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From Rajghat to Gaza: Aid Caravan
The first Asia to Gaza Solidarity caravan left New Delhi for Gaza in December 2010 as part of the international effort to break the three-year-old blockade of Gaza by Israeli forces. Our India editorial consultant Sandeep Pandey, who is part of the caravan, filed this report.
(Above): Flags of some of the countries from which participants have joined to take an aid caravan to the people of the Palestinian territory of Gaza, which is under Israeli siege. Fifty activists from India have joined the caravan to express solidarity with the people of Gaza. [A MUTHUKRISHNAN photo]
An Asia to Gaza caravan started from New Delhi to Gaza in December, 2010, as part of the international effort to break the three year old blockade of Gaza by Israeli forces. This is probably the first time such an ambitious caravan, through land route, has been planned to express solidarity with the Palestinian cause. It traveled through Pakistan , Iran , Turkey , Syria and Egypt .
A young activist from Mumbai, Feroze Mithiborwala, with Gandhian roots, conceived of this caravan about a couple of years back and with the institutional support provided by New Trade Union Initiatives he was able to give it a practical shape. A forum called Indian Life-line to Gaza was created to organize this caravan and an Asian People’s Solidarity for Palestine was formed to bring together all organizations from different countries of Asia like Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Bahrain, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt which support the Palestinian cause. The response received was overwhelming. Activists from India, Iran and Japan are part of the caravan from New Delhi and others joined en route. The embassies of Iran and Egypt waived the fees required for obtaining visas for about 50 Indian activists who are part of this caravan as a gesture of support.
The struggle of the Palestinians is probably one of the most difficult ones going on around the world presently. A population has been rendered homeless in their own homes and are being subjected to continuous humiliation. Israelis have literally entered the homes of Palestinians and are now refusing to move out.
The fifty-member India delegation was flagged off from Rajghat Dec. 2 by Congress leaders Digvijaya Singh and Mani Shankar Aiyar. Also present on the occasion were Syeda Hameed, member, Planning Commission and Harsh Mander, member, National Advisory Council. The caravan met its first obstacle at the first border it had to cross. Pakistan denied visas on Dec. 1 but after bad publicity at home of having denied visas to an India peace delegation headed for Palestine , they gave visas to 34 members of the delegation after its flag off. On Dec. 4 the India government denied permission to this group to cross Wagha border on foot. The caravan was held up for 24 hours.
The Indian delegation mostly consists of activists of people’s movements and trade unions, journalists, students and representatives of minority communities. They will share the daily suffering of Palestinian people and develop a human bond with them. It is a modest effort but of great symbolic significance. It is the might of these ordinary citizen which will challenge the forces of imperialism and authoritarianism.
The Asia to Gaza caravan arrived in Syria to a grand welcome by the Governor of Latakia, Dr. Khalyl Mashhaddya, a cardio-thoracic surgeon, on Dec. 25, in the port city of Syria, with school children playing their band and raising pro-Palestine and pro-Syria placards on the street. Next day at a meeting the Baath Party office bearer and former Ambassador to India Dr. Mohsen Alkhyyr spoke fondly of the vision of Gandhi and role of Nehru in giving shape to the Non-Aligned Movement along with Nasser, Tito and Sukarno. It is interesting that the role of India which is appreciated by leaders of especially the Third World countries is from the days of Gandhi and Nehru. People like to avoid mentioning the changing foreign policy of India under the recent regimes, abandoning the cause of non-alignment and trying to jump on the bandwagon of developed nations and military powers.
While awaiting clearance from Egyptian authorities for entering Gaza, the caravan members were invited by a host of organizations — of students, farmers, workers and engineers. The caravan members also visited the Al-aa-Deen camp of Palestinian refugees, some of whom came as far back as in 1948. This camp is also host to Syrian refugees from Golan Heights and some Palestinian refugees from Iraq. Except for the citizenship right the earlier refugees enjoy all the benefits entitled by Syrian citizens. But the Palestinian refugees admit quite unambiguously that they are the guests of the Syrian government. The day the situation becomes normal they’ll return to their homeland after handing over their property to the Syrian government. The Syrian government also considers the Palestinian people as their own. The banner to welcome to caravan on behalf of Governor of Latakia read: “The masses of the Governorate of Latakia Salute the Free Men of Convoy Asia to Break the Siege of Our People in Gaza.” The caravan members have been received warmly in the Arab world as they are seen as supporting an Arab cause.
The Egyptian government gave permission to 120 people to enter Gaza as opposed to the promise of an earlier figure of 100 but was quite clear that they would not allow any Iranian citizens, including seven members of parliament — Mahmoud Ahmadi Biqash, Avaz Heidarpour, Parvi Sarvari, Ali Motahhari, Ali Asqar Zarei, Hassan Qafourifard and Shabib Jooyjari. They also denied permission to six Jordanian activists who have taken strong positions earlier not palatable to the Egypt, Israel or the U.S. This was not totally unexpected. Egypt and Iran have had strained ties for the last 30 years. Lately, Iran’s support to Hizbullah and Hamas is also a source of concern for Egypt. The First Asia to Gaza Solidarity Caravan faced a dilemma. How could some friends be left behind because of the whims of Egyptian government? But in the end the Iranian members prevailed over the group and convinced everybody that even they would be most happy only if the caravan reaches Gaza. Nothing is more important than the pain and suffering of people of Gaza, who were looking forward to the arrival of First Asia to Gaza Solidarity caravan. They could not be disappointed. Hence a decision was taken by consensus for the caravan to move ahead.
On Dec. 29 the caravan members cheered the staff of Latakia Port as they loaded humanitarian aid —food, medicines, stationery for children and four ambulances — on the ship appropriately named “Salam” or peace by raising pro-Palestine slogans. Eight members of the caravan, former MP Brigadier Sudhir Sawant, senior journalist Ajit Sahi, young activist of Jamat-e-Islami Sheheen Kattiparambil, , student leader of AISA Aslam Khan, — all from India — Koichi Sakaguchi from Japan, Hakim Alizade from Azerbaijan, Muhammad Husein from Indonesia and Norazli Bin Musa from Malaysia were given the responsibility to accompany the ship to Al Arish port in Egypt.
On New Year’s Day of 2011 the ship sailed from the Latakia port amidst cheering by the remaining members of the caravan and Latakian citizens. The Governor of Latakia accompanied by the Baath Party chief was there on both occasions, when the loading was taking place as well as when it sailed. The sendoff became quite emotional as there was a realization that Israelis may intercept the ship in mid water. Ajit Sahi, speaking before the ship’s departure, said that in case of any mishap, this caravan to Gaza must not stop and there should be more such caravans. Quoting Mahatma Gandhi, he said bravery is not in killing people but in sacrificing one’s life fighting against injustice. It is amazing how Gandhi has become relevant for the Asia to Gaza caravan. Historically, he had disapproved of the creation of Israel and said Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English and France to the French. The flags of India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Azerbaijan and Palestine were waved by caravan members on board as the ship left the shores of Latakia.
The humanitarian aid will be joined by rest of the members of caravan who will fly to Al Arish in Egypt and the caravan will cross the nearby Rafah border to enter Gaza Jan. 2, exactly a month after it was flagged off from Rajghat, thereby achieving its final objective.
Sandeep Pandey, a Magsaysay award-winning activist, is India editorial consultant for Siliconeer.