May 30, 2012

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Bradford Viva Palestina convoy reaches Gaza

Viva Palestina:Viva hope

 Monday 14 May 2012
by Ann Czernik
For the past month, the Viva Palestina 6 aid convoy has been making its way from Bradford to Gaza, and is scheduled to arrive today, the anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

Some 64 years ago over 700,000 people were expelled or fled Palestine, creating the world’s largest refugee population – an event now marked around the world as Nakba Day.

The majority of Palestinians now live in exile. Nakba Day commemorates the sorrow of displacement and dispersal suffered by Palestinians and affirms their right to return.

Arshad Ali chairs Viva Palestina in Bradford and has led three convoys since 2009.

A big man with a huge heart, he was reduced to tears by Palestinians he met in the Jordanian coastal city of Aqaba.

“It’s a beautiful place, and across the beach you can see Palestine a few miles away,” he says.

“There are people sitting on the beach crying. Every day they go and look at their house now under Israeli occupation.

“They say: ‘That was our house, where we used to live’.”

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian families are separated by a distance of a few miles.

Ali says: “They showed us photos and tell us stories. They want to tell you, they want you to listen and some of the stories are just so heartbreaking.

“These are just people like us. How would we feel if we had not seen our mother or father or daughter for 20 years?”

In Aqaba, people gather to gaze across the water and remember.

Ali has only met a handful of Palestinians in Bradford, but says: “If one bit of your brotherhood is suffering even although you have never been in their country, the identity of a brotherhood is of togetherness.

“There is an empathy that your brother or sister is suffering unnecessarily.”

Bradford has been at the forefront of Viva Palestina with the largest contingent on the convoys. In the days before the convoy left on April 24, volunteers went door to door collecting clothes, medicines, sweets and money to take to Palestine.

Many in Bradford’s Pakistani community originate from the Mirpur district in Kashmir.

Ali says: “The Kashmir issue is at boiling point among the local people here. There’s a lot of displacement of people from one area to another going on so we can identify with Palestinians. We all know people in our own families who would love to go back to their homes.”

Ali was surprised to find that people in Gaza knew more about the situation in Kashmir than him. He said Palestinians “are aware of our issues and we are aware of theirs. The common factors are humanity and justice.”

The night before the convoy left, Ali spoke to the convoy volunteers about what they would face physically, mentally and emotionally.

“We don’t want to get hurt,” says Ali, but “if we don’t get to Gaza we haven’t done any good to anybody, only harm.”

Carol Swords from Tower Hamlets and Richard Viner from Wales are co-drivers on the convoy. Swords says she was unprepared for what she encountered on her first visit to Palestine.

“It’s so difficult to explain. If you looked in a thesaurus, it’s every emotion. You couldn’t explain how many emotions it was.

“I felt ‘envious’ and they thought I was crazy. Even though these people are living in such dire circumstances, their love for each other and the good of their fellow man is amazing.

“All this is happening to them and you would think they would hate everyone, but they don’t.”

Swords returns year on year because “everyone should go there, everyone should do something about it. I swore when I was there I would make a point of going back to people, to say people do care.”

This year, however, the convoy found itself between the devil and the deep blue Mediterranean sea following the decision to cross Syria.

Amnesty has said that “torture and other ill-treatment in Syria form part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population, carried out in an organised manner and as part of state policy and therefore amount to crimes against humanity.”

Both the regime and opposition stand accused.

The decision to travel via Syria led some of the convoy members to withdraw, including New Zealand group Kia Ora Gaza.

Its chairman Grant Morgan gave two reasons, saying: “First, given the Syrian dictator’s inhuman behaviour towards his own citizens, we don’t want the Assad regime making political capital from any humanitarian mission to Gaza. Second, given the devious plots of the Assad regime, the state of Israel and other imperial powers operating in the region, the risk to convoyers crossing Syria would be unacceptably high.”

In the end, the convoy spent 48 hours in Syria without incident.

A spokesman for the convoy told Syrian Arab News Agency that “what is taking place in Syria is a Syrian affair. We are guests of the Syrian government and people and respect their right to determine their destiny without foreign interferences.”

As the situation in Syria has deteriorated, Palestinians have been forced to seek shelter in makeshift camps along the border.

