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
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.