“An ark is literally a large floating vessel designed to keep its passengers and cargo safe,” say the group preparing ‘Gaza’s Ark’. But their ark, they say, is “a vessel that embodies hope that the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip can soon live in peace without the threat of the Israeli blockade.”
An initiative by Palestinians in Gaza and international solidarity activists, Gaza’s Ark entails “purchasing a run-down boat from a local fishing family,” says Michael Coleman, a member of Free Gaza Australia and on the Gaza’s Ark steering committee.
“The refurbishing will be done by Palestinians in the port of Gaza, and the sailing will be with a mixed crew of Palestinians and internationals,” says David Heap, spokesperson for Gaza’s Ark in Canada and Europe. The sailing date has not been announced yet.
Pointing to a weathered fishing trawler with a ‘for sale’ sign painted on it, Mahfouz Kabariti, president of Gaza’s Fishing and Marine Sports Association, points to fishers’ poverty.
“Why sell?” he asks. “Because of years of poor incomes from Israeli restrictions on sea, many fishers have debts they cannot pay off. Fishers were optimistic when the Israelis re-extended the fishing limit six miles. We hoped that maybe it would be extended to 12 miles.”
The Ark initiative includes exporting a token amount of trade goods from Palestinian artisans, an act which Coleman admits is “symbolic” but necessary. Exports will include date goods, embroidery, and crafts from the Aftfaluna society for Deaf Children and other associations in Gaza.
The steering committee for Gaza’s Ark comprises mainly well-respected Palestinian scholars, doctors and rights activists from Gaza. International supporters include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, various UK and Canadian former and current members of parliament, two former UN assistant secretaries general, and Hedy Epstein and Suzanne Weiss, both Holocaust survivors.
Since 2008 solidarity boats have sailed, or attempted to sail, to the Gaza Strip in efforts to challenge the Israeli-led siege on Gaza and bring awareness over it. The Free Gazathe Ark website.
The siege on Gaza, which was enforced by the Israeli occupation authorities shortly after Hamas was democratically elected in 2006, came into severe force in 2007 when virtually all exports were banned and imports severely limited.
The Al Mezan Center for Human Rights notes that “it is common for the (Israeli) navy to open fire on fishermen, pursue them in Gazan waters, and destroy and confiscate their equipment, including their nets and boats. Such acts constitute flagrant violations of Israel’s legal obligations as an occupying power under international law, and violate the fishermen’s rights to life and work.”
Gaza’s fishers once numbered over 10,000, but under the Israeli siege and assaults, the vast majority have given up on a trade that was passed down to them by their fathers and grandfathers.
With the siege, Israel has also enforced no-go zones along the Green Line border separating Gaza and Israel, and in Gaza’s sea, to which Palestinians under the Oslo accords have the right to fish as far as 20 nautical miles from the coast.
Since 2008, Israel has unilaterally enforced a limit of between six and three miles. Although Israeli authorities expanded this limit back to six miles following the cessation of Israel’s November 2012 attacks on Gaza, in March 2013 Israel again unilaterally declared Palestinians can go no further than three miles.
Fishers and human rights groups report that the Israeli navy shoots on, harasses and abducts Palestinian fishers even within three miles, as close at times as less than a mile from Gaza’s coast. The Israeli navy has killed and injured numerous fishers while shooting at their boats.