Ali defends the decision to route the convoy through Syria, saying: “Where there are large Palestinian refugee populations we need to make them aware that we’re still trying to do something to help them.

“We need to talk to them to see how they feel about the situation, what their aspirations are, what their dreams are, what they are suffering.

“It’s a human story, it’s a human journey so we go to those areas where we can best support that.

“Even if we can’t make a massive difference, let’s just do a little bit to give them hope that one day they can return to their birthplace and be with their families.”

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Alex Salmond predicts million-strong movement for Scottish independence

Yes Scotland needs two years before expected referendum to win over majority of Scots, says first minister at campaign launch.

Alex Salmond has predicted that a million Scots will be signed up to join a popular mass movement that will eventually win independence forScotland, as he launched a formal campaign to leave the UK.

The first minister was the first to sign the new “yes declaration”, an open-ended pledge to make Scotland a “greener, fairer and more prosperous” independent nation, which won backing from actors such as Brian Cox and Alan Cumming, and a scattering of left-of-centre political figures such as the Scottish Green leader Patrick Harvie.

Salmond acknowledged that the new Yes Scotland movement – touted as the largest community-based campaign in the UK’s political history – needed the two and a half years before the expected referendum in autumn 2014 to persuade a majority of Scots to support independence.

Only a few hours before the campaign was launched at a cinema multiplex in Edinburgh, the former chancellor Alistair Darling released a YouGov poll putting popular backing for leaving the UK at only 33%, with only 57% support among Scottish National party voters at last year’s Holyrood elections.

With four million registered voters in Scotland, signing up a million people to the declaration would cover most of those already thought to support separation but would not hit the level needed for the “yes” campaign to win.

Salmond said the next two years were needed to give “form and substance” to the desire for independence. It would be a “brick by brick” campaign.

“We’re at the start of something very, very special: the beginning of a campaign to restore nationhood to the nation of Scotland. Our opponents are rich and their powerful and therefore to win and to win well, we’re going to have to galvanise the whole community of the realm of Scotland,” he said.

“By the time we enter the referendum campaign in autumn 2014, our intention is to have one million Scots who have signed the independence for Scotland declaration. Friends, if we achieve that, then we shall win an independent Scotland.”

The campaign is expected to be very heavily based around exploiting digital media, focusing on the online “yes declaration”, alongside a significant street and workplace-based campaign by individual SNP activists targeting family members, friends and colleagues to generate the support needed to win a majority at the referendum.

It emerged after the event that this campaign is still at a very early stage and has no significant organisational structure: although offices are being rented in central Edinburgh, it has no full-time, paid staff, campaign director or board of management. It is also unlikely to present any firm policies, to avoid internal disputes over joining Nato, retaining the monarchy or relying heavily on North Sea oil.

Despite the SNP being given nearly £2m in donations from a bequest by Edwin Morgan, the former national poet, and Colin and Chris Weir, who gave £1m after winning a £65m Euromillions jackpot, the campaign’s two main organisers are SNP staff seconded temporarily to arrange Friday’s launch.

Although the SNP and Salmond’s nationalist government have won public and political endorsements from senior and wealthy business figures in Scotland, including the Stagecoach owner, Sir Brian Souter, and the multimillionaire and entrepreneur Sir Tom Hunter, the launch focused on proving its centre-left credentials in order to attract Labour, republicans and Green party supporters.

Salmond was joined on stage by Harvie, who earlier this week suggested he was still deeply sceptical about the campaign; Colin Fox, republican leader of the Scottish Socialist party; Ravenscraig union leader and community activist Tommy Brennan; and Dennis Canavan, the former but dissident Labour MP for Falkirk West.

With most of the campaign’s public backers known supporters of independence – such as Liz Lochhead, Scotland’s national poet – the most striking new endorsements came from the former RBS chairman Sir George Mathewson, and Blair Jenkins, a former head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland. A Scottish government adviser on broadcasting, Jenkins gave the campaign unpaid advice before its launch. Mathewson is a long-term friend and adviser to Salmond.

The most notable absence was Sir Sean Connery. Despite being the most famous supporter of independence, born only a few hundred metres from the Cineworld multiplex used for the launch, there was no video presentation or personal appearance from the actor. His brief contribution was read out by fellow actor Martin Compton.

