My Trip to Gaza with the Three Uncles , Not forgetting Mike and Keith

 Speech given in the Albert Halls on Return from Gaza

Bismila-Arahman Nairheem My Trip To Gaza – Zahir

Thank you Brothers and sisters from all parts of our community for your efforts of coming. My name’s Zahir Haider. I’m one of the 250 that made up the convoy to Palestine. I went with 3 uncles Javed Bhatti, Ayub Bhatti and Tariq Bhatti in our vehicle . The other vehicle from Stirling had Mike and Keith Day.

Im sure last Boxing Day when we switched on our TV sets and saw the brutality of the 23 Days of war on the tiny little town of Gaza begin.

The period of dec 27 2008 to Jan 31 2009- The death toll reached 1455, thereof 404 children 115 women.5303 wounded – 1815 children and 785 ladies.- see losses sheet.

March 9 Viva Palestina trucks laden with medical aid and escorted by 300 people on the convoy and about 150 that flew ahead , headed by British MP George Galloway, crossed the Rafah border into Gaza in the final leg of a 24-day journey to reach thousands of destitute and displaced Palestinians in war-torn Gaza, just in time for Prophet Mohammed’s birthday. Adding to this Libyan convoy the total amount of people going into gaza 500 . Was followed by most of the north African tv channels and frontline You may have seen pictures of our travels on Press TV..(for those of you unaware of it – it’s the alternate to Aljazeera- Yvonne Ridleys was the journalist for them.

The journey

9 Countries , 10 000 Km

Highs and lows

Border Checks

Route -Belgium France Spain, Morocco Algeria Tunisia Libya Egypt

The scale of which was evident in Hyde park. It was very poignant that when leaving Hyde Park veteran MP Tony Benn came to wave us off, MP George Galloway and Yvonne Ridley later to be joined in Gaza by Lauren Booth, Cherie Blairs sister. However no British Press was there to cover us. 100 vehicles huge part of the park traffic near standstill , a convoy that was passing through the Historic Roads of Montgomery in WW2 yet no one was there from home press to cover.

Belgium France and Spain was an experience because we were getting to know each other –

It was big team and even though it was bit like wacky races we got through to our checkpoints on time to make the crossing from Spain to Tangiers in Morocco.

Morocco, we realised our fate was at a turning point where the delays at borders started to begin, though initially so happy to arrive on the African Continent, the entire convoy was checked with Huge X-ray Machines and sniffer dogs- the turning point in the our freedom.

The typical day

The typical run through north Africa would include driving to state function, speeches and then made our way to the next check point. Completing about 300-600 miles a day the toll was hard. Extreme hot during day and cold temps at night meant a lot of acclimatising. The organisers had about 10-15 cars in a group and each group leader that was appointed tried to keep together. If any vehicles broke down we helped and if any didn’t then we moved on. Every time a border came vehicles were check points some points there would be 10 officers taking the same registration plates to make sure no one detoured.

We realised very quickly that the Authorities diverted us away from the main cities. We understand that there was over 25000 people waiting for us in Casablanca, yet the authorities drove us round it. We found this system adopted by all North African countries. However…the great thing was wherever we were detoured through the little villages and nonsensical roads the villagers came to greet us. They came in their hundreds and in their thousands, some lifted their children so we would kiss them as we drove by, people would stay past midnight as we drove past, waving through their windows standing on streets …throwing food in through the car windows, throwing water in……throwing biscuits and chocolates in it was an amazing sight it was as though keep going lads you will get there. This encouragement kept our spirits up yes even after been given the previous night of hell from the authorities with their guns forcing us to not stop. If you put your hand out your drivers window…you would be high fives all the way. Except of course those part where the state services had turned up and all you got a nod….

Historic Border of Algeria

From Morocco To Algeria we crossed to what was an Historic Border Opening. Such a movement wrought unexpected results as Algeria and Morocco opened the border between them for the first time in 15 years since 1994— something which Condoleezza Rice failed to do—to allow the convoy through in clear testament to people power outdoing politics.

Algerian people gave us such a welcome in that few of us got so hugged they we got lost in the crowds on the other side of the crowds, the police put up deviding barriers and actually I had to explain to one of the border guards after I got back to the barriers , that I was not a local….! We also met so many kind people along the way one gentleman opened up his house before the borders, he was citrus farmer he took the whole convoy in he set up a meal in his house fit for a king. We were presented with Huge silverware Tagine’s of lamb legs. We had respite after long 3 days of driving he made us fit to cross the next border. His hospitality and kind words brought tears to many eyes made us refocus why we were here and where we were going. Also in Algeria, a local businessman, drove with us for three days he paid for nearly all the fuel of the convoy and he paid for all repairs on all the vehicles he could lay his hands on. This completely restored my faith in the people, far away from states intentions the people have the hearts of saints.

