On the second anniversary of Israel’s 22-day war on Gaza, a pan-Asian convoy of activists representing more than a dozen countries awaits Cairo’s approval to enter the besieged strip. The ‘Asia to Gaza’ convoy, which took off from New Delhi on December 2, is currently stuck in Latakia, Syria, as its spokesmen continue negotiations with Cairo, via Egypt’s ambassador to Damascus, on how the aid convoy can enter Gaza.
According to Asia to Gaza’s founder, Feroze Mithiborwala, the convoy is negotiating how it will enter Gaza via Egypt.
Speaking to Ahram Online by phone from Latikia on Monday, Mithiborwala said the convoy has two options: either sail from Latikia to El-Arish port of Egypt, then take buses to Gaza, or fly to Arish and ship their $1 million worth of aid supplies (including medicine, ambulances and solar generators for electricity) by sea.
“We are in the middle of talks,” he said, “we’re negotiating and renegotiating everything [with the Egyptians] so we’re not in a position to give details.”
The convoy’s Twitter account posted information late on Sunday that Egypt granted entry visas to “Indian and Indonesian activists” but without permission to cross into Gaza.
During its stop in Iran two weeks ago, the local media reported that seven Iranian MPs will join the convoy but Mithiborwala said Asia to Gaza’s Iranians are merely “civil society friends”. Asked if the problem that is stalling the convoy’s onward journey at this stage are the Iranians - given the diplomatic tension between Cairo and Tehran - Mithiborwala said he “wouldn’t comment. We’re still negotiating”.
Mithiborwala described the Egyptian ambassador to Syria as “very cooperative”.
The Asia to Gaza convoy consists of 125 to 160 people from more than 15 countries including India, Japan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Malaysia, New Zealand and Kuwait. It was scheduled to reach Gaza by December 27, in time for the second anniversary of Israel's 22-day war on the Strip that started on December 28, 2008. Approximately 1,400 Palestinians were killed and 5,000 injured or maimed in the three-week war. Half of Gaza's infrastructure was destroyed and remains unrepaired as a result of Israel's siege, which includes a ban on the entry of building materials into the strip.
The convoy stopped in Pakistan, Iran, then Turkey and arrived in Syria on December 20. While this route was the only obvious path by land to Syria’s Latikia port, Mithiborwala said that the Iranian-Syrian-Turkish itinerary is also a political statement as this is the “alliance” that supports the Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation.
The convoy's hosts, from civil societies in each of the four countries including Pakistan, covered the boarding and travel expenses of the convoy.
Mithiborwala, 43, is the “national coordinator” of the Free Gaza movement in India. He says he became involved with the Palestinian question 23 years ago with the first Intifada in 1987. “I realized early on that Palestinian question is the central geopolitical question of our times. It’s a moral issue of our age,” he said.
But to him, Israel and US imperialism is larger in scope than an issue of occupied Palestinian territory alone. He says that twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union (1991), there’s a realignment of governments with the US that India became a part of. “There’s an increased Zionist lobby in the security apparatus of India and its damaging and undermining our country’s sovereignty,” he said.
“My battle for Palestine is also the battle for India and all of Asia. The world can’t be free unless Palestine is free and when that happens, we’ll witness the collapse of American and Zionist imperialism.”
Mithiborwala says he was inspired to create ‘Asia to Gaza’ from Viva Palestina, a life line from Britain to Gaza - and the brainchild of former British MP George Galloway - which attempted to break the siege three times since 2009.
“If they could reach Gaza by land from London, then we can do it from Delhi,” Mithiborwala said.
It was after the Israeli navy’s bloody attack on a Gaza-bound flotilla of ships mainly from Turkey, killing nine Turkish peace activists abroad the vessel Mavi Marmara on 31 May, that Mithiborwala said he started talking to friends about organizing a land caravan. Initial talks began with several Asian countries, in addition to Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and various international Palestine solidarity activists.
“We had it all planned and we raised resources from people’s organizations in four months,” he said.
The “caravan” has covered 7000 km since it departed Dehli. Whether or not it will face the same fate as previous convoys which attempted – usually without success - to break the siege of Gaza via Egypt by land or sea, remains unknown. Whatever they will encounter, “is nothing compared to what the Palestinians suffer on a daily basis,” said Mithiborwala, “we’re willing to face any hardships, including death.”
The Cyprus-based Free Gaza movement was the first international group that attempted to break the siege of Gaza by sea in August 2008. At first Israel ignored the approaching boats, but as more of them tried to sail to Gaza, Tel Aviv took up a policy of halting them at sea and detaining them in Israel before eventually releasing them. Viva Palestina followed in February 2009, opting for the land route via Egypt, which denied most of the activists and large portions of their aid supplies entry to the strip, arguing that these convoys must adhere to Egypt’s logistical and political requirements for entry. After several, larger, convoy attempts from Europe over the past two years, the Egyptian authorities announced Viva Palestina's leader George Galloway 'persona non grata' for criticizing Egypt's Gaza policy. In December 2009, a mosaic of international activists flew to Egypt under the umbrella of the US based Gaza Freedom March in an attempt to break the siege, but the vast majority of activists were denied entry by Egyptian authorities to the strip.
According to Asia to Gaza’s website, the convoy or “caravan” consists of Muslims, Christians, Jews and Buddhists and an alliance of people's organisations, social movements, trade unions and civil society institutions of Asia.
Compared to previous orgnisations and convoys that attempted entry into Gaza, this Asian group reflects a more politically radical mood. They met with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during their Iran stop (were they toured several Iranian cities), and with leaders of the Syrian-based Palestinian resistance movements Ramadan Abdallah of Islamic Jihad and Khaled Meshal of Hamas. In one YouTube video, some of its members are filmed chanting Hizbullah’s anthem.
Mithiborwala is adamant that the caravan shouldn't be slotted ideologically. “Ours is a peaceful caravan. But we will not let Israel and the US determine who are our friends and who are not. We support anyone struggling for independence and we support non-violent resistance.”
He said the convoy has four objectives: liberation of Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital, end the siege of Gaza, boycott Zionist Nazi Israel, and unite the people of Asia for liberation from colonization.
“This isn’t just about ending the siege of Gaza, our slogan is also 'besiege Israel', which is conducting an ongoing holocaust [against the Palestinians]. Isolate it so that it collapses, just like apartheid South Africa.”