Michael Jansen: Protest without violence
September 14, 2012
“Free Gaza” is unique in world history. It is almost certainly the most international and innovative Gandhian liberation movement to ever operate on the world stage. Free Gaza activists, who range in age from 22 to 86, come from all four of the globe’s continents. Most adhere to the three largest regional religions — Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Both men and women are involved and share burdens in equality.
Mahatma Gandhi himself could not have imagined such a collection of well-meaning, dedicated humanitarians and would have been mightily proud to know that they continue to be inspired by his example and follow his strategy of non-violence.
Free Gaza sailed into history when on Aug. 22, 2008, 44 activists from 17 countries began a journey from Cyprus to Gaza in two tiny, rickety wooden boats. I was among the journalists on the pier at Larnaca to see them off. Their aim was to break Israel’s siege and blockade of the narrow coastal strip that is home to 1.6 million Palestinians. The boats’ arrival the next afternoon was the first by foreign vessels not screened and permitted to land by the Israeli authorities since the occupation began in 1967.
Before then, Egypt was in charge.
The campaign to raise funds, the clandestine search for boats, the parlous voyage from Greek ports to Cyprus, and the trials of sea-sick sailors on that first passage are described in Freedom Sailors, edited by Greta Berlin and Bill Dienst, and published last month on the fourth anniversary of the celebrated arrival on the 23rd of ‘Free Gaza’ and ‘Liberty’ in Gaza’s small, ill-equipped harbour.
Some 40,000 Palestinians, who had been scanning the horizon for the boats all day, turned out to greet the sailors. Al-Jazeera and other global satellite television channels were on hand to cover the gleeful pandemonium for watchers round the world. Gazans briefly believed they were not abandoned, not forgotten. The eye of the international community was for a few hours on Gaza and the terrible plight of Gazans.
A second Free Gaza sailing took place on October 29th. By then the movement had acquired a handsome and sea-worthy 66-foot yacht, dubbed ‘Dignity,’ which carried to Gaza 26 activists and urgently needed medical supplies. Among the passengers were Mairead Corrigan Maguire, 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and Palestinian lawmaker Mustafa Barghouti.
My driver and I were on our own on the quay at Gaza’s port that grey morning to greet the ship until Palestinian officials and a few spectators turned up. That arrival was a far cry from the joyous hullabaloo over the appearance of ‘Free Gaza’ and ‘Liberty,’ vessels deemed too frail to manage a second return voyage.
Dignity made another three successful voyages to Gaza during 2008, carrying activists in and Palestinians with valid papers out.
Former British cabinet member and Labour legislator Clair Short, Liberal peer Baroness (Jenny) Tonge, and Labour’s Lord (Nazir) Ahmad were on the third trip. This voyage, from November 6th to 11th, also included parliamentarians from Ireland, Italy, and Switzerland invited by the “European Campaign to lift the Siege of Gaza.”
Free Gaza attempted to reach the Strip twice during Israel’s 2008-2009 war on Gaza. On December 29th, two days after the onslaught began, Dignity headed for Gaza carrying medical supplies. The boat was rammed by the Israeli navy but managed to limp into the Lebanese port of Sidon. It was repaired and returned to Cyprus but sank in Larnaca harbour; the movement blames Israeli sabotage.
In early January 2009, Free Gaza made a new attempt on a Greek-flagged decommissioned ferry, renamed “Spirit of Humanity,” but the ship turned round after Israeli warships blocked the way.
After the ceasefire in February, the movement and the Palestinian National Committee against the Siege, a Lebanese organisation, attempted to sail to Gaza carrying 60 tonnes of humanitarian aid. Israeli naval commandos boarded the ship, arrested the passengers, and forced the captain to make for the Israeli port of Ashdod, which became the grave yard for other ships attempting to reach Gaza.
In June, the “Spirit of Humanity,” carrying Mairead Corrigan Maguire and former US congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, activists and several journalists as well as a symbolic cargo of construction materials — banned by Israel — was also intercepted, the ship hijacked, the passengers and crew arrested and deported by Israel.
On May 30th, 2010, Free Gaza in partnership with a Turkish charity, the Malaysian Perdana Global Peace Organisation, the European Campaign, and Greek and Swedish organisations dispatched a six boat flotilla — three cargo and three passenger ships — from Turkey to Gaza. In the hours before dawn, the flotilla was attacked by Israeli naval commandos who killed outright nine Turkish activists on the Mavi Marmara, a large Istanbul ferry boat. One remains in a terminal coma. Turkey responded to Israel’s violent assault on the ferry by downgrading diplomatic relations, disrupting the decades-old connection with Israel’s sole regional friend.
Greta Berlin, co-founder of Free Gaza, told The Gulf Today in an e-mail that the movement had made three promises to the Palestinians: “We would come..We would return” and “We would take Palestinians out of Gaza.
We took out 28 Palestinians [in] total, mostly students who were not allowed out.” Although Israel has intercepted or hijacked ships involved in voyages to Gaza after the first five in 2008, Free Gaza and its offspring have not given up.
The Canadian Boat to Gaza, an offshoot of Free Gaza, and similar organisations in the US, Australia and other countries are now planning to build a boat in Gaza and load it with Palestinian products for delivery to international customers. The vessel, already named ‘Gaza’s Ark, will be built by Palestinians, helping to revitalise ship building in Gaza and training the new generation of workmen. ‘Gaza’s Arc,’ equipped with the latest electronic equipment, will also teach Gazan seamen how to use up-to-date technology. But with all the good will in the world, Gandhian sailors cannot solve Gaza’s problems.
In a devastating 24-page report, three UN agencies have warned that Gaza faces catastrophe by 2020, when the Strip’s population reaches 2.1 million, if shortages of water, school buildings, housing, electrical power, and health services are not tackled now.
The agencies say Gaza cannot recover from decades of isolation and deprivation until Israel puts an end to its punitive siege and blockade. “Freedom Sailors” (available on www.freedomsailors.com and Amazon.com) reminds the world that Gazans must not be shunned or ignored any longer.
Israel must be told to “Quit Gaza” by lifting the siege and blockade as Britain was told to “Quit India” by Mahatma Gandhi.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
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