When Israel began imposing economic sanctions and withholding payments from the occupied territories of Palestine in response to Hamas’s electoral victory over the ruling Fatah party two years ago, a group of human rights activists from around the globe gathered to discuss what they could do to ease the plight of the Palestinian people.
Activists named their group the Free Gaza Movement and set a goal of breaking the siege of Gaza. They would accomplish this by sailing boats from Cyprus to Gaza’s port, which no international vessel had freely entered or exited since 1967. After raising more than $250,000 by giving presentations at churches, mosques, synagogues, and reaching out to family, friends, and supporters, they were ready to put their plans into motion last summer.
Renting a boat seemed unlikely, since owners would be discouraged from lending their vessels knowing that a similar venture failed in 1988 when the Israelis bombed the ship before it set sail for Palestine. Instead, the organizers purchased two wooden boats and named them the SS Free Gaza and SS Liberty, to commemorate the forgotten 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty that left 34 American sailors dead and wounded 170 others.
SS Free Gaza leaving port
Then came the process of assembling a crew. The organizers wanted participants from a range of backgrounds. In the end, they had 46 passengers from 17 countries, representing 5 religions. Among the veteran activists on board were Jeff Halper, Jewish coordinator of Israeli Coalition Against House Demolitions; Lauren Booth, a journalist and sister-in-law of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair; and Sister Anne Montgomery, an 81-year-old Catholic nun from the U.S., who had spent considerable time in both Palestine and Iraq as a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams. In addition, six spots were reserved for members of the press.
They also received more than 200 endorsements from NGOs, politicians, journalists, and other acclaimed figures, such as Noam Chomsky and Nobel Peace Laureates Mairead Maguire and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Just as significant, however, were the invitations from half a dozen Palestinian organizations to witness their work upon arrival.
As requested by one of these groups, the activists brought 200 hearing aids for children, some of whom had lost their hearing due to the sonic booms produced by overflying Israeli military aircraft. Five thousand balloons—each decorated with the colors of the Palestinian flag, the words "Free Palestine," and a picture of a dove—were also on board to represent the more than 5,000 Palestinians who have been killed by the Israeli military since September 2000.
When the boats arrived in Cyprus to meet the passengers, everyone was engaged in rigorous preparation for the journey. This included first aid training and long discussions about how the group would respond if the boats were stopped or fired on by the Israeli military.
In an effort to be completely transparent, their boats were inspected by the Cypriot authorities and a letter was sent to Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni inviting her to join them on their expedition. The response from the Israeli government was mixed, stating: "We assume that your intentions are good but, in fact, the result of your action is that you are supporting the regime of a terrorist organization in Gaza."
Several days later, Aviv Shiron, a spokesperson for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, called the trip a "provocation," and ominously warned that "all options" were being considered to stop the activists. At the same time, the organizers received calls that the boats would be blown up and many of the passengers and their families received anonymous death threats.
On August 22, tired of waiting two weeks for bad weather to clear, they set sail 350-kilometer trek amid rough seas. Peril struck midway through the journey when jamming by an unknown party took out most of the boats’ communication and navigation systems. This led some on board to suspect that Israel was somehow involved.
"I wasn’t afraid," Sister Montgomery said. "I didn’t have a sense that they would hurt us. I don’t think they would have dared. But I did think they were going to board us, arrest us, and deport us."
By early afternoon the next day, news arrived that Israel had pulled its ships back and would allow the activists to pass safely into the harbor. As they approached land, Sister Montgomery described looking at what she thought was a rocky sea wall. "But they weren’t rocks, they were people. They were jammed all the way around. Thousands of people. Women as well as men. Then the boats came out and before we knew it, they were on top of us. They pulled up right beside us and jumped on board. They were so excited."
"As we got closer," she added, "the Palestinian Coast Guard came out to push the people off the boat. It was really necessary because we were practically sinking."
The following day, the New York Times reported that the Israelis let the flotilla through "apparently to prevent a potentially more damaging public relations drama." Sister Montgomery had another take on it: "Whatever the motivations were, it shows that people power and a couple boats and support from all over the world made something happen that Israel didn’t want to happen. That was the joy."
There was very little down time for the activists once they landed in Gaza City. The Palestinians were eager to show their guests what much of the world has ignored. They visited families who had lost children in attacks, the spot where Rachel Corrie was killed, a trauma hospital, a school for the deaf, a demonstration of mothers who had sons in Israeli detention facilities, and a factory that had been bombed.
Sister Montgomery described the latter as "being almost like what we did during the first Gulf War: deliberate destruction of the infrastructure." Sadly, such an analysis is painfully accurate. According to the Palestinian Federation of Industries, 98 percent of Gaza’s factories have closed since the start of the siege, forcing them to buy goods from Israel at exorbitant prices.
Similarly, the Gazan fishing industry had also taken a major hit, losing more than half its annual income over the last decade. This is largely due to the tightening of nautical regulations. Under the Oslo accords, fishing was allowed as far as 20 miles out to sea. In recent years, however, Israeli naval ships have often enforced their own limit of fewer than six miles.
To address this violation of Palestinians’ right to fish their own waters, 20 of the activists decided to join some of the fishing boats on one of their expeditions and sail past the six-mile limit. Three Israeli patrol boats, each armed with a machine gun, showed up at around the eight-mile mark, but ultimately left them alone. When the fishing boats returned to shore 12 hours later, the Palestinians said it was the most fish they’d caught in 4 years.
After three days of bearing witness to the plight of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the activists’ journey had to come to an end. However, nine members of the group decided to stay behind and continue their human rights work.
In their final act of nonviolent resistance, the group decided to fill these newly opened spots on the boats with Palestinians who had been trapped in Gaza, despite having the passports and visas necessary to leave. One of the Palestinians on board was 10-year-old Saed Mosleh of Beit Hanoun, who lost his leg to an Israeli tank shell.
"I can’t believe we’re finally able to leave for medical treatment," said Khaled Mosleh, Saed’s father. "This is a miracle of God."
While some Palestinians were experiencing relief for the first time in ages, those back in Gaza continued to have their freedoms denied. Just days after the Free Gaza Movement departed, two unarmed fisherpeople were hit by Israeli weapons fire. One suffered from shrapnel wounds, while the other was in critical condition after being hit in the head.
A slew of similar incidents followed, including one where an Israeli gunboat rammed an unarmed Palestinian fishing boat, causing severe damage to the hull and its electrical equipment. Via megaphone, the Israelis reportedly threatened that, "When the internationals leave Gaza, you will all be made to pay."
With events like this still happening, the organizers realized their work was not over. As Sister Montgomery said, the hope is for the Free Gaza Movement to become like a "ferry service."
A return trip in late fall has already been planned and will be delivering mail to the people of Gaza. Currently, all mail sent to Palestinians must go through Israel, but those living under the siege in Gaza have their mail regularly blocked.
Raising the money for these trips is no small feat. Expenses from the first voyage—especially those incurred from the unexpected delays and increased cost of fuel—set the organizers back $550,000, which was far more than anyone had planned. Therefore, with the return voyage looming, the need to raise more is desperate.
"We’ve proved that the sea link to Gaza is viable, but the humanitarian needs are overwhelming and our two, small boats cannot begin to meet those needs," wrote organizer Paul Larudee in a press release shortly after returning. "We are calling on other members of the international community—governments, non-governmental organizations, and others dedicated to protecting human rights—to join us by providing their own ships, humanitarian goods, and human capital to open wide Gaza’s access to the world. This is an opportunity that simply must not be squandered."
Bryan Farrell and Eric Stoner are freelance writers based in New York. More photos and information at www.freegaza.org.