"We've tried to enter Palestine by land. We've tried to arrive by air. Now we're getting serious. We're taking a ship".
In August 2007, up to 70 human rights activists from 13 countries will attempt to non-violently break the Israeli and international siege of the densely populated Gaza Strip by sailing a ship into Gazan territorial waters with US$25,000 worth of humanitarian aid to donate to the Palestinian Red Crescent.
Israel has prevented the activists — who include teachers, students, musicians, politicians and holocaust survivors — from carrying out humanitarian work in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). The campaign aims to raise international awareness about the prison-like closure of the Gaza Strip and to pressure the international community to review its sanctions policy and end its support for continued Israeli occupation.
Green Left Weekly spoke to three activists involved in the campaign.
Sharyn, who lives in Britain, gained the dubious distinction in 2002 of becoming the first international peace activist with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) to be shot by the Israeli military, just four days after she arrived in the OPT. Despite this, Sharyn returned a further five times to carry out human rights work in the OPT before she was placed on the Israeli government's official blacklist of individuals prevented from entering Israel and the OPT.
Fellow Australian activist Michael, who was the ISM's media officer in 2003 when US activist Rachel Corrie was crushed to death while trying to prevent an Israeli armoured bulldozer from demolishing a home in Rafah in the Gaza Strip, has also been blacklisted by Israel. When Michael tried to return to Palestine in 2004, he was detained for a week as a "security risk" and deported without ever leaving Israel's Ben Gurion airport.
According to Sharyn, "this blacklist has been [Israel's] plan B after plan A of simply shooting us drew international condemnation". Both Michael and Sharyn told GLW that the idea for the Break the Siege campaign was born in November 2006 because so many human rights and peace activists had been prevented from entering the OPT.
According to Michael, "The original idea was for these peace activists to arrive simultaneously at Ben Gurion airport and demand admittance to the OPT. However, it was soon decided that the real story was not Israel's treatment of internationals, but of the Palestinians themselves, and that we needed to focus on Israel's siege of Gaza." This led to the plan to charter a boat.
"Israel claims that since it pulled its settlers out of Gaza, the strip is a 'foreign country' that is no longer under Israeli occupation. If this is the case then its total control over Gaza's air space, territorial waters and border crossings [including those into Egypt] is a gross violation of international law", Michael said.
"The purpose of the mission is to draw attention to the fact that Israel is using its illegal choke hold on Gaza to wage economic warfare on an already desperately impoverished population by arbitrarily closing the strip's border crossings to exports, restricting the supply of food and medicines, closing offshore fisheries to Palestinian fishermen and brazenly stealing customs duties that belong to the Palestinian people."
According to Sharyn, Break the Siege is about showing "solidarity with people who are living under terrible conditions" and letting the "Palestinians know they are not forgotten", as well as placing international pressure on Israel.
Should they make it to Gaza, Sharyn expects "to be given gallons of sugary tea and have multiple families attempt to feed me their entire week's food supply in one sitting". However she doesn't expect the same welcome from the Israeli military, which is likely to "make it very evident" that it holds Gaza "in an iron grip" and "will attempt to stop our boat reaching the port. Since our Israeli colleagues will be on board with us, I hope the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] will decide a violent attack wouldn't be a good idea."
Also travelling on the ship will be 82-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, whose parent's perished in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Hedy told GLW she received "a wake up call" about Israel and Palestine in 1982 when she learned "about the massacres in the two refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon".
"I needed to find out what and why it happened; what preceded it, what had taken place since 1948. The more I learned and the more I understood, the more I began to speak out publicly against the policies and practices of the Israeli government and military."
Hedy hopes that the Break the Siege campaign will also serve as a "wake up call" for others and will contribute to a sustained global campaign to educate people about the reality of what is going on in the OPT.
Michael said the activists hoped that the campaign would assist in "mobilising people against Israeli apartheid" and that people would not only publicise and help finance the campaign, but also organise solidarity actions around the world to coincide with the ship's departure and its arrival in Gaza.
"The Israel-Palestine conflict has become the defining struggle between racism and justice in the world today. It is impossible to support justice, human rights and democracy without opposing Israeli apartheid", Michael said.
The Break the Siege campaign needs your support. Visit http://www.freegaza.org.