From Melbourne to Gaza

March 27, 2009

It took Kamahl Mashni six minutes to decide to join the Viva Palestina aid convoy headed to Gaza from Britain on Valentine's Day.

The convoy, the initiative of George Galloway, a British MP for the anti-war Respect party, aimed to travel from Britain to Gaza to break Israel's siege and bring humanitarian aid to help those affected by the latest conflict.

"I got an email on my Blackberry at 3.40 and I think by 3.46, I sent an email back saying I would love a spot if you've got one", Mashni remembered.

Mashni, 35, lives in Melbourne. Of Palestinian heritage, the father of two has been very active in raising awareness of the Palestinian crisis for years.

His father moved to Australia in the 1950s and was active in supporting the Palestinian struggle. Following in their father's footsteps, Mashni and his two brothers founded the Australians for Palestine advocacy group three years ago.

The Viva Palestina convoy was a chance for Mashni to do something more hands on.

The convoy had 500 members, mostly volunteers, but they were looking for someone who had experience driving a heavy vehicle to drive a fire engine. As a former truck driver, Mashni fitted the bill.

By the time the convoy took off from Hyde Park in London, it had over 100 vehicles to donate to the Gazan people, including 12 ambulances, a boat and the fire engine driven by Mashni — as well as £1 million worth of aid.

The day before the convoy began, nine participants were arrested under anti-terror laws. Galloway accused the authorities of deliberately timing the arrests to undermine the convoy.

However, once underway, the trek through Europe was uneventful. The trouble began when the convoy finally made it to the first Arab country on their route.

"Once we crossed into Morocco, we were very much dictated to by the authorities", Mashni told Green Left Weekly. "We had a police escort waiting for us as soon as we got off the ferry and they controlled our movements."

While the initial plan was for the convoy to travel 400-800 kilometres per day, it was not always possible in the Arab nations.

"If we've done two or three hours and they weren't happy with something, they stopped us", said Mashni. "If they wanted to push us to drive 14 hours, they made us drive."

"It seems that they wanted to draw a very strict line", Mashi said of the Arab governments. "They didn't want their people mixing with outsiders."

In some towns the police would stop traffic, paving the way for the convoy to zoom through the cities as fast as possible. On most nights, the vehicles and the members of the convoy were locked down in car parks, soccer stadiums or military camps.

"They kept telling us that they wanted to keep us safe", said Mashni. "I don't know what they meant to keep us safe from — the locals treated us as heroes."

In fact, in every town they entered the locals lined up the streets for them, giving them food and water and cheering them on.

"Everybody got recharged every time we went through a town like that", Mashni said.

However, the biggest obstacles the convoy faced was in Egypt. Until they entered the country, they did not know if Egypt would allow them to cross the Rafah border and into Gaza.

"As we went further and further into Egypt, it became apparent that there might be some control issues."

When the convoy reached the town of El Arish, 45km from the Rafah passage to Gaza, they were locked up in two car parks and were surrounded by 500 Egyptian soldiers.

The convoy was trapped in the city for two days before they were finally given the green light to enter Gaza.

However, much to Mashni's dismay he was refused entry. The Egyptian forces told him that they had reservations over a fire engine entering Gaza, without explaining why.

"I was devastated", Mashni recalled. "I'm a full Arab man and I broke down and was crying like a three-year-old."

After much negotiations, Mashni was told that he would be allowed in if he parked the fire engine outside of the border.

However, after more negotiation with the Egyptian authorities, he was denied entry once again, because he had an Australian passport.

"As far as I know relations between Australia and Egypt [are fine], there was no strain on any relationship", said Mashni.

Resigned to his fate, Mashni stayed in El Arish and was only allowed to leave when the convoy exited Gaza.

Now back in Melbourne, Mashni insisted that even though he was turned away when he was so close, he doesn't regret his decision to join the convoy.

"If they put the offer on the table, I would go again."

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