Saturday 13 November 2010

Interview: Advancing solidarity with Gaza

Members of the latest Viva Palestina convoy celebrate after going through the Rafah crossing into Gaza
 Members of the latest Viva Palestina convoy celebrate after going through the Rafah crossing into Gaza
The fifth Viva Palestina convoy to break Israel’s siege of Gaza drove through the Rafah border crossing with 147 vehicles carrying 380 people from some 30 countries—and humanitarian aid worth some $5 million.
The convoy departed from London on September 18 and traveled 3,000 miles through France, Italy, Greece and Turkey before arriving in the Syrian port town of Latakia, where it was joined by two other convoys—one from Morocco and Algeria, and another that originated in Doha and came through the Gulf States and Jordan. After spending 16 days in Latakia while carrying out frustrating negotiations with Egyptian authorities, the convoys traveled on October 19 to the port city of El Arish, and from there drove into Gaza.
Kevin Ovenden, the director of the Viva Palestina convoy, spoke with Eric Ruder about the convoy’s significance for the Palestine solidarity movement. 

THIS LAST land convoy was larger in scale than previous ones—it must have been a huge undertaking. Can you describe what you think it accomplished?
I THINK it was extraordinarily successful, and I think it opened up new possibilities for the movement. The first Viva Palestina convoy headed off from London five weeks after the end of Israel’s bombing during Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, and of course the horrific images of that massacre were still fresh on the television.

Now, in most of the media, Gaza hardly features. And so to achieve a more substantial convoy, some 18 months on, shows that we are tapping into a growing audience interested in solidarity with Gaza even after most of the media has moved on.

The convoy comprised people from 30 different countries on five different continents, which is the widest participation in a convoy so far. The total value of the aid that was taken in was in excess of $5 million [US]. Of course, this is a drop in the ocean compared with what Gaza needs, but is a considerable achievement.

We delivered a total of 137 vehicles, including 40 new vehicles for medical use from Algeria. This is the first time that we’ve been able to get new vehicles into Gaza. When we attempted to take in new vehicles twice—once with the American convoy, Viva Palestina 2, and then again with the same vehicles in January this year—we were blocked.

But this time, all of the aid and vehicles passed through the crossing at Rafah. Most of the aid was medical aid, but there was also aid to help Gaza’s beleaguered education sector as well as more general humanitarian aid.

And by the way, there is a false story in the New York Times—predictably, I’m afraid to say—which claims that some or most of the aid went through the Israeli checkpoints. It didn’t. We never have gone through an Israeli checkpoint, and we never will—on principle. All of the people who were permitted into Egypt traveled through the Rafah crossing.

It is, of course, regrettable that the Egyptian authorities had seen fit to prevent George Galloway and 10 other members of the convoy from going in. After that decision was taken, and we protested strongly, we got better cooperation from the Egyptian authorities.

The only reason we could get for why they weren’t allowed in was on general grounds of sovereignty—that Egypt has a right to decide who comes in and who doesn’t on national security grounds. But if I tell you that one of the people banned was an 82-year-old Jordanian called Ishmael Nashwan, who is self evidently not a national security risk, you get some idea how capricious this list is.

Another person who was prevented entry was Amina Uddin, who along with Ishmael is a representative of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the oldest, most-established pro-Palestinian organization in the UK, which has the affiliation of most of the major trade unions. So it’s very regrettable—it created a lot of bad feeling. It could have been avoided, and we protested vigorously over it, but weren’t able to get them to change their minds.

DO YOU think Egypt will stick to what they declared after Viva Palestina’s December convoy—that they won’t ever allow George in?

I DON’T think they will stick to that. This time, after they had made their point by banning George and the others, they then were remarkably cooperative. I would read it—and other people in the region read it—as them being stuck up a tree and trying to find a way to climb down gracefully. If that’s the case, and I hope that is the case, then so much the better, and we wouldn’t expect this ban to last very long.

Secondly, changes are afoot in Egypt. There is a sense of impending change. Exactly how that change unfolds, nobody knows, but things are not going to stay as they have been for the past few years. So my own personal view is that this position will change over the coming months.

WHAT OTHER features of the convoy do you think were important?

FOR THE first time, the convoy was able to arrive in Gaza in daylight, which may sound like a small thing, but it actually makes a huge difference for media coverage and a huge difference for the people of Gaza, who can take a great deal of inspiration from seeing a convoy of people break the siege—from seeing the vehicles and aid arriving to support them.

It sends the message that the world has not forgotten you, that there are ongoing efforts to overturn this horrible siege. It really was a huge uplift in morale. The road was lined from the crossing point at Rafah all the way through to Gaza City.

Second, in less than four weeks, the Algerian component of the convoy raised over $800,000, and this is through a large number of small donations. The Algerian delegation was 110 people, and it was drawn from 55 cities in Algeria—so across the whole of the country.

Similarly, in Jordan, they had attempted a convoy earlier in the summer, which had been blocked. So they had 25 vehicles from that attempted mission. Rather than being deterred, they threw their weight behind the Viva Palestina mission, went back to the people in Jordan and in the Gulf States, and contributed 53 vehicles, more than doubling the number. Plus they brought a vast quantity of medical and other aid.

In New Zealand, in nine weeks, in a country of 4 million people on the other side of the world—you can’t get further from Gaza than New Zealand—they raised around $75,000, which is a very great achievement. And for the first time in such a mission, we had a significant component from Italy, with six or seven vehicles. This was also the first time that there was a Tunisian contribution to this kind of siege-breaking effort. This is an important indication that the restrictions that activists in Tunisia feel are no longer sufficient to prevent them from taking part.

So, all in all, this was a breakthrough, in that it was more international, it took in more aid, and it galvanized the people in Gaza enormously, so it was immensely successful.

We also heard from a number of residents of Gaza that the impact of our effort—both in terms of aid and in terms of the general impact on the siege—is significant. From doctors at the hospitals of Al Shifa, Al-Awda and the Jordanian hospital, the materials we took in, they said, will mean that people will live who otherwise would have died. We took in for example, specialized cancer treatment drugs, which they don’t have, as well as general medication and medical equipment.

One of our numbers, Patrick from New Zealand, spoke to a manager from a soft drink factory who told him that the factory is now able to work six days a week. They sense a loosening of the siege. He asked the manager if he thought the convoys are helping. And he replied that it’s because of the convoys that the siege is loosening.

And that’s reflected in all areas of society—among independent trade unionists, among academics, and so on. There’s no doubt that we’re having an effect. Of course the siege is still in place, but politically, it’s already broken in a sense, and materially, it’s breaking down.

IF THE efforts so far—the land convoys, the flotilla that was attacked on May 31, 2010, and so on—have had this kind of effect, what do you think the next steps are to continue prying open the siege? And how do you think activists can make further contributions to a general campaign to bring the question of Palestine to world prominence?

I THINK there are several strands, all of which are complementary if they are acted on in a coordinated way, and with the right approach. The first is the direct missions by land and by sea, and we’re now working on a mission by air.

Viva Palestina will be taking part in all three of these methods of breaking the siege. These remain very important, because they focus the attention of the world on the fact that there is a siege. And it’s the opinion of everybody we met in Gaza that these efforts are essential to raising the morale of the people there. Again and again we heard from people, “Please tell the world what’s happening.” And so to be able to take in 350 people who are going back to 30 countries to do exactly that is very important.
Secondly, the gathering movement for a boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, or BDS campaign, to boycott Israel in the way that apartheid South Africa was boycotted is playing a critical role, because it operates on a number of levels.

Through BDS, everybody can find a way in to supporting the movement—from deciding which fruit they will buy in a supermarket; to campaigning on their campus for the university to withdraw investments from companies that have links with Israel; all the way to collective actions such as happened earlier this summer in Oakland, Calif., with the refusal by longshoremen to unload an Israeli vessel in the wake of the massacre on the Mavi Marmara.

The third element is continuing to encourage, through the way that we build this movement, the participation of the mass forces—civil and political, labor, humanitarian and so on—throughout the Middle East, from Marrakesh to Bahrain.

This is, I think, a very important development—that the level of not just awareness but also preparedness to take action over Palestine is growing among the mass of the population of the Arab countries—and this is, in turn, reflected to a degree among some of the political layers.

It’s my view that humanitarian efforts and a movement in the West can play a vital role in breaking the system of alliances that Israel depends on, but that the essential role in rolling back this Zionist occupation of Palestinian land will be played by the people directly affected—above all the Palestinians, but also wider Arab society, which itself is a victim of the Israeli presence and aggression, because that presence and aggression is a central part of the way in which the Great Powers have divided the region directly and indirectly through the use of proxy forces for 100 years.

IS THERE anything you can say concretely about future siege-busting efforts, either by Viva Palestina or others, that might be helpful to activists looking for ways to stand in solidarity with Palestine?

THE FIRST point is that one achievement of this convoy was to raise the level of international cooperation to greater heights. We don’t simply want to announce, of our own accord, what Viva Palestina is doing and then press ahead, but we’re working with people who’ve been proven to be able to deliver substantial numbers of people, aid, finance and social weight into the movement, from Algeria to Jordan, Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere.

Concretely, we’re in an intense process of discussion with them so that we have a common program of action over the coming months, and then we hope to announce something soon. What I can say concretely is that everybody’s agreed that Viva Palestina 6 must take place, and must take place soon. We are looking at the timing of that and the nature of that mission.

Secondly, all of the forces that took part in this convoy are also raising substantial supports for the next seaborne mission, which, of course, is bigger than any single component parts. We’re talking about from Algeria, Kuwait, Jordan, Malaysia and so on, very substantial forces, along with forces in North America and Europe, in a collaboration around the next flotilla. And as I mentioned earlier, we’re looking urgently at plans to break the siege by air.

Lastly, in the UK and in Europe, we’re seeking a high level of cooperation around the strategy of isolating Israel through the boycotts. We’re working with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, other charities in Britain, some of the Christian churches in Britain and the trade unions, who are also seeking to extend that elsewhere in Europe.

The participation of a strong Italian delegation is good news. Italy did have an extremely large antiwar movement against the Iraq war, but for various reasons, not least the participation of that movement in a government which was committed to the occupation of Iraq, the movement as a whole became disoriented. But there are signs that that is rebuilding—modestly, but it’s rebuilding. And that’s the case in other countries, such as Germany and France.

So we’re seeking now, concretely, to extend this network of alliances around a clear strategy, which has two pillars: one, building up all the links we can with Palestine, particularly besieged Gaza; and two, isolating apartheid Israel. And all with the strategic aim of galvanizing and supporting the forces in the region that can bring change.

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