Breaching Israel’s blockade of Gaza

September 25, 2008

THE ALL-out Israeli siege on Gaza continues while 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza face a total lack of medical care and supplies, and extreme shortages of food, water and electricity.

As Ed Gaffney recently reported, "Over 80 percent of the population now depends on the trickle of international aid that the Israeli army sporadically allows in. Medical patients are typically denied exit visas to get treatment routinely available in Israeli hospitals and completely unavailable in Gazan hospitals; scores have died. Students who have been awarded scholarships in universities abroad (including Fulbright scholarships) are also trapped in Gaza."

But a group of 46 international activists, including Palestinians, Europeans and Americans, have made an important breach in the siege by sailing to Gaza from Cyprus. The best-known passengers included Lauren Booth, the sister-in-law of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Jeff Halpern, an American-Israeli anthropologist and head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD).

Israel issued many official statements in the lead-up to the voyage, threatening activists in an attempt to deter them. The Free Gaza Movement, which had been planning the voyage for over a year, planned to break the siege after noting that they had tried by land and by air--and that now it was time to get serious by trying to reach Gaza by sea.

With Israel claiming to have ended its occupation of Gaza, this group of activists decided to test Israel and see if the Palestinians would, in fact, be in control of their access to the Mediterranean waters off the Gaza Coast. A Palestinian fisherman named Hissi was quoted in Britain's Guardian saying, "We were expecting a real Palestinian state, and that we'd be able to work and move freely, but it never came. Now instead, they've put Gaza under siege."

The two ships that sailed from Cyprus, the SS Free Gaza and the SS Liberty--named after the U.S. ship that was attacked by Israel in 1967--arrived in Gaza on August 23.

In a press release from the Free Gaza Movement, Palestinian voyager Musheir El-Farra, originally born and raised in Khan Younis in Gaza, said, "For the first time in my life, I went to Gaza without being humiliated, without having to ask Israel for permission. We did it. We finally did it. And now others must join us and do it as well."

The ships returned to Cyprus on August 29, carrying Palestinian students with scholarships to study abroad who had been unable to get an exit visa to leave Gaza through Israel or Egypt. There are currently plans to sail back to Gaza to pick up nine of the international activists who remained from the original voyage, as well as to bring more desperately needed medical supplies, though the money to make this happen is in short supply. This is an important opening in the siege, however, and a line of attack that many activists are considering pursuing in order to challenge Israel's control of Gaza.

But as the Free Gaza Movement notes in its mission statement, the group wants to do more than bring humanitarian aid: "We want to break the siege of Gaza. We want to raise international awareness about the prison-like closure of the Gaza Strip, and pressure the international community to review its sanctions policy and end its support for continued Israeli occupation. We want to uphold Palestine's right to welcome internationals as visitors, human rights observers, humanitarian aid workers, journalists or otherwise."

Meanwhile, Palestinian fishermen have been confined to fish within a few miles of the Gaza shore under threat of Israeli military strikes. As part of breaking the siege, fishermen and activists attempted to go back out in Palestinian waters off of the Gaza coast and fish. They came under fire from the Israeli Navy on September 1 and called for international support.

One activist reported on the event: "I sat at the front of the fishing boat, one of six that went out this morning...The boat I was accompanying was owned by six cousins, the youngest 15...Israel has refused to let Palestinians fish in their own waters for the past 15 months. Even before that, they restricted Palestinian fishermen to around six miles.

"Now, they shoot holes in the boats and in the fishermen if they are caught farther out than about a kilometer...One fisherman told us we were the first boats to come into the port in 35 years...At eight miles [out], three Israeli patrol boats showed up, buzzing up and down in front of us, a man on a machine gun at the back of each one."

In an attempt to intimidate activists further, Israeli security arrested Jeff Halper for entering Palestinian territory, which is off limits to Israeli citizens, according to Israeli law. After initially refusing to let him pass through the Erez crossing to return to his home in Jerusalem, they eventually let him enter the border crossing, where he was promptly arrested. He is currently awaiting formal charges.

These kind of daily attacks are the reality for 1.5 million Palestinians and make the breaking of Israel's siege so significant. It also makes the work of organizing the next boats so important for Palestinians living in Gaza who need our support.
Erik Wallenberg, Seattle

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