A victory for Viva Palestina

Eric Ruder reports on Viva Palestina's success in bringing humanitarian supplies to Gaza, despite a harrowing assault by Egyptian police.

George Galloway and other members of Viva Palestina at a press conference after reaching GazaGeorge Galloway and other members of Viva Palestina at a press conference after reaching Gaza

EXACTLY ONE month after departing from London on December 6, the Viva Palestina convoy to deliver humanitarian supplies to Gaza finally reached its destination, crossing in from Egypt with 518 people, 156 vehicles and all the relief supplies it brought.

The day before, with the convoy gathered in El Arish, Egypt, negotiations with Egyptian authorities broke down, and some 100 men in civilian clothes wielding police batons--backed up by hundreds more riot police--were set loose on the convoy, which had been forced to barricade itself in the port area as a defensive measure.

There was a three-hour standoff, followed by a 15-minute bout of brutality unleashed by the Egyptian police. Even the presence of 10 Turkish members of parliament and British member of parliament George Galloway wasn't enough to avert the Egyptian assault.

As Viva Palestina organizer Kevin Ovenden reported via telephone from Gaza:

We had 55 injured, mostly by rocks and broken bricks that the plainclothes men threw and tear gas fired at us by the riot police. Four suffered fractures, and 10 were hospitalized with fairly serious head wounds, one particularly serious. All 10 required sutures. They also arrested six people and held them overnight.

The plainclothes threw sand at people with cameras to sow confusion, and then the police opened up with tear gas and some sort of acidic liquid from what looked like a fire engine. It was entirely premeditated. They had made themselves an arsenal of rocks and bricks, and then opened up on us. But as we retreated, we grabbed one of the riot police and took him with us. That gave us some leverage.

The attack wasn't sufficient to break the resolve of the convoy, and the repression only sparked more media coverage. Meanwhile, the Turkish government began applying some diplomatic pressure, and thousands of Palestinians began protesting on the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing, demanding that the convoy be allowed in.

Finally, the growing public spotlight on Egypt's collaboration with Israel's inhumane siege of Gaza persuaded Egyptian officials that they should allow the convoy's passage.

When negotiations resumed, Viva organizers demanded the release of the six arrestees, and safe passage of all 518 people and all the humanitarian aid they had brought. The Egyptians barred 43 vehicles from entering Gaza, but Viva organizers arranged to have them shipped to Turkey, where they will be distributed to 43 cities and made the focus of fundraising efforts for Palestine, then ultimately delivered with relief aid to Palestinian refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon.

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THE SUCCESS of the convoy marked a significant victory in ongoing efforts by activists to break Israel's siege, which continues with the blessings of the U.S. and active participation of the Egypt government.

A week earlier, Egyptian authorities stopped some 1,400 people from around the world from getting into Gaza--the group had planned to participate in a planned Gaza Freedom March in Gaza City on December 31. Egyptian police blockaded participants in their hotels, canceled buses that were chartered to take people from Cairo to El Arish, and stopped those who found other transport at military checkpoints on the road to the Sinai Peninsula.

The Viva Palestina convoy drove all the way from London, through Europe, Turkey, Syria and Jordan, before Egypt threw up a series of bureaucratic hurdles to thwart its progress.

First, Egyptian officials insisted that the convoy couldn't enter Egypt from the Aqaba, Jordan, border crossing, instead requiring it to travel to the Mediterranean port of El Arish, Egypt. The entire convoy backtracked to Syria, and chartered a car ferry and airline flights to bring the vehicles, aid and people to El Arish. Then the standoff and police violence began.

But finally getting to cross into Gaza--with the vehicles and humanitarian aid--made the entire effort worthwhile. According to Ovenden:

It was an amazing experience. Virtually the entire length of the road from Rafah to Khan Younis to Gaza City was lined with people. Many had been waiting 10 hours to see us, and we were delayed because it took time for us to get our prisoners released, but I'm pleased to say we didn't leave a single person behind--either on our way into Egypt or after the arrests.

When they forced us back to Syria, I think they thought that we wouldn't have the nerve to get it together and get back to El Arish. But within 15 hours, we organized to get the necessary transport. In just 72 hours, we have raised nearly enough money to cover the extra cost, which amounts to about $300,000. But we still want to get more aid in, and I anticipate that we'll now raise even more for future aid efforts.

We had aimed at highlighting Israel's siege of Gaza, but due to the Egyptian posture from beginning to end, they themselves highlighted the Egyptian role in the siege. They've isolated themselves within the Muslim world. And after 10 Turkish MPs faced Egyptian riot police in El Arish, it's now a major issue in Turkey also.

It was really a major success all around. George Galloway appeared on Al Jazeera's most watched news program and ripped into the Egyptian regime for 60 minutes, we were on the flagship BBC radio show today, and we've received about 1,800 e-mails in the last 12 hours. And because Egypt viciously attacked the Gaza Freedom Marchers, that attracted attention which flowed to us later.

This has internationalized the whole issue, and we are looking to launch Viva Palestina efforts in even more countries. Already, we've had an encouraging meeting of 200 in South Africa interested in the effort.

About a year ago, just days after Israel launched its brutal assault on Gaza, we launched Viva Palestina with a strategic outlook that we could crack open the siege by fusing aid, a savvy understanding of the political context and campaigning. We think this effort is working and can contribute to the growing international movement in solidarity with the Palestinian people.