Next month, in the depths of winter, four local people will set out to drive an ambulance thousands of miles overland to Gaza. STEPHEN LEWIS asked them why.

IT GETS cold in the Taurus Mountains of Turkey in December: bitterly, bone-searchingly cold.

“Temperatures can get to well below freezing,” admits Heather Stroud matter-of-factly.

If you were thinking of driving through those mountains in winter on a journey of thousands of miles from the UK to Gaza, an old, decommissioned NHS ambulance is probably the last vehicle you’d choose.

Yet sometime towards Christmas, that is precisely what Heather and three friends from York and North Yorkshire will be doing.

They will be part of a huge convoy of ambulances and other vehicles travelling from the UK to Gaza – sandwiched between Israel and the sea on the border with Egypt – to bring relief and medical aid to the beleaguered Palestinians of the Gaza strip.

They have no illusions about how tough and gruelling the journey will be.

“We will be sleeping in tents, hostels if we can find them, even the ambulance if we have to,” says Heather, a married mother of grown-up children who lives near Helmsley, and who will have turned 60 by the time the journey starts. “It is going to be really rough. But not as rough as the conditions the people of Gaza experience every day.”

At first glance, the four seem unlikely adventurers.

Heather is a counsellor and psychotherapist by trade. Sixty-year-old Nicholas Hall, from York, is a town planner. So is Mike Gwilliam, 61, from Malton. Only John Appelqvist, a 55-year-old from Scarborough, has experience that seems relevant to the journey – he has worked as a lorry driver.

All, however, are united by one thing: outrage at what happened in Gaza a year ago, and determination to make sure the rest of the world knows.

The convoy of which their ambulance will be a part aims to arrive at the Gaza border on December 27 – a year to the day after Israel launched its devastating attack on Gaza City in response to Hamas rocket attacks on Israel.

In three weeks of air strikes, something like 1,300 Palestinians were killed. Schools, hospitals and about 4,000 homes are said to have been destroyed, and 400,000 Gazans were left without running water.

The number of Israelis killed in the unequal conflict is thought to have been about 13.

A year on, because of Israeli blockades, little has been done to rebuild the shattered Gaza Strip.

The Palestinians of Gaza cannot even bring in materials to rebuild homes and hospitals destroyed in the strikes – or even the broken sewage system.

“The situation in Gaza is shameful,” says Heather. “With thousands of homes destroyed and the economy decimated, there are massive shortages of food and shelter, little fuel, and only sporadic periods of electricity supply. The water and air are contaminated. If we can’t get our political leaders to address this catastrophe the population of over one million are facing a slow death.”

“The sewage system was smashed up, and the Israelis have not even allowed it to be repaired,” adds Mike. “There is raw sewage flowing down the streets into the sea.”

There are those who might accuse Heather, Mike and their friends of being biased. They are, after all, members of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. But they are not the only ones critical of Israel.

Baroness Afshar, a professor of politics at the University of York and member of the House of Lords, says international relief and humanitarian aid has been sent to Gaza – but it has been stopped by Israel at the border.

“There is an impossibility of doing any kind of reconstruction work in Gaza because nothing is allowed to go in,” she says.

“There are shortages of every kind – food, clothing, water – and hospitals which were destroyed and cannot be rebuilt.”

The Israelis are very cautious about what they allow across the border because of fears of bombs being smuggled in. Ambulances carrying medical aid are therefore one of the few things they will let through.

Hence the journey by Heather and her group.

The York branch of the Palestine Solidarity campaign raised the money to buy the ambulance – a decommissioned nine-year-old NHS ambulance – themselves.

Sometime at the start of December, just as most of the rest of us will be battening down the hatches for winter, the four will set off from York on the first stage of their journey, to London. From there, on December 6, they will join a convoy of other vehicles leaving London that will drive through France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria, and Jordan. They will skirt Israel, cross into Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, and approach Gaza from the south.

There, says Mike, they will present the ambulance to a reputable non-governmental agency, which will make sure it is used where it will be most needed.

The journey is expected to take three weeks. It will mean spending Christmas far from home – the convoy is expected to be somewhere in Jordan at the time.

