Saturday, 14 March 2009

What I've been doing.

I meet the Deputy Education Minister, Dr Yusuf Ibrahim, and we arrange a programme to collect School Art.

I meet the person responsible for Art in Schools, and we agree a programme to produce something for exhibition in Brussels and eventually the UK. On the right another random delegation from Northampton working in schools
Some bombed houses

Jica Japanese Aid NGO distributes non-food aid: a school satchel with crayons and a pair of shoes of random size, cleaning materials, cooking pots, kerosene lamp, brooms etc.

To qualify for this aid handout, people must have lost a family member or had their home demolished, and these 260 in Beit Hanoun are the 'lucky' qualifiers.

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.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Health in the Palestinian Territories

Hope you won't mind my posting this important link Rod.
We're all thinking of you there and are very proud.

Woman's Hour today features an item on health in decline in the Palestinian territories with Dr. Rita Giacaman Professor of Public Health at Birzeit University. The item stays in the Woman's Hour archive for several months and readers can access it online. Look for the 'Listen Again' section on the website.

'A two year international investigation published in the Lancet shows that the effect of the occupation, the recent conflicts in Gaza and inter-Palestinian fighting are undermining the health and development of the population. In particular it shows an increase in infant mortality, failure of children under five to grow, the difficulties faced by women in labour trying to get to maternity units and that health gains in the 1990's are being eroded'.

Post by Frances Laing


My first night in Gaza and I keep waking up thinking of Arif & Asim who were prevented from entering by Egypt. We should have stayed with them but believed Egyptian officials who said that they would be allowed in later. They were seperated because they had not entered Egypt with the convoy but flew in to Cairo. Several so called 'celebrities' had done the same, some being with Galloway the first to go through the gates betraying those who had driven 6000 miles & were still denied top billing.

Arif & Asim's names were given to convoy officials in accordance with the rules but these officials now wash their hands of the matter and will not assist them.

Our reception by the Palestinians has been overwhelming, the vehicles being mobbed by ecstatic people all the way from Rafah to Gaza City, but it sticks in my throat, this adulation wasted on those who don't deserve it while Arif & Asim face an uncertain future.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Opening the Gates

Text from Rod 12.39pm

After 6013 miles gates are opening for our entry into Gaza. Massive numbers of press waiting and our entry was direct from Egypt without Israeli control or permission.

Pauline Thompson

Waiting & Politics

The convoy did not pass through at noon yesterday as planned. Here are Rod's texts (British time):

Sunday 12.34pm
A problem is developing here. Riot police deployed to stop convoy leaving as a single unit. Libyan secret police & trucks involved. New negotiations mean that vehicles which are not staying in Gaza will not be allowed to enter and that would mean I cannot load up in Gaza.

Sunday 7.23pm
George Galloway announced after negotiations with the Governor of Sinai that medical aid and all UK vehicles which are staying in Gaza will enter through Rafah. All Libyan aid and all our non-medical aid will go by Israeli-controlled crossings but in the hands of the Red Crescent. This is (almost) in accordance with international agreements & was the position when we left the UK. We have not forced any changes on Israel. Our aid will be transhipped to Red Crescent trucks tonight & we leave for the border at 6am tomorrow. However the convoy is adamant that they will enter together and not through any Israeli-controlled crossing.

Monday 4.50am
Our aid unloaded to Red Crescent last night but 50% still waiting to unload. Police asking us to start engines but convoy refusing to move until all can travel.

Monday 6.58am
1st section of convoy now moving in groups of 20, but will wait to consolidate at fuel stop ahead. I think it will be slow.

Monday 7.39am
1st (our) section of convoy now 30kms from Rafah moving at 35kph, with refuelling stop ahead. Tail end still not authorised to start.

Pauline Thompson

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Egypt, the final frontier.

Soldier standing silently staring into a sandstorm in Sinai

Egypt, the final frontier.
We arrived in Egypt in a sandstorm, or the aftermath, anyway. The air was heavy with sand and visibility was very limited. The front half of the convoy went to a tented reception in the little town at the foot of the mountain that the border lies on; a sweet town on the mediterranean that probably never sees a tourist from one years end tothenext. No tourists come from Egypt the Libyan Official had said. For Tobruk where we stayed our last night they arrive in Tripoli or Benghazi and come by coach. It must be a dying trade visiting those graves, but what we passed at a fair clip looked well maintained.
Further along is El Alamein, which has its own airport. No reference was made to this historic place as we listened to a second reception last night and stayed in a military hotel, presumably a rest and recuperation centre, which had huge columns in the lobby, and lots of gold and ornaament, but lacked some class in the bathroom department. Still, huge rooms, free, large beds, a full 7 hours - really luxury.
The Egyptians are managing the convoy better than anyone before. Cutting us into manageable chunks they move us efficiently wuth huge numbers of police and Army. parked along the motorway, the vehicles were guarded overnight by soldiers while we were bussed off to our hotel. Actually the numbers of Police and soldiers is remarkable. They have been stationed every 50 metres or so, often standing at attention, always facing away from the road, often standing to attention, but some unable to resist the temptation to turn and look at us. Every 50 metres for 1000 kilometres. that's 20,000 soldiers, not to mention the hundreds and hundreds who marshal our convoy and count the vehicles obsessively. We have not seen any 'real' people until we crossed the Suez canal, again in a sand storm. The number of soldiers dropped and suddenly there were small pockets of crowds. When we gave out Palestinian flags, however, the police used their sirens to move us forward and the crowds back. Still there was a good crowd waiting for us at El Arish where we arrived a couple of hours ago. I have had to blag my way past the soldiers on the gate of the hotel and here I am at 1.30 am, and we are going to Gaza tomorrow! 10 sharp! The end is in sight and lots more people are coming to join the convoy by air to Cairo, 2 of them to join the Pea. welcome Arif and Asim.
It has been a long journey, over 5000 miles on our mileometer, and now only 50 to go, I don't know what to think and I'm not sure that others do either.
At last nights reception, the Egyptian minister speaking said that we would go through the Rafah crossing at noon on Sunday - as easy as that. Almost seems like we needn't have come 5000 miles if the crossing is going to open that easily.
I really fear that the Israelis will make a meal of this crossing, saying that aid always gets transmitted to Gaza etc etc, but the gates will shut behind us. I already suspect that only vehicles which are staying in Gaza will be allowed through, but I'm going to take the Pea if humanly possible. I need to take it to bring back some exports from there.
The politics of the convoy had got very introverted, like a remote village in the mountains where the only entertainment for the locals is to call each other withches. I am not certain that the rumours about the photos of people holding a gun being published were started to embarass the filmmakers, possibly by a young anti-intellectual crowd, or possibly by the leadership. Anyway, there were no embarassing photos in the press, just an article about how George Galloway was selling out the Egyptian Opposition by doing a deal directly with the Government. All the threatening behaviours were based on a fiction that has spread through the convoy faster than any good news.

Whatever, four people got refused entry into Egypt, and have been hosted by the Libyans until they can fly to catch up, or go home. We had a meeting this morning as to whether to wait for them or move on. It was overwhelming that we should keep going. I think that brings the total of arrests or visa refusals to around 13, although a couple of those have caught up. There is a man who has been in Guantanamo bay, and one who was imprisoned in Afghanistan for nine months by the Northern Alliance. People who who care about Palestine are obviously prepared to give up a lot.
--Written yesterday --It's getting dark and we are about to go around Alexandria. We have just entered a stretch of road lined with policemen or soldiers, and buildings, although miles and miles of buildings look uninhabited, and may be holiday accommodation. Whether or not, there are no people, no cheering crowds, and I don't think that there will be. We are going to be going around Alexandria after dark, although that is the time that we have been consistently mobbed in other countries. Here, however, I fear that we will stay on the motorways and be invisible. We were not on Al Jazeera news last night.
Instaed, our companions are the soldiers and Gaddafi's convoy, and its bus full of journalists and organisers. the Egyptian soldiers wave at us from the side of the road, and occasionally we get a wave from distant donkey carts and farmers. At last we have been drawn in to the side of the road and the pent up traffic behind us has been allowed to flow past, although the other side still looks far more empty than a Friday night motorway should.
After Suez the crowds did come out, even though there was a dust storm where sand creeps into every orifice, and we kept the Pea's windows closed tight Spontaneous Demonstration of Schoolchildren in Libya
Our journey started as a mad chatic and totally disorganised journey through total disinterest in Europe, progressed through cheering populations in Morrocco, through stage managed crowds in Algeria, as well as the bleakness of the central Highlands. Constantine the city where the soldiers shared their guns, and on over the cold lands of the Algerian Tunisian border getting but small interest from the locals, until their enthusuam exploded out in the little border town of Ben Guerdane. Onwards through Libya, where the convoy was contolled with a light but efficient touch, including a passage through Tripoli, our only capital city, and where we missed the main groups of people because of our insistence on taking a short cut to save a day. And now, Egypt, where we are courteously, efficiently and totally segregated from the population, and where I have no doubt that we will be delivered to Rafah at 12 noon on Sunday without ever seeing a single crowd in this country of 50 million people, almost all of whom, I'd bet. would like to tell us how much they support the Gazans. (We have now seen these small crowds in Sinai, and they have told us how much they support thePalestinians. El Arish seems to be a place where the authorities don't mind a show of support from the locals.

I received a text from a contact in Gaza, and I replied that I was busy with the crowds in El Arish. She replied that I should wait until I see the crowds in Gaza!
I can't wait!