News from Palestine: Lifeline 3 Finally in Gaza
- Lifeline 3 Finally in Gaza
Wed. Jan. 6, 2010
RAFAH, GAZA STRIP – After long delays, street protests and even clashes with Egyptian security, the Lifeline 3 aid convoy finally crossed into the sealed off Gaza Strip on Wednesday, January 6, through Egypt's Rafah border crossing.
The nearly 200-vehicle aid convoy, which left London on December 6, arrived in al-Arish on Monday after a dispute with Cairo on the route, reported Agence France Presse (AFP).
After a series of delays it ended up stuck in Al-Arish, while waiting for government permission to cross into Gaza.
Organizers said protests between activists and Egyptian security forces broke out when Egyptian authorities insisted the food and other supplies in the convoy to pass through an Israeli-controlled checkpoint.
The activists preferred the goods to be transported via Egypt's Rafah crossing, which sits directly on the border of Gaza.
The convoy’s passage came after a Turkey-brokered deal between members of the convoy and Egypt.
Under the compromise aid deal, 158 trucks will be allowed through Rafah, but 40 private cars in the convoy would have to stay in Egypt for a month for security procedures and then pass through into Gaza via an Israeli checkpoint.
The aid convoy is carrying items ranging from heart monitors to clothing and dental equipment.
It is accompanied by international activists who call for an end to the siege on Gaza, including British lawmaker George Galloway and 17 Turkish legislators.
Israel has been sealing off the coastal enclave, home to nearly 1.6 million people, since Hamas was voted into power in the 2006 legislative elections.
The aid convoy crossed into Gaza after a day of clashes that broke out at the border between Palestinian protestors and Egyptian security forces.
According to witnesses and medics, Egyptian forces opened fire to disperse stone-throwing protesters who had gathered on the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing to protest frustration over the delays.
Egyptian officials said a 21-year-old soldier was shot by gunfire from the Palestinian side in the clashes.
The stand off was described as "regrettable" by officials in Gaza.
"We are not interested in raising tension at the border," said spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum was harsher in his criticism accusing Egyptian authorities of "reinforcing the siege on Gaza".
"Around 40 Arab, Islamic and European states have mobilized financial and media support to lift the siege imposed on Gaza Strip," Barhoum told Al Jazeera.
"Why does not Egypt go along this path of solidarity with Gaza Strip? Such practices are outrageous, inhumane and unethical."
Overnight, Egyptian security forces and members of the convoy threw stones at each other when tempers frayed over the route the trucks were to take.
This left more than 55 activists and 9 members of the security forces injured and some sixty convoy-members arrested.
Many of those injured were "quite severely beaten, with head injuries," Alice Howard, spokeswoman for the group of about 500 international activists, told BBC.
Cairo has imposed strict regulations and restrictions on pro-Palestinian foreign activists who have held protests in Egypt since late December to mark the first anniversary of Israel's three-week war on Gaza.
Lethal clashes at Gaza-Egypt border
At least one Egyptian border guard has been killed and 35 Palestinians wounded along the Gaza border during fierce clashes with Egyptian security forces.
A border protest on Wednesday turned violent over frustration that the aid convoy, Viva Palestina, had been delayed.
Egyptian forces opened fire to disperse stone-throwing protesters who had gathered on the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing, witnesses and medics said.
But Egyptian officials said the 21-year-old soldier was shot by gunfire from the Palestinian side.
Al Jazeera's Ayman Mohyeldin, reporting from Gaza, confirmed that people on both sides of the border opened fire during the clash.
"We have been able to confirm that one Egyptian soldier has been killed as a result of Palestinian fire in the direction of the Egyptian border.
"There is no doubt that we heard gunfire on the Palestinian side as well as on the Egyptian side."
Viva Palestina's bumpy road
By Dr Hanan Chehata
In an international effort to show solidarity with the Palestinian people, Viva Palestina (VP) volunteers from around the world have left their families and in some cases resigned from their jobs in order to take part in this humanitarian undertaking.
They have done this for no other reason than that they feel strongly about the crisis in Gaza. The images that they saw flash across their television screens during the assault on Gaza in 2008-9 has been seared into their minds.
It is sad that it took such a horrific tragedy to wake people up but one inevitable consequence of the Israeli attacks and their cruel blockade was certainly to educate the world as to the reality of the situation.
