Asian aid ship to Gaza fraught with challenges, say activists

11 Jan 2011

Source: alertnet // Nita Bhalla

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A Palestinian flutters during a Hamas rally in Gaza City, Dec. 14, 2010. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

NEW DELHI (AlertNet) – Asian activists who travelled from India to Gaza to deliver $1 million of aid say their journey was fraught with challenges, including being tracked by Israeli warships, having their satellite communications blocked and harassment by the Egyptian authorities.

The Asian People’s Solidarity for Palestine – a group of 120 activists which included aid workers, journalists and students from 17 Asian nations – left New Delhi on Dec. 2, 2010 and spent a month travelling across six countries to bring aid to Gaza in defiance of an Israeli blockade.

The convoy – dubbed “Asia 1” – was carrying medicines, four ambulances, surgical equipment, generators, milk power and other relief items, and is the first Asian aid convoy to Gaza.

“We travelled mostly by road through India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey before boarding a cargo ship in Syria to get to Egypt where we planned to cross the Rafah border into Gaza,” said Aslam Khan, vice president of the All India Students Association.

“But it was not easy and we faced many hurdles at sea,” he told a news conference in New Delhi.

Israel ended 38 years of Gaza occupation in 2005. But it began blockading the Gaza Strip in 2007 after Hamas Islamists hostile to the Jewish state seized power from Palestinians prepared to negotiate peace with Israel.

Imports were tightly restricted until June last year, when Israel faced a world outcry for killing nine Turkish activists in a commando raid to intercept a blockade-busting aid flotilla.

BLOCKED VISAS, WARSHIPS

Khan and other members of the convoy said during their journey from the Syrian Al Ladhiqiyah port to Egypt’s Arish harbour, they were followed and harassed by Israeli ships in the Mediterranean sea.

“There were initially two warships and then two more appeared about three miles (5 km) from our ship and while they maintained a distance, they followed us and repeatedly sending our captain radio messages asking him to explain who we were,” said Khan.

Khan added that the aid ship’s communications systems were jammed by authorities and they could not communicate with the outside world.

Israeli officials however say there was no need for convoys to the Gaza Strip, adding that the area was open to all civilian goods that enter daily via established crossing under the auspices of the United Nations or the Red Cross.

“The intention behind this ‘convoy’ has nothing to do with humanitarian aid, and everything to do with political provocation,” said David Goldfarb, spokesman at the Israeli embassy in New Delhi.

“It was therefore no surprise that the group met with leaders of internationally-recognised terrorist organisations such as the Islamic Jihad and the Hamas. As a consequence, it could only be expected that this group would make every effort to vilify Israel, on its return to India.”

But organisers of the convoy say the challenges of getting the much-needed aid to the Gaza Strip did not stop there.

Egypt refused visas to Iranian members to enter Gaza through its Rafah border and initially refused to allow the aid ship to dock at its Arish harbour for three days.

Egyptian diplomats in New Delhi said they were not aware of details of the incident, but said that there were certain “rules and regulations” that the Arish harbour authorities may have in place, which may not have been adhered to.

After much protest, the group was eventually permitted to unload the aid and take it across the border into Rafah on Jan. 3 where it was handed over the Palestinian authorities, said one of the lead organisers, Firoze Mithiborwala.

“Our objective was not just humanitarian,” he told journalists. “It is to call for a free Palestine and an end to the blockade.”

Asian aid ship to Gaza fraught with challenges, say activists – AlertNet.