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"Viva Palestina" sees convoy of 86 vehicles en route to Gaza to deliver aid

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BEIRUT: It was a typically cold London day in January earlier this year when, in front of thousands of people demonstrating against the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip, British MP George Galloway announced a convoy of aid would be travelling from London to Gaza under the banner "Viva Palestina."

Almost a year later and after two successful convoys, 86 vehicles of all shapes and sizes are currently making their way through Turkey, hoping to deliver humanitarian aid from the British public to the population of the Gaza Strip.

The first Viva Palestina convoy made the journey in March this year, taking a route through North Africa. By its end, the current convoy dubbed "Return to Gaza," will have travelled by land through Europe, crossing the Mediterranean by ferry to Greece. From there it makes its way through Turkey, Syria, Jordan, finally entering Gaza at the Rafah border crossing in Egypt. A second convoy departed from the US on July 4 this year, flying into Cairo to also cross in Rafah.

Viva Palestina organizers aim to highlight the blockade's damaging effect, while delivering much-needed aid to Gazans.

"The people of Gaza are dying because of a siege imposed for no other reason than that, in a free and fair election, they voted for a party that the big powers and the Israelis didn't like. We think that's immoral, so if our government will not do something about it, we will," said Galloway, founder of the campaign.

Following the election of Hamas in 2006, Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza. Only basic humanitarian supplies were allowed to enter the territory, causing a "humanitarian catastrophe" in the words of commissioner general of UNRWA, Karen Abu Zayd. This blockade was tightened following the Israeli invasion in December last year.

The convoy aims to cross into Gaza through the Rafah crossing with Egypt on December 27, the one year anniversary of "Operation Cast Lead." The Israeli military operation, which began with air strikes, caused the death of over 1,400 Palestinians, most of whom were civilians. 13 Israelis were killed during the conflict, including three civilians.

Approximately 260 members of the British public departed with the convoy on December 3, among the volunteers are hairdressers, mechanics, chefs, unemployed and retired, with many more joining along the way.

"We stayed in our cars and tents in car parks, we had a night on a boat and we slept in a sports stadium, who knows where we will stay next," said Joti Brar, a web producer from the United Kingdom taking part in the convoy.

Joti, who decided to take part in the convoy at the last minute, says she was surprised at the generosity of the general public when fundraising for her trip.

"It wasn't only the amount people were giving, what amazed me was the kind of people who were willing to give - non-political people, people who you would never expect. I think a lot of people in Britain have been touched by what happened to the Palestinians, and are very pleased to know they can do something," she said.

The name "Viva Palestina" was inspired by the British "Aid to Spain" movement of the 1930s, where labor organizations sent medical supplies and personnel to Republicans fighting in the Spanish Civil War.

All those taking part have spent the past few weeks fundraising for the voyage, relying on donations from well-wishers to pay for the supplies they have taken with them.

"We brought all sorts of things, mostly medicine and medical supplies. Then there's blankets, clothes, toys for children, pens and pencils. We have brought as much as we can fit into the vehicles. Hopefully what we've brought is things that are useful," said Joti.

Organizers have emphasized that, more than just delivering supplies, the convoy aims to show solidarity with the people of Gaza. On the day of its departure, Galloway spoke of the convoy's "symbolic" and "totemic" value, designed to "inspire public opinion to demand an end to the siege."

However, it is not only public opinion the convoy aims to inspire, says Galloway, but those taking part.

"The chances are that the people taking part have a life changing experience. They go to the Gaza Strip, they see the situation, and they are determined to come back. That is what happened to me. In 1977 I visited Lebanon for the first time, I went to the Palestinian camps there and 35 years later I'm still involved."

There are worries among volunteers as to whether the Egyptian government will allow the convoy to pass into Gaza. Both previous convoys faced problems entering the territory, with the US contingent having to wait 10 days before being allowed to enter.

Organizers and participants alike say they will not return home until they are given permission to deliver the aid.

"We will stay at the border until we are allowed in. The fact that we have come this far shows we are committed," insisted Joti.

Galloway echoed that sentiment, urging the Egyptian government to allow them entry.

"I hope they have no problems. I think it would be a big mistake for the Egyptian government to divert attention from where it should be: on Israel, on the anniversary of its infamous attacks on the Gaza Strip. Who knows, but one lives in hope."

As the third Viva Palestina convoy nears its destination, plans are already afoot for several more.

"Next year we will bring a Viva Palestina Hugo Chavez convoy from Venezuela, maybe one from Iran which we are currently discussing. And people from other countries such as Australia and South Africa are also asking if they can get involved," said Galloway.