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"We don’t expect to have an easy ride out of Gaza," says Ehab Lotayef, a Montreal based spokesperson for the Gaza’s Ark international campaign.
Gaza's Ark is preparing afreshly renovated cargo vessel bearing non-perishable Palestinian products to leave the port of Gaza this spring. Gaza's Ark will attempt to get past the Israeli led blockade for the open sea in the eastern Mediterranean for foreign markets.
Lotayef doesn't rule out the possibility that Israel naval ships will stop the cargo vessel and possibly seize the merchandise. This is looming, he says, despite a deal worked out a year ago between Israel and Hamas to loosen the blockade under the auspices of then Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.
For instance, Palestinian fishermen based in Gaza still have difficulty venturing far enough into the sea to make their catches and pursue their livelihood due to the Israeli blockade. "Israel promises but does not deliver," says Lotayef.
The humanitarian struggle continues in Gaza
With Israel supplying "barely enough food" to Gaza residents, there has been less hunger in the strip and so the world’s attention has shifted elsewhere, laments Lotayef.
But the humanitarian crisis in Gaza continues and is ongoing, with the promised economic improvements since the ceasefire "unfulfilled," reports Oxfam.
The newest wrinkle since the military coup in Egypt in July has been the closing of the tunnels by Egyptians on their side of the border with the Gaza Strip. These were the lifelines used by Palestinians in Gaza to bring items like affordable food, fuel and construction materials into their territory.
The result has been a fuel and energy crisis, which has produced lengthy electric power blackouts, brought about a sewage overflow, reduced available clean water and sustained a paralysis in terms of the Palestinian enclave’s economic development. Couple that with regular Israel military incursions into Gaza's outer edge since the ceasefire, thereby preventing Palestinian farmers from getting full access to their fertile land to grow food, and unemployment hovering at 40 per cent.
With that in mind, Gaza’s Ark represents a new stage in the ongoing battle against the imposition of what it describes as "the collective punishment" of the Palestinian people for their democratic choices (i.e. the election of a Hamas government in 2006).
Up to now, the focus in the international Freedom Flotilla Coalition — with representation across Europe and North America — has been on commissioning boats to sail with activists, high profile politicians and supplies to challenge "the illegal blockade." However after watching all their vessels halted and boarded by Israeli authorities including the Canadian Boat to Gaza’s Tahrir in 2011 — a shift in tactics has occurred.
"After that experience we have decided that we need to try something different, which also would mean that all the work we do would be inside Gaza, [would] energize and empower and help the economy of Gaza," says Lotayef, who also participated in the Tahrir launch.
Constructing change and dealing with delays and looming blockades
Rather than build a boat from scratch, the people at Gaza’s Ark purchased one of the largest fishing trawlers available in the Gaza Strip and began the job of converting it into a cargo vessel.
Currently, the construction work is being done in the port of Gaza City where the transformed vessel is moored at the dock. Some of the international contribution comes in the form of volunteer assistance from people with skills in marine travel, sailing and boat building. "Right now we are building the cabins; we have lots of carpenters," says Lotayef
Furthermore, all of the local Palestinians in Gaza involved with the construction and 24-7 security are receiving salaries.
Gaza’s Ark aims to develop local boat building expertise in the Gaza Strip. "We know that the experience of boat building has diminished over the years; there is no active industry," says Lotayef.
The organizers have had to cope with delays caused by the siege of Gaza that is maintained by bordering states. Entry via Israel, the instigator of the blockade, is impossible and Egypt is potentially more hazardous as witnessed by Canadians John Greyson and Tarek Loubani who were detained for 50 days in an Egyptian prison.
During Egyptian president Morsi’s tenure in office before his overthrow, international volunteers, with some difficulty, were still able to reach Gaza from Egypt. But a hardened attitude since then among the military coup leaders in Cairo towards the Hamas government in Gaza — which was politically close to Morsi`s Muslim Brotherhood political movement — is creating new bureaucratic roadblocks for volunteers seeking access to Gaza to participate in the boat building.
"You can’t plan to import anything or get something from the outside. Everything is a wait and see situation, not only for the materials but also for things that are needed for the building like the electricity and the fuel and all of that stuff. Everything is in short supply, everything is an undetermined situation. You have to be always revising your timeline and project management plan,” says Lotayef.
Building strategy from the inside and finding support
Currently, Gaza’s Ark has raised a little over half of the $300,000 cost for the cargo vessel from international donors. Also, it has garnered international endorsements from the likes of Noam Chomsky, Alice Walker, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former federal solicitor general Warren Allmand, several Nobel Peace Price laureates such as Shirin Ebadi (Iran) and Rigoberta Menchu Tum (Guatemala) and currently elected politicians at the local and national level in the EU countries — only two from Canada, the pair of Quebec Solidaire MNAs in the Quebec legislature have put their names forward on the list of endorsers.
"Gaza’s Ark is a huge project that includes many people, many countries [and] it is also having side projects associated with it. We absolutely try to keep our costs minimal," says Lotayef.
Recently in the fall, Gaza’s Ark conducted a dry run when 200 local children in the Gaza Strip boarded small vessels and deposited little boat models — dubbed "the mini-Arks" — into the water of the Gaza harbour as a symbolic challenge of the "illegal" Israeli blockade.
From a PR perspective, the activists in the International Freedom Flotilla have come to the conclusion that the strategy of sending boats to break the stranglehold on Gaza from the outside has run its course, although they are not averse to lending support for other groups planning to launch their craft, says Lotayef.
The marketing campaign will start as soon as the Gaza's Ark sets sail, not after it comes into contact with the blockade on the high seas, he stresses.
"It is a new attempt to capture the imagination of people, media and public figures who have seen many times already the attempt to break the blockade from the outside."
Finally, Gaza's Ark is maintaining its independence from all governments inside or outside Gaza. "The problem that we are fighting for is not for Hamas or against Israel. It is for the people of Gaza" said Lotayef.
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Paul Weinberg is a Toronto-based freelancer writer who has written for IPS since 1996. He is also a regular contributor to local weekly magazine NOW and specializes in Canadian politics, in particular foreign, security and defence policy. Paul is currently writing a book on the RCMP’s spying on academics in Canada during the 1960s.
Photo: Gaza's Ark