Eyewitness from Gaza: Historic convoy breaks the siege

Bel Trew and Nada El-Kouny, Tuesday 20 Nov 2012

Over 500 Egyptian activists cross into Gaza in Egypt's largest solidarity convoy during one of the bloodiest days of the ongoing Israeli offensive; Ahram Online journalists who traveled with group report back.

Pro-Palestine solidarity activists chant for Palestine's liberation upon arriving at Rafah crossing, Sinai, Egypt, Sunday (Photo: Nada El-Kouny)

Five minutes after a Gaza-bound convoy of 330 Egyptian activists arrived at the Rafah border crossing, the bombing started.

Even on the Egyptian side the ground shook. A grey circle of cloud signalling the presence of an Israeli rocket rose above the terminal.

The booms only ignited the activists' chants, who hailed from groups such as the Revolutionary Socialists, the Constitution Party, the Popular Current, the Strong Egypt Party, the Egyptian Current and the Nasserist party.

"Resistance is the only solution against the traitor and occupier," the groups called out to sheepish-looking border patrol, as they marched towards the border brandishing Palestinian flags.

Only 50 were expected to enter Gaza, a number agreed on by the convoy organisers due to the security risk and logistical headache of moving hundreds of people around a conflict zone.

Emotions were high when each bus drew its lottery and the names of the "lucky" few where chosen.

Nevertheless, everyone was ultimately allowed through, regardless of some lack of passports, military papers and official documentation: an unprecedented event unheard of under the Mubarak-regime.

With rumours of a parliamentary and Muslim Brotherhood delegation led by FJP head Saad Katatni on its way to the crossing, it seemed as if the Egyptian police wanted to relieve themselves of the responsibility of such a determined group.

Inside the madhouse of the border terminal, more groups joined the convoy, pushing the numbers to 561.

With over 500 people crossing into Gaza, the convoy was the single largest civilian group to enter the strip since 1967 and one of the largest expressions of solidarity ever.

After a four hour wait, people crossed over to Gaza, piled into vehicles provided at the last minute by Hamas, and the bombing began again.

Eight buses drove off into a pitch-black Gaza: the silence only punctured with the fatal drum-beat of the rocket fire.

Landing on either side of the convoy as it made its way to Gaza City, the missiles were disorientating and the landscape empty.

But as we rode into the city, Gazans appeared on half-lit streets and whistled at the solidarity convoy.

Loud cheers erupted in the buses, people began singing pro-Palestine traditional songs and shouting, "We give our lives to Gaza." They hung flags out of the windows and both sides peace-signed each other.

In spite of the explosions, it felt like a celebration.

The rockets continued to rain down on Gaza like clockwork, every five minutes Israel's 'Pillar of Defense' operation would create a pillar of smoke. Another building. would fall.

We reached Gaza City, where they began the press conference at Al-Shifaa hospital, Gaza's main medical complex.

The hundreds-strong crowds of Egyptians and Palestinians took over the main hospital courtyard, carrying a huge Palestinian flag. Israel and Hamas exchanged fire someway off in the distance as the speeches began.

Gaza's Minister of Health opened the event.

Although the continued US-backed Israeli aggression claims so many lives, he said, it does not take away the spirit of resistance, especially when Egyptians and Palestinians stand side-by-side to back the Palestinian cause.

Convoy organisers, many of whom are prominent Egyptian activists, also spoke.

The Egyptian Revolution, they said, will not succeed unless Palestine is free.

An ambulance carrying the latest casualty of Israel's airstrikes closed the event: a stark reminder of the immediacy of the situation.

Speaking to local families who live near the hospital, they told us Israeli surveillance drones hover above the city all day and night.

Their continual buzz is the base note to the noises of a Gazan night under fire.

One family told us that civilians hide in their homes, trawling through news channels and the internet when the electricity is on, to find updates on bomb attacks while praying their home is spared.

Schools, they said, had been closed since Wednesday.

Back at the hospital Hamas police officers in their blue military uniforms manned the grounds, while Qassam Brigade members sat and chatted with us at the local red-lit kebab shop, which was opened specially for the convey.

Despite previous plans to camp out at a stadium (which was bombed the next morning) and a nearby hotel, the 561-strong convoy slept on the streets and in the buses outside of the hospital due to security fears.

The hospital is largely seen to be a safe zone. So far it has not been hit.

However, nowhere is truly safe. The city is held hostage by the bombings, which hit unexpectedly and in seemingly random locations.

The explosions appear from nowhere, with no warning, there is no vapour trail or dramatic screeching sound. Just a thundering boom followed by ambulance sirens and a building collapse.

All the residents can do, caught in the crossfire, is wait for the next onslaught.

After midnight, the situation escalated. A rocket landed just 500 metres away from where convoy were resting.

This was the first hit that scattered the crowd. Some of us sheltered in the kebab shop, some fell into a neighbouring news agency.

Nearby building and buses shook. A rush of air pressed against our chest and ears.
A few minutes later a second rocket dropped on the other side of the hospital. A warning message, perhaps?

At least 25 people died through the night, the bloodiest since the start of the offensive, and the overwhelming majority were civilians, a cool-headed Al-Shifaa hospital doctor told us.

Then at around 4am, the ambulances began pouring into the medical centre. Retaliatory fire from Hamas was heard.

With frightening efficiency, paramedics would offload the bodies, clean the stretcher and race back to yet another bombsite.

As four buildings collapsed, a lot of injured children started arriving- some sat like ghosts in a thin covering of rubble dust, paralysed by shock.

Frenzied scenes were witnessed in the hospital emergency rooms, with distraught families, bloodied bodies and journalists hovering trying to get a handle of the situation.

The morgue, an exhausted looking paramedic told us, was mostly filled with children killed by shrapnel wounds.

All the way back, our nine vehicle convoy was followed by recurring bombings. One landed directly in our path, leading the convoy to change direction. Some suggested that the Israelis were doing so deliberately.

The last explosion, leaving a spectacular ring of smoke on the horizon, echoed over the border crossing as we boarded the bus.

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