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Grassroots relief convoy reaches Gaza

A humanitarian convoy delivering aid to Gaza reached its destination on Monday. In more than 100 vehicles the Viva Palestina volunteers came from across Britain and drove 8,000 km across Europe and North Africa bringing ambulances, a fire engine, a boat, medical equipment and other supplies to those in need. The grassroots efforts of ordinary people accomplished their goal while the international community still struggles to implement a reconstruction plan after the devastation wrought by Israel's war on Gaza.

On Saturday Feb 14, an improbable journey began. Volunteers from all over the British Isles assembled in central London to drive in the Viva Palestina humanitarian convoy destined for Gaza. More than a hundred vehicles, including a fire engine, a boat, 25 ambulances, lorries and buses, stretching for over a mile, headed south. After departing from London, over the next 24 days they advanced through Europe and then wound their way along the coast of North Africa. They drove through France, Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and finally arrived at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza on Sunday. By the time Viva Palestina reached Egypt, with additions in Tunisia and Libya, it had grown to 220 vehicles and stretched for three miles. The aid initiative delivering vehicles, medical equipment and other forms of humanitarian assistance was spearheaded by the British member of parliament, George Galloway, who was given a hero's welcome by the Hamas minister of social affairs, Ahmed Kurd, when the convoy entered the Gaza Strip on Monday. "Having been made to wait for a day at the southern Rafah border crossing by Egyptian authorities, the staunchly pro-Palestinian independent MP for Bethnal Green was finally allowed into the blockaded territory, where he was handed flowers and kissed by Palestinian well-wishers," The Times reported. "Mr Galloway and his companions fell to their knees and bowed to the ground as they walked in." The Viva Palestina web site memorialised the day, saying: "And they entered side by side like heroes, some on foot some in their vehicles, tears, smiles, hugs, flowers. It was historic, it was legendary. Gaza we are here. We have fulfilled the promise - Viva Palestina! The lifeline from the people of Britain to you, the people of Gaza, has arrived. "We have broken the barriers, we have opened closed borders, we have defied the odds, we have overcome the challenges across thousands of miles and three continents. We are here to be with you, to embrace you, to share your tragedy with you. "After another morning of intense negotiations, a deal was reached to allow all of the members of the convoy to go through. In the end, Viva Palestina had to make the sacrifice of agreeing that some vehicles will have to cross the border from the Al Ouja Israeli controlled crossing point. This includes our mascot, the fire engine and the boat. This was due to the restrictions imposed by Egyptian law governing the Rafah Crossing." In Asian Image, Clive Searle wrote: "Here was a truly incredible story - of an aid mission that in just eight weeks had galvanised community after community to create a convoy of over 100 vehicles, laden with over 1 million of aid and then driven over 5,000 miles and two continents to relieve the suffering in Gaza. "And it was a movement that was created from scratch, with no full time staff - just a website, a few blogs, text messages, public meetings and a million conversations. Surely this would be worth reporting; surely this was news... "But the sad reality is that the Viva Palestina convoy, carrying the love and human solidarity from the people of Britain to the people of Gaza has been deemed un-newsworthy by nearly all of the British media." The writer, Linda Heard noted: "This endeavor makes British people proud and represents tens of thousands of donations from every corner of the country, yet British people have to tune into Press TV - the only network traveling with the convoy - for news." Even if the convoy was largely ignored by the Western media, it was warmly welcomed along the route. "In Morocco, a private individual erected a marquee and prepared a feast for all, consisting of 22 lambs. And after refueling in Algeria, they were astonished to discover that an Algerian businessman had picked up the entire fuel tab; no small sum. "The governments of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia have been wonderful. They have allowed the convoy to travel unimpeded and offered assistance. But they have ensured it was kept well away from the main population centers out of reluctance to whip up public emotion, which is already high following Israel's slaughter of 1,400 Palestinians, a terrible toll that includes 600 women and children. "However, Libya has spared no efforts to roll out the red carpet. According to Farid Arada writing on the Viva Palestina website, 'The hospitality of the Libyan people, government and the Qaddafi Foundation has left the convoy members in tears.' " Viva Palestina's arrival in Gaza comes just a week after an international donors' conference held at Sharm el-Sheikh where generous pledges of aid were offered even while the prospect of reconstruction in Gaza remains illusive. Reuters said: "Rich states and investors have announced a record $14 billion to aid the Palestinians and their economy in a string of Western-backed meetings meant to boost President Mahmoud Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas. "But diplomats said many of the pledges made at five donor and investor conferences held since December 2007, including one in Egypt on Monday, were counted more than once, have yet to materialise or were too vague to rely on. "Much of the money depends on Israel fully opening border crossings with Hamas-ruled Gaza, and lifting restrictions in the occupied West Bank where Abbas's Palestinian Authority holds sway, or has been linked to progress in stalled peace talks and Palestinian reconciliation, casting doubt on future payouts. "One senior Western diplomat criticised the pledging process as 'smoke and mirrors' because of double-counting. Another said the big-figure headlines from donors eager to look forthcoming, combined with a lack of transparency, were 'getting ridiculous', noting that despite the cascade of pledges, the Authority was still struggling to pay full wages to its workers on time." Meanwhile, the Palestinian news agency Ma'an reported: "France is demanding that Israel open its crossings with the Gaza Strip, according to a statement sent to Ma'an from the country's Foreign Affairs Ministry on Monday. " 'Gaza's reconstruction and the poor humanitarian and economic situation will not improve but through opening the crossings permanently,' the statement said. "The Foreign Ministry also warned that reconstruction 'will not be carried out' without a significant change in Israel's handling of the issue of crossings at its borders with Gaza." Roger Cohen, who is Jewish and is a columnist for The New York Times wrote: "it's worth recalling what Israel did in Gaza in response to sporadic Hamas rockets. It killed upward of 1,300 people, many of them women and children; caused damage estimated at $1.9 billion; and destroyed thousands of Gaza homes. It continues a radicalising blockade on 1.5 million people squeezed into a narrow strip of land. "At this vast human, material and moral price, Israel achieved almost nothing beyond damage to its image throughout the world. Israel has the right to hit back when attacked, but any response should be proportional and governed by sober political calculation. The Gaza war was a travesty; I have never previously felt so shamed by Israel's actions."

pwoodward@thenational.ae

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