Thursday, 12 March 2009

In Gaza

The Gates of Gaza - Exit from Egypt

High Speed Crowds in Khan Younis
View of the port from my hotel, showing blast damage.

The bombed house next door

Day 3 in Gaza, and I feel like a fraud. People read a blog for up to the minute news, but you'll have done better to read or watch the mainstream news. The pictures of cheering crowds I never get anyway, because the van must keep moving, and I'm also selfishly being in the moment and waving and shaking hands. What was slightly different about the ride up the 25 miles or so from Rafah to gaza City was that many of the young, especially, were less concerned about the politics of the support we were bringing, but the celebrity moment, and a few were begging. Gazans have been starved of more than food, and I felt, once again, like a fraudulent hero, who they hoped, just by touching hands, would fulfill their lives. Instead, we were taken to a sports centre where we had a few speeches, including some touching ones by ordinary convoy chaps, a box of lamb, bread and chips, and a mattress on the floor, where I sleep like a log until I remembered that I had not heard from Arif and Asim who had leapt out of the Pea when asked to do so by the Egyptians, despite me telling them to stay put while we agued their case. 'No, man' says Arif already walking away, 'we'll see you on the other side, init?' 

While I was having my sleepless night they were already in Gaza, but their timed text telling me so arrived 24 hours late, so in ignorance I txt the British Consul, and spoke to Gaza Immigration, and to convoy officials. 

The next day I began work on my Art project, which is to bring Art of all standards to Brussels for an exhibition during the campaign against the Israeli Trade agreement, and then on to the UK for an auction to raise more funds for Gaza, but it was not a good day. One minister agreed that we could use the Pea to tour the area, but another pointed out that Galloway's agreement with the Egyptians and ultimately with the Israelis was that no vehicles could return through the Rafah crossing, as permission to enter was on an exceptional basis. This legal prohibition - which i am prepared to confront -  had become re-stated as 'every vehicle entering Gaza is a gift for the Palestinian Government', and so I have donated it, although the whole point for me going, was to fill the van and export something. Still, maybe when the West Bank and the Gaza do reconcile, the Ramallah government will remember the Green machine that first exported Olive Oil from Jenin overland. I can't pretend that I won't miss it.

Deprived of our own transport, we loaded up my bags into Yasser's car, but returning for the second time, he had lost his keys. I went by cab to a hotel, but it was full, and then I lost my convoy chaps so couldn't say goodbye - goodbye Richard. When Yasser got a new set of keys It was too late to pursue anything, but at least I got a long sleep. 

What has the convoy achieved?

It has opened up the UK media, at least a little bit, people have told me that the Pea is on the news, and the little van has certainly earned its moment of fame, entering in triumph, rather than on the back of a low loader like so many others. Never a moment's difficulty. I'd like to hear from someone about just how much the media interest has been, and how well received. IMHO, Media coverage is King, and if we brought the difficulties of Gaza into people's consciousness, even a little, then it was a triumph. Every other comment that I will make is secondary to this; exposure to the media IS the war that we who want to liberate Palestine are fighting, because we cannot resist Israel in any other way. I have said before that, at least in the West, the tears of the Palestinians are their best - and only - weapon, and when all the ordinary people in the West identify with the losses of the Pals; when everyone cries together; they will be Free, because no government can overcome the revulsion of its population at suffering which can be stopped.

What else? Despite my previous post that the terms of opening of the Rafah crossing remain unchanged, they have been widened slightly, since the whole of the convoy has been let in, even though it was let in as an exception. Of course the Israelis will have been consulted by the Egyptians about this, but our leadership - Galloway - did not talk to them, and that is a small step on the road to an autonomous opening between Egypt and Israel. However, legally, it still only for pedestrians and medical emergencies, and we need to keep pushing those boundaries. Perhaps that means more convoys, but Gaza needs 2 way traffic, if it is to survive, it needs to export from its massive talent of skills and manufactures, and I hope to start with what can be spared - Art!

What else? I see Tony Blair has at last visited Gaza, and watching his interview with the BBC, he is supporting a unity government, admits the Israeli attack was outrageous, and describes the current situation as a blockade which must be ended. I believe that the timing of his visit to Gaza was in the face of the impending arrival of the convoy.

