A message of hope is bobbing its way over to the survivors of a grueling siege imposed by Israeli military forces who deny their chokehold on the Gaza Strip. But in March this year, truth broke through the sleek public relations veneer of Israel’s diplomacy when a group of eight independent British human rights groups traveled to the region and confirmed that Gazans are barely surviving their worst humanitarian crisis since the 1967 war.
So Tony Blair’s sister-in-law decided to beat him to Gaza. While the former British Prime Minister backed out of a visit last month because of what his department said were threats to his life, Lauren Booth has joined a group of 46 activists who are setting sail in an attempt to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The British, Palestinian and American passengers on board say the journey challenges the Israeli claim that it does not occupy the Gaza Strip. They will not be going through Israeli waters and therefore feel no need to inform Israeli authorities about their plans.
“Gaza is a prison for over a million Palestinians. It’s been under siege almost continuously for two years. Israel says it no longer occupies the Gaza Strip so the boat will not be asking permission from Israel and will not allow Israel to board the boats,” British activist Hilary Smith told a press conference in London, adding that the passengers were prepared to endure weeks at sea.
Israel has slowed the supply of food, fuel and aid to a trickle, paralyzing the territory, according to aid groups. Israeli forces clamped a blockade on Gaza last year after Hamas took over the region.
The crew hopes to harness the wind in an effort to conserve fuel, so the passengers, among them an 81-year-old Catholic nun, can stay at sea for weeks if their quest is blocked by Israeli security forces, Smith said. They will set sail from Cyprus, traversing the 241-mile route in two wooden vessels called “Liberty” and “Free Gaza.”
The journey will either prove that Gaza is under constant siege, or succeed in establishing a trade route from Cyprus to Gaza. And the quest will say to the survivors of the siege: “You are not alone. We’re watching, and we are ready to act.”
For the Californian campaigners Free Gaza movement, this is about allowing and establishing unrestricted international access to Gaza. And the cargo on board is nothing that even the most paranoid security forces would deem suspect: 200 hearing aids for a society for deaf children and other medical supplies.
On the way out the crew is hoping to take back with them young Fulbright scholars, who have been denied passage out of the country, so they can continue their education.
London-based filmmaker Osama Qashoo has been instrumental in organizing the trip and now he is documenting their progress. Here is a message he sent from his phone via e-mail yesterday: “Hey great to hear from you. I am in isolated island with the boat. Making a film about this Internet access is very limited. This mission is far from easy. One of organizers was killed in US and we have been followed and we are struggling.”
Yesterday when we asked, at 3 pm Saudi time, whether the boat has sailed, he said, presumably in code: “If you are asking whether the food has been served — yes it has — the food is moving — but the weather conditions have worsened and the delivery might be delayed two days.”
The California-based group Free Gaza’s website confirms that the boats Free Gaza and Liberty have set sail from Cyprus toward Gaza. (Courtesy: Arab News, August 7, 2008)