South African doctors finally enter Gaza
Written by Yazeed Kamaldien
After a month-long bureaucratic battle to enter Gaza, a team of South African doctors yesterday afternoon confirmed it crossed into the war zone via Egypt.
The doctors are traveling with Imtiaz Sooliman and his non-profit Gift of the Givers. The team comprises eight South African doctors and two Egyptian counterparts.
Sooliman sent a text message from Gaza shortly after 2pm yesterday.
He confirmed: “Gift of the Givers medical team has just entered Gaza. The reception from the Palestinian Authority was unbelievable.”
He said after their battle with Egyptian red tape the situation turned for the better this weekend. They struggled since late July 25 to enter Gaza.
Sooliman said yesterday the “whole trip was smooth with total cooperation from the Egyptian authorities, with rapid transit through the border”.
He said the Egyptian ambassador in South Africa, Sherif Naguib, assisted the team. They were now waiting for a cargo plane stuck in Macedonia to deliver their medical equipment, medical supplies and an ambulance. The total value of this is R15-million.
“With his (Naguib’s) assistance we expect our cargo plane and supplies to arrive tomorrow (Sunday),” said Sooliman.
Naguib yesterday also confirmed Sooliman and his team had entered Gaza via Egypt’s Rafah border.
This followed extensive delays, including redirecting Sooliman’s cargo plane to Khartoum and then Macedonia last week.
Egyptian authorities had granted Sooliman and his team permission to enter Gaza last week. But when they arrived in Cairo on Wednesday they were told they could not enter.
Naguib said yesterday: “It was very simple. We conveyed their needs. The Egyptian authority responded. We saved them a couple of days.”
He said they managed to get through to the “relevant authorities” on Friday, even though it was the weekend in Egypt and all public offices were shut.
“We just managed to bypass the bureaucracy. We wanted to help speed it up. Normally when you get confirmation you need to get it on paper. We got it straight from the authority,” said Naguib.
“Hopefully within the next 24 to 48 hours the cargo plane will be in Cairo.”
Naguib said the process to date – before they “managed to bypass the bureaucracy” – “took a bit of time because of paperwork”.
Nelson Kgwete, spokesman for the department of international relations and cooperation (Dirco), said yesterday’s entry into Gaza was “facilitated through our embassy in Egypt”.
Egypt requires all foreign donor and humanitarian agencies to apply for entry into Gaza, through its Rafah border, via its relevant national government department.
Kgwete said Dirco has “been working with the doctors and facilitating their movements”.
“We facilitated their mission through diplomatic ties. We will remain in contact with the team and we are ready to assist them with whatever they need,” he said.
Sooliman’s wife Zohra Sooliman, co-founder of Gift of the Givers launched in 1989 in Pietermaritzburg, said she lost contact with her husband after he told her he had passed into Gaza.
Weekend Argus also tried contacting Sooliman and two other doctors on his team, but could not get through to their mobile phones. This newspaper had interviewed Sooliman on his mobile phone when he was still in Cairo on Friday.
Zohra Sooliman said: “Signal is probably a problem in Gaza”.
“The last message I got from Imtiaz was at 2:40pm. That’s when he confirmed they were in Gaza. I sent him a text message at about 4pm and there was no response,” she added.
Sooliman said her husband told her “many Palestinians were waiting on the Egyptian side to enter Gaza”.
She could not confirm how long the team would stay in Gaza. She said a second team would likely travel to Gaza after this team returns.
“The plan was for the team to stay for ten to 12 days. They have gone in late and lost two days working time. To get in is such a mission so they will stay on longer if they can, if the team agrees,” she said.
“We would send a second team if the border between Egypt and Gaza is open there.”
Sooliman said this team was far fewer than the amount that travelled to Gaza with Gift of the Givers in early 2009.
“There was going to be about 40 specialists who were going to go this time. Egypt only gave permission for ten. But at least ten people were allowed to go,” she said.
“Whoever has gone there will become like the 40. We believe they will have the stamina to do the work of 40 people.”
Sooliman said she travelled with her husband on his last trip to Gaza in 2009.
“When people in Gaza see an outsider coming to them it makes them believe that they have not been shunned by the world. They are remembered and not forsaken,” she said.
“If I talked to Imtiaz now and asked him what it’s like over there I know he would tell me despite the destruction the spirit of the people would not be destroyed. That’s indestructible.”