Tunisia

The less said the better, they had no intention of helping us, the short stay the better they took us in, locked us up in football stadium and booted us out. The gastopo style black leathered authorities forced our drivers not to stop through the country as fast as possible. Yet again their diversions they put us through back fired, the people came out so much so that they actually lifted some of our drivers on their shoulders as we drove through the last village before the Libyan border. State versus the people was typified in Tunisia.

Where authorities made us do 22 hour run and not stop. Just as we thought that Tunisian authorities were the worst we came to a little town where the locals huddled the vehicles to the point in welcoming to a complete standstill! People power.

Libya

Libya was a revelation, the hospitality the respect and the fact that we got a welcome in Tripoli, a capital city was outstanding. The kindness of the Governor of Tripoli gave consoled us , realised that all the rhetoric of Libya as the bogey man of the middle east was complete sanitised misinformation . They added a welcomed 100 trucks of aid to our convoy made it stretch from our 1mile to 5 miles long. Thanks to the Ghadaffi Charity Foundation and the Chambers of Commerce Tripoli.

We felt the free here with no secret services and armed guards we knew the state and the people were both welcoming us. They laid on doctors and hospitals, their were a few dehydrations , and few asthma attacks. The dust ,diesel , hot days and cold nights and the long drives were affecting a few people, the respite was simply excellent. A young journalist from Libya died in car accident a few hours before trying to cover our story. The only loss of the convoy was. journalist Soad Faraj Abu Sheba along with her colleague and a photographer on their way to join the convoy were involved in a road traffic accident, which unfortunately resulted in to her death.

Egypt

Egypt, is where the fun really started…the authorities split us up into their groups. We lost our simple 1 to 12 grouping systems. They put us into groups of their own. They then separated the convoy so that we couldn’t see the other teams. This was un-nerving we realised that authorities were treating us harshly when without reason 4 members of the convoy were sent home – no question. They were examples of the authorities driving their vehicles so hard that they virtually were pushing us to the edge of some nasty roads. When villagers came out they pushed them aside from even waving at us, some were the edge of some mountainous road actually drove their secret service escorted police vehicles so much to the edge that the villagers had to cling to each other so they wouldn’t fall over. They Egyptian ensured we were driving at night so no one saw the convoy. Our own vehicle was pushed so hard that we literally thrown from our seats.

Night driving over the Peace Bridge over the Suez into pure desert country was bit scary, the sand storms were hitting us, and the fine dust particles were everywhere . Once past these parts and driving through collapsed sand dunes, we were greeted along the way of villagers again, a welcome sight that the state isn’t what the people think.

Through the desert for at least the last 200 or 300 miles there were army and riot police every 100 yrds . yes through the desert tens of thousands of officers , their for our so called protection.

We came to finally 30 miles from the Gaza border to the town Al Arish, the morning before told we would get into Rafah. They split us into 2 camps.

That same morning the governor said we would get into Gaza. By the afternoon the riot police was out. They wouldn’t allow any trucks to move. We realised the tactics, any aid getting to Rafah borders wasn’t getting in. This wasn’t going to happen we just did nine countries and had promise of the governor, the state was saying one thing and doing another.The commanding officers sneared saying that you are going no where. The barriers were lifted by aid workers One of our aid trucks surged forward and around 10 vehicles came out and stopped. The point was made. The aid was getting into Gaza ..”keep your promises”. We had come in peace to deliver aid not park it into compound and leave it to rot, while 30 miles away people were dieing. We met many locals who testified that aid convoys from other countries was lieing in fields and that our aid wasn’t going to get through. “Many Drs came one man said they were allowed in, and we don’t think u will either”

The reaction to this was horrific the riot police came out battering down the barriers and few aid workers were hit with huge riot sticks. They pushed the aid workers like sheep back into the compounds and brought Army trucks to cover the compound exits. The stand off meant that higher authorities had to get involved and police denied they had ever said that the aid were not getting in. The police was there for our protection solely? Around 6 p,m the lights went out in the part of the town we were at and stones came hurtling in from behind the offices to where our convoy aid workers sat. Many got hit. The riot police stood there and did nothing as men in balaclavas started hurtling stones hitting us and damaging the vehicles.

There was silence as our guys realised the authorities were standing there doing nothing and the stones were coming from behind them.

