Boats break Gaza blockade — End Israel's siege!

August 30, 2008

Two international activist boats successfully broke the Israeli blockade on the Palestinian Gaza Strip enclave on August 23.

Israel has maintained a medieval-style siege on Gaza, which begun in 2006 and has been tightened since and includes heavy restrictions on essentials like power, food and medical supplies.

As the boats, SS Free Gaza and SS Liberty, docked at a small seaport near Gaza City, over 2000 Palestinians gathered to welcome them, with many singing and swimming out to greet them, according to the August 23 New York Times.

The boats reached Gaza after nearly two days at sea, setting off from the shores of Larnaca, Cyprus. The participants had no idea whether Israeli authorities would allow them to enter or not.

The voyage aimed to send a strong symbolic message to the Israeli government by breaking its blockade.

Israel continues to claim it "disengaged" from Gaza in 2005, though human rights and aid organisations, like the International Committee of the Red Cross, have continued to expose such claims as lies.

Israel continues to blame the democratically elected Hamas-led government for Gaza's access problems. Blaming Hamas for attacks on Israeli citizens, Israel has applied collective punishment to the people of Gaza.

The Gaza blockade has been a catastrophe. Gaza's 1.4 million inhabitants have endured significant shortages of basic supplies, like electricity, fresh drinking water, food and fuel. Lock-downs on borders left many unable to work, study or reunite with family and friends.

This blockade has continued unabated, despite Israel's promise to ease border restrictions in its ceasefire with Hamas declared on June 19.

When asked if military action would be taken against the ships, Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson Aviv Shiron told ABC News America on August 23 that "all options are being considered".

An Israeli military spokesperson refused to comment on the issue.

But the reason for Israel's ultimate decision to not stop the vessels was revealed by foreign ministry spokesperson Arye Merkel to ABC News America — "to avoid the media provocation".

The potential for Israeli retaliation, however, was only one of many threats against the ships, and their participants, that plagued the journey.

Osama Qashoo, the only Palestinian-born organiser of the trip who had planned to participate in the voyage, revealed to the British Guardian Online on 23 August that death threats and attacks on his West Bank-based family members prompted his decision to take part.

The 46 activists on board, from over a dozen different countries, were delivering humanitarian and medical aid, including hearing aids for a local children's charity.

But as the co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement, Huwaida Arraf, explained to Democracy Now on August 22, "We are very adamant and clear that this is not a humanitarian convoy, because we do not intend to keep putting band-aids on Gaza, when what's happening is that Israel's policies are starving the people ..."

"We are out to show that the people of Gaza have human rights and deserve to be able to make a living and not just live on handouts, because Israel completely blocks them from travel, blocks them from coming in and out and completely controls their life. And right now, they are trying to starve and humiliate an entire people", Arraf explained.

The passengers included the sister-in-law of former British PM Tony Blair, Lauren Booth; Israeli-American activist, academic and Israeli Committee of House Demolitions coordinator, Jeff Halper; and Greek parliamentarian and member of the Coalition of the Radical Left, Tassos Kourakis.

Halper cancelled a planned tour of Australia in order to join the voyage.

Halper was arrested on his return to Israel, according to the August 26 Jerusalem Post. He was arrested after passing through the Erez border crossing.

The officers claimed Halper had broken the Israeli military's Southern Command Front Order, which declares that Israeli citizens cannot enter the Palestinian territories without permission. This is despite the ships' organisers claiming to have received official authorisation from the Israeli interior and foreign ministry.

At the time of printing, Halper is waiting for his court appearance.

On August 25, the SS Gaza had helped break the naval blockade, guiding six fisher boats from Gaza eight miles off the coast before turning back.

This is illegal according to Israeli regulations, despite the fact that the Oslo accords, signed in 1993, officially allow Palestinians rights to the sea 20 miles beyond the Gaza coast. Overriding international law, Israel has imposed a strict six mile limit.

Already, $250,000 has been raised to help pay for the journey, with the help of human rights activists throughout the world.

The breaking of the blockade by the boats has been endorsed by, among others, Nobel Peace Prize winners Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mairead Maguire, as well as former US president Jimmy Carter.

The actions of the boats have helped to focus the world's attention on the intense suffering of the people in Gaza. Now, building on this important breakthrough of the media blackout, an international campaign needs to be constructed to force Israeli to completely dismantle its inhumane siege.

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