Medea Benjamin: Why I Didn’t Make It to Gaza for International Women’s Day

Medea Benjamin, March 13, 2014

When I boarded the plane to Cairo, Egypt, to make sure everything was in place for the women’s delegation headed to Gaza, I had no reason to think I’d end up in a jail cell at the Cairo airport and then violently deported.

The trip was in response to a call from women in Gaza to CODEPINK and other groups asking us to bring 100 women from around the world to Gaza for March 8, International Women’s Day. They wanted us to see, firsthand, how the seven-year Israeli blockade had made their situation intolerable. They talked about being unable to protect themselves and their families from frequent Israeli attacks and how the closing of the borders with both Israel and Egypt has made it impossible for them to travel abroad or even to other parts of Palestine. They wanted us to witness how the shortages of water, electricity, and fuel, coupled with severe restrictions on imports and exports, condemn most of the 1.6 million Palestinians in Gaza to a life of misery.

So we helped put together a 100-women delegation with representatives from France, Belgium, Switzerland, Australia, the UK, Ireland, Canada and the United States. The delegates, who ranged in age from 18 to 84, included Nobel Peace Prize winners, doctors, writers and students. We were also bringing hundreds of solar lamps and boxes of medical supplies for the women.

The only ways to enter Gaza is by land – either via the border with Israel or Egypt. Israel restricts entry to non-governmental and official delegations, so our only option was to go through Egypt. CODEPINK had already organized eight delegations to Gaza via Egypt since 2008, so we thought we knew the ropes. We had organized these delegations during Mubarak’s reign and after the revolution, but not since the July 2013 coup that toppled the government of Mohamed Morsi.

As in the past, we furnished the Foreign Ministry and the local Embassies with all the information they requested to get the delegates the necessary permits to cross the Sinai (which has become a dangerous place) and cross into Gaza. They said as long the situation was not too dangerous in the Sinai, they would help us get safely to the border. Otherwise, we would celebrate International Women’s Day together in Cairo.

I went early, on March 3, as part of the logistics team. When I arrived at the airport in Cairo, I was taken aside and put in a separate room. First I was told "no problem, no problem, just checking the papers, just 10 minutes." After 5 hours I realized that there was, indeed, a problem, as I was taken to a jail cell at the airport. Never once was I told what the problem was. Thank goodness I had hidden my phone and was able to get the word out about my plight over Twitter. Friends and family started immediately contacting the US Embassy for help.

At 8am, 5 plain-clothed men with handcuffs came into the cell, looking very ominous. One said, "Come with us, we’re putting you on a plane and deporting you." I was scared to go with them and I had just received a message that someone from the US Embassy was just ten minutes away. I politely asked if I could wait for an embassy official or if I could call the Foreign Ministry to straighten out what must be a miscommunication.

Instead, the men grabbed me, threw me on the ground, put their knees into my back, yanked my arms back so violently that I heard the pop of my arm coming out of my shoulder, and put two sets of handcuffs on me. I was screaming from the pain so they took my scarf, stuffed it in my mouth, and dragged me through the halls of the airport to a waiting Turkish Airline plane.

I was in such agony from a dislocated shoulder – you could see the bone just sticking up in the air – that the airline personnel refused to let me on and insisted that the Egyptians call an ambulance. When the ambulance arrived, the doctor immediately gave me a shot to ease the pain and insisted that I had to go to the hospital. By this time there were about 20 men on the tarmac, arguing about what to do with me while the Turkish plane with 175 people on board was prevented from taking off. After about an hour of fighting, the Egyptian security prevailed: I was not allowed go to the hospital but was forced to board the plane, with the two men who most abused me sitting on either side of me.

As soon as we were in the air, the stewardess asked if there was a doctor on the plane. Finally, a stroke of luck! Not only was there a doctor, but he was an orthopedic surgeon. He created a makeshift operating bed in the aisle of the plane and got the stewardesses to assist. "Usually I’d put you out before doing this, so I warn you this will be painful," he said as he manipulated my arm back into its socket. Once we got to Turkey, I went to a hospital for further treatment before flying back home. My doctors here say it will take months of physical therapy before I can recover full use of my arm.

