AMMAN // A humanitarian aid convoy aimed at breaking the nearly three-year-old blockade on the Gaza Strip is hoping that Egypt will guarantee it travels safely to the coastal enclave amid concerns that Israel may intercept the ships. "We are optimistic that Cairo will allow the entry of the aid trucks, but we are concerned that Israel will exert pressure on Cairo and impede our efforts by intercepting the convoy," Zaher Birrawi, a spokesman for the aid convoy, said. "We are asking the Egyptian government, under Turkish auspices, to provide us with guarantees and to protect us in the international waters. After all it was Egypt that forced us to change our course and we hold it responsible if anything happens."
Viva Palestina, a convoy of 165 trucks laden with basic food items and medical supplies, changed its route yesterday and headed to Syria after Cairo said it would deny the group entry at its port on the Red Sea. The nearly 500 activists were initially planning to sail from Aqaba port on the Red Sea in Jordan to Nuwibeh port in Egypt and then travel over land to Gaza, which is the most direct route. But Egypt insisted that they land at Al Arish port on the Mediterranean, which is further from Gaza and would force the activists to travel a longer distance and shoulder steep additional shipping fees.
The move came after Turkish mediation failed to convince the Egyptian consulate in Amman on Monday to allow the activists to take the direct land route to Gaza. The convoy, led by George Galloway, a British MP, was scheduled to sail to Gaza on Sunday to mark the anniversary of the Israel military onslaught and to draw attention to the plight of the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza who, according to a report by Amnesty International last year, are suffering the worst conditions since the Israeli occupation began in 1967.
The convoy departed from London on December 6 and passed through France, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Syria before arriving in Jordan on Thursday. About 500 activists from 17 countries are escorting it. The convoy was stranded in Aqaba for almost five days and it is now expected to reach Gaza on Saturday or Sunday. The route change will require the convoy to travel a longer distance to get to the port of Latakia in Syria and it will incur US$500,000 (Dh1.8 million) in costs to hire additional ships. The original route would have taken the convoy just three hours to arrive in Gaza from the Red Sea.
"We are asking aid organisations to help us cover the costs," Mr Birrawi said. Since Hamas won parliamentary elections in Gaza in 2006, the coastal enclave has been under an Israeli blockade. Egypt has recently come under fire in the region after it began constructing a steel wall that extends underground that it says is aimed at blocking the hundreds of smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. Its refusal to allow the aid convoy to cross a direct border into Gaza is seen as an attempt to further punish it for refusing to sign an Egyptian-engineered reconciliation document with its Palestinian political rival, the western-backed Fatah, and for preferring German mediation to Egyptian efforts in the prisoner exchange deal for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Mouin Rabbani, a senior Middle East Analyst based in Amman and contributing editor of the Middle East Report journal, said: "It is obvious that Cairo is targeting Hamas. It wants to pressure Hamas to accept the Egyptian reconciliation proposal. Egyptians have changed the document that Hamas agreed upon in principle and now Hamas is refusing to sign it. "The sheer pettiness of what Egypt is doing can only be seen as vindictiveness and an intimidation tactic."