By Stuart Littlewood – London
The Viva Palestina convoy is being given the run-around by Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and his ’Awkward Squad’.
My heart goes out to the 500 or so dedicated people from 17 different countries who brought their convoy of 200 vehicles almost to the gates of Gaza, only to be stranded at Aqaba just 4 hours short of their destination.
And not only the 500 driving with the Viva Palestina convoy but the thousands of supporters, fund-raisers and donors back home who have worked for months to provide the medical supplies, the food, the transport and the countless other humanitarian items.
These 500 ‘salt of the earth’ were kicking their heels in Aqaba, and threatening a hunger strike while their precious cargoes spoiled in the heat, because the Egyptian authorities wouldn’t allow them to enter Egypt through the port of Nuweiba. The reason appeared to be that the road across the Sinai from Nuweiba to Rafah ran close to the Israeli border and the 250 trucks and ambulances of the convoy might have caused “a big infiltration problem”.
Why the Egyptian army couldn’t have provided an escort to ensure that no trucks left the column, wasn’t explained. The convoy had already taken great trouble and gone many hundreds of extra miles to avoid Israel.
To have come so far and given so much – in time, effort, money and other resources – and to be thwarted at the last minute, was very hard to take.
However, Egypt is perfectly entitled to lay down rules and its foreign ministry issued a statement saying: "The Egyptian government welcomes the passage of the convoy into the Gaza Strip on December 27, on condition that it abides by the mechanisms in place for humanitarian aid convoys to the Palestinian people, including most importantly the entry of convoys through the port of El-Arish."
In February 2006 the British MP George Galloway, who leads today’s convoy, was refused entry into Egypt. The last Viva Palestina convoy was pelted with stones and vandalised at El-Arish, which is about 28 miles from the Rafah border crossing into Gaza, after Galloway reportedly called President Mubarak uncomplimentary names and urged the country’s armed forces to overthrow him.
We all know what Mubarak is, but how sensible was it for Galloway to broadcast his opinion to the world when he wanted easy passage for his convoy through the guy’s territory?
There’s clearly no love lost here, and I heard the Egyptians had imposed three conditions if the convoy wished to reach Gaza through Egypt.
1) It must hand all its vehicles and aid over to UNWRA.
2) It must drive 500 miles back to Syria, then take ship from Latakia to the port of El-Arish.
3) It must ask Israel’s permission to cross from Egypt to Gaza.
This information came from members of the convoy, not the organisers. Items 1 and 3 are unthinkable, surely. But this evening the organisers announced that the convoy, after mediation by Turkey, would indeed turn around and head back to Syria and embark from Latakia to El-Arish. Nothing has been said about complying with the other two conditions.
The voyage should take them under the noses of the trigger-happy and piratical Israeli gunboats who think nothing of opening fire on Gazan fishermen. Will the Royal Navy be dispatched to provide an armed escort?
The question remains: did the organisers know all this beforehand – especially the El-Arish stipulation – or was it suddenly sprung on them? Was clearance given for the southern route via Aqaba, then rescinded, or was it left to chance?
The convoy’s organizers are not answering basic questions and the full picture has still not emerged.
“This is a very determined convoy and we’re not going anywhere except to Gaza," says George Galloway.
God speed you to the Gates of Hell then, George. But next time you should maybe consider going by sea, sailing 200 boats though international waters and demanding that the Western Powers guarantee the freedom of the high seas. That way you don’t need to bow to the likes of Mubarak.
And you could become an admiral.
-Stuart Littlewood is author of the book Radio Free Palestine, which tells the plight of the Palestinians under occupation. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. For further information please visit www.radiofreepalestine.co.uk.