A Gaza convoy fails, but future signs look good

30 May

The Viva Palestina Arabia convoy at the border between Turkey and Syria


by Grant Morgan (1)

Auckland, New Zealand

30 May 2012

“Born under a bad sign.” This title of a popular Cream song(2) could well describe the ill-starred fate of the Gaza aid convoy farewelled from Bradford, England five weeks ago by Viva Palestina founder George Galloway.

Not all the fingers of two hands were needed to count the number of convoy vehicles gathered in Bradford on that cold, rainy day. But Galloway prophesied “huge” en route additions to the convoy. “It will be joined, particularly from Turkey, by huge numbers of vehicles,” he told departing convoyers and their supporters. “By the time it arrives in Aqaba, it will be a mighty convoy.”(3)

None of this came to pass, however. The convoy stayed small, and the Jordanian town of Aqaba was the setting for the first big failure in Viva Palestina’s history. So what crashed the convoy? Let’s go to the beginning of the saga.

Back in 2011, the ancestor of this convoy was born as a London-to-Gaza road trip, but soon was remodeled by Viva Palestina as a Cairo-to-Gaza aid sprint. Then the convoy was kicked into touch in favour of a “Kick Off!” campaign to fundraise for soccer facilities in Gaza, which donor resistance quickly red carded. Afterwards the organisers rebranded themselves as Viva Palestina Arabia and, in February this year, went back to the future with plans for a London-to-Gaza road trip. Following Galloway’s shock win in the Bradford West parliamentary by-election on 29 March, the convoy was reflagged as a Bradford-to-Gaza aid mission.

Perhaps this erratic history of starts, stops and swerves should have been warning that the convoy was indeed born under a bad sign.

But even some convoyers with doubts volunteered for this Viva Palestina Arabia road trip.(4) Their doubts were trumped by the international respect for Viva Palestina’s three previous London-to-Gaza convoys which succeeded in attracting strong public support, delivering humanitarian aid and breaching the siege of 1.5 million Palestinians.

Viva Palestina Malaysia and Kia Ora Gaza were the two significant networks outside England signed up for the Viva Palestina Arabia convoy. But shortly before departure date, both networks withdrew when it became clear the convoy would traverse Syria, scene of murderous crimes by the Assad dictatorship against citizens wanting democracy. Their pullout halved the number of vehicles departing Bradford.

Kia Ora Gaza’s public statement on the withdrawal (which I drafted) said that “given the Syrian dictator’s inhuman behaviour towards his own citizens, we don’t want the Assad regime making political capital from any humanitarian mission to Gaza.” In addition, “the risk to convoyers crossing Syria would be unacceptably high.”(5)

In a Facebook posting, I explained that Kia Ora Gaza was “told about the Syria route on 11 April 2012, just one week before the convoy was due to depart from the UK. That news stunned us, since Kia Ora Gaza had been advised by a convoy organiser on 3 March 2012 that ‘it looks more than likely we will not go through Syria and look to sail across [to Egypt] from Turkey’. And Kia Ora Gaza had flagged Syria as a no-go zone in our communications with Viva Palestina Arabia on at least seven occasions between 5 February 2012 and 13 April 2012.”(6)

So a seriously depleted convoy drove out of Bradford on the controversial Syrian route to Gaza. But major problems surfaced well before the convoy hit Syria.

According to convoyer Timur Khan, “a succession of grossly incompetent decisions” were made by convoy management from early on. One such decision was “a reckless 16 hour journey through Romanian bandit country,” remembers Khan. “On thin mountain passes two vehicles were attacked, mine included”. He believes that “there was no reason to go that way”.

“More concerning than the incompetence was the lack of publicity,” he says. “This should have been a primary focus in Europe, and yet no effort whatsoever was made to hold community events or galvanise the local and national media.”

Convoyers were told that Turkish humanitarian network IHH “would be hosting us” in Istanbul, Khan recalls. “They didn’t. And we do not know why.”

Instead the convoyers, most of them Muslims, were led by their management to an Istanbul hotel “in the red light area and it had no car parking facilities,” reports Khan. “I filmed almost surreal footage of pious Muslims with big beards and jubas being harassed and abused by pimps and prostitutes.”

Next day saw a tense meeting between convoyers and mission director Kevin Ovenden. “He blamed the convoyers for ill-discipline and inflamed pretty much everyone there,” according to Khan. “The meeting descended into anarchy.”(7)

Nine volunteers (including Khan) departed the convoy before it crossed from Turkey into Syria, leaving behind only a skeleton crew.

On 5 May, four days before the convoy entered Syria, I emailed George Galloway and the two convoy managers with information about a recently-established, twice-weekly vehicular ferry service between Mersin in southern Turkey and Egypt’s Port Said.(8) No reply was received.

