789 02.01.2014 Director of Gaza Rehabilitation Fund (GRF) Junaid ven der Plank, one of the 19-members South African team from the media review network, arrives at the O.R Tambo international airport after they were refused access into Egypt from Gaza border on New Years eve. Picture: Itumeleng English


Johannesburg - Junaid van der Plank’s ninth trip to the Gaza Strip was also the toughest.

“We went to the funeral of a four-year-old girl while we were there,” said the director of the non-profit organisation Gaza Rehabilitation Fund.

The child was allegedly killed by shelling while playing with her sisters.

“To see such young innocence being tarnished,” said Van der Plank. “People say you become accustomed to it, but I can’t.”

He was speaking as his delegation returned to South Africa on Thursday – something which was touch-and-go after they faced a closed border post when trying to leave Gaza.

The team first entered the country from Egypt on December 24 for a humanitarian mission that included delivering aid packages, visiting orphans and helping to repair homes destroyed in floods.

But when they tried to return to Egypt on Tuesday, they found themselves in a situation common to Palestinians: a closed border gate on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing. The earliest it would open was January 6, they were told.

Aayesha Soni, a final-year medical student and also vice-chair of the advocacy group Media Review Network, contacted her MRN colleagues, who alerted the Department of International Relations and Co-operation.

The hashtag #SAinGaza was soon trending on Twitter in South Africa.

International Relations spokesman Clayson Monyela said South Africa’s ambassador to Egypt then intervened, and the team were told that the border would be open for them at 6am on New Year’s Day.

It wasn’t, and it took about four more hours before the team crossed back into Egypt.

The delay was allegedly caused by a staff shortage.

Then, more delays: dozens of other checkpoints which hold up the movement of food, fuel and goods into Gaza every day.

“Even that small discomfort gives us an idea of what Palestinians have to go through,” MRN chairman Zaakir Mayet said.

He was monitoring the situation from South Africa.

“There’s no dignity. Palestinians are kept like cattle on the Egyptian side of the border. The Egyptian authorities are just as culpable as Israel for the siege.”

The Egyptian embassy didn’t reply to a request for comment.

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The Star