“But I’ve spent 60 Christmases in England,” says Mike. “I think I can afford to spend one on the road.”

They will all miss their families back at home, they admit. But, since they will be part of a large convoy of perhaps 200 vehicles, they won’t be short of company. “I think we’ll be having quite a party on Christmas day,” admits Mike.

They’ll deserve it.

• If you would like to support the Palestine Solidarity campaign, or make a donation, visit the regular stall on Parliament Street or phone 01653 690630. To find out more about the Viva Palestina convoy, visit

High hopes for Gaza convoy

THE York ambulance will be one of up to 200 vehicles that will eventually join the Gaza convoy as it travels across Europe and the Middle East.

This is the third Viva Palestina Gaza convoy. The first – 100 vehicles full of medical supplies and other basic aid – left London in March.

For the second, fundraisers flew from the US to Cairo where they bought vehicles and aid before driving to Gaza.

Organisers hope this third convoy will be the biggest yet.

The convoy has been organised by the Viva Palestina movement, which arranged visas and travel permits.

But the York ambulance was bought by money raised by the York branch of the Palestine Solidarity campaign.

Tomorrow at St Michael-le-Belfry Church in York, Baroness Afshar will cut a red ribbon as a symbol of her support for the convoy.

The simple ceremony will be followed by an interfaith prayer.

“I am incredibly grateful to the people of York for the way they continue to help Gaza,” said Lady Afshar, a politics professor at the University of York and member of the House of Lords.

“This local group of wonderful, vital, committed people have actually managed to raise the funds to buy this ambulance and take it to Gaza. There is a desperate need for help there: the conditions are absolutely appalling.

“For Palestine, the only thing that remains is hope.

“There are no other resources there. Hope is the last thing that’s left – but in some ways it is the most important thing. It is so wonderful that York is doing its best to help.”

The ambulance crew

• Heather Stroud
The married mother of grown-up children, whose family all support her taking part in the journey, turns 60 on December 5, just as the convoy will be about to set off from London.

A counsellor and psychotherapist, she lived for years in Hong Kong, working with Vietnamese boat people. So why, now, the interest in Gaza?

Years ago, as a young 20-year-old, she went hitch-hiking across Greece and Turkey, she says. She met some other travellers who were going to stay on a kibbutz in Israel, as hip, young people did in those days.

She’d run out of money – so started to hitch home. She was picked up by some Palestinians. They began telling her about their anger at the loss of Palestinian homelands, and the conditions in refugee camps.

“I fell asleep in the car,” Heather says. “I hadn’t slept for three days. But it still grieves me that I couldn’t stay awake to listen to them.”

That encounter left her with a life-long feeling that the Palestinians had been badly done by. This journey may be a way of atoning for the young Heather’s sleepiness.

• Nicholas Hall
The 60-year-old widower lives in York and worked for many years as a town planner in Huddersfield.

A while ago, Nicholas studied social and therapeutic horticulture at Askham Bryan College, and has spent much of the last year in Jordan, teaching Iraqi and Palestinian refugees, and low-income Jordanians, how to grow their own food. He arrived in Jordan at the time of the attack on Gaza. “On day three of the course I was teaching, news came in of 42 people being killed at a UN school in a refugee camp,” he says. “In Jordan, as many people as not are of Palestinian origin. A large proportion have kin in Gaza.”

He had kept in touch with friends back in York. “So when I heard they were going to drive this ambulance to Gaza, I said ‘get me on it!’”

• John Appelqvist
The 55-year-old from Scarborough couldn’t make the photocall or interview.

“He’s a working man who has experience as an HGV driver,” says Mike Gwilliam. Which could come in very handy when driving an old ambulance thousands of miles across Europe and the Middle East.

• Mike Gwilliam
The 61-year-old married town planner by trade lives in Malton. “Though I’m not a Yorkshireman. I wish I was!” he says. His family, including children and grandchildren, all support him going.

He has had an uneasy feeling about what is going on in Palestine for years, he says – ever since the attacks on the Sabra and Chattila refugee camps in the early 1980s.

He has twice visited the West Bank.

And as a town planner – he was once regional director of planning for the south east of England – he was deeply shocked by the illegal Jewish settlements, and by the treatment of the Palestinian people.