Next week a group of young people from around the world will be arriving in Pisa, ready to cycle 350km down the coast to Rome. They’ll be loaded up with water bottles, painkillers, sunglasses – and Palestinian flags. As they cycle over the hills along the Italian coast, they’ll be chanting freedom songs, when they’re not stopping to give each other massages.
The Cycling4Gaza challenge, now in its second year, raises funds for communities in Gaza still reeling from the attack launched by Israel in winter 2008. For many it will be their second such trip, having cycled from London to Paris last summer. The core group plan to cycle to a different European city each summer, with the ultimate aim of reaching Gaza.
Speaking at a fundraising night last week, co-founder Tamara Ben-Halim, a 25-year-old Palestinian-Libyan filmmaker who grew up in the UK, said that this year the group are raising funds for children in Gaza, “many of whom have lost family and been traumatised through war.” The projects they’ll be funding include the Gaza Community Mental Health Clinic, which is one of the few organisations in Gaza working in mental health care. Others improve access to education for deaf children, and kindergartens that meet children’s psychosocial needs. The projects are being run by the Welfare Association, who work with impoverished Palestinian communities in the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon.
Kicking off the evening, Baroness Jenny Tonge spoke on behalf of the Welfare Association, saying that efforts to rebuild Gaza are barely underway. She described how the ongoing use of sonic booms by the Israeli air force causes Palestinian children to wet their beds. Schools remain destroyed, Tonge said, leaving many without formal education. Meanwhile the beach at Gaza, which should be as shimmering and clean as it is 30km up the coast at Tel Aviv, instead stinks of sewage. “This is a cultured people, desperate to run its own affairs,” she said. “But instead, development is going backward.”
The night showcased work by British artist Rosalie Watkins, whose latest project is based on a recent trip to the West Bank. The paintings and sketches represent scenes of life in West Bank towns, including Ramallah and Nablus, as well as children from refugee camps such as Aida in Bethlehem.
The idea behind Cycling4Gaza was born in the wake of Israel’s 2008 invasion. Having volunteered to help raise funds for Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) in January 2009, Ben-Halim and her cousin, Lulu Shakka, felt there was more to be done. The pair decided on a cycling challenge to raise not only funds, but also awareness for the situation in Gaza. The idea was hugely successful: between February and August, they enrolled 28 cyclists and raised around £90,000.
Among the riders to Paris last year were the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim and his wife. Shlaim had spoken out against the Israeli assault, but says he wanted to do something more. “In the aftermath of [Israel’s] insane offensive, I wanted to do something to help the Palestinians beyond writing articles and making public speeches,” he says. “Cycling4Gaza provided the perfect opportunity.”
For many, one of the most magical incidents of the entire trip came when Schlaim taught everyone the French chant, “Palestine viva et le mur tombera!” (‘Long live Palestine and the wall will fall!’). The group chanted this in unison as they cycled through the streets of Paris, tired but thrilled to have made it. “We made a lot of noise and attracted a lot of attention,” says Shlaim. “Many passersby waved to us and chanted in solidarity. It was a fitting climax to the three days of cycling.”