Issue No.
156, April 2011 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire and friends aboard the Rachel Corrie (2010). Photo courtesy of www.freegaza.org.
“Spirit of Humanity” leaving Larnaca 2009-FreeGaza. Photo courtesy of www.freegaza.org.
Wreckage of “Dignity” boat after being rammed at sea by the Israeli navy. Photo courtesy of www.freegaza.org.

Our Boats to Gaza
By Huwaida Arraf
In the early morning hours of 31 May 2010, the Freedom Flotilla, a civilian convoy comprised of six ships carrying approximately 10,000 tonnes of aid and nearly 700 people from 35 countries headed to the Gaza Strip, came under lethal attack by Israeli forces. Although we were intent on delivering the supplies we were carrying, which consisted primarily of reconstruction supplies, educational material, and medical equipment that Israel bans from entering Gaza, we were more concerned with ending the illegal closure policy that has left Palestinians in Gaza in need of this kind of humanitarian aid. The Freedom Flotilla did not represent our first attempt to confront and challenge Israel’s naval blockade and overall closure of Gaza, and it will not be our last.

The effort started on a much smaller scale a few years prior, when a handful of people, dismayed at the lack of action by states to force Israel to end its deliberate persecution of Palestinians in Gaza, began discussing what average civilians could do about this. “Let’s sail a boat to Gaza,” suggested a fellow International Solidarity Movement activist from Australia. At first the idea seemed rather ridiculous, as not only did one of the most powerful militaries in the world have a naval blockade on Gaza, but we did not have a boat, the money to get a boat, or know the first thing about boats! However, optimism and perhaps a little bit of naiveté won out and discussions began as to how we could make this happen. A year and a half later, on 22 August 2008, 44 people from 17 different countries boarded two small fishing boats in Cyprus and set sail for Gaza. Realistically speaking, none of us expected to reach Gaza. What we did expect to do, however, is expose Israel’s closure policy as not being about security, as Israeli leaders claim. Our Greek-registered fishing boats - leaving from Cyprus, checked by Cypriot port authorities, carrying hearing aids, balloons, and people from various religious, cultural, and professional backgrounds, ranging in age from 21 to 81, including a Catholic nun, a Greek parliamentarian, an Israeli professor, and the sister-in-law of Tony Blair - did not constitute a threat to Israel. If Israel stopped us, it would not be for security reasons, but rather to enforce the isolation and strangulation of the people in Gaza.

Before voyaging into the Mediterranean we reviewed and prepared for every scenario we could think of, including being sunk, shot at, blockaded, and arrested. We realised full well that our undertaking was a dangerous one. None of us wanted to be a hero; no one wanted to die; but at the same time, we believed in the necessity and the power of what we were doing.

On 23 August 2008, after about 32 hours at sea and over 30 sick passengers, including our resident doctor and two nurses, our two small boats became the first to reach the shores of Gaza in over 41 years. Tens of thousands of elated Palestinians rushed to the port to welcome us in a humbling show of excitement, honour, and gratitude; all for something that we … that the world should have done years before. The mantra became, we “broke the siege.” But we did not break the siege. We overcame the blockade, once. We knew that to really end Israel’s stranglehold on Gaza, we would have to repeat our sail again and again, until we effectively opened a sea route to Gaza. That is what we promised the people of Gaza that we would do.

From October to December 2008, the Free Gaza Movement, as we decided to call ourselves, organised four more successful sea voyages to Gaza, taking in doctors, lawyers, journalists, professors, parliamentarians, a Nobel peace laureate, and others who could not enter Gaza any other way. We also took out of Gaza dozens of Palestinians who needed to travel for medical purposes or to take up educational opportunities in foreign countries, but were prevented from doing so by Israel. On our boats, for the first time Palestinians were able to exit and enter their homeland freely. It was beginning to look like we had indeed opened a sea route to Gaza, though unfortunately, we were the only ones using it. We had not yet managed to convince larger entities, particularly states or international NGOs with more resources than we had, to join us.

Two days after Israel launched massive air strikes commencing its deadly 22-day assault on the Gaza Strip, the Free Gaza Movement organised an emergency mission to Gaza. On the small, 22-metre yacht we called the Dignity, we loaded three tonnes of medical supplies and 16 volunteers, including four doctors, a Cypriot member of parliament, a former US congresswoman, and journalists from CNN and Al Jazeera. On 30 December 2008, in the dark of night and still 90 miles from the coast of Gaza, an Israeli warship rammed our small vessel three times and left it to sink. With the help of the Lebanese Coast Guard, our captain was able to manoeuvre the Dignity safely to the southern Lebanese port of Tyre. Two weeks later we managed to obtain another boat, a converted ferry that we named the Spirit of Humanity, and load it with more medical supplies and volunteers. Again, Israeli warships confronted us in the middle of the night in international waters. This time instead of directly ramming our boat, they nearly caused it to capsize, making it impossible to continue. On 29 June 2009 we launched our eighth mission to Gaza. Twenty-one human rights campaigners carrying nine tonnes of supplies, primarily rebuilding supplies, school supplies, medicine, and toys for kids. On 30 June, we were surrounded by Israeli naval forces that demanded (over the VHF radio) we return to Larnaca, Cyprus, or they would open fire. We did not turn back. We remained on course to Gaza, all the while asserting over and over that we are unarmed civilians, and that Israeli forces should not use violence against us. After shadowing our small vessel for hours, disabling our navigation system throughout the night, and interfering with our communication capabilities, armed and masked Israeli commandos forcefully boarded and commandeered our boat.

