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Cape Town - South African doctors on a humanitarian trip to Gaza are stuck in Cairo, and have called on locals here to put pressure on the Egyptian embassy to help them.
The team of eight doctors, along with two Egyptian counterparts, are travelling with local non-profit organisation Gift of the Givers.
Gift of the Givers’ founder Imtiaz Sooliman, speaking from Cairo on Friday, told Weekend Argus that the Egyptian government’s red tape had hamstrung their efforts to assist Palestinians in Gaza.
However, Egypt’s local ambassador Sherif Naguib on Friday night downplayed his country’s bureaucratic delays, and said the group might be able to enter Gaza this weekend.
Sooliman’s public appeal on Friday runs contrary to his usual style; he does not generally engage in direct action aimed at the governments in countries to which his agency’s humanitarian missions travel.
“Please call the Egyptian embassy and ask them to allow this group to enter Gaza… Egypt denied us entry into Gaza after everything was approved before we left South Africa,” he said.
Sooliman and his team landed in Cairo on Wednesday. Their intention is to assist Palestinian civilians injured during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge since July 8.
Sooliman said they applied for clearance to enter Gaza on July 25, with Egypt saying then “it would take five days to get done”.
The Egyptian government controls entry into Gaza via Rafah, its border city with Gaza. Sooliman said Egyptian authorities told him to apply via the national department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) to the Egyptian government for permission to enter Gaza.
“The Egyptian government was told this is a humanitarian issue. We told them our government right up to the president (Jacob Zuma) and the entire country was behind this mission,” said Sooliman.
Egypt said the non-profit organisation should provide it with a list of goods it wanted to take into Gaza. It also had to supply a list of names of everyone travelling.
“We told them we needed to have a civilian cargo plane to transport an ambulance, medical equipment and medical supplies, all worth R15 million,” said Sooliman.
“We also wanted to travel with 39 medical staff and 14 media representatives. We submitted all the information and names.”
A number of delays ensued as Egyptian authorities needed more information and “clearer copies” of the various passports and other documents, said Sooliman.
“We waited and waited. By late August they said we had approval. They said we had permission to take the plane, the ambulance, equipment and contents, and only 10 personnel,” he said.
With approval granted, Sooliman this week authorised a private company to transport medical supplies to Egypt via air.
“While they were flying they received a message from the Egyptian aviation authority which said the plane could not land in Egypt. The permit to land in Egypt was withdrawn. They had to land in Khartoum,” said Sooliman.
“There was a big emergency. Dirco had to call the Egyptian ambassador. The plane then flew to Cairo airport. Eventually the plane had to leave for Macedonia where the (flight) company has an office.”
Sooliman said the medical equipment, supplies and ambulance were off-loaded in Macedonia instead of returning to South Africa. Macedonia is less than three hours by air from Egypt.
Sooliman now needs to apply again for a permit for the plane to deliver goods to Egypt.
“The application for the entry permit has recommenced,” said Sooliman.
His team is also waiting for confirmation that they may enter Gaza.
“When we left South Africa we were under the impression we had permission to go through. When we got here we were told we don’t,” said Sooliman.
“We don’t understand. There is a ceasefire and the border is open. We had permission but we can’t enter when people are in need of help. Egypt is deliberately delaying us. They need to answer why.”
Naguib said on Friday: “There was approval for the humanitarian assistance. Before it can get to Gaza it has to go through the north of Sinai (in Egypt) which is a war zone. We still have to give clearance for the convoy to travel there.
“To cross the north of Sinai and then to Rafah (the border with Gaza) they will have to get clearance from the authority concerned. We are working on that.
“It will probably happen in the next 48 hours.”
Naguib said the Egyptian government still needed to “provide clearance for the shipment”.
“We would aim to respond as soon as possible. We are not making difficulties. We are helping the people in Gaza,” he said.
Dirco spokesman Nelson Kgwete said they would “only have more details on Monday”.
Other international aid agencies have reportedly struggled with Egyptian authorities to gain access to Gaza.
The Middle East Eye and international news agencies reported incidents where the Egyptian military prohibited humanitarian caravans from entering Gaza.
Sooliman said Egypt prohibits humanitarian agencies from taking “money, building materials and fuel” into Gaza.