If convoy leaders had embarked on this regular, and thus affordable, vehicular ferry, they would have bypassed Syria and sailed straight to northern Egypt, an officially designated entry point for Gaza aid missions.

Instead, they chose to drive through Syria.

“The management insisted on going through Syria despite other routes being available, and they would not engage with any view opposed to this decision,” reports Timur Khan.(9)

And after Syria came Jordan. There the convoyers would be halted by Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, an officially designated no-go zone for convoy vehicles.

Before the convoy entered Syria on 9 May, Kevin Ovenden received a warning from Wael As-Sakka, the chair of Jordan Lifeline to Gaza: “Viva Palestina may have issues as they are [intent on] bringing vehicles into Jordan without arrangements with Egyptian authorities.”(10) And so it would prove to be.

The convoy was rushed through Syria in 48 hours under the armed protection of Assad’s military, the same force that has slaughtered 10,000 civilians since the democracy uprising began in March 2011.

Though swift, the convoy’s journey through Syria was well used by Assad’s media to portray his regime as enjoying the support of Western humanitarians. Ironically, Syria was the only country in the world that gave extensive media coverage to the convoy.(11)

That led The Times of London to comment: “The trumpeting of the convoy by Syrian state media appeared to confirm fears among activists that the visit would be used to burnish the reputation of President Assad at a time when he is facing growing international isolation.”(12)

A war of words over the Syria route has divided friends of Palestine around the world. Some support George Galloway’s assertion that the route doesn’t imply support for “any side in any Arab to Arab conflict”.(13)

But there’s been a 20 to 1 mailbox in favour of Kia Ora Gaza’s stance. That suggests an easy majority would sympathise with Wael As-Sakka’s assessment: “The convoy travelling through Syria would be regarded by the majority of the Jordanian population as cooperation with the Syrian regime, legitimising crimes committed against its people.”(14)

However, the Syrian route controversy may be made redundant by what happened after the convoy passed into Jordan.

Upon reaching Aqaba, Jordan’s port on the gulf leading to the Red Sea, convoy leaders asked Egyptian authorities about driving across the Sinai Peninsula to the Rafah gateway into Gaza. No way, responded the Egyptians. Okay, countered the convoyers, how about ferrying our vehicles through the Gulf of Aqaba, Red Sea, Gulf of Suez, Suez Canal and Mediterranean Sea to Egypt’s northern seaport of Al Arish, with the drivers flying into the port to pick up the vehicles and drive to Rafah. Let’s talk about it, replied the Egyptians. A little while later they said the sea option looks like a goer if several big vehicles were left behind. The convoyers said yes, believing they had a deal. Then the Egyptians changed course and refused entry to Gaza.

Meanwhile, two weeks had passed, leaving the convoyers bored to death in their Aqaba hotel as they sensed that Viva Palestina Arabia had hit a dead end.

On 28 May the convoyers called it quits. All are flying home, which for most is England.(15)

“We leave heartbroken,” declares Jemaimah Mustapha, but “we will keep on”.(16)

Another saddened convoyer, Richard Viner, says “our only intention was to support the people of Gaza and break the siege.”(17)

All convoy vehicles and aid were handed over to Palestinian refugees in Jordan, reports convoyer Waheed Rafiq.(18) This final act of solidarity highlights the humanitarian ideals of the convoyers.

While applauding the “beautiful” convoyers dedicated to a “noble cause”, Timur Khan is scathing about their management. “During the convoy we had our lives needlessly put at risk, we were disrespected, and we were lied to. Viva Palestina’s wounds are septic, and its management is terminally ill.”(19)

At the same time, there’s much craving for closer relations in the worldwide Gaza convoy movement. Waheed Rafiq commented to me yesterday: “Maybe we can unite the team again some day.” To which I responded: “Yes, and hopefully sooner rather than later! We need to rebuild unity around a sound and ethical approach to building partnerships with Gazans and breaking the Zionist siege.”(20)

Past convoys were of great benefit in exposing the unjust siege of Gaza and bringing emergency aid relief, notes Wael As-Sakka, chair of Jordan Lifeline to Gaza. But more recently, he says, “we have found it necessary to make significant change in the nature and content of future convoys.”(21)

Their network’s new model of solidarity revolves around forging closer, ongoing partnerships with Gazans around community projects, job creation, training centres, healthcare provision and public issues like Palestinian political prisoners. And that’s where other convoy movements, such as Viva Palestina Malaysia and Miles of Smiles, appear to be heading. And so too does Kia Ora Gaza.

Given the alleviation of Gaza’s extreme emergency that followed Israel’s devastating invasion of 2008-9, the way of the future seems to be building partnerships with Gazans, rather than merely taking aid to Gazans.

