Magsaysay Award winner Sandeep Pandey reports on the first peace caravan from Asia to make it to Gaza.
The first Asia to Gaza caravan arrived in Gaza in the wee hours on Monday. A warm welcome awaited the caravan at the border where a press conference was held past midnight.
From external appearances, one cannot tell that there is anything wrong with the place except for graffiti on the walls and some signs of devastation in the form of rubble. The people of Gaza have bravely gone on with their lives and have tried to maintain a reasonably good standard of living with a sense of aesthetics. It looks like any other city from the Arab world, probably more culturally evolved. It is only when one begins talking to the people the tragedy of the place dawns upon us.
Afnan, a 20-year old youth, told the audience about her father who was arrested by the Israeli authorities when she was just four, in a meeting organized by the Ministry of Detainee's Affairs. Plaestine would be a rare state to have a ministry by that name. 7,500 Palestinians languish in Israeli jails of whom 340 are children and 33 are women. Some have been there for more than 30 years now.
Mahmoud Al Zahar, a senior Hamas leader, has lost two sons, but Zahar's committment to the Palestinian cause has not dimmed. He patiently explained how, because the Palestinians were fighting for a moral cause, they were bound to succeed. Associated with Hamas since its beginning, he thinks the Palestinian resistance to Israel is the strongest in its current phase. He also viewed caravans such as Asia to Gaza playing an important role in breaking the siege of Gaza. Israel had allowed a hundred lorries into Gaza with essential material items, including fuel and food, to enter the same day as Asia to Gaza caravan.
On 4th January, a meeting was scheduled with the PM of Palestine Ismail Haniya. He said that he had been following the Asia to Gaza caravan all through and such efforts lifted the spirits of the people of Palestine. Pooja Badekar and Biraj Patnaik from India presented Haniya with an autobiography and a poster of Mahatma Gandhi. During the meeting power supply was cut off for a couple of minutes before the generators took over, a reflection of the effects of the siege.
Incidently, Egypt did not allow generators as part of humanitarian aid. The ship carrying the aid was stuck at Al Arish port for about two complete days after being followed by two Israeli boats on its way from Latakia. The port authorities at the Egyptian port did not co-operate with the eight caravan members on board. Caravan member Sakaguchi from Japan had to take charge of the crane to unload material from ship, Hakim Alizade from Azerbaijan had to fix two ambulances which did not start in the beginning and Ajit Sahi had to beseech the immigration officials so that caravan members were given their passports and allowed to proceed with the aid.
The eight caravan members leaving behind rest of the aid drove the four ambulances to Gaza reaching there on 4th January night, escaping the hostile port officials and mafia. Four truck loads of medicines also arrived at the Rafah crossing the next day but it is unclear what would happen with the food, toys and stationery.
Meanwhile the siege makes life difficult for people in Gaza. At the main hospital in Gaza, Al-Shifa, doctors informed that 162 medicines and essential items were not in stock because of the siege. Israelis have not even spared hospitals in their attacks. The Al Wafa Rehabilitation Centre for the handicapped was bombed in 2003, killing two nurses. It was rebuilt with Malaysian help. Before this centre started functioning, the patients had to go to Israeli hospitals and pay high fees. One can also see a number of places where building material is recovered from the rubble, as it cannot enter Gaza. The indomitable spirit of Palestinians has come up with innovative ways including using tunnels across the borders to get essential items required for survival.
Aslam Khan, student leader of All India Students Association, commented that the Palestinians are already liberated in their spirit. The siege cannot contain them. Such people can never be defeated.
Image: Caravan member Biraj Patnaik presents Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya with a poster of Mahatma Gandhi.