To our aid came George Galloway , he had brought the deputy Governor and guaranteed our safety. He was horrified at what was happening. After the psychological damage of the journey and separation of the core teams ,they were attacking us directly now, not that they were able to deter us for a moment of our objective not even for a moment. The agreement now was that all the vehicles had to be emptied and that only aid that was medical was getting in and the rest would have to go through the Israeli border. As the night fell no one slept the vehicles were being emptied one by one, checked dumped and resealed again. Aid was being strewn across the floor many people were left in tears , the stuff their family’s and communities and they had lifted by hand was being thrown like garbage to the side. When there backs were turned we managed to recover a lot. Sheik Zoheir , Imam of Birmingham Mosque calmed everyone down together with George- the part I remember “Brothers this is but one night of hardship, look and compare the lives of the heroes of the past and look at the what the Palestinians suffer, this is one night of hardship, theirs is every night.”

As the night fell, we positioned our vehicles as best we could , if the men in Balaclavas came we wouldn’t give in. We positioned sentries around rotating every four hours. Hardly anyone slept, the ladies who had joined us from Cairo were put in the middle of the compound and vehicles set up round about them. Ambulances were set up around them so that we could raise an alarm with the sirens. There were rumours that the border was going to be bombed again as it had been a couple of days earlier. We witnessed brothers hugging and saying salaams acknowledging that there maybe be a risk of being bombed at the border. Having there moments knowing what was being said in the hearts to each other.

Gaza Entry

In the morning we woke final checks we were ready to enter Gaza. We smiled there was a good feeling we finally going in. Yes we were going in. We were met with children with olive branches . After short welcome speech were taken tour of Gaza. The relief of getting the aid in, seeing the people of Gaza made us realise that what ever we had suffered nothing compared the suffering of the people of Gaza. They gave us the hospitality of kings. The streets were lined with thousands of people, all smiling back like shining heavens children.

As we travelled we realised that Gaza is simple town devastation is rife. Indiscriminate bombings , holes punched through buildings like size of footballs starting from one side and the trails of the bullets going through homes , mosques ,schools you cannot even describe it for a population that when the 23 days of terror. They didn’t know from moment to moment who was going to live or die, it didn’t matter if you held a white flag or not if you were pregnant mother or a child.

That night they had given to us would be food they would not even have had for themselves. The next morning the official hand over to Charities Commission, we saw the ambulances being driven to hospitals it was amazing sight. It was worth the all the efforts , the aid was in and being used. The only vehicle not to get in was the fire truck. We couldn’t understand it until we realised the fire stations had been blown out along with the police stations too. The Israelis don’t want fire equipment cos they don’t want the fires to be put out.

In the morning we were taken to the border where Israeli tanks flattened the houses , flour processing plant and had left us feeling gutted as you saw young children playing in the rubble smiling and waving at you as if there was nothing wrong. We couldn’t look a these people in the eyes because they had held there dignity. Every child that stood up against a tank is hero greater than , Tiananmen Square Tank Rebel — June 5, 1989.

Gaza, the land is fertile and the land is beautiful you can grow anything. The beach forms a natural harbour and looks better than any of the Med. The airport run strip was blown apart . The partially built hotels look new but have laid have built for four years since the blockade. Now they are riddled with giant bullet holes. Since no windows or cement is allowed in these building just stand looking like seen from future movie after an atom bombs been and u left with skeletons of structures of buildings

When Israelis attack they close the borders and bomb…the Palestinians are not even allowed the privilege of being allowed to become refugees. My heart bled but it was consoled in the fact when we saw the people they were dignified, an old man was planting his olive seeds back to where the tanks had destroyed the olive and citrus mangroves. He said “we will not be moved, if they destroy it again then I will plant it again until my lord takes me”. The shops had few items only. What wasn’t damaged by bombs and bullets was damaged by the blockade. If you are small factory producing goods and you cant get the parts machines don’t work.

Statistics I want to share the recent attacks left

5 Government Hospitals

38 Clinics , 5 of them UNRWA 16 Medics and 15 ambulances shot.

179 Government Schools damaged 7 Flattened

153 Mosques damaged 45 Flattened

Trees

140000 Olive Trees

13600 Citrus Treees

10000 Palm Trees

Livestock over $20Million

Total Cost of losses of 23 days of Terror was $2.7 billion

Politics? Why not Hamas? Why not fatah?

The elections in Palestine were monitored by Eu and Russian Monitors that stated that they were the most democratic elections ever witnessed in 2007. You cant negotiate with other people representatives of your choosing. That isn’t the way democracy works.

When Yasser Arafat was alive the Eu provided him with 2 helicopters. On 4 December, 2001, he was the head of the Fatah party back in 2001 he was deemed the terrorist and his party was attacked and again the Palestinians were hammered.

