Middle East

Send Money, Drugs, and Convoys

Fighter-bombers may be screaming through the sky over Nablus, but all is quiet in the streets of Cairo. The wave of demonstrations that broke out in the first months of the Al-Aqsa Intifada has died down. The boycott of American and Israeli goods appears to have fizzled, its main effect being the running out of town of a supermarket chain—Sainsbury’s—whose main connection to Israel was a slightly Jewish-sounding name. The Arab street, it seems, is these days about as effective a check on Israel as the Arab League. Which is unfortunate, but understandable. Months of protest marches and manifestos appear to have not made a single iota of difference to either Israeli or Egyptian policy. When October runs into May and there are final exams coming up, it’s easy to see why enthusiasm for a campaign that yields nothing more tangible than tear gas, beatings, and the risk of arrest might wear thin.

The demonstrations are important—they remind the world that Arab public opinion continues to be incensed by what goes on in the territories. But outrage deprived of constructive channels also gives way to the ridiculous (like the endless flood of statements demanding that Arab states or international institutions do things that they’re clearly not going to do) and sometimes the downright ugly—like the [Egyptian] Pharmacists’ Syndicate campaign against [the U.S. pharmaceutical corporation] Eli Lilly’s distribution of free [psychiatric] drugs to Holocaust survivors [living in Israel].

Admittedly, ordinary citizens are not exactly encouraged to support the Palestinians in meaningful ways. Several different laws and decrees restrict nongovernmental aid work or fund gathering, and activists who distinguish themselves in assisting others can find themselves accused of trying to diminish the prestige of the state. Back in the mid-’90s, the Doctors’ Syndicate ran a fairly substantive aid program for Bosnia. But many of its more active members were thrown in jail in the 1995 crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. The syndicate has run one aid convoy to the Palestinian territories since the new Intifada and plans to put together another one. It’s careful to make sure that its contributions, such as ambulances, address genuine needs within the territories. But the level of activity is far short of what went on at the height of the Bosnia war.

Into the gap has come a group calling itself the Popular Committees for the Support of the Intifada. It can’t get official approval, but it can work without it. It functions without an office of its own, or a budget. It does so by taking contributions in kind—medicine, for example. It claims several hundred active members, and in cooperation with the Doctors’ Syndicate, it has been able to run LE1 million [US$ 258,065] worth of supplies to the Palestinians since it started work in October. Forming a popular committee is not something that just anyone is advised to try at home. The movement has tied in some ministries and also draws upon the skills and knowledge of experienced figures in the Egyptian human-rights movement, who are adept at doing good without getting permission, while remaining on the sunny side of the Tura Prison door [notorious for detaining political prisioners—WPR]. It’s not easy for Egyptians to support the Palestinian struggle. You have to be resourceful. It probably helps to be connected. But it’s not impossible.