Friday 17 July 2009
I have just returned from Gaza with the Viva Palestina US Lifeline 2 convoy. Our aim was partly about delivering aid, but it was also partly about delivering a message. Having raised the funds for the convoy and gathered the volunteers, we set off on US Independence Day, July 4, from John F Kennedy airport in New York to Cairo, where we purchased desperately needed vehicles and medical supplies to drive down to the Egypt-Palestine border.
We then ran into a series of bureaucratic obstacles from the Egyptian authorities, but the convoy members showed incredible resilience and patience. After a considerable amount of delicate negotiation, we finally received the go-ahead.
The convoy was supported by Vietnam war veteran Ron Kovic, whose life story formed the basis for Oliver Stone's Born On The Fourth Of July, along with many others.
And accompanying me through the Rafah crossing on Wednesday were presidential candidate and former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and New York council member Charles Barron, alongside over 200 other US citizens.
McKinney had just a couple of weeks previously been subject to an act of international piracy by the Israeli navy when it impounded the ship the Spirit of Humanity and kidnapped the human rights activists on board.
The convoy received a rapturous reception in Gaza from a people bloodied but unbowed.
The situation there is desperate. You have to see it with your own eyes to see just how bad the suffering is.
Two years of siege and the devastating 23-day war on Gaza in January have reduced the people to terrible poverty, as the International Red Cross confirmed recently.
The Egyptian authorities were only prepared to let us stay in Gaza for 24 hours and refused permission for most of our vehicles to go through the border.
Our medical supplies were carted off lorries on one side of the border and then put onto Palestinian lorries on the other. Convoy leaders have stayed behind to try to ensure the remaining vehicles get into Gaza.
Apart from the benefit of the aid we were able to bring, this convoy had a message directed at Barack Obama.
Over the last couple of months I have been spending a lot of time touring the US, speaking to thousands of people and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the beleaguered Palestinians in Gaza. The response has been terrific.
For those who see the US as a hopelessly reactionary homogeneous society, Obama's election should have dispelled any illusions about that. My experiences in the US have backed this up.
It was important to raise as much aid as possible for Gaza. But it was also important to show that there is another US - one which cares deeply about the poor and oppressed in the world and is completely opposed to the policies which sustain that poverty and oppression.
Obama's Cairo speech promised a new relationship with the Muslim world, a break from the utterly discredited policy approach taken by his predecessor, the war criminal George W Bush.
I welcome this change of approach. It includes the dismantling of the hated Guantanamo internment camp, which has seen many innocent people incarcerated without due process and tortured.
In seeking to change US policy, Obama faces formidable vested interests. I hope he will prevail against them.
We are saying to President Obama that the world is looking. The situation in Palestine is intolerable. He has to stop this. This means he has to take action - because actions speak louder than words.
This convoy as well as others like it are essential tools not only in fighting the effects of the siege but also raising awareness around the world about the Palestinians' plight living under Israeli occupation.
"We are saying to President Obama that the world is looking. The situation in Palestine is intolerable. He has to stop this. This means he has to take action - because actions speak louder than words"
That is why we are now intending to organise further convoys involving President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and also a convoy from Russia. And we intend to take another Anglo-US convoy to Gaza to coincide with the anniversary of the launch of the war on Gaza just after Christmas. I hope you will join us.
I returned home from Gaza intending to take part in the parliamentary debate on the growing crisis in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, further ridiculous bureaucratic delays on re-entering Egypt - despite the intervention of the office of the new Speaker John Bercow - meant that I arrived back to late to speak.
The situation in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan is going from bad to worse.
Much of the focus of attention has been on the lack of adequate equipment for the British troops now that the death toll is rapidly mounting.
There is no doubt they are inadequately equipped, with the British commanding officer even having to borrow a US helicopter to transport himself around Helmand province where British troops are based.
But the real problem is not the equipment but the fact the British troops are there in the first place.
This is a war that has been going on now for eight years, since Bush used the horror of September 11 2001 to invade Afghanistan and remove the Taliban government.
Since the Taliban was defeated eight years ago, it has regrouped in Afghanistan and grown in Pakistan where its influence has been threatening to destabilise that nuclear power.
The Taliban has regrouped and reinvigorated itself in Afghanistan because the Western-backed Karzai government is probably the most corrupt in the world.
It is up against pretty stiff competition for that honour because most of the country has been returned to the warlords who controlled the country before the Taliban came to power.
US and British troops have been engaged in warfare which has seen many innocent Afghan civilians die. Similarly in Pakistan, US forces have been bombing innocent Pakistanis with their unmanned drones - acting as recruiting sergeants for the Pakistani Taliban as a result.
Labour ministers and military commanders have both been saying that we are in for the long haul, maybe a 30-year war - and it is a long time since we had one of those.
We must, we are told, be prepared to take casualties, especially if we are going to minimise "collateral damage" among Afghan civilians. This would, in turn, lose the hearts and minds that want and need to win.
And this must be done because Afghanistan would otherwise be a continuing terrorist threat to people here in Britain.
Well, I have a message for those who are so willing to sacrifice the sons and daughters of other people.
There will not be peace in Afghanistan while there are British and US troops there. The troop presence is making the situation worse and making Britain a target for terrorist attack. The same applies to Pakistan where anti-US feeling is now very strong.
I will be stepping up my campaigning, alongside my colleagues in the Stop the War Coalition, for the troops to be brought home from Afghanistan.
I am absolutely certain that public opinion will turn against the needless loss of young British lives in this pointless war.
And I hope sense will prevail in the White House - otherwise Afghanistan will become another Vietnam.