This what happened – BBC Reports

Israel strikes at Arafat headquarters -Israeli helicopter gunships have launched a second day of attacks on Palestinian targets, including the headquarters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Image

1.Gaza, Monday pm: Helicopter gunships destroy Arafat’s helicopters, airport runway bulldozed

Israeli troops and bulldozers moved into Gaza airport and ripped up its runway, after gunships had destroyed two of Mr Arafat’s helicopters.
Tuesday am: Security compound hit, two Palestinians killed
2. Jenin, Monday pm: F-16 warplanes bomb security installations
3. Nablus, overnight: Fatah member shot dead
4. Ramallah, Tuesday am: Missiles fired near Arafat’s HQ, police station hit

The point is who ever is in government in Palestine seems to be the ones that get terrorised by F16’S Fighter planes . Does anyone know the damage an F16 can do ? Tanks and now illegal chemical weapons, a real David and Goliath scenario and the recent attacks are a part of systemic and sustained part to bring the last vestiges of the country. The airstrip still lies in pieces 8 years later is there anyone out there who can get mercy flight in or out?

Who else was there ? In Gaza a day earlier

Code Pink Was There – A special Mention is needed

March 8, was International Women’s Day—

In less than three weeks, the delegates had responded to an appeal by Codepink: Women for Peace to join an international delegation to try to go into Gaza at the invitation of the United Nations Works and Relief Agency of Gaza (UNWRA).

An historic 60 person International Women’s Day delegation went into Gaza, carrying the 2,000+ gift baskets you so generously donated to the women of the beleaguered region.

This included Pulitzer Prize winning author Alice Walker included delegates from United States, Canada, Pakistan, France, Australia, Egypt, Dubai and Turkey asked as we travelled from Cairo to the Gaza border

(Alice Malsenior Walker (born February 9, 1944) is an American author,. She has written at length on issues of race and gender, and is most famous for the critically acclaimed novel The Color Purple, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Alice Walker met Martin Luther King Jr. when she was at student at Spelman College in Atlanta in the early 1960′s. Walker credits King for her decision to return to the South as an activist for the Civil Rights Movement. She attended the famous 1963 March on Washington. As a young adult she volunteered her time registering voters in Georgia and Mississippi),

They witnessed profound devastation in Gaza, but they also witnessed tremendous resilience and strength. As they visited refugee camps and community development centers and areas hard hit by bombing, there delegates were impressed over and over again by the determination of the women of Gaza to make their voices heard and create a better future for themselves and their families

One lady summed up gaza by the name of Ann wright

(Ann Wright served in the US Army and Army Reserves for 29 years and was a US diplomat for 16 years. She resigned from the US Diplomatic Corps in March, 2003 in opposition to the war on Iraq. She was in Gaza for 48 hours in early February and returned 3 weeks later as a co-leader of the 58 person delegation organized by Codepink: Women for Peace. )

“Waving white flags were killed by Israeli snipers. Standing at kitchen windows were blown apart by Israeli bombs made in the United States. They died in the streets when Israeli soldiers refused to allow emergency medical personnel to help them to hospitals. They Watched the bodies of their children melt from white phosphorus wounds. They Held their dying children in their arms. Women found the bodies of the husbands and children in the rubble of their homes. now wait for their wounded children to return from hospitals in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. They live in tents because their homes were destroyed in the bombings. They hold children who have nightmares about the bombings they have endured. wake up from their nightmares about their lives in Gaza.

They have endured 18 months of the blockade of Gaza. Because of the blockade,and are prevented from leaving Gaza. Because of the blockade, feed their families from food smuggled through tunnels. Because of the blockade, wait for glass to repair the windows in their homes. Because of the blockade, live with minimum electricity in the home because damaged power plants cannot be repaired. Because of the blockade, cook cannot get cooking gas and cook with wood. Because of the blockade, communication with the rest of the world is difficult .The people of Gaza celebrate – their determination to survive.But the people of Gaza wonder why people of the world are silent about the Israeli military attacks on them and the 18 month blockade of their country.”

Final Note on the comradeship of the Convoy

When we got back we realised that how close we got to each other in the convoy. The mutual respect had grown from early wacky races day at the start. It felt we had been with convoy all our lives and it felt we knew each other all our lives. At a short reunion we were addressed bu the organisers. We informed by Viva Palestina that we honoured for our efforts with Palestinian passports. We were told that a young journalist in Palestine said that she she had never seen the Gazans so happy in her recent memory as when they saw the Aid Convoy. As Sabah Mokhtar said “The material we are carrying was only a drop in the ocean but the goodwill of volunteers and the people from the countries we have passed through is tremendous,” “We truly care and we’ve driven across continents to prove it,”..said George Galloway. Being Scottish and living in Braveheart Country we know only too well as I look at the Wallace Monument there can be no peace without freedom.

As a Palestinian National , all I want to say is Please Help My Country. Zahir. Stirling