After Israel violently intercepted our last three attempts to reach Gaza by sea, we decided that we needed a change of strategy. Some began questioning the utility of continuing to send boats to Gaza, but for us, giving up was not an option. We refused to give in to the notion that military might and violence are stronger than the rights we are fighting for. But to overcome Israel’s apparent determination to put an end to our efforts, we had to make the cost of stopping our boats much bigger for Israel. Therefore, instead of sending one small boat with a few dozen people and a symbolic amount of supplies to Gaza, we would need to send a flotilla.

From July 2009 to May 2010 we set to work on building this flotilla. Our efforts entailed not only procuring vessels and cargo, but also building mass support and involvement around the world. From Chile to South Africa, India to the United States, we met with groups, unions, parliamentarians, journalists, and other individuals to support our nonviolent, direct-action efforts to end Israel’s strangulation of Gaza. On a grassroots level, people were very supportive of our work. Our biggest problem was securing the funding we needed to do this. It is understandable that one might feel better giving money to humanitarian relief, rather than to the political action and work we were engaged in. For, while we were certainly planning to carry supplies for Gaza on our ships, ours was not a humanitarian aid mission. Palestinians do not want to live on handouts, and we are not interested in perpetuating a cycle of aid dependency that Israel is surely content with. Our goal is to confront the policies that leave Palestinians in need of humanitarian aid.

We had hoped to launch the flotilla within two months of the attack on the Spirit of Humanity, but six months later we still did not have the financial resources to get the ships that we needed. Then the Turkish NGO, Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH) pledged ships to our flotilla. Weeks later, the European Campaign to End the Siege of Gaza, Ship to Gaza Greece, and Ship to Gaza Sweden also joined our effort. By May 2010, we had our flotilla.

On 30 May 2010, six vessels met in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and started en route to Gaza. A seventh vessel, a cargo ship we named the Rachel Corrie, had fallen five days behind due to attempts at sabotage. In the middle of the night the Israeli navy radioed us and demanded that we turn around. We responded that we had every intention of reaching Gaza; that we are unarmed civilians, carrying only humanitarian aid; and that we constituted no threat to Israel; so “don’t use force against us.” What happened next was witnessed across the globe. Israel launched a full-scale military assault on the Freedom Flotilla while we were still in international waters. Masked, armed commandos came at us from the air and sea, using sound grenades, tasers, attack dogs, and bullets to raid and overtake all six vessels. The first thing that the soldiers went after was our communication equipment. Our satellite capabilities were jammed, and our phones and cameras all taken away. Then everyone was held almost incommunicado for days, ensuring that the Israelis dominated the news with their version of the events. Nine of our colleagues were shot dead and 50 others were injured that night; Israel tried to tell the world that we had weapons on our boats and that Israeli soldiers only engaged in self-defence. At the same time, Israel never returned our footage and refused to cooperate with an independent Fact Finding Mission (FFM) commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate the flotilla raid. The FFM’s final report contradicts all of Israel’s claims, even finding enough evidence to pursue prosecution for wilful killing, torture, and wilfully causing great bodily harm.

We did not make it to Gaza that night, but the world finally saw Israel’s violence and irrationality, as well as the need for the closure on Gaza to end. Worldwide condemnation of Israel’s actions as well as strong demands coming from Europe forced Israel to ease its closure on Gaza. Even though the easing of the closure has only been cosmetic, the fact that this civilian action created the necessary pressure on Israel to compel that change is significant.

If Israeli authorities thought that their attack would break our momentum and scare us away, they were wrong. The brutality of the assault on our flotilla has led to an increase of support for our kind of nonviolent, direct action. We are now organising Freedom Flotilla 2, scheduled to set sail in late May 2011, with twice as many vessels as we had last year. We are bigger and stronger now as dozens of new organisations and thousands more people have joined our efforts. We sail not just for Gaza, as what’s happening in Gaza is not separate from the human rights abuses, racist laws, and oppressive policies perpetrated by Israel in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and even inside the 1948 borders. We sail to confront and challenge an entire apartheid regime that must be dismantled through citizen action.

Sailing, marching, boycotting, divesting … our individual and collective actions are a powerful force that even the most oppressive regime cannot stand up to. Therefore, every single day, let us ask ourselves, “What am I doing to create the world that I want to live in, and that I want my children to live in?” And just like the two small fishing boats that took on the Israeli navy, let us believe that we can do it.

Huwaida Arraf is a human rights activist and lawyer. She is a co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement and currently chairs the Free Gaza Movement.

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