Cycling4Gaza will travel across four countries to highlight the freedoms enjoyed by many in Europe but denied to Palestinians in the occupied territories
In March 2018, Dr Zara Hannoun visited the Gaza Strip. "I can't even begin to put the experience into words," she tells MEMO. "From the start, you can see that there is strict restriction of movement on the people in Gaza. There are no real resources; the infrastructure in the cities is completely devastated."
"You go to the hospitals and see that they're doing what they can with what they have, but the situation is dire. Coming back I really struggled, it's hard to just accept what we call reality and yet know what is out there," she added.
Zara is just one of a team of volunteers who are working to change this reality. Founded in the wake of Israel's 2008 assault on the already-besieged Gaza Strip, Cycling4Gaza has been raising money for and awareness of the grave humanitarian situation in the Strip for almost a decade.
"My first cycle was in 2011," Zara explains, "we were meant to do it in Greece but because there were quite a few logistical problems, it was moved to Jordan. It turned out to be a wonderful route, because we were basically cycling from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea and you could see Palestine just across the border."
"Every cycle is completely different," she adds, "each one brings a completely different experience, whether the ride is taking place in Europe, the US or the Middle East."
Cycling4Gaza raises money for humanitarian projects in Gaza, working closely with the Palestine Children's Relief Fund (PCRF) to provide for the medical needs of Palestinian children, such as travelling abroad for surgery or having access to adequate treatment within the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt).
"We always look for projects that are underfunded or lack support in Gaza," Zara explains. "Often this includes focusing on mental health care, because this is something that is quite overlooked and still holds a bit of a stigma in Palestinian society," she adds.
Yet as the Great March of Return – which has seen thousands of Palestinians demonstrate along the Gaza fence to demand the right of return to the homes from which they were forcibly displaced in 1948 – enters its 18th consecutive month, providing emergency medical aid across the Strip has become increasingly important.
As Salwa Abu Wardeh, who is herself the daughter of a Palestinian refugee and now a member of the Cycling4Gaza committee, explains: "There are very limited resources in Gaza and access to these is difficult. The idea of being able to leave Gaza to access medical care is virtually non-existent because of the blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt."
"The blockade basically eliminates freedom of movement for the population of Gaza, which has a devastating effect on so many areas of life," she adds.
"Because of this, the theme of this year's ride is freedom," Salwa's colleague Dina Dajani explains. Between 27 August and 1 September, some 50 participants will cycle across four countries, starting in Germany before heading through Luxembourg, France and Belgium, before finishing in front of the European Union (EU) Parliament in the Belgian capital Brussels.
"The idea was to demonstrate the lack of freedom of movement that people in Gaza face as opposed to the freedom of movement that is present in the EU," Dina tells MEMO.
At a time when thousands of refugees and migrants are braving perilous journeys in search of a better life in Europe, the hope is this theme will resonate beyond the Palestinian context.
"A lot of people are at least able to escape difficult situations in order to pursue a better life, but this is something that's completely impossible for people in Gaza," Dina emphasises.
Asked what difference initiatives like Cycling4Gaza can make, the team tells MEMO it is about sparking a "butterfly effect", introducing new supporters to the Palestinian cause and exposing already-well-informed followers to fresh information.
"Firstly it's about the awareness we raise in local communities in the countries in which we're cycling," Dina tells me. "We have a big event at the finish line, hand out flyers, and talk to people along the way. It's one of the reasons we chose cycling, because we can pass through a lot of places in one ride."
Yet even those taking part in the cycle, many of whom are often well-informed on Palestine, have the opportunity to learn more. "We try to get children who have been treated by the PCRF, in one capacity or another, to join the cycle," Salwa adds.
"So for example, in 2014, we had one young man called Ahmad Abu Namous who was a recent amputee; he had been shot at close range in the knee and lost the bottom half of his leg. He was fitted with a prosthetic and he cycled 360 kilometres with us in the US that year."
"I think this really gives everyone, the people we encounter along the way, the cyclists themselves and us as team members an opportunity to get real life, first-hand accounts from people in Gaza."
Finishing this year's ride in Brussels, Cycling4Gaza hopes to highlight the role – large or small – that everyone in the international community can play.
"Landing in front of the EU parliament we're hoping to say, look, Palestine is still on the map, and the humanitarian situation there is dire," Salwa stresses.
The situation is getting worse and we need to understand that in order to address it. No one can pretend it's not happening anymore.
"The international community as a whole has to push for lifting the blockade – that's the most urgent and desperate situation right now. For us as an organisation, it's just about being able to create a world where those people who can make a difference are aware that every action counts and to put as much onus as possible on the international community to help lift the siege on Gaza."
The Cycling4Gaza team concludes: "Ultimately access to food and medicine is a freedom enshrined in international law; it's a freedom stipulated in the Geneva Convention on Human Rights. So we're not asking for anything that doesn't apply to us [in Europe and elsewhere] and shouldn't apply to everyone in the world."
"It's really easy to say 'my actions aren't going to make a difference.' But we just need to take that first step".
You can follow the Cyling4Gaza team as they ride on MEMO's social media accounts, or find out more about the initiative here.