By Lauren Booth
The British ambulances clashed with the sandy setting of the inner city centre car park. Bearing UK license plates and British drivers, the vehicles stood amongst half built buildings, guarded by Hamas security detail. This was the culmination of a six-week odyssey by George Galloway’s aid movement, Viva Palestina. Having traveled more than 7,000 kilometers, under the leadership of the maverick Scottish; British Muslims of the convoy posed for photos with Palestinians this week, overjoyed at having ‘tricked’ the notoriously difficult (some would say corrupt) Egyptian authorities into letting them pass through Rafah into the Gaza Strip.
Since Hamas was elected to power in 2007, nothing larger than a man sized tissue, reaches the 25km Strip without being inspected and approved by either Israel or Egypt, or usually, both. There are five crossings into Gaza. Four controlled by Israel and one by Egypt. None are open in a regular or a consistent way.
So questionable, is checking process the border, this week, Israel’s closest ally the US, was forced to criticize, a system which sees parking lots of stalled, humanitarian aid, rotting in the burocratic wilderness of Rafah and Karem Shalom. In El-Arish stadium, there are even greater quantities of food, clothing and essential supplies waiting and baking in the Middle East sun.
After late night ‘power cuts’ brick attacks and a stand off with Egyptian police George Galloway, held an urgent meeting with the regional governor of Northern Sinai. From a plastic chair beneath tenement slums, the political wheeler dealer secured a pledge from the National Democrat Party that his convoy would be allowed to make its way to the Rafah crossing. Triumphantly- a hospital generator and Galloway’s two ‘flags’ and symbols of the convoy: a British fire engine and a ship no less, would also pass through unhindered.
Imam Quasim from Croydon, south London, was in Gaza to help individuals, not a specific political party. On his single day there, he was taken on a tour of the areas most heavily shelled during Israel’s 22 day onslaught.
Including, the Al Zaytoun neighborhood.
Up a hellishly potholed dust track, swerving to avoid donkey carts laden with herbs, the destruction of the area silenced the Imam. Before January the 3rd, Al Zaytoun was home to 27 houses of the Al Samouni family and dozens of their homes. The British Imam, in his white robe, emerged from the van, to be immediately surrounded by filthy children, emerging like ants from the piles of rubble; as if their colony was about to be set alight by a vindictive child. A woman rushes over clutching an emaciated baby boy. Mohammed’s nose runs freely, his cheeks and chin coated like the rest of the children swarming by flaky, dried mucus. There are no luxurious tissues in this part of Gaza. A five year old girl ‘Besma’, takes Yvonne Ridley’s hand. From her calm tone of voice she could be talking about her favorite toy or a school project. In fact, Besma Samouni is describing the moment in January, when invading Israeli soldiers executed her mother, her three brothers, her father and her grandparents, before her eyes.
Meanwhile, a mother of 16 Samouni children, leads Yvonne and the Imam over the rubble of her home. They stumble and ever the kind host, the woman’s holds out her hand; ‘itfadal’ she says ‘Welcome.’ Inside a bare breeze block room, she points out the blood on the walls. This one by the door is her husband’s, shot over forty times at close range by Israeli soldiers. Zahwa, then pulls photos from the plastic bag she keeps with her all times; the family album from hell, pictures of her lifeless sons bodies, three of them under eight years old, each one riddled with bullet holes or shrapnel.
The remaining family has nowhere to go. They live amongst the phosphorous dust, the bloodied demolished walls, tied to the site by a deceased family life. The only water is drawn from the crushed, polluted well opposite. There is no gas, electricity no telephone lines. Darna Samouni leads Ridley and the Croydon Imam up the stairs of the next door ‘home’. A pretty teenager, both her parents were shot dead during the incursion. IDF troops occupied their home. The walls bear evidence of their presence, graffiti in Hebrew says: ‘Death to All Arabs’, ‘RIP Palestine’ and more besides.
Overall, 26 members of Al Samouni family were killed, including 10 children and 7 women.
Yvonne Ridley who last visited Gaza in August 2008, is stunned by the extent of the damage. “I went to Pakistan after the earthquake,” she says. “this is a like a tsunami, an earthquake and a volcano times a thousand. Because it just doesn’t stop.”
Dr. Zeyad Abu Heen, of the Department of Environment and Earthsciences in Gaza, says that white phosphorous was heavily used in the region in the January onslaught.
