The Asia to Gaza caravan arrived to a grand welcome by the Governor of Latakia, Dr. Khalyl Mashhaddya, a cardio-thoracic surgeon, on 25th December, 2010, in the port city of Syria, with school children playing their band and raising pro-Palestine and pro-Syria placards on the street.
Next day at a meeting the Baath Party office bearer and former Ambassador to India, Dr. Mohsen Alkhyyr, spoke fondly of the vision of Gandhi and role of Nehru in giving shape to the Non-Aligned Movement along with Nasser, Tito and Sukarno. It is interesting that the role of India which is appreciated by leaders of especially the third world countries is from the days of Gandhi and Nehru. People like to avoid mentioning the changing foreign policy of India under the recent regimes, abandoning the cause of non-alignment and trying to jump on the bandwagon of developed nations and military powers.
While awaiting the clerance from Egyptian authorities for entering Gaza, the caravan members were invited by a host of organizations - of students, farmers, workers and engineers. The caravan members also visited the Al-aa-Deen camp of Palestinian refugees, some of whom came as far back as in 1948.
This camp is also host to Syrian refugees from Golan Heights and some Palestinian refugees from Iraq.
Except for the citizenship right the earlier refugees enjoy all the benefits entitled to Syrian citizens. But the Palestinian refugees admit quite unambiguously that they are the guests of Syrian government. The day the situation will become normal they'll return to their homeland after handing over their property to the Syrian government. The Syrian government also considers the Palestinian people as their own.
The banner to welcome to caravan on behalf of Governor of Latakia read: 'The masses of the Governorate of Latakia Salute the Free Men of Convoy Asia (1) to Break the Siege of Our People in Gaza.' The caravan members have been received warmly in the Arab world as they are seen as supporting an Arab cause.
The Egyptian government gave permission to 120 people to enter Gaza as opposed to the promise of an earlier figure of 100 but was quite clear that they would not allow any Iranian citizens, including 7 members of parliament - Mahmoud Ahmadi Biqash, Avaz Heidarpour, Parvi Sarvari, Ali Motahhari, Ali Asqar Zarei, Hassan Qafourifard and Shabib Jooyjari.
They also denied permission to 6 Jordanian activists, who have taken strong positions earlier not palatable to the Egypt, Israel or US. This was not totally unexpected. Egypt and Iran have strained ties for the last 30 years. Since the days when Egypt gave asylum to Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Camp David Accord after the Egyptian recognition to Israel, support to Iraq in Iran-Iraq war and in response Iran deciding to name a street after Khaled Islambouli, the assasin of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, there have been no diplomatic relations between Egypt and Iran. Lately, Iran's support to Hizbullah and Hamas is also a source of concern for Egypt. The First Asia to Gaza Solidarity Caravan faced a dilemma. How could some friends be left behind because of the whims of Egyptian government? But in the end the Iranian members prevailed over the group and convinced everybody that even they would be most happy only if the caravan reaches Gaza. Nothing is more serious that the pain and suffering of people of Gaza, who were looking forward to the arrival of First Asia to Gaza Solidarity caravan. They could not be disappointed. Hence a decision was taken by consensus for the caravan to move ahead.
On 30th December the caravan members cheered the staff of Latakia Port as they loaded humanitarian aid - food, medicines, stationery for children and four ambulances - on the ship appropriately named 'Salam' or peace by raising pro-Palestine slogans. Eight members of the caravan, Brigadier Sudhir Sawant, former MP, Ajit Sahi, senior journalist, Sheheen Kattiparambil, young activist of Jamat-e-Islami, Aslam Khan, student leader of AISA, all from India, Koichi Sakaguchi from Japan, Hakim Alizade from Azerbaijan, Muhammad Husein from Indonesia and Norazli Bin Musa from Malaysia were given the responsibility to accompany the ship to Al Arish port in Egypt.
On the new year's day of 2011 the ship sailed from the Latakia port amidst cheering by the remaining members of the caravan and Latakian citizens. The Governor of Latakia accompanied by the Baath Party chief was there on both ocassions, when the loading was taking place as well as when it sailed.
The send off became quite emotional as there was a realization that Israelis may intercept the ship in mid water. Ajit Sahi speaking before the ship's departure said that in case of any mishappening, this caravan to Gaza must not stop and there should be more such caravans. Quoting Mahatma Gandhi he said bravery is not in killing people but in sacrificing one's life fighting against injustice. It is amazing how Gandhi has become relevant for the Asia to Gaza caravan. Historically, he had disapproved of the creation of Israel and said Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English and France to the French. The flags of India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Azerbaijan and Palestine were waved by caravan members on board as the ship left the shores of Latakia.
The humanitarian aid will be joined by rest of the members of caravan who will fly to Al Arish in Egypt and the caravan will cross the nearby Rafah border to enter Gaza on 2nd January, exactly a month after it was flagged off from Rajghat, thereby achieving its final objective.
(Dr Sandeep Pandey is a Ramon Magsaysay Awardee (2002) for emergent leadership, who is a part of the Asia to Gaza peace delegation. He is a member of National Presidium, People's Politics Front (PPF), heads the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM) and did his PhD from University of California, Berkeley, USA. He taught at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur before devoting his life to strengthening people's movements in early 1990s. He writes for Citizen News Service (CNS) and can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www