2 June 2009
Since August 2008, international peace activists and dignitaries have repeatedly broken the siege on Gaza to bring much needed humanitarian aid on the first international boats to dock in Gaza in 41 years. Although the quantities of aid brought in on the boats has inevitably been insufficient to the huge and critical need in Gaza, as a symbolic gesture of international solidarity the Free Gaza movement has brought hope to a besieged population.
International and Palestinian activists celebrating their arrival to Gaza(Palestine Monitor, 2009)
The Israeli blockade of Gaza has been increasingly severe since January 2006, and has led to the total collapse of the Gazan economy and massive shortages of fuel, food and medical supplies. In breach of international law and UN resolutions, Israel denies Gaza access to airspace and international waters, and surrounds its land with a 40 foot high wall, while continuing to claim that it “disengaged” from Gaza in June 2005.
On August 23 2008 tens of thousands of Palestinians lined the shore to welcome the arrival of the first small, wooden, fishing boats, the Free Gaza and the Liberty, into Gaza. Onboard was holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, who hoped to “remind the world that we will not stand by and watch 1.5 million people suffer death by starvation and disease”. The crew stayed in Gaza for six days, visiting hospitals and schools and delivering medical aid. Several passengers accompanied Palestinian fishermen at sea, allowing them to fish without being attacked by the Israeli navy for the first time in years. The crew left with 7 Palestinians, including a 15-year-old boy who had lost his leg in an Israeli attack and required medical attention, marking the first time in 60 years that Palestinians could freely enter and exit their own country.
On October 29 2008, despite promises from Israeli military officials that the success of the first voyage would not be repeated, the siege was broken for a second time as the Dignity brought half a ton of medical supplies to Gaza. Nobel Laureate Mairead Corrigan McGuire was on board, as was Secretary-General of the Palestinian National Initiative Mustafa Barghouti, who was finally able to enter the Gaza Strip having been denied entry by Israel for over two years. For Fida Qishta, local coordinator for the International Solidarity Movement, “this second breaking of the siege means a lot, actually. It’s the second time in two months that people have come to Gaza without Israel’s permission, and that tells us that Gaza will be free”.
The Dignity returned to Gaza in November 2008, this time carrying journalists and 11 past and current European parliamentarians, who had been part of a larger delegation that was refused entry to Gaza earlier that month. The ship brought one ton of medication, mostly pain killers and aspirin, both of which are in desperately short supply in Gaza. The ship departed with an elderly Palestinian man who had suffered a stroke and was not allowed out for treatment, and his wife: they had not seen their children since the siege escalated in 2006.
On December 1 2008, Libya became the first Arab state to attempt to break the siege by sending a ship to deliver 3000 tons of humanitarian aid to Gaza. The ship – carrying medicine, blankets, food and powdered milk – was turned back by Israeli warships.
The Dignity returned to Gaza on December 8 2008, this time carrying a delegation of university Professors and students to assess the impact of the siege on education. The crew departed with 11 Palestinians who have places at international universities but who had been unable to leave Gaza. Over 700 Palestinians in Gaza have visas to study at universities in Europe but are forbidden to leave Gaza by Israel.
Qatar became the first Arab nation to successfully break the siege on December 19 2008 as a Qatari delegation on board the Dignity delivered medicine, high protein baby formula and gifts from the people of Qatar.
As Israel launched its war on Gaza, the Free Gaza movement sent the Dignity on an emergency mission to bring over three tons of medical supplies and three surgeons to Gaza, accompanied by US congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. On December 30 2008, several Israeli warships rammed the boat in international waters 90 miles off the coast of Gaza, according to the ship’s captain “without any warning, or any provocation”. As water began to enter the boat and the Israeli navy threatened to shoot, the boat was forced to turn back and dock in Lebanon.
Shortly after, the Free Gaza movement sent a new boat, the Spirit Of Humanity, on another emergency mission carrying urgently needed medical supplies, doctors, journalists, human rights workers and five European parliamentarians. Again, the boat was forced to turn back as the Israeli navy threatened to shoot the unarmed civilians on board. Huwaida Arraf, an organizer with the movement, explained that “we cannot just sit by and wait for Israel to decide to stop the killing and open up the borders for relief workers to pick up the pieces…There is an urgent need for this mission as Palestinian civilians in Gaza are being terrorized and slaughtered by Israel, and access to humanitarian relief denied to them “.
In recent months, several ground convoys have arrived in gaza via the Rafah crossing on the border with Egypt. On March 9 2009, the British MP George Galloway led the Lifeline for Gaza convoy of 110 vehicles and 300 volunteers through the Rafah crossing. The convoy was attacked in Egypt, leaving several volunteers requiring medical treatment for head injuries. After two days of intense negotiations with Egypt the convoy, bringing humanitarian aid and 20 ambulances, was allowed to cross into Gaza. On May 25, the Hope for Gaza convoy was able to enter Gaza with medical supplies, but accompanied by only 22 of the 100 members of the convoy. The next day, a Code Pink convoy of US, Canadian and Egyptian peace activists entered gaza through the Rafah crossing after several days of delays.
Arriving on boats and in ground convoys, the quantity of humanitarian supplies which these missions can bring is limited, and insufficient to the desperate need in Gaza, which is even greater since the war on Gaza compounded the effect of the siege. However, in repeatedly breaking the illegal siege on Gaza, these missions have a symbolic value, demonstrating the ability of people from all over the world to showdown one of the strongest militaries in the world, and showing international solidarity with the besieged people of Gaza. Further, they provide an opportunity for members of the international community to witness the devastation which Israel has wrought on Gaza for decades.
Pictures from the Free Gaza Movement Visit them online at: www.freegaza.org