Aid boats break through Israeli siege of Gaza

By Kim Bullimore

Forty-six human rights activists from 17 countries broke the Israeli siege of Gaza on August 23. The SS Free Gaza and SS Liberty, two refitted Greek boats carrying 40 people, some food and medical supplies, left Cyprus on August 21 to make the 350-kilometre, 32-hour journey to Gaza. They were greeted by more than 50,000 Gazans, who lined the shores of the port to welcome them. Deposed Palestinian prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, speaking on Aljazeera television from Gaza on August 24, said that the arrival of the Free Gaza boats put another “nail in the coffin of the blockade”.

Since late 2007, the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated regions on the planet, with 1.5 million people packed into 360 square kilometres, has been under total siege by Israel, which has declared it “an enemy entity”. In June 2007, Hamas fighters over-ran the Preventive Security Services (PSS), which was aligned with the rival Fatah party and backed by the US. Hamas’ seizure of control of the Gaza Strip came after months of bloody fighting between the armed supporters of the two Palestinian parties, in which hundreds of Palestinians were killed.

In response to Hamas’ decisive defeat of the PSS, Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared a state of emergency, resulting in the ousting of the democratically elected Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. Israel announced further collective punishment against Gaza’s population, an act that is illegal under international law. In October, Israel began implementing “Phase 1” of its illegal collective punishment by imposing a total closure of Gaza’s land and sea borders, blocking the entry of goods, food and medicine, while also instigating widespread fuel and electrical restrictions in the hope of undermining Gazans’ support for Hamas.

Despite supposedly “disengaging” from Gaza in 2005, Israel has repeatedly carried out both aerial bombings and armed invasions of the tiny coastal strip. In 2006, Israeli warplanes destroyed not only basic infrastructure and hundreds of homes, but also Gaza’s only power station. Since that raid, the power plant has been able to operate at only 43% capacity. The siege has resulted in a reduction of 35-40% in fuel entering the region, which is needed to run the power plant, water pumping stations, sewage treatment plants and hospitals. As a result, widespread blackouts of up to 12 hours a day have become a regular occurrence. In addition, the lack of fuel has resulted in water supply pumps ceasing to work. According to a January 21 statement issued by Oxfam International, only 37 water pumps were functioning and more than 40% of the population (600,000 people) were without running drinkable water.

Since the siege was imposed, more than 100 people have died as a result of Israel’s refusal to allow them to leave Gaza for urgent medical treatment. The Israeli human rights group Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) noted that Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service, has been using “medical blackmail” against patients. In an August 4 radio interview, PHR Occupied Territories project co-director Miri Weingarten said Shin Bet had called patients to underground rooms at Erez Crossing, telling them either to become collaborators or be denied travel permits. Weingarten said that this practice was in breach of international law. He compared it and the refusal of Israeli courts to address the situation “to Nazi practices in the concentration camps during World War II”.

In response to the siege, on January 23 the Palestinian resistance destroyed two sections of wall that separated Gaza from Egypt by detonating more than 20 explosive devices. Within hours, more than 350,000 Gazans flooded into Egyptian territory to buy supplies. Egypt, however, under pressure from Israel and the US, closed the opening within days, preventing the free movement of Palestinians into and out of Gaza.

Geneva Convention

The arrival of the Gaza and Liberty came after two years of planning by the human rights activists. According to a statement they issued on August 23, their main aim was to “expose the illegality of Israel’s actions, and to break through the siege in order to express our solidarity with the suffering people of Gaza (and the occupied Palestinian territory as a whole) and to create a free channel and regular channel between Gaza and the outside world”.

The statement noted that “as an occupying power, Israel has a responsibility for the well-being of the people of Gaza under the provisions of the 1949 Geneva Convention”. However, “Israel has abused its control and responsibilities by wrongfully obstructing vital supplies and humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza”.

According to Greta Berlin, one of the organisers with the Free Gaza Movement, the trip was an overwhelming success and a blow to Israel’s occupation policies. Speaking with Direct Action from Gaza, Berlin said the participants in breaking the siege campaign had faced many ups and downs, “between trying to raise the money for the boats, being told we were nuts, the death of Riad Hamad — one of our primary supporters — and constantly worrying about whether the two small boats would really float. It’s been one hell of an experience.” She went on to say that the activists also received many threats, both personal and from the Israeli state, which had threatened to attack their unarmed boats.

Asked about the reception they received in Gaza, Berlin said that the previous 24 hours had been “overwhelming”. “I don’t even have the words to tell you the reception we got yesterday. Video can’t begin to really show you what it was like to see 50,000 people at the dock waiting for us.” Berlin added that the welcome had been “wonderful” and that as boats arrived in the harbour, “Little boys [began] jumping into the water to greet us, fishermen coming out in droves and people literally falling onto our boats”.

The day following their arrival, one of the boats, the Free Gaza, joined six Palestinian fishing boats in an attempt to break the Israeli naval blockade, which has decimated the Palestinian fishing industry. Despite the Oslo Accords providing Palestinian Gaza a 20 nautical mile limit off the coast, the Israel military has enforced a 10 nautical mile limit, firing on Gazan fishing boats that breach this limit.

Israeli pressure, harassment

In response to the campaign to break the siege, the Israeli government applied diplomatic pressure on Greek and Cypriot authorities to prevent the boats from sailing. When this failed, Israel vacillated between boarding and seizing the boats or allowing them to proceed unhindered. However, with the certification by Greek and Cypriot authorities that the boats were not carrying any weaponry or contraband, Israel was forced to admit that the two boats possessed no threat to the “security” of the Israeli state.

The August 26 Tel Aviv Haaretz quoted an Israeli military official saying that “there were no grounds to use force because the boats presented no security risk: none of the activists was known to be involved in terrorist activity”. However, according to Haaretz, Israeli officials “stressed, this does not mean Israel will respond in the same way to other such attempts”.

Despite Israel announcing that it would not hinder the departure of the activists from Gaza, one participant, US-born Israeli citizen Jeff Halper, was arrested when he attempted to re-enter Israel from the Gaza Strip. Halper, the founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, was arrested for “illegally entering Hamas-ruled Gaza”, according to August 26 Jerusalem Post.

Angela Godfrey-Goldstein from the Free Gaza Movement, however, noted that Halper had actually entered Gaza with permission from Israel’s foreign and interior ministries. Halper was later released on bail and placed under a 30-day restraining order preventing him from going near Erez Crossing or entering the Gaza Strip.

The majority of the Free Gaza activists have now returned to Cyprus aboard the two boats. At a press conference on August 27, the Free Gaza Movement announced that 12-14 Palestinians from Gaza, who had previously been denied exit visas by Israel, would be travelling on the boats to Cyprus. The boat organisers also announced that several of the activists who broke the siege will remain in Gaza in order to do human rights monitoring. 

Greta Berlin confirmed to Direct Action that this would not be the only journey to Gaza made by the two boats or the Free Gaza Movement.

To find out more about the Free Gaza Movement and/or donate to its work, visit www.freegaza.org.