Crossing continents, covering thousands of miles and opening borders long closed are just a few of the feats an emergency relief convoy trekking from London to Gaza made before arriving at al-Arish near Egypt's Rafah border Sunday to break a crippling siege and deliver much needed aid to Palestinians in Gaza.
Viva Palestina, a British relief convoy headed by British Parliamentarian George Galloway and planned by hundreds of British volunteers, rolled into Rafah to deliver aid to thousands of destitute Palestinians in Gaza after crossing a 9000-mile route from London through France, Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and finally entering Egypt through the Libyan Egyptian Sallum border on Thursday, after which the convoy drove along the coast to reach the city of al-Arish, 25 miles from Rafah.
“A lifeline from Britain to Gaza,” is the motto of Viva Palestina, which started out with 110 trucks from London but was doubled in Libya after the Gaddafi Foundation for Charity and Development donated 100 trucks laden with aid.
The convoy, which was over 1.8 miles long when it rolled into Egypt, was camped at the city of al-Arish and will enter Gaza through the Rafah border Monday after lengthy border negotiations between Galloway and the Egyptian authorities in Rafah on Sunday.
"It’s a caravan of 500 kind hearts," Talat Ali Shah, convoy group leader told AlArabiya.net. "The convoy was received by a jubilant crowd, ready to help and encourage us on," he added. The convoy set out on Feb. 14 from London.
The convoy included a British fire engine, 12 ambulances, and many trucks full of medicine, food, clothes and toys for children, given by the various communities in Britain and the Gaddafi Foundation.
George Galloway, who is a peace advocate and staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, organized the convoy in response to the humanitarian crisis Israel unleashed on Gaza for 22-days, which left the impoverished Strip in ruins while killing 1300 and wounding 5000.
Galloway a "friend of the Arabs"
The Egyptian government's ruling National Democratic Party in charge of the convoy's passage through the Egyptian borders expressed gratitude for Galloway's efforts.
"We know the value of Galloway as a peace advocate and we welcome him as a known friend of the Arabs," Ali al-Din al-Hilal from the NDP told AlArabiya.net.
Likewise, Galloway thanked the Egyptian government for facilitating the convoy's safe passage, acknowledging Egypt's commitment to the Palestinian cause.
"The warm welcome of the people here and their concern for Palestine is overwhelming. Egypt has given so much for Palestine over the last 60 years. Many soldiers have died for Palestine and we acknowledge this commitment," Galloway said at the press conference.
He added that Viva Palestina is a message to the world that Britain is "not the enemy of the Muslims," and that while Tony Blair does not represent the people of Britain, Viva Palestina does.
"In the past 35 years I have entered Palestine many times but I was never as happy as I am this time," Galloway said in a press conference upon arrival.
Politics of the convoy’s passage
After negotiations with the Egyptian border authorities, aid brought by the Viva Palestina convoy will be split into medical and non-medical. While trucks carrying medical aid will enter through the Rafah border, the rest of the non-medical goods will enter from Awja, a border crossing controlled by Israel and lies 43 miles away from Rafah.
“The convoy goods will split in order to allow medical aid through Rafah border and the rest will pass through Awja,” General Muhammed Shusha, governor of north Sinai, told AlArabiya.net.
All Viva Palestina convoy members including leaders Galloway and Sabbah al-Mokhtar will enter Gaza through the Egyptian border with Gaza.
"Under no circumstance will members of Viva Palestina convoy coordinate with Israel," Mokhtar told AlArabiya.net. "We shall all gain safe passage into Gaza from the Egyptian/Gaza border tomorrow as agreed upon with the Egyptian border authorities," he said.
The Egyptian Red Crescent and other U.N. relief organizations such as the World Health Organization and Oxfam will be responsible for transferring non-medical goods through Awja border.
Egyptian border authorities designate the Rafah border for medical aid supplies while all other types of aid enter Gaza through the Awja broder which Israel moniters.
Yvonne Ridley, award winning journalist who accompanied the convoy, reported that Israel pressured Egypt to divert the convoy to go through Israeli borders.
"Israel is putting huge pressure on Egypt to force the convoy which is now doubled in size, a British-Libyan venture, through Israeli territory," she said at the conference.
Expectations that the massive Viva Palestina aid convoy will roll in full through the Rafah border continue despite Israel's diplomatic pressure to force the non-medical part of the convoy to drive through the Israeli controlled Egyptian border of Awja, a route George Galloway and the convoy say is not an option.
Despite these challenges, the convoy has kept its spirits high in anticipation of relieving the hardships of thousands of Palestinians.
"Gaza has broken into many British homes and has touched many British hearts," Hussein said. "Our experience in this journey of hope makes us feel that we are the luckiest people. Bur our happiness will be complete, when we cross into Gaza and console the children, men and women who have suffered for so long."
A message of hope from the "streets of Britain"
Bringing together volunteers from different ethnicities and religions, Viva Palestina hopes to bring aid to 1.5 million residents in Gaza who still subsist under a 19-month crippling siege Israel refuses to ease almost one month after its all-out assault.
“The material we are carrying is only a drop in the ocean but the goodwill of volunteers and the people from the countries we have passed through is tremendous,” Mokhtar, one of the leading members of Viva Palestina involved in negotiations with border officials, told AlArabiya.net.
“This convoy is extremely diverse consisting of men, women, Muslims and non Muslims from across England,” he added.
“We truly care and we’ve driven across continents to prove it,” is the message 500 ordinary volunteers plan to deliver to Gazans, according to the Viva Palestina website.
“This is a movement of the streets,” Galloway told AlArabiya.net.
Such a movement wrought unexpected results as Algeria and Morocco opened the border between them for the first time in 15 years since 1994— something which Condoleezza Rice failed to do—to allow the convoy through in clear testament to people power outdoing politics.
“It surely signifies the goodness of human nature and the strength of the will of the people that can overtake any odds,” Iftikhar Hussein, 25-year-old high school teacher from Birmingham told AlArabiya.net.
Galloway added that the volunteers are self-funded. “Each person travelling on the convoy is a self-financed British volunteer. The vehicles will be left with the people of Gaza; volunteers will fly home to the U.K. Thousands of pounds cash has been fundraised [for the people of Gaza]”
“They come from different walks of life. With us are doctors, accountants, house wives, and students,” Mokhtar said.
Viva Palestina is supported by the Stop the War Coalition, the Respect the Anglo-Arab Organisation, several British trade unions and a large number of Muslim organisations.