People for Palestine - the road to Aqaba
The last week has been a bit of a rollercoaster.
Our journey through Turkey confirmed all the good omens of our initial reception in Istanbul. In four days, we visited five of Turkey's six main cities, receiving a rapturous welcome in each.
Our partners in Turkey, humanitarian organization IHH, not only added another 60 vehicles full of aid to the convoy, but also saw to it that we were fed, sheltered, entertained, thanked and hugged wherever we went. We paraded through city centres, and were greeted throughout Turkey by groups of supporters who waited at all hours of the day and night to wave us on. And not only did we get huge amounts of press coverage, but permission was given for a huge rally in Taksim Square (central Istanbul) - the first of its kind in 30 years. A delegation from the convoy was also received by the Turkish parliament in Ankara.
Heading into Syria, the convoy was reinforced not only by the additional Turkish vehicles and drivers, but also by students from London, Malaysian volunteers and a US delegation, who were hoping to be able to drive vehicles that were refused entry to Gaza in the summer, and which Viva Palestina has been trying to get Egypt to release ever since.
In Syria too, it was inspiring to feel support from the state as well as from the people. At the border, and all along the road to Damascus, we were greeted by official receptions, welcome speeches and gestures of support for the convoy and for Palestine. We were even put up by the Government in an extremely nice state-run hotel complex on the outskirts of the capital, giving us a chance to get very excited about real beds with pillows, decent showers and the existence of much-needed laundry facilities!
On our second evening in Damascus we met Palestinian refugees and were addressed by the leaders-in-exile of Hamas and other organizations, who thanked the convoy for its solidarity and reiterated the Palestinian people's determination to resist the illegal occupation, the siege of Gaza and the apartheid wall in the West Bank. George Galloway spoke of the convoy's determination to break the siege of Gaza and work towards a free Palestine, and our Syrian hosts presented us with a further 45 tonnes of aid, which was distributed among the trucks.
Our arrival in Jordan was marred by an inexpicable delay, which left most of the convoy sitting for six hours at the border. Eventually we were allowed to pass, but not until officials had taken the passports of every vehicle's driver. Not surprisingly, this made the volunteers feel rather nervous, but we did get the passports back again that evening, amid rumours that this may actually be standard procedure with commercial vehicles in Jordan. Standard or not, the information was neither consistent not clear!
Our passage to Amman was further impeded by the apparent determination of the police to divert us straight to the port of Aqaba. Knowing that we had a reception and press conference waiting for us in Amman, however, we eventually resolved the situation via a little bit of (polite) direct action. The convoy pulled out from the inside lane, blocking the entire carriageway. Despite the inconvenience we were causing, the local traffic caught up in the convoy was extremely supportive! The police, finding themselves sidelined, gave up their attempts to redirect the convoy, moved to one side and waved us on.
Once more, kind hosts among the Palestinian community in Amman provided food and hotel accommodation for us, as well as a full programme of rallies and press conferences. By now, the convoy had become a major news story (in some cases the lead story) across the Middle East. The Turkish President even appeared on Syrian TV asking Egypt to facilitate its smooth passage.
Sadly, however, this appeal seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Despite Viva Palestina's organizers spending months trying to coordinate and cooperate with the Egyptian authorities regarding the convoy's passage from the Red Sea to Rafah (only half a day's drive), at the last minute the Egyptian consulate in Aqaba announced that all aid for Gaza must be handed over to UNWRA, travel through Israel, or be approved by Israel before coming to Rafah, and that therefore we would not be allowed to land at Nuweiba.
In a meeting with the convoy volunteers this morning (25 December), George Galloway pointed out that if we thought that UNWRA was up to the job, we could have simply written them a cheque months ago! He also reiterated that we had no intention of asking Israel for its permission to deliver aid to a sovereign people via a third, also sovereign, country. He begged the Egyptian authorities to change their minds, emphasizing that on Sunday 27 December, the anniversary of the bombardment of Gaza, the world's attention should be on Israel and its war crimes, not on Egypt, a fellow Arab nation.
So now, on Christmas Day, nearly 500 volunteers are waiting in Aqaba while negotiations with Egypt continue. At this time of year it is especially poignant to know that 150-odd vehicles, carrying medicines, paper and pencils, toys, maternity and baby supplies, should be sitting less than a day's journey away from their destination, while Gaza's children continue to suffer under the criminal blockade.
We know that the people of the Middle East are with us. I have no doubt that that goes for most of the Egyptian people too. Meanwhile, the convoy volunteers are determined to complete their mission, and are prepared to be patient.
We are asking all friends and supporters of the convoy and of Palestine to please contact the Egyptian consulate in London and the Egyptian Government in Cairo, asking them politely to reconsider their disastrous decision. Contact your MP and the Foreign Office and request that they take action. Phone and email the media, asking them to report on the story, which ought to be big news at Christmas-time. And forward information to all your friends, asking them to do the same.
The Egyptian Government, the British Government and the British media all need to know that British people care about this issue and will not stand by and let the convoy be turned away so close to its final destination.