In January, 2009, British Member of Parliament George Galloway of the Respect Party founded Viva Palestina (VP) — also known as Lifeline for Gaza — as “a fundraising project for the Palestinian people.” In April of that year, the American sister organization of the same name opened as well. Since then, VP has grown quickly with the addition of Turkish, Arabian, and Malaysian branches. While VP claims that its fundraising efforts are humanitarian in nature, its convoys have directly given millions of dollars and aid to Hamas, a group the U.S. and Britain have officially designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has called Galloway’s organization a “propaganda tool” for Hamas.
Galloway has been very vocal in championing VP’s mission as a challenge to international law. In March 2009, the second month after VP’s founding, Galloway held up a bag of money and declared: “This is not charity … This is politics,” bragging that he would “break the sanctions on the elected government of Palestine” and “give the money to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.” At a July 2009 rally in Brooklyn, Lamis Deek, a member of both VP and Al-Awda, made a speech in which she affirmed Galloway’s previous pronouncement:
“It’s not about charity … but in every way that we cut it, it is political … In choosing Hamas, what [the Palestinians] chose was one united Palestinian state on all of the 1948 territories from the north to the very south…. And in supporting Palestinian choice we are saying we support their right to liberation from violent colonialism.”
Since VP lacks formal non-profit status, it uses the tax-exempt status of The Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization/Pastors for Peace (IFCO) as a conduit to funnel funds to Hamas. VP officials publicly thanked the late Reverend Lucius Walker, a Baptist Minister and Executive Director of IFCO, for making this funding arrangement possible. IFCO has a similar financial relationship with National Network on Cuba (also called Cuba Solidarity) which sends its own convoys to Cuba. In addition, VP has close associations with La Voz de Aztlán (The Voice of Aztlán), Barbara Lubin and her Middle East Children’s Alliance, the U.S. Palestine Conference Network, and the Illinois Coalition for Justice, Peace and the Environment.
On February 14, 2009, the original VP (United Kingdom branch) sent its first convoy to Gaza, giving $1.4 million in aid directly to Hamas officials. The convoy consisted of 110 vehicles that traveled a 5,000-mile route through Belgium, France, Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt — finally entering Gaza via the Rafah Crossing.
The second convoy to Gaza (in July 2009), spearheaded by VP U.S., was bigger and drew much more international media attention. Kevin Ovenden, head of VP’s American operations, led this convoy, but it was Galloway who was most prominent in its fundraising efforts. He was able to raise more than $1 million through speaking engagements across the United States. Al-Awda and American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) substantially aided his fundraising efforts, with the AMP collecting $360,000 at one New Jersey event alone. Galloway also spoke to the UC Irvine Muslim Students Union, which subsequently came under scrutiny for financially aiding VP.
On July 3, 2009, Rev. Herbert Daughtry used his House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn as a fundraising sendoff for the second VP convoy. Democrat city councilman Charles Barron, a former Black Panther, spoke at the rally and joined the convoy which left New York on July 4, 2009. The convoy was detained by Egyptian authorities but eventually made it through the Rafah Crossing into Gaza on July 15, 2009 with 200 people, mostly Americans, including Barron and former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. The group spent just 24 hours in Gaza, meeting with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and touring various Hamas operations.
Despite receiving less international media attention, VP’s third convoy to Gaza was bigger than the previous two, with 200 vehicles, 500 people, and more than $1 million worth of aid supplies. The convoy left London on December 6, 2009, traveling through Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Egypt — and was greeted at each stop by Hamas officials who praised the participants, treated them to ceremonies, and showered them with flowers. In Egypt, state officials delayed the convoy’s entry into Gaza. The convoy organizers protested the delay, with violence erupting that left dozens injured and an Egyptian soldier dead. The convoy was ultimately permitted to enter Gaza on January 6, 2010, although Egyptian authorities deported George Galloway upon his return from Gaza, declaring him persona non grata in Egypt.
In May 2010, VP supported — and contributed supplies to — a flotilla to Gaza that was led by the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish organization IHH. The flotilla’s stated purpose was to break Israel’s naval blockade (which had been established to prevent Hamas from importing weaponry from Iran and other allies abroad).