The siege has been lifted. At least for a day.
The Viva Palestina convoy from the U.S. has finally arrived in Gaza, bringing both joy and stress to U.S. participants and Gaza residents.
The group was finally allowed into Gaza at Rafa on the Egypt border Wednesday night. However, they were only given permission by Egyptian authorities to stay for 24-hours. Furthermore, almost all the convoy’s vehicles have been denied entry so far. It is reported that just two ambulances have been allowed in. According to the blog of three members of the group, 47 vehicles, an investment of $500,000 made by Americans for the people of Gaza, have been left behind in Egypt.
I reported in June about the current Viva Palestina campaign, spearheaded by British politician George Galloway and carried out by hundreds of volunteer concerned citizens who want to bring some relief and attention to the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. The convoy of about 200 U.S. citizens departed the U.S. on July 4 to fly to Cairo, where they organized the convoy of buses and medical supplies. The group includes Vietnam vet Ron Kovic, New York City Council member Charles Barron, former U.S. Representative and 2008 Green Party Presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney, along with many more volunteer U.S. citizens.
According to organizers and participants, the point of the trip is first and foremost to bring much-needed aid and basic supplies. Second, it is to raise awareness about the situation in Gaza–not only the recent siege and blockade, but the decades-long occupation. Finally, it is to help raise the spirits and act in solidarity with the people of Gaza.
A press release from Tuesday reported that the group had been given permits to cross the border and deliver the aid, after spending over a week in Cairo negotiating the bureaucratic process of clearing all the people. However– possibly because of Israel and U.S. pressure–restrictions were imposed on the amount of aid, the number vehicles, and the amount of time allowed.
Thursday was spent trying to accomplish in one short day what the group had planned on doing over three days. The day kicked off at a press conference with Gazan Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Delegates drove around to witness the effects of the Israeli bombardment last winter.
One of the human rights volunteers, Fraser Gaspard of Denver, Colorado, reported his reaction upon seeing firsthand the devastation caused by Israel’s bombing of Gaza six months ago:
“It really shows how effective the American weapons we give Israel are, and how deliberate Israel was in its attack from the spots that were hit, schools, hospitals, a cement factory, homes in refugee camps. You could see it was a war of terror against the Gazan people.”
Afterwards, the group delivered medical aid to Shafa Hospital in Gaza City and later met with families of some of the thousands of prisoners being held in Israel as well as children whose family members were killed by Israel in January. Another volunteer, Mahmoud Elayan from New Jersey, said that the most impressive moment for him was visiting the Ministry of Prisoners. Elayan said, “Three little girls spoke about losing 29 other immediate family members. I have 2 little kids, and I can’t imagine them going through anything like that. To see them still keeping hope like that when they’ve suffered so much, it was touching. I had to leave the room.”
Prior to entry of Gaza some of the delegates–including U.S. vets and Jewish rabbis–had the opportunity in Egypt to be on a news TV show called “Paladna” on O TV, a satellite channel throughout the Middle East. They had 40 minutes to present what Viva Palestina was doing and to discuss various viewpoints and questions from callers. I thought to myself: I wonder if such a thing could ever occur in the U.S. on a mainstream TV news show?
A second U.S. Viva Palestina is being planned already for December, during the 1-year anniversary of last year’s assault on Gaza, and others are being planned from London and many other countries.
One member of the convoy, a California resident named Nour Mattar, is a Palestinian who was born within the borders of Israel. He summed up his thoughts of his experiences, “With all the blockade and all the pressure, if you drive around and talk to people you find they still have great spirit. They‘re not willing to give up or stand down, even though Israel has used every possible weapon they could, militarily, economically and politically.”
For a day, the blockade has been lifted–a curtain opened, a little aid allowed, some hope and joy expressed.
I can’t help but wonder: what about the other 364 days of the year?
Stay tuned for my report of my interview with a returning volunteer in a couple weeks:
Also see the latest blogs by members of the convoy currently reporting about their experiences as well as twitter feeds of members of the convoy.