While a new aid convoy has reached Gaza, the Israeli siege on the beleaguered Strip appears as firm as ever, writes Saleh Al-Naami
International peace activists with the Viva Palestina aid convoy celebrate as they cross into Gaza at the Rafah border crossing
The jeep transporting Fayza Sufayer, 45, had barely crossed the border from Egypt into Gaza when she jumped out and kissed the ground several times, in gratitude of her arrival in Gaza. Sufayer was one of 315 Arab and foreign supporters who arrived on 21 October in Gaza as part of the Lifeline 5 convoy that came to Gaza to express solidarity with the besieged Strip. Sufayer wears a face veil that reveals only her eyes, but this was enough to convey the emotion: she left Gaza for Jordan when she was 10 years old, lived there since, getting married and raising a family.
Sufayer headed to Lazikia from Jordan to join the Lifeline 5 convoy. As tears streamed down her face, Sufayer explained that she travelled with her son, her son-in-law and nine other Jordanian women to demonstrate their solidarity with those under siege in Gaza. "I have tried several times to come to Gaza, but I was unsuccessful," she stated. "The occupation was an obstacle, as were the border closures and blockade."
Layla Fares, 30, one of Sufayer's travel companions, said she and her sister came to Gaza with a message from their father to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh: "As sure as we were expelled from our land, we will one day return; the occupation will end sooner or later." Fares added that her father always urges his children and grandchildren to read everything that is written about Palestine so they are knowledgeable about it, especially the town from which they were expelled, "so it is not forgotten or lost in their memories, and he assures them that one day they are certain to return."
Fares hopes that the blockade on Gaza will be lifted soon so she and her family can visit, as her father wishes, as does every other Palestinian living in the Diaspora.
The people of Gaza warmly welcomed the Lifeline 5 convoy once the Egyptian authorities granted them passage into Gaza with their aide caravan of mostly medical supplies. The group essentially consisted of supporters from Algeria, Jordan and Mauritania, as well as other Arab countries. One Algerian truck driver in the caravan said that he participated in the convoy to protest against the unjust siege on Gaza, adding that many Algerians want to take part in future convoys.
The Egyptian authorities barred former British MP George Galloway and 16 other supporters from entering Egypt and taking part in the caravan. Cairo declared Galloway persona non grata when he strongly criticised the Egyptian government after he led Lifeline 4 into Gaza.
Last week's convoy left London and passed through Syria and Turkey before heading for Gaza. The Palestinian Ministry of Health welcomed the new medical supplies, targeted to meet pressing medical needs in Gaza. Unfortunately, most of the medical aid delivered by previous convoys did not meet Gaza's needs or was medication close to its expiration date.
The convoy also included predominantly Arab nationals who demonstrated their solidarity in a variety of ways. In a symbolic gesture, Essam Juda, the mayor of Jabalya in northern Gaza, signed a sister-city protocol with the mayor of the Mauritanian town of Tekent, Al-Mami Weld Ababa, on Saturday. The two mayors said that by becoming sister towns, their hometowns would exchange information, experience and assistance on cultural, services and humanitarian issues, and bolster cultural dialogue between the two sides.
The ceremony was attended by the deputy speaker of Mauritania's parliament, Mohamed Al-Mami, and the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in Mauritania's Senate, Omar Al-Fath Weld Sidi Abdel-Qader, and the leader of the Democratic Bloc in the Mauritanian parliament Abdel-Rahman Weld.
The arrival of Lifeline 5 coincided with more electricity outages in Gaza, which last eight hours every day because of low fuel reserves at the sole power plant in Gaza -- currently only partially operational. Hundreds of supporters attending the ceremony in their honour, hosted by Haniyeh's government at Rashad Al-Shawwa Cultural Centre on Friday night, could clearly hear the hum of power generators because of an electricity outage.
Adnan Abu Hasna, media adviser for UNRWA in Gaza, said that Israel continues to block the passage of construction material to build UNRWA schools in Gaza, using unacceptable claims as pretext. The English language Jerusalem Post reported that Israeli military sources reject the construction of UNRWA schools because they are located close to Hamas bases while Haniyeh's government gave UNRWA land on which to build the schools.
Abu Hasna rejects these claims, saying that the planned schools are located in areas that are desolate, destroyed during Israel's last war on Gaza. He added that the decision to build the schools came in response to calls by the local community for more schools because existing ones are overflowing with students. The spokesman continued that UNRWA turned down 40,000 students because there was no room in its schools.
According to Mohamed Sawalha, chairman of the British Muslim Initiative and one of the organisers of the convoy to Gaza, preparations for a new Freedom Flotilla are well underway. Sawalha refused to give more detail, but said that if Israel does not end the blockade on Gaza, "the free people of the world will surprise it with more steps which demonstrate their determination in rejecting the injustice imposed on the Palestinians."
Sawalha declared that if all supporters were able to participate, there would be hundreds of thousands.
In recent weeks, Gaza has been visited by several foreign delegations, the latest being of "the Elders", a global group of high-profile figures including former Irish president Mary Robinson, former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi, and Indian activist Ela Bhatt. After meeting with Haniyeh, Robinson said that a peaceful settlement cannot be reached without the participation of Hamas and that it is necessary to include the group in the negotiations process. She added that continued settlement building and withholding the basic needs of Palestinians "thwarts the hopes of both people in a two-state solution."
Despite the fact that Lifeline 5 reached Gaza, an end to the blockade remains out of sight. Lifting the siege would require the support of the Palestinian Authority and Arab capitals, and there is no sign that this will happen soon.
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