Faith and frustration

On Christmas Eve, we were just half a day's journey away from Gaza. Nearly two weeks later,  we are still 40km and nobody knows how many hours or days from our destination.

Despite the full glare of middle-eastern press scrutiny, and the diplomatic backing of the current Turkish and former Malaysian prime ministers, Egypt has thrown every possible obstacle in our path.

Clearly, the Egyptian Government and its Western/Zionist allies have no desire to see more convoys coming through, constant remiders to the Arab people that without Egypt there would be no siege in the first place, and therefore no need for convoys.

On Christmas Day, one convoy member, dressed as Santa, appeared on Al Jazeera explaining that Gaza was the only part of the world where he had been unable to deliver presents that morning.

The general feeling was one of optimism, but there was much anger at the continued news blackout in the mainstream British media,and frustration at the closeness of our final destination. While the convoy's situation and the plight of Gazans under siege has been the lead story on Al Jazeera and many other middle-eastern TV networks throughout this trip, the British corporate media preferred to fill their air time/print space over Christmas with items of such vital import as the potential life expectancy of a fascistic old Pope and the unexpected arrival of snow in winter.

Boxing Day was a day of rest for those not busy in internet cafés, but by 27 December, the anniversary of last year's war on Gaza, and the date on which the convoy had hoped to arrive in Palestine, the mood had changed.

We marked the anniversary of the start of the war with a three-minute silence at 11.20am, which was broadcast live by Al Jazeera and covered by several other TV networks, including our embedded Turkish, Malaysian and Press TV crews. The names of the 15 martyred medics,deliberately targeted during the Gaza assault as they tried to reach the wounded, were read out in turn, along with the dates of their deaths.

Following this tribute, we left the compound and staged a solidarity protest at a major road junction nearby. Around 20 members of the convoy also started a hunger strike to highlight the plight of those going hungry in Gaza every day, and to protest at Egypt's refusal to allow the convoy into Gaza via Nuweiba.

After the main solidarity demonstration, a smaller protest took place outside the Egyptian consulate in Aqaba, while on the beach more convoy members took Viva Palestina banners out into the Red Sea and onto the pier.

That evening, candles were lit to commemorate the 1,400 people killed during Israel's 22-day assault on the Gaza Strip. Having missed the main vigil, a few of us staged another, smaller one down by the beach later on.

The hunger strike was called off the next afternoon following news that an agreement had been reached with Egypt that we would agree to travel via the Mediterranean port of El-Arish instead of the Red Sea port of Nuweiba in return for an undertaking to let all the aid and all convoy members into Gaza once we arrived in Egypt.

So back we drove, all the way through Jordan and into Syria once more, arriving late on the 29th at the Sahara hotel complex in Damascus, while Viva Palestina scoured the Med for a boat or three that would be able to get all the vehicles and all the people across the sea and be suitable for landing in the low-tech, shallow dock at El-Arish.

Two days later, we were on the move once more, heading for Lattakia in Syria, where we were put up in the Palestinian refugee camp while further negotiations were conducted. Not only was it hard to find the right sort of boats, but there were many firms who simply didn't want to get involved with shipping cargo that might upset Israel and possibly cause them to be attacked. Meanwhile, written confirmation of Egypt's agreement to let us all in was
proving elusive.

Two days later, a Turkish boat had been found that was willing and able to carry all the vehicles to El-Arish, the only snag being that it first needed to make its way from Libya to Lattakia, and that it was a cargo ship, which meant that separate arrangements would have to be made for the drivers. So while we waited for the boat to arrive at the port, the organizers got to work chartering a small plane that could shuttle us all in several trips to El-Arish.

In the end, we waited four days in Lattakia, but the wait was made easier by the spectacular hospitality and generosity of the people, both in the camp and the town. In the camp, Palestinian families were queueing up to take convoy members home for food and showers, offering us beds and generally treating us like long-lost relatives. In the town, Syrian stall-holders and cafe owners went out of their way to be friendly and helpful, making gifts of food, giving discounted rates for hotels and internet and generally proving by the intelligence of their conversation to be a very civilized, well-educated people.

A day and a half after we had loaded our vehicles onto the boat at Lattakia, Viva Palestina finally received written confirmation from the Egyptians that our planes would be allowed to land in El-Arish and that all volunteers would be taken to the port to be reunited with their aid. Of course, it didn't prove quite that simple. The first plane-load to arrive
found themselves issued with emergency exit visas and were told they would be taken straight to Rafah.

A night of negotiation coupled with spirited protest ensued (publicised by Al Jazeera), following which the customs officials backed down, cancelled the exit visas and took the volunteers to a hotel to await the arrival of the rest of the convoy.

Meanwhile, the second plane-load of volunteers was held up by engine trouble, which meant that the plane was diverted to Damascus airport and a replacement had to be found. On arrival at El-Arish, more shenanigans ensued as customs officials, having failed to stop three convoy members they had given advance warning would be refused entry to Egypt, decided to detain three others instead. A combination of negotiation and protest carried the point in our favour once again, however, no doubt helped by the pressure of the last group of volunteers who were queueing up outside the building to be processed, having just arrived at the airport.

