John Hurston of Ireland to Gaza was part of the “Viva Palestina” Humanitarian Aid Convoy which safely reached Gaza and delivered all their aid in the first week of January last. This is his account of how it went.
On January 6th, 517 humanitarians from 20 countries, in close to 200 vehicles, crossed through the Rafah Border into Gaza. The scenes greeting us as we made our way to Gaza city were unbelievable. Over 100,000 lined the roads and streets as we took 3 hours to drive 20 kilometres. They had waited patiently on us for us for weeks, and their outpouring of excitement and gratitude was the most humbling experience in my life. They are the real heroes, not us.
Having left London on December 6th the convoy made its way through Europe, and then crossed the sea into Greece. From there, they arrived to a hero’s reception in Turkey, and to add to the convoy, another 200 people in 70 vehicles loaded with aid joined the already swelling numbers on the road. One of the leading charities in Turkey, I.H.H. provided the vehicles and volunteers, and at various times, upwards on 12 Turkish M.P.’s were on the convoy. Their involvement brought with them some serious political clout that was to prove invaluable when we faced serious difficulties later in the journey.
From Turkey , the convoy rolled into Syria , where as expected, the reception was huge. From Syria, the convoy crossed the border into Jordan on December 22nd. It was at this point that I flew to Amman in Jordan and met up with everyone. It was fantastic to meet up with loads of my old friends from the last convoy, and to listen to the many wide and varied stories from the trip thus far. Everyone was in top form, and the end of the road was in sight, at least on a map anyway, as we were all to find out later…
The following day in Amman, thousands showed up for a rally in honour of the convoy. There were a few hours of speeches, as each speech had to be translated into 3 languages each time someone spoke! As you can imagine, it got boring after a while… Upon our return to our hotel, 3 local women had appeared waving an Irish flag. They had been following my “Ireland To Gaza ” facebook group, and having found out what hotel we were in, came to show some support for the Irish on the trip. Their mother was from Dublin, and all 3 had lived in Ireland until 15 years ago. They were just so excited to catch up with us and show support, and needless to say, we were inspired by their efforts. Plus, there was great banter as the hotel lobby was full of other convoy members looking on at our fan club!
December 24th, we travelled from Amman to the port city of Aqaba in southern Jordan. It was an amazing drive, as 70% of the trip was driving through the desert. In soaring temperatures, driving for hours with nothing but a desert landscape to look at was mind-blowing. From the previous convoy, driving through the desert was my favourite part of the journey, and to be driving through the desert again was special indeed.
We rolled into Aqaba around 6 pm, and all the vehicles were parked up in a compound. From here, a 2 hour sail and a 4 hour drive would see us at the Rafah Border. Busses took us into town where we all met up to hear the latest news. George Galloway and others came back from a meeting with the Egyptian Government, and announced their new conditions of travel to Gaza . Everyone was shocked, and totally dismayed by Egypt’s new rules.
1. We were to hand over all our vehicles and aid to the United Nations Relief Agency.
2. Drive back up to Syria , put all our vehicles on a boat and sail it to El Arish Port. We were to take a ferry or fly.
3. We were to ask Israel for permission to cross from Egypt into Gaza.
Now, on the 1st point, there was no way that we could hand our aid over to the UN. Everything would have to pass through the Israeli border, and there was no chance that they would allow everything to cross. Plus, the UN are continually shouting about the lack of aid Israel is letting in, as they are not getting anything close to what they need to distribute in Gaza.
Secondly, by driving up to Syria, the boat crossing would be 18 hours, and cost a fortune.
Thirdly, and this was the crucial point, that we ask permission from Israel to cross into Gaza from Egypt. This was their 1st public declaration that they were been controlled by Israel and the US. At this point, the whole of the Arab media arrived in Aqaba and started covering the convoy and send the story out to over 100 million viewers. There was outrage at Egypt for not only coming out with such a statement, but with their refusal to let us cross from Aqaba into Egypt.
At this point, the Turkish Prime Minister got involved in diplomatic negotiations, and the Queen of Jordan called to offer her total support to everyone. Her appeal to Egypt was met with deaf ears.
The next couple of days were spent in negotiations, and on December 27th, to commemorate the 1st wave of attacks on Gaza, a special vigil was held. Everyone observed a 3 minute silence, and the names of 16 medics killed in Gaza were read out. It was a very sombre moment, as Caoimhe Butterly read out their names. Caoimhe worked in Gaza during the 22 day attack, and most of these medics were friends and work colleagues. Following this we marched to the Egyptian embassy and held a peaceful protest at their gates.
Plus, 30 of us joined in a hunger strike along with many others in Cairo who were part of a Gaza Freedom March that was banned from entering Gaza . Over 1,300 people from all over the world had arrived in Cairo only to be told they would not be allowed in. Among the hunger strikers in Cairo was Hedy Epstein, a 85 year old Holocaust survivor.
Together we fasted for 40 hours until word came through that a deal had been struck. Egypt was going to allow the whole convoy a safe passage into Gaza if we travelled from Syria .