Until that point many people could not even pinpoint Gaza on a map. Now they are spending their time and risking their personal safety to defend Gaza and its people.
Seeing the images of the chaos and destruction during the Gaza assault certainly mobilised a lot of people into civil action.
Immediately following the atrocities, those who were appalled by the number of civilians killed, who had seen the UN buildings, schools, mosques and hospitals deliberately targeted decided that they could no longer sit back or pretend that they did not know what was taking place.
Ignorance was no longer an excuse. Action was called for and multiple tactics were employed from the grassroots level upwards. Protests and demonstrations were held, MPs were bombarded with emails and letters, campaigns to boycott Israeli goods were put into action and yet, while all of this has drawn attention to the plight of the Gazans, the situation has not improved.
In fact, the siege is tightening and the condition of the people living there has deteriorated considerably. More direct action was clearly required. People were becoming increasingly disillusioned by the inaction of their governments and, in some cases, their direct complicity in Israel's oppression and aggression against the Palestinian people.
Thus enters VP 2009. Here was finally a way for individuals who felt betrayed by their government's to take direct action and be themselves a tangible part of the solution.
By physically taking in the aid that Israel would not otherwise let through, not only is the convoy alleviating the short term suffering of the Palestinian people by providing them with desperately needed medicine, clothes and other vital humanitarian aid but it is also refocusing attention on the ongoing crisis that exists in Gaza.
However, in a fairly unexpected turn of events a new actor has walked into the scene. If you ask anybody the question, "who is responsible for the siege on Gaza and the suffering of the Palestinian people?", they will inevitably respond "Israel", and rightly so.
While Egyptian government has been complicit for a very long time now, its wrongdoings have been of a secondary nature. However, somehow, recently Egyptian government is succeeding, much to Israel's delight, in diverting attention away from the Israelis.
This has primarily been done by their insistence on placing unreasonable obstacles in the path of the convoy. For instance, the VP Convoy had planned to enter Gaza on December 27 to mark the first anniversary of the attack.
That was intended to show how, one year on, the siege continues to compound the suffering of the Gazans. They have not been allowed to rebuild their homes or their lives.
Instead of being in Gaza and handing over the aid to the waiting recipients on 27th of December as planned, the VP Convoy was stranded in a compound in Jordan with hundreds of vans and ambulances full of aid. The reason for this was that Egypt had refused to grant permission for the convoy to pass through the necessary part of their territory.
The Egyptian government has been extremely uncooperative and have fought VP every step of the way. While VP has done their utmost to accede to their demands, the Egyptian authorities continued to place more onerous conditions which George Galloway, the British MPand VP leader, has said he is unwilling to undertake.
These include dealing with the Israeli government directly. Why should VP have to deal with Israel when the issue is about taking aid from one Arab country to another?
Eventually, we were forced to return to Syria from where we chartered special flights to transport us to El-Arish while our vehicles were loaded onto ferries.
The extra cost, which exceeded $300,000, could have meant the total collapse of the mission because the sum required was most certainly beyond the reach of individual convoy members.
Thanks to the generosity of the Turkish contingent and a few other Arab donors, we managed to continue with our journey.
There is absolutely no justification for the Egyptians' stalling tactics. Even now after our arrival in El-Arish and in spite of previous agreements, we are confronted with new obstacles, namely the number of vehicles allowed to enter.
Instead of making the transition as easy as possible for those who have taken it upon themselves to do the job that frankly Arab governments should be doing, Egypt seems to be almost punishing the Convoy for daring to try and help the people of Palestine and are playing a power game, trying to show who is in control, a completely unnecessary game to play, against merely powerless individuals, considering what is at stake.
Frustration, anger and disgust with the Egyptian government have naturally increased incrementally as the days have passed. They have been the subject of much vilification.
I have spoken to many people who have vowed to boycott Egypt from now on.
It is bad enough that Egypt is allying itself with Israel, the aggressor, against the victim, Palestine, by tightening the siege and restricting access to Gaza via the Rafah border crossing but shortly before we left home the news that they were building an underground steel wall at Rafah to block off access to the tunnels, the one lifeline to Gaza, set the tone for everyone's disgust.
Worse still, while we are sitting miles away from our destination, stranded and tired we received news that Benjamin Netanyahu was welcomed into Cairo with open arms. What a disgraceful state of affairs! A convoy of humanitarian aid is treated with hostility while the perpetrators war crimes are welcomed with open arms!