Many of the Palestinians in the most heavily shelled area suffer from a hacking cough. A side effect of breathing White phosphorous dust.
Meanwhile, the one hundred British vans brought with the generosity of thousands of Britons outraged by the scene of carnage on the TV in January, are lined up in a car parking area in the city centre. ‘To Gaza with love from Birmingham’ says one. There are mobile health units and several ambulances. Flanked by Hamas officials George Galloway hands over the keys of the vehicles ‘directly to the elected government of the people’, aka Hamas.
In the flamboyant style that has made him such an icon in the Middle East and so unpopular amongst many colleagues in the House of Commons, Galloway makes an announcement before the assembled Arab media.
With rows of Arabic camera crews before him, Galloway announces: “We are giving you one hundred vehicles this means a sterling value of 800, 000 British pounds. (Inside the vehicles) is everything we could carry, everything we could get through the Egyptian border.”
In a personal gesture, a direct challenge to the sanctions imposed by Europe on the Hamas government, both Galloway and Yvonne Ridly personally hand over bundles of cash amounting to far in excess of 25 thousand pounds. “This will all be handed to Ishmael Haniyeh,” he says to cheers “as will the keys to 25 vehicles,” said Galloway.
It will be interesting to see how the British government reacts to such a challenge.
An estimated half a million pounds was also smuggled past Egyptian officials at Rafah. This money was stowed in sleeping bags or the waistband of jeans to avoid being nabbed at Rafah. This was not destined for the impoverished local government but on-the-ground charities whose access to funds is being strangled as surely as Netanyahu is a Zionist.
Fazal, Essam and Raz are Burnley lads who managed to carry ten thousand pounds into Gaza. Muslims with heavy Midlands accents who ‘tapped our mates’ for the money, were keen to get it into the hands of the needy, but avoid, the governmental machine in the region. A tricky, potentially dangerous business.
At half past ten at night, I sat with them in a car in the Jabalyia refugee camp. With money held in sweaty hands they watch as security motorbike officers from Hamas patrol the streets perhaps alerted to the presence of foreign money. As the lads, enter first one poverty stricken hovel and another, handing out the cash, five Al Qassam brigade fighters march through them, balaclava’s on, clutching Ak 47’s to their chests.
“They were tiny,” said Essam. “Just kids.” The reality of death on the streets takes the joy from their mission. These kids should by rights be studying for university, or watching crap on TV and joking about each other’s dress sense. They should be enjoying youth, not chasing death as a way out of this dreadful life.
It was an exquisite agony to be permitted just one entire day in Gaza. Egyptian officials were asked if members of the convoy could stay longer. True to form they shrugged, referred the matter upwards to the legendary ‘intelligence’ office in Cairo. Shorthand for, ‘take a risk about being imprisoned too if you like, what do we care?’ Having being blocked for a month last Summer, much to my daughters agony, I couldn’t risk staying once the leader of the convoy Galloway, left.
Driving back through Khan Younis towards the Rafah crossing the ‘brother’s’ of the Umar (the Islamic family) pass some of the 100 mosques destroyed by Israeli rockets and tank shells. A million pounds is pledged to help their rebuilding.
Imam Qasim is coughing, he asks if my throat burns and my head throbs. They do. Breathing white phosphorus for short periods may cause coughing and irritation of the throat and lungs. Breathing white phosphorus for long periods may cause a condition known as "phossy jaw" which involves poor wound healing of the mouth and breakdown of the jaw bone.
And what of the Viva Palestina Fire engine and the ship that was to be delivered to Gaza fishermen? They were blocked at the Egyptian border. The ship is to be driven back to Libya, stored there and eventually sailed to Gaza in another attempt to break the siege. The fire engine, has yet to arrive.
And back in the UK, the Palestinian cause has found several hundred more supporters, alert to some, but nowhere near all, of the complexities of life for those in the Gaza Strip.
And many of the British Muslims who drove 9,000 km to deliver aid to some of the most impoverished citizens in the world were questioned under UK anti terror laws on their return.
On his release by the authorities, Faruq, was told ‘it won’t be easy to travel for you from now on.’ Here we have a siege on free thought….
– Lauren Booth is a British journalist and Broadcaster. This article was contributed to PalestineChronicle.com.