We would not have to hand it over to the UN, and we would not have to ask Israel for permission to cross. (Like we were going to…)
To everyone assembled, this came across as a good compromise, and everyone was in favour of getting back on the road and getting to Gaza.
So, on Tuesday 29th, everyone packed up and hit the road again. A long days drive saw us cross the border into Syria and on to Damascus where we stayed the night. We stayed there the following night as well, as plans were been made to secure a cargo boat to transport our vehicles. The Turkish government came to the rescue and paid £250,000 for a cargo boat large enough for the job. Plus, the commander of the Turkish Navy stated that they would protect their vessel from any “hostile attack”. Now that is diplomacy, eh?
On the 31st, the convoy made the final leg of its journey to the port city of Latikia in northern Syria. Here, all the vehicles were parked in a compound at the sea in a large Palestinian Refugee Camp. Almost 7,000 live here, with no chance of ever returning to their homeland in Palestine. This was a chilling reminder to everyone about the reality of the displacement of Palestinians from their homeland. People were showing us deeds for their houses, which they have been expelled from and will never see again. It felt sad in a way that we were going to get permission to go to Palestine, but for these natives, they had no chance of ever seeing their homeland again.
So, on Sunday January 3rd, we loaded close to 250 vehicles onto a Turkish Cargo ship and it set sail for the Egyptian port of El Arish. The following day, the Syrian Government chartered a plane to fly over 500 people to El Arish. It was going to take 4 flights to complete the job.
The 1st flight got away on time, and when they reached El Arish, the Egyptians had moved the goalposts again. They were insisting that the 155 people who had just arrived go straight to the port and drive all the vehicles up to Rafah and then leave. They were stamped with entry and exit visas at the same time, which is illegal. Needless to say, a stand off ensued and 9 hours later, the Egyptians relented and agreed to everyone been present to go to Rafah.
The 2nd flight left, and mid-air developed an engine fault. It landed safely in Damascus, where everyone was very relieved to have landed without incident. Another plane was chartered from Greece, and it flew to Damascus to collect and fly those stranded in El Arish, and then it returned to Latikia, where the remaining 197 passengers boarded to fly to El Arish.
Having arrived at El Arish airport, a full scale commotion was going on as the airport officials “lost” 5 passports. As our noise got louder, 1 by 1 the passports mysteriously re appeared…… After 8 hours in the airport, we were bussed to the compound at the port where all our vehicles and all the convoy members were gathered.
Little did we all know what was in store for us later on that night. During discussions with the head of the I.H.H. charity, a Turkish M.P. representing the Government and George Galloway, Egyptian officials reneged on their previous deal, and where now denying entry to 59 vehicles. Then, they stood up and walked out to make a phone call. 15 minutes later they looked out the window and the compound was surrounded by 2,000 riot police and soldiers. This was developing into a very tense situation.
Hundreds of convoy members went to the main gates and staged a peaceful protest. We all linked arms at the front, and at various times, sat down for long spells. The Muslim men gathered in deep prayer, and the atmosphere was very calm.
However, things changed for the worse after a few hours whenever we were attacked by stone throwers from behind police lines. They fired tear gas on us, water cannoned us, threw sand in our faces, and then baton charged us. It was a very scary moment, and I was lucky enough to escape any blows. As everyone was getting pushed back into the compound, stones and bricks followed after them from the police lines. A full scale riot raged for the next 10 minutes as stones and bricks rained from both sides of the wall.
When calm had been restored 60 members were injured and 15 had to go to hospital to receive stitches. It was a long night as tensions took a while to calm down. 7 people were held by the authorities over night in a police truck. The mood among everyone was total shock at what had just happened.
People were very frightened, and with just cause. The sight of people injured was not a pretty one, believe me.
Press TV News Clip:
After a few hours sleep, we awoke to see about 40 police men now guarding us, and a new line of discussions opened. The Turkish Prime Minister was dealing directly on our behalf, and he had negotiated a new deal. The 40 new cars that had been bought by US volunteers in July and had been refused then, were now the only vehicles not allowed to cross. It was decided that these vehicles would be shipped back to refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon rather than send them to the Israeli border. Plus, the 7 people detained from the previous evening were returned without any charge.
Then, at 4pm, vehicles started to get ready to pull out of the port. As darkness fell, the 1st group of twenty vehicles started the 40km drive to the Rafah Border. I was in the 2nd group, and at 7pm on Wednesday 6th January I crossed over the border into Gaza for the 2nd time in a year. Instead of a 5 hour crossing, we did a 13 day roundabout to reach this point. It was an emotional crossing, and all the hardships faced along the way just faded into a distant past. We had done it. We had crossed every hurdle put in our way, and together we stood tall for our principles, and broke the siege on Gaza .
It was a different feeling from the last crossing, but equally important. Inside the gates I got to meet several friends from the last trip, and to see the emotion and joy in their faces was another humbling experience. Our crossing meant so much to them, and living in a prison, they don’t get to see many moments like these. We were a symbol of hope, love, solidarity, kindness, humanity, and peace.
