Viva Palestina Still in Syria

Special By Julie Webb

HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 19 — Last May, a Gaza aid flotilla was hijacked in international waters by Israel’s military. Nine civilians were shot to death. Now, an international aid convoy from 30 countries, led by British organization Viva Palestina, has traveled from several starting points (London, Casablanca and Doha) to deliver humanitarian supplies to the suffering people of Gaza and break the inhumane Israeli siege.

I am one of a six-person New Zealand team delivering three ambulances filled with medicines and wheelchairs. We left New Zealand on 14 September 14, picked up our vehicles in Luton and left England on September 18, traveling overland through France, Italy, Greece and Turkey, We have been stuck in Lattakia, Syria, for the past two weeks, awaiting permission to enter Egypt. Have to get back to camp now – and may not be able to get to internet for a few days, depending on developments and curfews!!!

Amena Saleem-uddin

Yesterday, Sunday October 17, spirits in our refugee camp in Lattakia, Syria, were high as a Greek cargo ship sailed towards Lattakia to pick up our 150 vehicles filled with five million dollars worth of medical and educational aid destined for the besieged people of Gaza. Hopes were high that all 380 convoy participants from more than 30 countries would have an early-morning Monday departure.

A Press Conference called for 12 noon saw spirits dampened somewhat as a list was read out of the names of 17 people banned by Egyptian authorities from entering Al-Arish. As organizers pointed out, several of the prohibitions were utterly incomprehensible – one named person was not even on the convoy and never had been, while another (Amena Saleem-uddin) was astonished to discover she had been prohibited on the grounds she was married to a member of the Viva Palestina management committee when in fact she is a single 40-year-old woman who has NEVER been married!

Sheik Ismail Nashwan

Two Turkish men who were carrying soil from the graves of their compatriots murdered on the Mavi Marmara to mix with Gazan soil and plant trees to commemorate them, were also banned. One of these (on the left in the photo) is one of the kindest and gentlest men I have ever met, who is always around to lend a hand in the camp – despite speaking no English or Arabic he always has a smile and an act of kindness for everyone, whether it be giving a piece of fruit or rushing to bring two chairs to lift the washbowl onto so I didn’t have to bend to do my laundry. How this man could possibly be considered a threat to national security is beyond me – unless metaphoric killing with kindness is a crime. The other, also retired, is equally non-threatening.

Omer Karabacak and Orhan Tokca from Turkey

However the cruelest decision was to forbid highly-respected 83 year-old Jordanian Sheik Ismail Nashwan from traveling through Egypt, causing him to break down in tears on realising he would not reach Gaza. The reason – according to the Egyptians – is that Sheik Nashwan is Turkish!!

While Viva Palestina founder George Galloway challenged his banishment as completely unjustifiable on any grounds, he announced his preparedness not to travel with the convoy if it meant the rest of us could pass unhindered.

That evening the ship arrived in port, and most of the camp prepared to leave, packing food-boxes into the night to tide us over for three days should we hit snags in Al-Arish, and otherwise preparing to make sure we would all be in our vehicles ready to leave for the port at 7.30 a.m. for those able to enter Egypt, or to return home for some of those prohibited.

Thismorning, everything changed. The early-morning departure was delayed by two hours….then another two hours….but the camp curfew remained, leaving some hope we may yet depart. As the day wore on it became clear we would be unlikely to leave before nightfall, and at 5 p.m. a meeting was announced for 7 p.m., so hopes of departing today disappeared.

George Galloway and Zaher Khalid Hasan Birawai

Sure enough, the 7 p.m. meeting announced bad news – the ship’s Greek owner had now decided not to permit passengers to travel. As convoy organizers emphasized, that left us in a very difficult position with regard to our legal obligations to donors etc – we could not just abandon our vehicles and aid and hope that the Egyptian’s would deliver them to Gaza for us.

We were informed that negotiations are continuing, to seek a solution. It is difficult to believe that Israeli pressure is not behind this sudden about-face by the shipping company, but we have confidence that a solution will be found – even if it means we have to find another ship to take us, and wait as long as it takes for it to arrive.

Rather than demoralize the convoy, this turn of events has served only to reinforce the commitment and conviction of participants. As people unpacked their vehicles and set up their tents and beds again, the mood was one of quiet determination. After all, the people of Gaza have been under siege for two years, and we are only in our third week.

To be continued!

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