In an international effort to show solidarity with the Palestinian people, Viva Palestina (VP) volunteers from around the world have left their families and in some cases resigned from their jobs in order to take part in this humanitarian undertaking.
They have done this for no other reason than that they feel strongly about the crisis in Gaza. The images that they saw flash across their television screens during the assault on Gaza in 2008-9 has been seared into their minds.
It is sad that it took such a horrific tragedy to wake people up but one inevitable consequence of the Israeli attacks and their cruel blockade was certainly to educate the world as to the reality of the situation.
Until that point many people could not even pinpoint Gaza on a map. Now they are spending their time and risking their personal safety to defend Gaza and its people.
Seeing the images of the chaos and destruction during the Gaza assault certainly mobilised a lot of people into civil action.
Immediately following the atrocities, those who were appalled by the number of civilians killed, who had seen the UN buildings, schools, mosques and hospitals deliberately targeted decided that they could no longer sit back or pretend that they did not know what was taking place.
Ignorance was no longer an excuse. Action was called for and multiple tactics were employed from the grassroots level upwards. Protests and demonstrations were held, MPs were bombarded with emails and letters, campaigns to boycott Israeli goods were put into action and yet, while all of this has drawn attention to the plight of the Gazans, the situation has not improved.
In fact, the siege is tightening and the condition of the people living there has deteriorated considerably. More direct action was clearly required. People were becoming increasingly disillusioned by the inaction of their governments and, in some cases, their direct complicity in Israel’s oppression and aggression against the Palestinian people.
Thus enters VP 2009. Here was finally a way for individuals who felt betrayed by their government’s to take direct action and be themselves a tangible part of the solution.
By physically taking in the aid that Israel would not otherwise let through, not only is the convoy alleviating the short term suffering of the Palestinian people by providing them with desperately needed medicine, clothes and other vital humanitarian aid but it is also refocusing attention on the ongoing crisis that exists in Gaza.
However, in a fairly unexpected turn of events a new actor has walked into the scene. If you ask anybody the question, “who is responsible for the siege on Gaza and the suffering of the Palestinian people?”, they will inevitably respond “Israel”, and rightly so.
While Egyptian government has been complicit for a very long time now, its wrongdoings have been of a secondary nature. However, somehow, recently Egyptian government is succeeding, much to Israel’s delight, in diverting attention away from the Israelis.
This has primarily been done by their insistence on placing unreasonable obstacles in the path of the convoy. For instance, the VP Convoy had planned to enter Gaza on December 27 to mark the first anniversary of the attack.
That was intended to show how, one year on, the siege continues to compound the suffering of the Gazans. They have not been allowed to rebuild their homes or their lives.
Instead of being in Gaza and handing over the aid to the waiting recipients on 27th of December as planned, the VP Convoy was stranded in a compound in Jordan with hundreds of vans and ambulances full of aid. The reason for this was that Egypt had refused to grant permission for the convoy to pass through the necessary part of their territory.
The Egyptian government has been extremely uncooperative and have fought VP every step of the way. While VP has done their utmost to accede to their demands, the Egyptian authorities continued to place more onerous conditions which George Galloway, the British MPand VP leader, has said he is unwilling to undertake.
These include dealing with the Israeli government directly. Why should VP have to deal with Israel when the issue is about taking aid from one Arab country to another?
Eventually, we were forced to return to Syria from where we chartered special flights to transport us to El-Arish while our vehicles were loaded onto ferries.
The extra cost, which exceeded $300,000, could have meant the total collapse of the mission because the sum required was most certainly beyond the reach of individual convoy members.
Thanks to the generosity of the Turkish contingent and a few other Arab donors, we managed to continue with our journey.
There is absolutely no justification for the Egyptians’ stalling tactics. Even now after our arrival in El-Arish and in spite of previous agreements, we are confronted with new obstacles, namely the number of vehicles allowed to enter.
Instead of making the transition as easy as possible for those who have taken it upon themselves to do the job that frankly Arab governments should be doing, Egypt seems to be almost punishing the Convoy for daring to try and help the people of Palestine and are playing a power game, trying to show who is in control, a completely unnecessary game to play, against merely powerless individuals, considering what is at stake.
Frustration, anger and disgust with the Egyptian government have naturally increased incrementally as the days have passed. They have been the subject of much vilification.
I have spoken to many people who have vowed to boycott Egypt from now on.
It is bad enough that Egypt is allying itself with Israel, the aggressor, against the victim, Palestine, by tightening the siege and restricting access to Gaza via the Rafah border crossing but shortly before we left home the news that they were building an underground steel wall at Rafah to block off access to the tunnels, the one lifeline to Gaza, set the tone for everyone’s disgust.
Worse still, while we are sitting miles away from our destination, stranded and tired we received news that Benjamin Netanyahu was welcomed into Cairo with open arms. What a disgraceful state of affairs! A convoy of humanitarian aid is treated with hostility while the perpetrators war crimes are welcomed with open arms!
Role of villain
Egypt has had every opportunity to redeem and to recast itself in the role of the hero. Instead they have needlessly and voluntarily cast themselves in the role of villain.
I am half English and half Egyptian and used to be so proud of that fact but since Egypt have chosen to ally itself so unnecessarily and immorally with Israel, I feel a profound sense of shame.
When Convoy members know of my heritage, I am bombarded with a tirade of very reasonable questions including “Why is Egypt adding to the suffering of the Palestinian people?” “Why are the Egyptians not helping their Muslim brothers and sisters – aren’t they part of the Muslim Ummah (community) as well?” These are all perfectly reasonable questions to which I have no answers.
Now that we are on its territory, all that is left is to call upon Egypt allow our convoy through! I love Egypt and I love its people and have to keep reminding those that I meet that the Egyptian people are not being fairly represented by their government.
I fear that if it does not change its policies immediately they will be branded irrevocably with the same label deserved by Israel, War Criminals and villains of modern history.
Dr Hanan Chehata is travelling with the Viva Palestina convoy. She is director of public relations at the Middle East Monitor (MEMO), London. Her blogs from the convoy can be read on www.middleeastmonitor.org.uk/blog. This article was also published on Al Jazeera English Focus.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.