Can the roots of failure of the Viva Palestina Arabia convoy be traced to an outdated model of solidarity? Did the convoy’s mission of delivering aid, rather than creating partnerships, feed into a controversial, self-defeating route choice and unsustainable management practices?

Will the uniting of the worldwide Gaza convoy movement hinge on adopting a new model of solidarity with besieged Palestinians which transcends past divisions? And will adopting this new “partnership” model change the old song to “Born under a good sign”?

The signs look good.

Afterword: Before starting on this article, I messaged the managers of Viva Palestina Arabia to ask for their public comments. No reply had been received a day later as the article was published.

Notes

(1) The author is chair of Kia Ora Gaza, a New Zealand convoy network, although this article is written from an individual perspective.

(2) The song’s entire lyrics can be seen at Cream Lyrics.

(3) YouTube video, posted 22 April 2012.

(4) For an example of a committed humanitarian expressing some doubts but still joining the convoy, see Fra Hughes, “video diary day 2”, YouTube video, posted 8 May 2012.

(5) “A withdrawal and an advance”, Kia Ora Gaza public statement by Grant Morgan and Roger Fowler, 16 April 2012.

(6) Comment by Grant Morgan on Kia Ora Gaza’s Facebook page, 9 May 2012. A small error was made in calculating the time between Kia Ora Gaza being informed of the Syria route on 11 April 2012 and the date of the convoy’s departure from Bradford on 22 April. The gap was 11 days, not one week as stated in the Facebook posting.

(7) Extracts from a for-publication Facebook message by Timur Khan to Grant Morgan, 29 May 2012.

(8) Emails from Grant Morgan to George Galloway, Kevin Ovenden and Amer Nazir on 5 May 2012, timed at 12.08pm, 1.57pm, 3.15pm and 3.53pm. These emails were publicly disclosed in my posting on Kia Ora Gaza’s Facebook page, 8 May 2012.

(9) Extract from a for-publication Facebook message by Timur Khan to Grant Morgan, 29 May 2012.

(10) Abeer Salamih’s interview with Wael As-Sakka, “Jordanian Lifeline Convoy say no to Viva Palestina Arabia 6 Convoy”, Gaza TV, 12 May 2012.

(11) Syrian media’s extensive coverage of the Viva Palestina Arabia convoy is evidenced in a YouTube video posted on 9 May 2012, another YouTube video for the same day, a YouTube video posted on 10 May 2012, a YouTube video posted on 12 May 2012 and a SANA – Syrian Arab News Agency release of 9 May 2012.

(12) Laura Pitel, “Galloway accused of bolstering Assad with aid convoy”, The Times of London, 11 May 2012.

(13) George Galloway on Press TV’s The Real Deal, 30 April 2012.

(14) Abeer Salamih’s interview with Wael As-Sakka, “Jordanian Lifeline Convoy say no to Viva Palestina Arabia 6 Convoy”, Gaza TV, 12 May 2012.

(15) The convoy’s windup in Jordan was confirmed in for-publication Facebook messages to Grant Morgan from two convoyers, Waheed Rafiq and Richard Viner, on 29 May 2012. The convoy’s demise was also noted in the Facebook pages of Richard and Waheed.

(16) Jemaimah Mustapha, “We will not be defeated”, Life’s Gems blog, 29 May 2012.

(17) Extract from a for-publication Facebook message by Richard Viner to Grant Morgan, 29 May 2012.

(18) The donation of convoy vehicles and aid to Palestinian refugees in Jordan was noted in a for-publication Facebook message by Waheed Rafiq to Grant Morgan on 29 May 2012. Richard Viner posted a similar report on his Facebook page on 28 May 2012. So did Jemaimah Mustapha in her Life’s Gems blog, 29 May 2012. In a slightly different take, the Occupied Palestine website on 29 May 2012 quotes Kevin Ovenden as saying the aid “will be sent to Gaza through the Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organization in coordination with the Jordanian Professional Associations.”

(19) Extracts from a for-publication Facebook message by Timur Khan to Grant Morgan, 29 May 2012.

(20) Extract from a for-publication Facebook message by Waheed Rafiq to Grant Morgan, 29 May 2012.

(21) “Human Development Convoys Arrive in Gaza”, Palestine News Network, 18 May 2012.

One Response to “A Gaza convoy fails, but future signs look good”

  1. Tim Behrend May 30, 2012 at 6:49 pm #

    This petty squabble about whose heroic efforts are ideologically superior has grown very stale. The Palestinian cause and the Syrian resistance aren’t affected by which convoy/symbol or which club faction in the global network of support walks away with bragging rights and a nimbus of self-congratulation. More depth of social and political analysis would be appreciated in lieu of these updates on internal rivalries.

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