As the sun went down on another unpredictable day yesterday, we were all here in El-Arish port, people and vehicles reunited and aid all intact. After all the delays and extra costs, Gaza is only 40km away, but there were more unpleasant surprises in store for us, when the local authorities walked out of negotiations about which vehicles and aid they wanted to allow into Gaza. Instead of returning, they sent 2,000 uniformed riot cops and non-uniformed provocateurs to surround the port, blockading us in and then attacking those protesting at the gates with paving slabs and more.

So instead of driving to Gaza, the convoy spent the first half of the night in a pitched battle with Egyptian police, who used pepper spray, water cannon, rocks and metal batons against a couple of hundred of our volunteers. Middle-eastern TV broadcast five hours of live coverage of the battle into homes across the region, exposing still further the
criminal role of Egypt in the siege of Gaza.

Fifty-five convoy members were wounded during the fighting, several of whom had to be taken to hospital for treatment, being beyond the scope of the ad hoc first aid station we set up within the port compound. Six brothers of various nationalities were arrested and held all night and most of today in a police van without food, water or toilet facilities.

This morning, Viva Palestina announced that negotiations at the highest level, between the Egyptian and Turkish prime ministers, had failed to persuade the Egyptians to let all our vehicles in, so cars and 4x4s requested by doctors and clinics will not be delivered to Gaza, but will instead be taken by Turkish drivers to refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon. All the people and aid have been agreed to, however, so now we are just waiting for the army to open the gates and then we will make our way to Rafah and on into Gaza this evening.

More updates on joti2gaza.org and twitter.com/joti2gaza

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.

Viva Palestina: a lifeline from Britain to Gaza

The third international convoy to Gaza departed from London 12 days ago, on 5 December 2009.

The convoy is made up of volunteers from Britain, Ireland, Belgium and Malaysia, who have raised hundreds of thousands of pounds in their local communities to pay for ambulances, minibuses, vans and lorries, and to fill them with medical and other aid that is desperately needed in Gaza.

decorated ambulance

We have crossed Europe via France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Italy and Greece, and arrived yesterday in Istanbul, the gateway to Asia, where we were joined by more drivers and vehicles from Turkey, Malaysia and the US. From here we will travel to Ankara and east to the border, before crossing into Syria, Jordan, and then Egypt. We plan to cross into Gaza via the Rafah Crossing on 27 December, the anniversary of the launch of last year’s bombardment by Israel.

The war crimes committed by Israel during that attack have been well documented. What is less talked about is that the siege of Gaza – an illegal and barbaric act of collective punishment, which is itself a war crime – started well before that and continues to this day.

So as well as delivering much-needed medical aid, the convoy will be bringing a very important message of solidarity to the people of Gaza. We are coming to show them that they are not forgotten; that the people of the world will not stand by and let Israel starve them into submission.

And we are bringing the same message to the Israeli Government and all its backers in Britain and the US: that Palestine is not forgotten, despite the lack of mainstream media coverage; that Palestine has friends all over the world; that the siege will never succeed in its aims.

I personally am bringing with me messages of support and solidarity from friends, colleagues and comrades to let the people of Palestine know that they have friends among the British people, even while British corporations, government and media are busy arming Israel and excusing its war crimes.

Right now, the biggest potential obstacle to the success of the convoy is the attitude that the Egyptian authorities might take towards it. There’s no doubt that the Egyptian people are supportive of the convoy and the Palestinian cause, but it is equally true that Britain, Israel and the US will be bringing maximum pressure behind the scenes to persuade the Government to deny us entry into Gaza.

To help with this effort, they are also doing their best to deny us the oxygen of publicity. Which is why we’re asking everyone back home to do what they can to publicize the convoy and its aims far and wide.

The more attention there is on the convoy as it travels, the harder it will be for the Egyptian authorities to hold it up when it gets to Rafah. So TELL EVERYONE! 

Leaving western Europe, it became clear to those who didn’t already know that this mission has the backing of most of the REAL international community. Not only were people everywhere happy to see us, but local mayors in Thessaloniki and Istanbul have turned out to greet us, local organizations have fed and sheltered us, national press and TV have reported on us, and local police have escorted us on parades through city centres.

On arrival in Turkey, we were overcome to find a big welcome rally taking place right at the border crossing, where both Greek and Turkish police and soldiers gave us victory signs!

The four 'aunties'

At the outskirts of Istanbul last night, my van, comprising four ‘Aunties’ from England, Ireland, Wales and France, was surrounded by emotional women who hugged us and thanked us for coming. It is clear that the fact that we have come from the belly of the beast makes our presence here especially significant to people outside the West.
A little while later, a small girl knocked on the window of our van. When I put the window down, she handed me a beautiful picture she had drawn depicting the friendship between the Turkish and Palestinian people, and asked me to deliver it to the children of Gaza.

We are determined to succeed. The children of Gaza especially deserve to know that we have not and will not forget them.

You can follow the convoy’s progress at http://joti2gaza.org and http://twitter.com/joti2gaza

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