Along with the physical trauma, I am left with many unanswered questions:

* Why didn’t the US Embassy in Egypt ever help me during this 17-hour ordeal, especially when I made it clear I was in danger? When questioned by a journalist at a State Department briefing, spokeswoman Jen Psaki falsely claimed that the Embassy had provided me with "appropriate consular assistance." I have since lodged a complaint about the lack of assistance, and you can send a message to the State Department, too.

*If the Egyptian officials were so brutal to me – a petite, 61-year-old American woman who has dedicated her life to peace – what are they doing to their own citizens and others languishing in their prisons? And why is Secretary Kerry considering a resumption of US military aid to this brutal regime? According to a recent Amnesty International report, the current human rights situation is characterized by repeated excessive use of force by the security forces, leading to the death of hundreds of protesters; increasingly severe restrictions on freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and freedom of expression, as well as academic freedoms; the arbitrary imprisonment of protest leaders, university students, journalists and others; and a failure to protect vulnerable groups, including minorities and women. Take a minute to send a message to the Egyptian embassy in the US and tell them to end the government’s brutal crackdown on peaceful citizens.

*Did Israel put the pressure on Egypt to do a last-minute about-face to keep us out of Gaza? In the end, only 17 of our members made it into Cairo (but not to Gaza) and the rest were deported from the airport. The question of Israeli influence is one we’ll probably never have answered, but during the very time we were supposed to be there, rocket fire was exchanged between militants from Gaza and the Israeli army. This shows the vulnerability of the women of Gaza, caught between the Israeli siege, Egyptian blockade, and internal extremists. That’s why it was so important for us to go there, to show our solidarity with the civilian population. But that will have to wait until Egypt no longer deems peace activists to be a threat to their national security.

As long as the world ignores the ongoing siege of Gaza, almost 2 million people will continue to languish in the world’s largest open-air prison. If Secretary of State Kerry wants the US to be a meaningful peace broker and to reach an agreement that includes dignity and human rights for the Palestinians, he can no longer continue to support military aid to the perpetrators of the blockade: Israel and Egypt.

Medea Benjamin is the cofounder of the peace group CODEPINK and the human rights organization Global Exchange. She is the author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.




18 Responses to “Medea Benjamin: Why I Didn’t Make It to Gaza for International Women’s Day”

  1. Well, Egypt said that if it was SAFE they would let you go to Gaza (or so you claim). It wasn't safe, so you weren't allowed to go. Suggesting that Israel was involved just blew your story apart. Maybe it wasn't safe because of so many bombs going off, Egyptian soldiers killed, Islamic Jihad and Hamas (?) firing bombs at Isreal and Israel retaliating? *&%#^$

    It doesn't seem like you really get this. If a foreigner comes into Egypt, Egypt is responsible for them, so if they deny you access to an area — that is the way it is. They are protecting your safety.

    I really wonder exactly what your attitude was like while at the airport. This stress on 'politely' seems very off. And the 'arbitrary' arrests of students, etc; Those students burned down 2 faculty buildings at the oldest university in the world (Al-Azhar), not to mention vandalizing and damaging public and private property, stopping traffic for hours in Cairo (traffic is bad enough without protests), carrying weapons and using them against police.

    Before you go off on your "woe is me" I suggest you take account of the world around you — YOUR world isn't THE world.

  2. One more thing — almost forgot. I initially read that you were coming over, in part, for International Woman's Day (a good thing) but also to protest Egypt's closing of the smuggling tunnels. Hello — wake up. There was a reason why those tunnels were closed. It is called SECURITY. And there has been way to much trouble in that crossing area in the past several months. Perhaps Egypt didn't feel inclined to allow someone thru their airport (which is in THEIR country, not YOURS) to participate in a protest against the Egypt-Gaza tunnel closures. I feel sorry for the Palestinians who aren't making trouble, but the northern Sinai has a problem with SECURITY so they must do what they can to stop the problem. Sorry about your shoulder too -but- you've got to remember that you are not in your own country and it seems like you intentionally came to Egypt to cause problems. That's they way it goes.
    And perhaps you were a bigger problem than you claim to have been — hey, it sounds like even the US embassy didn't want to deal with you. Or at least rush to your side quickly.