Following a reception at the border, we set off for Gaza city. Thousands and thousands of people, young and old, lined every step of our way. They were leaning over each other just to get touching a vehicle. Taking pictures with their mobile phones, shouting messages of thanks, and generally giving us a hero’s welcome. It was one long humbling experience. What the residents in Gaza have to live with on a daily basis makes them all the real heroes in our books.
After a good nights sleep, I awoke to hear loud booms out at sea. Looking out from my window, I could see Israeli gunships patrolling the waters a few miles out. This is a constant reminder that their presence is close, and to stop fishermen from going out far enough to fish. Not a pretty sight to see on a daily basis.
At mid-day, everyone met up at the compound, and we officially handed over all our vehicles and aid to various charities and NGO’s working in Gaza. Anyone with specific deliveries got to hand over their aid personally. There were emotional scenes as people packed up their belongings and said goodbye to their vehicles that had become their home for the past month. It had been a long hard journey, and this final act, sealed a job well done. Everyone could hold their heads high and say that they delivered their aid to Gaza in one piece.
I went off in the afternoon to the Al Jazeera studio and appeared on one of their main shows. I was on a panel along with an Egyptian spokesman, and a Turkish journalist. We were all filmed from various locations, and needless to say, the Egyptian hadn’t good legs to stand on!!
That evening, I went to the Gaza Sporting Club. This is the club I presented jerseys to before, and this evening I was back with more! This also marked the occasion where I formally established a Gaza GAA club within their structures. I presented them with a set of jerseys that had been donated by Peter Canavan’s school, The Holy Trinity in Cookstown.
It was a very proud moment, and one for the history books.
They presented me with a plaque, and 3 club jerseys. It was a fairly emotional meeting for sure. Very soon, children in Gaza will be playing Gaelic football, and will be kicking points like Peter!!
During our meeting, a loud explosion was heard in the distant.
The curtains in our room blew in and then out with the blast. At this point, our evening was cut short and we returned to the safety of our hotel. It was a very tense feeling, and word came through that it was a F16 attack and that 1 man had been killed. In another attack near the border, 2 more were killed in F16 attacks. This was a cold reminder to all about the daily fear everyone lives with in Gaza . These attacks are designed to keep on letting everyone in Gaza know that they can be hit at anytime, for no reason at all. Just living in Gaza makes you a target.
The following morning, we were all advised to head straight to the border. Everyone packed up, and after many tearful farewells, 517 people made their way to the Rafah Border.
We were made to wait for 8 hours, and then when we had passed through immigration, we were all loaded onto buses and taken directly to Cairo Airport. Here, each and every one of us was “Deported” from Egypt. This was our final thanks for having brought humanitarian aid to the suffering people in Gaza. For all of us, it is a badge of honour. Where else in the world would you be deported for having completed an act of charity? The mind boggles…
Egypt can hold their heads in shame for what they did to us. Making us endure a 13 day detour, attacking us, and then deporting us, was some reception from a supposed friend of the West. Then, they announce that they will never allow another convoy of aid to pass through their land for Gaza. They have a big heart, and their generosity knows no bounds.
At Cairo airport, our passports were held and only returned when stepping onto a flight. The British Embassy in Cairo did nothing for their citizens, and the US did even less. The Irish Embassy did more than every other Embassy put together. From the moment we landed in El Arish, they were making up to 5 calls a day to us to make sure we were all ok. They also made several calls for our safety to the Egyptian Government.
Michael Martin also called to offer his support. Once again, Ireland stood up for its citizens and for the Palestinians. We were truly grateful for this support and constant contact.
I had a flight to Istanbul at 1.45pm, and when that plane left the ground on take off, I let out a big sigh of relief. Boy was I one happy man to have seen the back of Egypt. That’s twice Egypt have attacked us and made our journey difficult, and following my deporting, I never want to see that country again.
Now that I’m back, I will continue to champion the cause of the Palestinians living under siege in Gaza. What is happening to them is one of the biggest crimes against humanity going on in the world today, and it must stop soon. I truly believe that with the wide coverage the convoy received in the Arab world, very soon the screws will tighten further on Egypt and Israel/US to lift the siege illegally imposed on Gaza. The situation has to change soon, and very soon. I know that by playing my small part, it can help make changes in time.
I am eternally hopeful that common sense will prevail very soon.
So please pass this story on to anyone you feel would read it. This is a brief account of what we went through, and what the Palestinians live with on a daily basis. The more people aware of the situation there, the sooner it changes.
For all the support shown to myself, and to the convoy as a whole, thank you all so much. In moments of despair, your message of support would lift the spirits. Each and every supporter played a role in making sure the aid reached Gaza.
Together, we all made it happen, and the people in Gaza love and respect everyone for having shown the courage to speak up for them. They will never forget this convoy, that’s for sure……
Tyrone To Gaza