Finally, it happened. Two Greek-flagged small wooden boats, SS Free Gaza and SS Liberty, successfully landed in Gaza on August 23, 2008, breaking the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. The boats were crewed by a determined group of 46 international human rights activists from 14 countries. The activists spent two years organizing the effort, raising money by giving small presentations at churches, mosques, synagogues, and in the homes of family, friends, and supporters. The activists on the boat included British journalist Yvonne Ridley, left-wing Greek MP Tasos Kourakis and sister-in-law of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and international Middle East peace envoy Lauren Booth.
"I've been nervous, but I'm excited," said Lauren Booth shortly before the boats sailed. "It's not about our fear, it's about the people waiting in Gaza---you can't think about anything else."
The activists left Cyprus on August 21 morning, sailing over 350 kilometers through choppy seas. They made the journey despite threats that the Israeli government would use force to stop them. They continued sailing although they lost almost all communications and navigation systems due to outside jamming by some unknown party. They arrived in Gaza to the cheers and joyful tears of hundreds of Palestinians who came out to the beaches to welcome them.
Says Huwaida Arraf: “We recognize that we’re two, humble boats, but what we’ve accomplished is to show that average people from around the world can mobilize to create change. We do not have to stay silent in the face of injustice. Reaching Gaza today, there is such a sense of hope, and hope is what mobilizes people everywhere.”
Huwaida is Palestinian-American, and also a citizen of Israel . She’s a human rights activist and co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement. In 2007 she received her Juris Doctor from American University in Washington D C. Currently she teaches Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at Al Quds University in Jerusalem. Huwaida sailed to Gaza aboard the SS Liberty.
SS Liberty being escorted into Gaza Port
Asserts Paul Larudee, Ph D: “We’re the first ones in 41 years to enter Gaza freely but we won’t be the last. We welcome the world to join us and see what we’re seeing.”
Paul is a co-founder of the Free Gaza Movement and a San Francisco Bay Area activist on the issue of justice in Palestine. He sailed to Gaza aboard the SS Liberty.
Claims Jeff Halper, Ph D: “What we’ve done shows that people can do what governments should have done. If people stand up against injustice, we can truly be the conscience of the world.”
Jeff is an Israeli professor of anthropology and coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), a non-violent Israeli peace and human rights organization that resists the Israeli occupation on the ground. In 2006, the American Friends Service Committee nominated Jeff to receive the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize with Palestinian intellectual and activist Ghassan Andoni. Jeff sailed to Gaza aboard the SS Free Gaza.
According to the agency reports, two boats being sailed by international peace activists on a mission to defy the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and deliver humanitarian aid reached their destination on August 23. Hundreds of Palestinians gathered at Gaza to greet the group of 46 activists, who undertook the two-day journey despite Israel saying it would stop the mission, which it described as a "provocation". However, Israel later said it would permit the boats to dock in Gaza after determining that they were carrying humanitarian equipment.
SS Liberty being greeted by Palestinians in Gaza
On August 22 Aviv Shiron, a spokesman for Israel's foreign ministry, had said "all options" were under consideration to prevent the boats from reaching Gaza. An Israeli admiral issued an apparent warning to all shipping to stay clear of waters near Gaza because of an unspecified "security situation." A standoff with the Israeli navy and the arrests of the activists if they tried to enter Gaza had been expected.
In a statement issued as they departed on Aug 22, the activists said they would lodge a legal protest against any attempt by the Israelis to arrest them. "If Israel chooses to forcibly stop and search our ships, we will not forcibly resist," a statement said. "If we are arrested and brought to Israel, we will protest and prosecute our kidnapping in the appropriate forums ... it is our purpose to show the power that ordinary citizens have when they organise to stand against injustice."
Although Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005, it still controls the strip's air and sea space as well as almost all the border crossings.
Until a recent ceasefire with Hamas, the Israeli military was mounting regular incursions into the strip, saying it wanted to stop rocket fire into southern Israel. It has imposed a tight economic blockade of Gaza, saying it wants to weaken Hamas, the Islamist group that won Palestinian elections more than two years ago.
The Free Gaza group said about 46 activists from 14 countries were on board the boats to highlight the plight of Palestinians in Gaza. Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza in June 2007 when the militant group Hamas took control of the territory by force. Since then, Israel has allowed in little more than basic humanitarian aid as a means of isolating Hamas and persuading militant groups to stop firing rockets into Israel. The closure of Gaza's borders by the Israeli and Egyptian authorities has also meant that very few Gazans have been able to leave.
Yvonne Ridley, one of the 46 Activists, standing in front of a Free Gaza banner aboard the
Liberty boat (Courtesy: Andreas Lazarou/ AP)
Before Free Gaza's boats set sail on August 22, the Israeli foreign ministry had said they wanted the activists to steer clear of the Gazan coastline, which it said was "the subject of an [Israeli Navy] advisory notice" that warns off foreign vessels from the "designated maritime zone". But next day, an Israeli spokesman said they would be allowed in. "They wanted provocation at sea, but they won't get it," foreign ministry spokesman Aviv Shiron told the AFP news agency. "We know who the passengers are and what they are bringing with them and so we have no problem letting them through."
"No matter what happens we have already achieved our goal by proving that ordinary citizens with ordinary means can mobilise a defence of human rights for Palestinians," organiser Paul Larudee told the AFP news agency. "We want people to see the Palestinian problem as one of human rights, not feeding them rice," he added.
Israel withdrew its settlers from Gaza in 2005, but it still controls its coast, airspace and borders, and, until a ceasefire with Hamas was agreed in June, carried out regular military operations in the territory. However, correspondents say the truce has not improved the situation for Gaza's population, except to reduce the number of Israeli incursions and the number of rockets fired by Palestinian militants.
It is to point out that on August 24 the activists lunched with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas-controlled Gaza. Ismail Haniyeh congratulated the Free Gaza mission that delivered a cargo of 200 hearing aids for a deaf school and 5,000 balloons. He said it "spells the end of Israel's siege." The effort was also praised by Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who telephoned his approval to Huwaida Arraf, a dual US citizen and Palestinian citizen of Israel, soon after the boats reached Gaza's port on August 23 evening after a rough 32-hour voyage from Cyprus.
Ismail Haniyeh presenting medals of honour to the international peace activists
(Courtesy: Mohammed Salem/ Reuters)
The 46 activists were welcomed by thousands of Palestinians on sea and land. Hundreds of small boats filled with dignitaries, families, fishermen, and media met the boats, the first to freely enter Gaza's waters since Israel occupied the Strip in 1967. Palestinian flags fluttered from every craft and were brandished by shoals of boys swimming alongside the boats. The sandy shore and breakwater were packed with gleeful Gazans.
Fearing a politically damaging confrontation at sea, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and Defence Minister Ehud Barak decided on August 22 to allow the boats to reach Gaza, tightly besieged by Israel since Hamas seized control in June 2007.
The politicians overruled the military which favoured intercepting the boats, towing them to Israel's Ashdod Port, and interrogating the activists. Kept in the dark about Israel's decision and convinced they would be stopped, the activists proceeded cautiously. Early on August 23 they issued a statement accusing the Israeli navy of electronically scrambling communications and navigational equipment. Israel denied this charge.
Jeff Halper, the sole Israeli Jew on the mission and founder of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, was awarded a Palestinian passport in recognition of his part in the effort. Although Israel has yet to formulate a response to this scenario, Halper pointed out that the ministry of foreign affairs said "we are not a security threat" and "seems to be changing its policy [of blockade]. Israel is really in a bind. [It] does not want to be seen as an occupying power. We did something much more significant than a one time gesture. Now we've got to play it out." Halper intends to leave Gaza for Israel soon through the Erez Terminal, risking arrest, a prison sentence for entering Palestinian territory, and a fine.
Two small boats, 46 determined human rights activists, one simple message: “The world has not forgotten the people of this land.” (Based on inputs from BBC, The Irish Times and agencies)