  3. Remember an American bought government did that. I think the Egyptians were following orders of a foreign power (s) concerning the deportation. The question is whose idea was the brutality? Remember the American flotilla that was stopped in Greece? Hillary Clinton said that the US wouldn't protect US citizens from harm and Israel had a right to defend itself against unarmed peace activist: http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/06/24/us.gaza.flotilla

  4. Why don't you go troll Stormfront or some other entity more on your empathy level… Your smug condescension and crass insensitivity to a woman in distress, shows you as a troll and woman baiting thug….. How did you ever find your way to this place…??? Whoever or whatever you are, the world can do without. Didn't your mother ever tell you about women and life…???

  5. RazorsanFiles: was your remark to me (Zeinab) or to the article?

  6. She sure did "beware the whiners who want others to believe in their 'cry wolf' stories. I'm going to guess you are from the west. Suppose Palestinisn militants got to JKF and demanded to get thru so they could protest against the US treatment of, say, Israel and Egypt, in front of the Israeli embassy and White House in the US? If the airport personal KNEW that was their plan, what are the chances that the US officials at the airport would let them in? How long do you think they would remain in detention at the airport before being deported? Medea's 1st reason for going to Gaza was to protest the tunnels that Egypt has been filling in between Egypt and Gaza. That was done for SECURITY and with good reason.
    How did I "find this website?" Just like anybody else — I too can google. "DIdn't your Mother ever tell you about women and life….?" you asked me? She sure did, and she especially warned me about males who think that a woman's life consists of cooking, cleaning, and raising children. Sounds like you are one of those poor male entities (fortunately a minority) that thinks women have only designated places in life. Tsk, Tsk, Tsk.

  7. I saw pictures you posted right the day after this happened. Despite the flimsy sling, both of your arms were functioning quite nicely. Remember when making up stores it is important to follow through with your acting when giving press interviews.

  8. Wake up People! http://rikijo.blogspot.com

  9. "It wasn't safe, so you weren't allowed to go."

    So they pulled her arm out of joint for her own safety?

    There's a difference between not being allowed to go on to Gaza, and being deported from Egypt by excessive force. She was deported because she was there to draw attention to conditions in Gaza. To pretend that this is was for her own safety is absurd.

  10. Nice that Medea references Amnesty International for her defense. It fits perfectly with her "regime change' agenda since she was in Tahrir Square in 2011 to help overthrow Mubarak & usher in the Morsi Muslim Brotherhood government of Shairia Law.
    Amnesty International has long been a tool of the U.S. State Department.
    In 2012 at their annual meeting in Denver , Colorado their keynote speaker was the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford.
    Ford worked with John Negroponte to organize the death squads now ravaging Iraq, and later those in Libya — and in Syria as we speak. tinyurl.com/8xglmfk
    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry later recommended this death squad coordinator to be appointed as U.S. ambassador to Egypt. This was the Twitter reaction by Egyptians who knew who Robert Ford was tinyurl.com/msok86s
    Medea Benjamin had earlier in 2004 been in Kiev to help promote the Soros backed Orange Revolution that has morphed into the present neo-Nazi coup in the Ukraine tinyurl.com/oc8aags
    Enough said of her "pure intentions"

    JC

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  13. Madea Benjamin, if that's her real name, should consider herself very lucky, because the Egyptians can be rough too. They did what any normal country do: take the trash out. The fact is that this Madea is a little provocateur, who couldn't care less about women's rights (or otherwise she would travel to Syria, where women are sold by their husbands for food) or anywhere else in the region, supporting women who cannot leave home unless escorted by a man, or drive a car and so on. She's an ugly disgusting witch that is trying to assist the fakestinians in terrorizing Israel, Egypt, and next the entire world. Good job, Egyptian border police!!

  14. I feel for the people of Gaza who were victimized by the 2/3 of their compatriots who democratically elected Hamas. Maybe if you finally get to Gaza you can explain that asking for peace while supporting a party that advocates for the destruction of Israel makes it kind of hard to talk the Israelis into policy change.

  15. If Medea gets into Gaza at some point, I hope that she can impress on the women of Gaza that voting by a 2/3 majority for a political party sworn to the destruction of Israel make it a LITTLE difficult to convince the Israelis to moderate their position.
    I am sorry for the other 1/3 who are the true victims.

  16. I believe all will be fine

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