The First Asia to Gaza Caravan was given a warm send off from Latakia, Syria, where the Baath Party Chief and former Ambassador to India, Dr. Mohsen Alkhyyr, accompanying the Governor of Latakia, announced that the names of the caravan members would be mentioned in the text books as brave people who came for a moral cause.After flying into Al Arish from Damascus the caravan was held up for 4 hours at the Egyptian airport. It took a mild protest before it was let off to make its entry at midnight on the night of 2nd/3rd January, 2011, into Gaza. A warm welcome awaited at the border where a press conference was held past midnight.
From external appearance one cannot tell that there is anything wrong with the place except for resistance graffiti on the wall and some signs of devastation in the form of rubbles. The people of Gaza have bravely gone on with their lives and have tried to maintain a reasonably good standard of living with a sense for aesthetics. It looks like any other city from the Arab world, probably more culturally evolved. It is only when one begins talking to the people the tragedy of the place dawns.
Afnan, a 20 years old youth, was telling the audience about her father who was arrested by the Israeli authorities when she was just four, in a meeting organized by the Ministry of Detainee's Affairs.
Plaestine would be a rare state to have a ministry by that name. 7,500 Palestinians languish in Israeli jails of whom 340 are children and 33 women. Some have been there for more than 20-30 years now.
Mahmoud Al Zahar, a senior Hamas leader, has lost two sons, in Israeli attacks. Khaled was killed on 10th September, 2003, in an attack on Zahar's house intended to assasinate him and Hussaim was killed on 15th January, 2008. But there are no signs of dilution in committment to the Palestinian cause on Mahnoud Al Zahar's face. He patiently explained how, because Palestinians were fighting for a moral cause, they were bound to succeed. Associated with Hamas since its beginning, he thinks the Palestinian resistance to Israel is the strongest in its current phase. He also viewed caravans such as Asia to Gaza playing an important role in breaking the siege of Gaza. Israel had allowed a hundred lorries into Gaza with essential material items, including fuel and food, to enter the same day as Asia to Gaza caravan.
On 4th January, a meeting was scheduled with the PM of Palestine, Ismail Haniya, another unassuming man. He said that he had been following the Asia to Gaza caravan all through and such efforts lift the spirit of people of Palestine. Pooja Badekar and Biraj Patnaik from India presented him an autobiography and a poster of Mahatma Gandhi. During the meeting power supply was cut off for a couple of minutes before the generators took over, a reflection of the effect of siege.
Incidently, Egypt did not allow generators as part of humanitarian aid. The ship carrying the aid was stuck at Al Arish port for about two complete days after being followed by two Israeli boats for day long on 2nd January on its way from Latakia. The port authorities in Egyptian port did not cooperate with the eight caravan members on board and there was attempt by some unscrupulous elements to extract a bribe in return for the material to be unloaded. Caravan member Sakaguchi from Japan had to take charge of the crane to unload material from ship, Hakim Alizade from Azerbaijan had to fix two ambulances which did not start in the beginning and Ajit Sahi from India had to threaten the immigration officials that he would wander out of the port and was willing to be shot if caravan members were not given their passports and allowed to proceed with the aid. The eight caravan members leaving behind rest of the aid drove the four ambulances to Gaza reaching there on 4th January night, escaping the hostile port officials and mafia. Four truck loads of medicines also arrived at the Rafah crossing the next day but it is unclear what would happen with the food, toys and stationery.
Meanwhile siege makes life difficult for people in Gaza. At the main hospital in Gaza, Al-Shifa, doctors informed that 162 medicines and essential items were not in stock because of the siege. Israelis have not even spared hospitals in their attacks. Al Wafa Rehabilitation Centre for the handicapped was bombed in 2003, killing two nurses. It was rebuilt with Malaysian help. Before this centre started functioning the patients had to go to Israeli hospitals and pay high fees. One can also see a number of places where building material is recovered from the rubbles, as it cannot enter Gaza. The indomitable spirit of Palestinians has come up with innovative ways including using tunnels across the borders to get essential material items required for their survival.
Aslam Khan, student leader of All India Students Association, commented that the Palestinians are already liberated in their spirit. The siege cannot contain them. Such people can never be defeated.
(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.citizen-news.org