An international group of peace activists took on Israel’s crushing siege of the Gaza Strip. After two years of organizing two ships to sail to Gaza’s shores, the ships made their journey in defiance of Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. The ships left with several Palestinians in need of medical treatment and others who have travel visas to Europe.
The ship’s organizers see mobility as a human right and challenge Israel’s denial of Palestinian movement as a violation of international law.
The ships faced bad weather and a shortage of funds, as they hoped to make their way from Crete to Cyprus, and on to Gaza. Weeks ago, Jamal Al-Khudari, chairman of the Popular Committee Against the Siege, and an independent member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said the ships were not able to leave Crete as planned due to difficult weather conditions.
But they arrived in Gaza this week to a hero’s welcome. Ismail Haniyeh, who heads the Hamas government in Gaza, said, “Your coming to Gaza rewards the endurance of the Palestinian population in the face of the occupation.”
The ships were sponsored by the Free Gaza Movement, a California-based group of citizens concerned with the humanitarian effects of the Israeli naval blockade. They originally thought about renting ships, but considered it unlikely. A similar venture by the PLO in 1988 ended in failure when the Israelis disabled the boat before it even sailed. The three organizers were assassinated in Cyprus.
The two small boats are named Free Gaza and Liberty, in honor of the USS Liberty, an American ship attacked by the Israeli military. They cost over $300,000 to buy, repair and stock. Much of the money came from the organizers themselves and the rest from supporters around the world.
The ships delivered humanitarian supplies, including hundreds of hearing aids to a Palestinian charity as a form of humanitarian aid. Israel’s economic blockade on Gaza began in 2006 in order to undermine Hamas, the party ruling Gaza currently. Gaza’s 1.5 million residents have seen a drastic fall in their livelihood, as poverty and sickness became rampant.
Most people in Gaza see Israel’s sanctions as harming the people more than the party and unlikely to accomplish Israel’s political goals.
The protestors tested how far Israel will go to impede the movement of people and humanitarian supplies to Gazans. “Israel says it’s pulled out its soldiers from Gaza so they should have no objection to us going there,” said Paul Larudee, of the Free Gaza Movement.
The Israeli government decided to let the ships pass in order to avoid giving the well-covered trip more publicity. However, it arrested one of the Israeli sailors, professor Jeff Halper.
The two boats carried 40 people from 16 countries. It included Americans, Europeans, Israelis and Palestinians. One of the passengers is a Jewish Holocaust survivor, 84-year-old Hedy Epstein.
Another on board was Huwaida Arraf, a long-time Palestinian-American activist originally from the Detroit area.
Lauren Booth, a journalist – and relative of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair – was also on board.
Among the Palestinians who left with the ship was Saed Mosleh, 12. An Israeli tank shell took his leg. He is leaving to be fitted for an artificial replacement. “I can’t believe we’re finally able to leave for medical treatment,” said Khaled Mosleh, the boy’s father who is accompanying him. “This is a miracle of God.”
The ship’s organizers hope international organizations such as the Arab League also challenge the Israeli embargo. Gaza’s impoverished residents are suffering from the forced isolation.
Find more information on the internet at www.freegaza.org.
Will Youmans is a writer for The Arab American News.