Cox, the New York-based Emmy-winning actor, who was born in Dundee, described himself as a “democratic socialist” who had become profoundly disillusioned with New Labour and Tony Blair. He provided the voiceover for a Labour party broadcast in the 2007 general election.

Giving the longest speech of any of the participants, in which he admitted that he once saw nationalism as archaic and bogus, Cox said he now believed wholeheartedly that independence was the best solution for Scotland.

“I think Scotland has earned the right to its own nation status,” he told an audience of about 500 campaign supporters, including senior ministers from Scottish government, and the media. “It has earned the right to determine its own destiny.”

However, despite signing the declaration, Cox told the Guardian that he was unlikely to move back to Scotland for the referendum, preventing him from voting in it. He said his wife and family were happy and firmly rooted at their home in the US.

Cumming, another Hollywood star who joined Salmond at the launch, is said to be planning a move back to Scotland to vote at the referendum. He said independence was the natural next step after devolution of power to Holyrood.

“Since devolution Scotland has blossomed not just as a cultural force on the world’s stage but in terms of the confidence and pride the Scottish people have come to enjoy,” he said. “Independence can only add to our potential and release a new wave of creativity and ambition.”

Labour said the campaign lacked any detail or substance. Darling, who has emerged as the co-ordinator of an umbrella “no” campaign backed chiefly by Labour, the Conservatives, and Liberal Democrats, said: “The real problem that the nationalists have got is that their momentum has stalled and we can see from the poll that only one person in three has actually bought their message.”

New plan for Metro Mayor covering Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield, Wakefield

Published on Wednesday 16 May 2012 06:00

THE Government is holding talks with political leaders in Yorkshire about the possibility of a “metro mayor” with power across entire city regions.

A referendum on a proposal for elected mayors in 10 cities in England – including Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield and Sheffield – was overwhelmingly rejected in all but one poll earlier this month.

However the Yorkshire Post can reveal talks are already under way about resurrecting the concept, but rather than covering city boundaries, the mayor would be elected by a whole city region.

The Leeds city region includes Bradford, Wakefield and York while the Sheffield city region takes in Barnsley, Rotherham, Doncaster and Chesterfield. The “metro mayors” would potentially be given significant powers over major regeneration and transport infrastructure decisions.

Sources have told the Yorkshire Post that some political leaders in the region, who were opposed to the original city mayor concept, have already expressed interest to the Government in supporting a possible “metro mayor”.

The Department for Communities and Local Government welcomed the move, and a spokesman said it will be “up to local people to decide if they wish to make a case for a mayor over a larger area”.

“It was right that local people were given the chance to decide how their city is governed, rather than having a mayor imposed upon them,” he said. “We want our cities to have the powers they need to build a prosperous future.”

Ahead of the referendums, the Government promised devolved powers and greater funding for cities with mayors, as well as a seat at a mayoral Cabinet in Westminster.

Following the policy’s battering in the polls, council leaders in Yorkshire are now demanding those benefits are still offered to all cities which rejected the plan, stating “resources should be allocated according to need, not as a way of influencing a public vote”.

Leeds Council leader Keith Wakefield said: “In the absence of a Government strategy for the North, it is more important than ever that cities like Leeds secure greater local and regional decision making powers – and those powers must be matched by funding.

“I hope the Government now chooses to work with us on these priorities rather than punishing people in Leeds for rejecting an elected mayor.”

David Green, leader of Bradford Council, said: “I have written to David Cameron outlining that Bradford needs devolved powers and funding regardless of whether there is an elected mayor or not.”

Sheffield leader Julie Dore said: “There seems to be this idea that you need a mayor to go out and campaign for Sheffield in Whitehall, do they think council leaders sit locked in their offices waiting for the phone to ring? “As soon as I started this job I wrote to six different Ministers and I’m out there every day fighting for this city.

“David Cameron said this mayoral Cabinet would mean cities benefit from access to him, well Nick Clegg is a Sheffield MP who as Deputy Prime Minister has access to the Prime Minister every day and it’s not done us any good.”

Cities Minister Greg Clark said the “no” votes would not mean the end for elected mayors. Highlighting the positive vote in Bristol along with mayors now in place in Liverpool, Leicester and Salford, he said: “Sometimes change comes step by step through demonstration rather than revolution. Those four cities will prosper and be examples of what can be achieved. Others will watch with great interest and have a chance to join them in the future.”

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