Freedom flotilla ready to break the Gaza Strip blockade

Photo from www.flickr.com/photos/freegaza/
Nine ships fitted from the UK, Ireland, Greece, Turkey, Kuwait and Algeria are gathering in the Mediterranean to put an end to the 3-year Gaza Strip blockade.

They are to bring medications, medical equipment, construction materials and house parts to the 1.5 million Palestinian residents who have been punished collectively for three years – something unprecedented in contemporary history.

Besides, the Palestinians have no capacity to accommodate 1.5 million people, most of whom are already refugees. Neither do they have the army that would be capable of enforcing a military solution to the problem.

Political support

10,000 tons of cargo bound for the Gaza Strip are to be accompanied by 750 American and European parliamentarians, scientists, writers, doctors, lawyers, among them Nobel prize winners. An Israeli Knesset member, Hanin Zoabi, and a number of Jewish volunteers from all over the world, including the USA, are also to join the campaign. Citizens of 60 countries, including Germany, Sweden, Ireland and Greece, contributed to organizing the flotilla. It is sponsored by private donations and is an act of goodwill and charity.

Due to its unprecedented scale, the project was deemed by its leaders to benefit from consultations with governments. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt held a meeting with MP Mehmet Kaplan to discuss governmental measures to support the project. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has expressed his support.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also voiced his special political support to the Palestinians. He met Hamas leader Dr. Khaled Mashal in Damascus this May and assured him that Russia has always supported the Palestinians and would continue to support them in various ways, including humanitarian aid.

John Ging, head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency bureau in the Gaza Strip, said the bureau supported the initiative.

“Sea routes are open and we are sure that Israel will not interfere,” he said.

Volunteers of all confessions – Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Muslims and Jews – have worked together for two years preparing for the humanitarian breakthrough. They all agree that the siege and air strikes don’t solve the Holy Land issue – instead they make this area a source of danger for the whole world far beyond the Middle East.

Trying Hard

There have been 8 attempts to break the blockade by sea and 2 by land (from Egypt) since August 2008. On five occasions, ships managed to break through to Gaza’s shores, but they were all small rented vessels which managed to deliver small cargoes of medicine and medical devices for the disabled. The present project is different both in terms of scale and the level of international support.

Blockades’ Chronicle

The Gaza Strip Blockade is considered to have been started by the Israeli Army on September 19, 2007, 18 months after the 2006 parliamentary elections in the Palestinian autonomy, which were recognized as legitimate by international monitors.

The parliamentary majority was won by Hamas. Incidentally, about 15 of Hamas’ MPs were Christians.

The new Hamas government stopped military actions against the Israeli authorities, whom they regard as occupants. Israel shut down all the border checkpoints and enforced the blockade, expecting the population to rise up and overthrow the Hamas government.
Yet it was not to happen, and so the blockade has gone on.

Palestinian presidential elections were scheduled for 2009 and parliamentary elections for 2010. Israel was apparently in no hurry to help the Palestinians make their political choice by keeping the blockade in place.

Many MPs were arrested by the Israelis on no charges; some of them were actually abducted by the military.

In the winter of 2008-2009, the Israeli Air Force raided the Gaza Strip for 22 days in a row. They destroyed residences, schools, hospitals, administrative buildings, mosques and churches. The blockade has deprived the local population of electricity, fuel and essential supplies.

There are still many unexploded shells in gardens, orchards and in the ruins, and people still keep dying treading on them. Again, the Israelis are not letting mine-clearing units enter the Gaza Strip. The number of casualties from air strikes now exceeds 1,500 people, and about one-third of that number are children.

Israel was anticipating a massive exodus of the population from the Gaza Strip. However, it never happened. Just once in the blockade’s history the Palestinians tore down the wall on the Egyptian border. Thousands of Gaza residents went to the border town of Rafah to buy food and returned home.

Israel says it allows minimal food deliveries to Gaza to prevent famine and epidemics. All this cargo is delivered by the UN via land checkpoints from Israel. The Israeli authorities detain shipments, impound them and charge penalties for them. Deliveries are irregular and come with great delays. No construction materials were allowed in until today.

Gaza has no pure water, no waste treatment chemicals. Israeli aircraft have destroyed the airport and the seaport. Fishermen are required to stay close to the shore. That’s what the Gaza siege is like today.

Of course, the Freedom Flotilla participants understand that their help won’t solve all the problems. But they believe that their initiative will help overcome the present stalemate.

The initiative has already yielded some results. On May 24, for the first time since the siege began, Israel allowed 15 trucks with gravel, five tons of rebar and 250 tons of cement and other construction materials to enter Gaza. Of course, this won’t be enough to rebuild the 3,425 houses destroyed during Israeli air strikes, but it shows that goodwill is capable of changing tough policies.

Participants: Ships and People

One ship is leaving Athens today.

The first ship of the Freedom Flotilla started from Ireland on May 14. It’s named “Rachel Corrie,” after an Irish girl who died under an Israeli bulldozer in 2003, when together with other European activists she tried to protect Palestinian houses and olive trees from being destroyed. In keeping with an old tradition, a bottle was broken across the bow as the ship was launched after renaming – except that it was a bottle of Palestinian olive oil rather than wine. Cement, school textbooks, copybooks and medical equipment went onboard in Portugal.

All the nine ships, their passengers and cargo go through meticulous customs inspections in every port of departure.

If Israel stops the flotilla before it reaches Gaza, they will form a “floating island” in neutral waters, said Bulent Yildirim, head of the Turkish charitable foundation IHH.

Israeli MP Hanin Zoabi believes the Israeli army and police cannot prevent the Freedom Flotilla from breaking the siege without damaging the country’s reputation.

“The flotilla will go ahead even if they open fire,” she said.

She thinks Israel is losing international support and is unlikely to use force against Americans and Europeans. If private Israeli yachts sail to protest the humanitarian effort, this will be even worse, she says.

“That will discredit not just the Israeli authorities, but Israel as a nation,” she added.

Israeli media have been reporting over the past few days, albeit without any specific sources, that security forces are ready to detain the ships and arrest their passengers and that hundreds of prison cells have been prepared for them.

However, the Freedom Flotilla has prepared a surprise for Israel. The list of its passengers includes many people whose arrests will greatly damage Israel’s reputation. The people to whom I managed to talk to ruled out tough actions by Israel.

Many politicians took part in previous campaigns: British MP David Galloway, journalist Lauren Booth (a sister-in-law of the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the special envoy for the Middle East) and journalist Yvonne Ridley, who converted to Islam when the US military launched air strikes against Afghanistan in 2001.

American Hedy Epstein, 86, has also visited Gaza. She was born in Germany in 1924 and moved to London in 1939. She feels bitter that the Jewish people, who went through so many hardships, are now themselves persecuting Palestinians.

Scores of Jews of various convictions have taken part in nine campaigns. They all agree that the Israeli authorities can no longer pursue such a policy toward the Palestinians on behalf of the Jewish people.

Israeli media often claim that it’s anti-Semites who protest the siege of Gaza. How can an 86-year-old Jewish woman like Hedy Epstein, who avoided a Nazi concentration camp by miracle, be called an anti-Semite by her fellow Jews with no respect for her old age? It’s ironic, particularly in Hedy’s case.

A Palestinian doctor, Said, who saw me off to the ship, told me: “Last week, we attended a jazz concert by a famous Jewish musician. He, too, lives in Cyprus. He’s a Jew, but he does a lot for the Palestinian cause. Do they think he is also an anti-Semite?”

Nadezhda Kevorkova for RT, Larnaca