After months of preparation by its volunteer team, the ride sets out from Coventry on Friday and will arrive in London on Sunday, staging rallies along the way.
The Big Ride is endorsed by Dr Mona El Farra, former vice president of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in the besieged Gaza Strip. Mona has been involved with the Big Ride since Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza in 2014, which led to the deaths of 2,251 Palestinians, including 547 children. Alongside notable British figures, Mona attended the send-off of the very first Big Ride a year later, in 2015. She explains: “I am totally convinced this act is about solidarity not charity,” adding that it “spreads the message of justice and freedom for the Palestinian people.”
“I remember saying in my speech in 2015 that we would continue, and really we did, given that 2018 is the 4th year of Big Ride.”
Asked what she hopes this year’s ride can achieve, she says: “We are hoping to mobilise more British people to be part of the people’s movement, which stands in solidarity with the Palestinian people.”
The Palestinian struggle can be strengthened by increasing British awareness about the current humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which has been under siege since 2007 by the Israeli occupation.
Mona believes the Big Ride is of particular importance this year in light of the Great March of Return which has seen over 140 Palestinians killed and more than 15,000 injured, including journalists and medics. Israel has also tightened its siege of Gaza in recent weeks by closing the only commercial crossing in and out of the enclave, causing shortages of vital resources and damaging industries. Mona sees the Great March of Return as “a reminder to the world that the Palestinian people seek justice, despite being denied this by the Israeli occupation and the international community’s passive stance.”
Yet in addition to increasing awareness, the Big Ride aims to raise money for the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), where Mona works as director of Projects in Gaza. Her work in the Gaza Strip is focused on healthcare, particularly for women and children, and combating the impact that repeated wars on the besieged territory have had on the population. As Mona explains, “children who are currently 12 years of age have already experienced three assaults or wars,” leaving many with lasting trauma. Given that over 40 per cent of the population of Gaza is under 15 years old, this means approximately 800,000 children are at risk of suffering long-term psychological scars as a result of exposure to war and violence.
Working as a doctor in Gaza is not an easy feat. Mona says that “my dual nationality helps me travel, though with great difficulty, since the restriction of movement outside Gaza is dangerous and the borders are closed most of the time.” Currently splitting her time between Manchester, in the north of the UK, and the Gaza Strip, many high-profile figures have been involved with ensuring her passage in and out of the enclave so she can carry out her work.
It has sometimes taken nine months and the intervention of British MPs like Jeremy Corbyn and the late Gerald Kauffman before I could leave.
Yet Mona is no stranger to hardship. Born in Khan Yunis, in the south of the Strip, she took part in the popular resistance that followed Israel’s occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and Jerusalem in 1967. A 15-year-old schoolgirl at the time, she was involved in protesting, writing and distributing political leaflets encouraging people to resist the occupation. She recalls that “I was hit by Israeli soldiers a few times with thick sticks. Many of us were detained in jail. My father had to bail me out on the proviso that I took no further part in demonstrations.”
The following year, she went to Cairo to complete her secondary education and medical studies: “I was determined to be a doctor so I could help my people, as I could never forget the images of terrorised, injured and dead people in the streets of my hometown.”
After several years living outside Palestine, Mona decided to return to her home. In 1987, she took part in the First Intifada, working in some of Gaza’s eight refugee camps and rural areas where access to healthcare was difficult. Mona explains that: “I took part in organising and working in a mobile clinic with a team of volunteers, nurses and doctors, to take care of the injured and wounded.”
There was a daily struggle by my people against Israeli occupation. We held many strikes and curfews were imposed on a daily basis. We were not allowed to leave our homes after 6pm, and on many occasions curfews would be imposed for days on whole villages and towns in Gaza.
Since then, her role has expanded to include founding the first library in Jabalia refugee camp, as well as the Rachel Corrie children’s centre in Rafah, named after the 23-year-old American peace activist who was killed in 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer as she protested house demolitions in the city. mona also co-founded Al Awda hospital in 1997, the first hospital in the north of Gaza which previously had no medical facility to serve its large population.
As the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza worsens with every passing month, Mona stresses the need to continue the work she has dedicated her life to. She explains: “It is crucial to help people on the ground, and that is what MECA is doing in Gaza via different local centres in the cities, villages and camps.”
Asked what message she would like to give those following the situation in Gaza, she says “hundreds of thousands of Palestinians need your solidarity, as well as your practical support.” Mona believes that acts of solidarity like the Big Ride can “one day manage to change the policies of governments towards Palestinians’ inalienable rights,” putting pressure on Israel to end its decade-long siege of the Gaza Strip and relieving the plight of its two million Palestinian citizens.