had not arrived - this was not a problem originating in Amman, but rather at Delta's JFK operation. Alice was assured that the bag would be delivered to our lodging in East Jerusalem the next morning; as yet it hasn't appeared and we've been unable to determine where it is.

So, a bit lighter than planned, we headed for the bridge across the Jordan River and into the West Bank - known in Israel as the Allenby Bridge, and in Jordan as the King Hussein Bridge. A taxi from the airport gets you there in a half hour or so. On the Jordanian side of the river, we had our passports stamped, waited a bit, then boarded a bus to take us to the Israeli side. This took some time, as the passengers included the members of a Dutch cycle club who were biking from Rome to Tel Aviv, and they had to fit their bikes under the bus. When we got to the Israeli side, we got a taste of what West Bank Palestinians experience whenever they leave the country - since they are forbidden to enter Israel to board a flight at Ben Gurion airport, they must travel to Jordan over this bridge and fly from Amman. Thus, our bus was filled mostly with returning Palestinians and a handful of internationals. At the Israeli immigration terminal, the scene was far different than the airport - disorganized, a bit chaotic. Random pieces of our baggage were taken away for inspection and we began an obstacle course with no clues offered as to what we were expected to do. We waited an hour in a passport control line for internationals that only had ten people in it. We finally gave up and went to another window, answered the usual questions several times, and after a total of a half-dozen checks of our passports along the way, we got through and took a cheroot (minivan) to East Jerusalem, where we met up with the rest of our group.

Today, Monday, the medical group (Alice, Ellen, Jim, Mark, me - we're still awaiting Gene and Judy) traveled to Tel Aviv to meet with Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, specifically Miri Weingarten, director of their oPT projects; Hadas Ziv, executive director; and Dani Filc, president of the PHR-Israel board (and a pediatrician and professor of political science at Tel Aviv University). On Friday, the day before we left the U.S., we had been informed by the organizers of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program conference ("Siege and Mental Health", co-sponsored by the World Health Organization) that the GoI (government of Israel) authorities had denied permission for all 150 international participants to enter Gaza. No reason given. This group is largely made up of mental health and other health professionals from all over the world, who are traveling to I/P specifically for this conference, many to present there. There is a site that GCMHP set up in Ramallah for a video-link where people unable to enter Gaza will be able to participate in the conference at long range, so the conference will go on. Why this blockade? Surely a group of psychiatric social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists etc are not a security threat. Our PHR-Israel colleagues felt this was simply a case of the GoI not wanting us international academics to physically see Gaza and meet some of its inhabitants/prisoners. In the 48 hours after we learned this, there has been a flurry of email activity amongst the group of internationals expressing a desire not simply to go quietly to Ramallah, but to do something in response. What has been organized so far will include all of us presenting ourselves at the Erez Crossing into Gaza at noon on Sunday 26 October, the day before the conference is scheduled to begin, and press our case for entry. If nothing else changes in the interim, we will surely be denied, and then we will stage a protest. The GCMHP people are working in concert with Israeli peace organizations to build press interest, and tonight we spent most of our time with our PHR-Israel friends making plans, phone calls, sending emails etc to develop the strategy further. They are going to put out a press release in advance of a press conference, to be held the morning of the protest, which we, the internationals, will hold for the international and Israeli press denouncing this action by the GoI. During the rest of this week we will be contacting our various national embassies/consulates in Israel to demand that our governments support us and advocate with the GoI, and with our governmental representatives at home as well. We are all profoundly distressed at our being denied entry into Gaza, but we are energized by the opportunity to make trouble for the GoI and hopefully blacken their eye a little, if the press cooperates, which our PHR-Israel friends feel is likely. So stay tuned. Personally, I'm happy to get a chance to make some signs.

Tomorrow the medical group heads for the Deheisheh refugee camp outside of Bethlehem, where we will meet with members of the camp's Health Committee, perhaps see some patients, and visit the Maher Center, a volunteer organization that supports families of children with cancer being treated at the only hospital in the oPT that offers this care, and which has developed a relationship with the Cambridge-Bethlehem People-to-People Project.

more to come…

alan meyers

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