Role of villain
Egypt has had every opportunity to redeem and to recast itself in the role of the hero. Instead they have needlessly and voluntarily cast themselves in the role of villain.
I am half English and half Egyptian and used to be so proud of that fact but since Egypt have chosen to ally itself so unnecessarily and immorally with Israel, I feel a profound sense of shame.
When Convoy members know of my heritage, I am bombarded with a tirade of very reasonable questions including "Why is Egypt adding to the suffering of the Palestinian people?" "Why are the Egyptians not helping their Muslim brothers and sisters - aren't they part of the Muslim Ummah (community) as well?" These are all perfectly reasonable questions to which I have no answers.
Now that we are on its territory, all that is left is to call upon Egypt allow our convoy through! I love Egypt and I love its people and have to keep reminding those that I meet that the Egyptian people are not being fairly represented by their government.
I fear that if it does not change its policies immediately they will be branded irrevocably with the same label deserved by Israel, War Criminals and villains of modern history.
Dr Hanan Chehata is travelling with the Viva Palestina convoy. She is director of public relations at the Middle East Monitor (MEMO), London. Her blogs from the convoy can be read on www.memonitor.org.uk
Egypt opens Gaza border crossing
Egyptian authorities have temporarily opened the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip, allowing those with permits to cross.
Authorities said that by early afternoon on Sunday around 133 people had crossed from Gaza into Egypt - mostly students with visas for foreign countries, and patients in need urgent of medical care.
Another 25 people crossed the other direction - largely those who live in Egypt with family in Gaza, or Palestinians who had been unable to return home due to the border closures.
Egypt had announced last week it would be opening Rafah - the only border crossing into Gaza not controlled by Israel - from January 3 to 6.
Although opened sporadically, the Rafah border crossing has largely remained shut - as have the Israeli-controlled crossings into Gaza - since Hamas gained full control of the territory through violent Palestinian infighting in June 2007.
The siege of Gaza has been the source of recent protests, planned to coincide with the anniversary of Israel's 22-day offensive in the Strip.
Hundreds of people rallied in central Tel Aviv on Saturday night, chanting slogans and waving signs calling for "Freedom and Justice in Gaza".
On the Egyptian side of the border, hundreds of international activists held repeated protests around Cairo this week demanding the authorities permanently reopen the crossing point.
Around 1,300 members of the Gaza Freedom March (GFM) had gathered in Egypt from more than 40 countries to march to Gaza with aid and supplies as a sign of solidarity with the Palestinians there.
However, Egyptian authorities barred the group from crossing the border, citing security reasons, and instead offering to allow 100 members to cross.
Up to 92 delegates did eventually cross into Gaza, meeting with non-governmental organisations and witnessing first-hand the devastation wrought by last year's war and the continuing siege of the Strip, march organisers told Al Jazeera.
Many of the GFM activists were leaving Cairo on Sunday for their respective countries with a sense of accomplishment, Ann Wright, a co-ordinator for the march, said.
On Friday, the Gaza Freedom March approved the "Cairo Declaration" , a document calling for the end of Israeli occupation and Palestinian self-determination, as well as for "boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) to compel Israel to comply with international law".
Backed by a delegation from South Africa, the document also made repeated reference to Israel as an apartheid state, and made comparison's to the former South African government.
Wright, a retired US army colonel and diplomat who resigned from the US state department in protest against the Iraq war in 2003, said organisers "want to build on what has occurred by having this march, and expand it so that we can keep the attention on the plight of the people of Gaza".
"These things are really unprecedented in Egypt I think," she said. "I don't think there's ever been this type of international demonstrations here."
However, Wright said that to Egypt's credit, and despite heavy-handed use of force by police at times, the government did allow them to hold demonstrations outside the UN, Israeli, US and French embassies, contrary to what some expected.
Cairo has also come under increasing criticism for reportedly strengthening a wall along the Gaza border, with Palestinians concerned it might affect underground smuggling tunnels used to bring in basic supplies, such as food, but also weapons.
Meanwhile, a long-delayed aid convoy destined for the Gaza Strip is expected to arrive in the coastal territory on Monday.
The Viva Palestina convoy, with 210 lorries full of medicine and other supplies, set out from the UK nearly a month ago.
A ferry carrying the supplies reportedly arrived in the Egyptian port El Arish on the Mediterranean on Sunday after sailing from Latakia in Syria.