The fact that the Western powers make no progress with Fatah alone, and are forced to accept a unity government to deal with Gaza, because they still don't want to deal with Hamas alone, is a tribute to the steadfastness of Hamas, and an admission that an Uncle Tom Government in the West Bank, however supine, and however much it is ordered to act as the policeman of Palestinians on behalf of the Israelis, cannot deliver a durable peace for Israel. There is no doubt that the FreeGaza boat, this convoy and other initiatives, not least the blowing open of the fence by Hamas last year, has made the Israeli politics of repression untenable, and Obama may get a lucky break, and actually be allowed to deliver some progress. But I'm not carried away. Every scrap of freedom will be a new struggle, accompanied by claims that Israel has given Palestine a great deal, and the ungrateful and lazy Pals will have to be punished if they are not prepared to evict themselves from the West Bank, and be Israel's slave labour force in fenced off factories in Gaza, owned by Israelis. Interesting that Jordan and Egypt both allow these Industrial zones of Israeli control and profit on their soil, accepting that their only role is to coerce their population into working there without any protection such as a health or pensions or accident protection. Slaves, I say, driven their by their government's fear of Israel, yet i regularly meet men, labourers and those who will work for others anyway, say that they would welcome the return of the Israeli wage certainty, and would gladly trade the loss of equality for the regular wage. These are mostly older men, the young cannot imagine working with Israelis and want only victory over them.

Galloway and his team deserve a mark of respect for driving the convoy to its conclusion, and for publicly handing over large sums of money that had been raised in the UK to the Hamas leadership, and challenging the UK Government to prosecute him. This is yet another confrontation that needs to be had, but I fear that the UK Government will not prosecute, but my prediction is that he should worry about charges of un-parliamentary behaviour in about 6 months time.

A less attractive part of Galloway's belligerent style was the view from the top that there can be no democracy in the convoy, because the people are best served by the secret decisions of the leadership. Rumour about whether we were in support of a government, or about to go to an opposition rally, such as at Sfax in Tunisia, were rife, and increasingly a siege mentality descended on us, and conspiracy theories abounded, not helped by public proclamations that MI5 and Mossad were among us. Although probably true, it created a fertile ground for complicated conspiracies and something of the atmosphere of "Lord of the Flies" was prevalent in the convoy at the end, with all sense of the proportionality of response eroded as people graduated into sectors mutually hostile, and prepared to threaten others. Because of the remoteness of the Leadership, the 90% of the convoy that are Muslims, at the second attempt, elected an Emir to act as leader and as an arbitrator of their cause. His repeated pleas failed to stop many cases of overtaking dangerously, racing, and collisions that led to altercations. There was also a more insidious campaign whose theme was that if someone did something wrong, and it was filmed, then it was the filmaker who was the culprit, not the miscreant. On the last day I was forced under threats of really extreme violence to hand over a tape after someone tried to grab my camera, and all three (if I'm one) film crews where seriously threatened in some way during the trip. Certainly I learnt a lot about the way a group of people can react when they perceive themselves moving through hostile terrain, relying only on themselves. All governments, police were considered hostile, when my observations convinced me that all police had orders to be especially friendly, even if officiously efficient. As a cantankerous old man, and anyway a loner, I was viewed with suspicion by some. This study in himan psychology, captured in Lord of the Flies, is a shock in real life. 

Nevertheless, I made some amazing friends, Shocutt - total respect, man, Kim, the coolest dude on the planet, Jim, another cantankerous old man, with great self awareness; Richard, overcoming tiredness and bad temper with good humour, the Birminghams, especially the London Birmingham, and others who I will regret not mentioning later. So a personal journey of discovery for this old man, I hope it was so for others.

But, more important than all of that, is the boost that it brought to life here in Gaza. If we were worried by the hero worship before, then here we are celebrities par excellence. people were standing in the middle of the road to stop the vans to shake hands with the drivers, and although a few saw the rich westerners as a chance to beg, many more threw flowers or sweets at us, which we usually gave back to children at the side of the road. people here often say that they appreciate our hard journey of three weeks or so, but really it is nothing, I say compared to the 3 weeks of bombing that they have endured without the option. I heard a story of a woman buried alive with her child under the rubble of a building who sowed up his spilt guts with a sewing needle and thread while they waited days for help. She lived, he did not. Stories of horses being shot in the head by Israeli soldiers, of olive trees being demolished on purpose by tanks and a new kind of Bulldozer, not seen here before. It was described as 30 metres tall, but I assumed that they meant a D9, the armoured Bulldozer partly manufactured in the UK by Caterpillar. "No, no, much bigger than a D9, 30 metres tall, I saw it!"

paradoxically the deterioration of morality on the convoy helped me to understand how Israeli soldiers can come to commit such cold blooded acts of murder, trained as they are wawy from Palestinians and indoctrinated in the increasingly racist culture that pervades Israel today, from what I read in the press. What is remarkable to me is that, as far as I can tell, there is no such behaviour deterioration in Gaza, even though they are besieged and bombed by an invisible enemy that seems to have total control over their lives. Some accounts say that tribal warfare had come to Gaza in the later stages of Arafat's regime, although I can't verify that. But the ordinariness of life here is really bthe greatest tribute to Gazans. It makes me completely certain that they will win in the end.

No comments: