Here follows a summary of the activities of the Free Gaza Movement, which has now completed three voyages from Cyprus to Gaza and back, the latest boat trip carrying eleven European parliamentarians, including ICAHD UK patrons Baroness Jenny Tonge and Clare Short, MP.
On August 22th, 2008, two boats – the Free Gaza and the Liberty – set sail from Cyprus to break the siege of Gaza. On board were 46 human rights activists from many different nationalities and backgrounds. The only Israeli was Jeff Halper of ICAHD. This trip had been planned for two years by the US-based Free Gaza Movement.
The Israeli government warned that the ipirate boatsi would never reach the Gaza coast n they would either be turned back or the passengers would be arrested. Communication with the boats was lost for some time – their electronic systems had been jammed and scrambled – and there was international concern for the safety of those on board.
But in the end the Israeli government realised that to try to prevent the voyage would be an admission that Gaza was still under occupation and would also be a PR disaster.
So, on the evening of August 23rd, the boats sailed unmolested into Gaza Port, where a huge crowd welcomed them amid emotional scenes. They carried with them a symbolic cargo of hearing aids for children. The message was political, rather than the carrying of aid to Gaza. It was a symbolic victory for universal human rights, showing how the moral power of 46 unarmed activists in two small wooden boats could overcome the armed might of the Israeli Navy.
In Gaza, the activists accompanied Gaza fishermen beyond the six-mile limit imposed upon them by Israel (though the Oslo Accords provide a 20 mile limit) to prevent the Israeli navy from their usual practice of firing on the fishing boats. All the activists were awarded Palestinian citizenship and received Palestinian passports, so Jeff Halper is now a citizen of both Israel and Palestine.
On August 26th, Jeff Halper set out to return to Israel via the Erez crossing. He was promptly arrested and taken first to Sderot police station, then to the prison at Ashkelon, where he faced a court hearing the next morning. In an article n iEnd of an Odysseyi – he describes a terrifying night during which he faced death threats from his cellmates and feared he would not make it to the morning. After the court hearing, he was released on bail and faces a trial and may end up back in prison.
Most of the activists sailed back to Cyprus on August 28th, taking with them seven Palestinians who had been unable to get exit visas (some of them needed medical treatment abroad). A few activists stayed behind to monitor the situation in Gaza. They continued accompanying Gazan fishing boats, and encountered Israeli naval vessels which fired upon them, though no-one was hurt, and these seem to have been warning and intimidatory shots. At first the activists were refused exit via Israel and Egypt, but after some time in Gaza, they managed to get out via Egypt.
The Free Gaza movement was determined that this voyage would not be a one-off but only a beginning. On the afternoon of October 28th, another boat, the Dignity, set sail from Cyprus for Gaza. On board were 27 passengers and crew n among them the Palestinian parliamentarian Mustapha Barghouti and the Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire. The only Israeli on board was the journalist Gideon Spiro. Once again, the Israeli government threatened to stop the voyage by force. And once again, the Israeli government changed its mind, and the small wooden boat got through without trouble.
In Gaza, the activists again accompanied Gazan fishing boats and on October 31st, they witnessed intimidatory Israeli naval attacks with machine guns and water cannons. Angela Godfrey-Goldstein of ICAHD, one of the main Free Gaza media coordinators, rang up Shlomo Dror, Israeli Ministry of Defence spokesman, to ask him to tell the Navy to stop the machine gunning barely a metre over the heads of fishermen and internationals. Dror accused the human rights activists of being provocateurs, terrorists, supporters of Hamas, and commented: iThe people of Gaza have plenty of food. They donit need to go fishingi.
The Dignity and its passengers and crew sailed back to Cyprus on November 1, taking with them a Palestinian student who had been denied the right to study medicine in Belgium. The Dignity arrived in Lanarca at dawn on November 2. But it set sail again on November 7th, for the third Free Gaza voyage, arriving in Gaza in the morning of November 8th. On board were eleven European parliamentarians, part of a larger delegation of 53 European parliamentarians who had tried to enter Gaza via the Rafah crossing, for a fact-finding tour, but had been denied entry by the Egyptian government. The eleven parliamentarians took the newly-opened sea route instead. Among them were the British parliamentarians Lord Ahmed, Baroness Tonge and Clare Short, MP. Israel was represented this time by the journalist Amira Hass.
This time, the Israeli government seemed to have given up and did not issue any threats or warnings. The voyage was uneventul, apart from an approach by an Israeli naval ship just before Dignity entered Gaza. The Israeli ship hailed the Dignity and asked where it was going and who was on board. Huwaida Arraf replied that they were going to Gaza and that the passenger list was on the Free Gaza website on http://www.freegaza.org She added iwhile youire there, you can make a donation!i The ship’s spokesman laughed and said iHave a nice dayi, and the Dignity went on her way.
The boat carried a ton of medical supplies requested by the Health Ministry in Gaza , including basic resources such as paracetamol and pain-killers, and three medical scanners for spinal injuries. International aid agencies say virtually no medical supplies are reaching Gaza.
In Gaza, some of the activists again accompanied a Gazan fishing boat beyond the six-mile limit. Again they were attacked by an Israel naval gunboat, with intimidatory machine gun fire and water cannon. This time the Israeli naval crew put on masks before shooting from their water cannons dirty water with a chemical smell. The fishermen managed to release the fish catch back into the sea before the water contaminated it n thus losing the day’s catch. But the human beings in the fishing boat were not so fortunate and got drenched in the dirty water and can only hope they will not suffer any ill effects.
The parliamentarians visited hospitals and schools and expressed their concern about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza. On November 5th, three days before the Dignity’s arrival, Israel had closed all crossings into Gaza and stopped the fuel supply, including industrial fuel – as a collective punishment for rockets being fired into Israel, even though these rockets were revenge attacks for a recent Israeli raid into Gaza which broke the ceasefire. On November 11th, in response to an appeal from Tony Blair, Israel agreed to allow in a limited amount of fuel, though the borders remains closed for all other purposes.
The Dignity set sail back to Cyprus on the afternoon of November 10th. On board were eight Palestinians from Gaza, three of them students who had been given places at foreign universities but denied exit visas by Israel. The Dignity arrived safely in Lanarca on the morning of November 11th.
Links to articles by the Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who was on the latest voyage: