LARNACA, CYPRUS – It is after 5 p.m., November 7, and passengers stand milling on the dock next to the Dignity. The Free Gaza movement is again setting its boat to sea, en route to the Gaza Strip, to enter by the only means possible: Gaza’s waters.
Two years of planning and organizing enabled the first voyage of two boats to sail in August to Gaza, unloading 42 human rights supporters to a disbelieving, cheering crowd in Gaza’s harbour, equally shocking those around the world who’d been holding their breath.
Of the group’s successful voyage, Huwaida Arraf, co-founder of Free Gaza, had this to say: “We recognize that we’re two, humble boats, but what we’ve accomplished is to show that average people from around the world can mobilize to create change. We do not have to stay silent in the face of injustice. Reaching Gaza today, there is such a sense of hope, and hope is what mobilizes people everywhere.”
While the previous two trips have included names such as journalist Lauren Booth (Tony Blair’s sister-in-law), Israeli Jeff Halper (of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, ICAHD), Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire, and Palestinian Legislative Council member Mustafa Barghouti, this third voyage contains no less prestigious passengers.
Clare Short, former UK Secretary of State for International Development, Lord Ahmed Nazir, of the UK House of Lords, and Israeli journalist Amira Hass are among this boatload of would-be siege-breakers, including 11 European parliamentarians who were denied entrance through the Rafah border crossing in Egypt.
Shortly after 6 p.m.: A round of cheers, bon voyages, and passengers’ promises of returning from a successful venture some days later, and we are off, sunset past but stars appearing. The Palestinian flag flutters gracefully in the moonlight.
A long voyage
It is smooth sailing thus far, a few hours into the trip, and worries of sea-sickness pass as the MPs and stray activists pass the hours under incredible stars in conversation. The 15-hour voyage affords ample time for speculation.
Arafat Choukri, head of the European Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza, elaborates on why breaking the 18 month long siege is vital, politically and for humanitarian reasons.
“This is the first time in history when a people are under an occupation and a siege simultaneously. Israel, as an occupying power, is responsible for the well being of Palestinians. But Israel is at the same time imposing the siege.”
Choukri is unapologetic about the parliamentarians’ intention to sail to Gaza, deemed a “hostile entity”, the title Israel and the West slapped on Hamas following the June 2007 take-over after a Fatah-attempted coup of the Gaza Strip.
“The Hamas government,” Choukri says, “was democratically elected. We may not agree with everything Hamas does, but we insist on following democratic policy.”
On the human rights front, the European delegation aims to “send a message of support and solidarity to Palestinians, that they are not alone, that people around the world support Palestinians’ right to live with dignity,’ Choukri says. The EU delegation carries with them more than mere symbolic overtures: on board is one tonne of medical supplies and three medical scanners used for spinal injuries.
Under the stars
Under an incredible, chilly night sky, I drift between bouts of sleep on the deck, stargazing under a blanket. I have time to contemplate further the constellations, dredging memories of their names from university course memories, and to wonder what will happen as we approach Gaza’s waters.
The first Free Gaza voyagers prepared for a very possible standoff with the Israeli navy at the point where international waters meet Gaza’s waters. Members of that voyage report receiving anonymous death threats for their participation, and overt statements that the Israeli navy would prevent the boats from entering Gaza’s waters. The passengers had gone prepared for a stalemate, ready to wait days, if need be, for their legal right for passage to Gaza. They had gone prepared with ample amounts of food, fuel, support, and with international law on their side.
The second voyage being as successful as the first, organizers and passengers on this trip are confident and nonplussed. With 11 members of European Parliament and an Al-Jazeera cameraman on board, as well as the usual array of media charting our progress, most feel more concern about getting a good photo of the sunrise, more anticipation about meeting the Palestinians locked in Gaza that they’ve been hearing about for so long.
Now the dawn unleashes its salmon hues, illuminating heavy clouds. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the sunrise, and this one, decorated with swirls of brilliant light in the burning clouds, is stunning.
Navy ship welcoming
7:20 a.m. November 8, and our progress continues smoothly. Huwaida Arraf comes into the lounge area of the boat: “It’s an Israeli navy ship,” she remarks, pointing to the northern the horizon.
A buzz of interest and excitement passes momentarily through the cabin, passengers peering from the window at the spot on the horizon. Some climb up onto the deck to get a better vantage, others go back to reading or snoozing.
David Schermerhorn, one of the crew, is on the radio, communicating our shadow to Free Gaza organizers back in Cyprus. “We’re still in international waters,” he relates. “The boat is about a mile off, traveling at roughly the same speed,” he reports. The Al- Jazeera reporter, Mohamed Nacer, films the Israeli navy at our side.
“It’s getting exciting now,” comments Shoukri, walking through the cabin to the ladder outside. Passengers remain calm, the waters more turbulent than emotions. Mostly, people are keen to arrive in Gaza and meet the Palestinians locked within. We’ve all read the reports and seen the footage, heard the testimonies of former passengers, NGO workers, Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter. We will see for ourselves, and tell.
Twenty-plus minutes later the navy makes contact with the Dignity. “They asked for the names of the crew, which we gave them. They asked for the names of the passengers, which we did not give them. We suggested they look at the passenger list on the website,” says Schermerhorn. The crew also suggests that they make a contribution to the group’s fundraising efforts, which receives a wry laugh from the Israeli officer at the other end.
On the top deck, Lord Ahmed and Scottish MP Pauline McNeil are joking, comfortable at the front of our boat, watching the sky brighten further. They are more concerned about how the weather will be on the return trip than of any threat from the navy.
We discuss how it is a different story for Palestinian fishermen, who don’t have the luxury of international and, in this case, diplomatic protection. The fishermen suffer daily harassment at the hands of the navy, routinely targeted in their small boats crafts as they try to catch sustenance and earn a living.
The Israeli rights group, B’Tselem, has documented testimonies of the fishermen’s harassment by the Israeli navy. And human rights observers in Gaza go out regularly in the fishermen’s boats, filming the shooting attacks and water canon inundations they suffer when less than 12 miles out.
9:15 a.m. A convoy of Palestinian fishing boats and small motorboats meets us in the waters just miles of Gaza’s coast. They are cheering, boats and people decked out in Palestinian flags, and it seems that all of Gaza’s media have been packed aboard these shaky vessels.
What a beautiful sight, these vibrant people, so full of life, welcoming the latest Free Gaza boat.
The harbour is filled with parked fishing vessels and crammed with more welcomers, and I see that in fact the whole media of Gaza is standing on the harbour, jostling for photos.
We are here.
Eva Bartlett is a Canadian human rights advocate and freelancer who spent eight months in 2007 living in West Bank communities and four months in Cairo and at the Rafah crossing. She is currently based in Gaza, after the third successful voyage of the Free Gaza movement to break the siege on Gaza.