By Ben Lorber – Ramallah, The West Bank
On Wednesday, November 2, two international ships left the Turkish harbor to carry humanitarian aid through the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
The event, called ‘Freedom Waves for Gaza’, unites 27 activists from 9 countries, including America, Canada, Denmark, Belgium, Germany and Australia, alongside Palestinians from Bethlehem and Haifa, in a broad-based international movement to break Israel’s illegal and immoral suffocation of the 1.6 million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip. The Irish yacht Saoirse (Freedom), which carries 15 activists, and the Canadian boat Tahrir (Liberation), which holds 12, will attempt to carry $30,000 in medical supplies beyond the Israeli blockade later this week. ‘Freedom Waves for Gaza’ is the 11th attempt by international activists to deliver humanitarian aid through the Israeli blockade of Gaza since 2008.
As the boats navigate international waters, Palestinian youth activists will parade a large wooden effigy of the aid boats through the streets of Ramallah, while distributing white armbands and ribbons emblazoned ‘Freedom Waves for Gaza’. In addition, they will hold a demonstration outside of the UN office in Ramallah on Thursday, demanding that the UN end its compliance with the Israeli blockade and protect the humanitarian mission.
Indeed, in a letter given to the UN on Wednesday, Palestinian youth insisted that “it is incumbent upon the UN to take urgent steps to protect the boats en route to Gaza and all of the humanitarian volunteers aboard, as well as to declare its support for nonviolent, humanitarian action, designed to do what the UN and its members states have thus far failed to do.”
Organizers of the flotilla mission withheld the news from the world until the boats reached international waters, to prevent Israeli or international sabotage that plagued previous aid attempts. Though the humanitarian vessels departed from Fethiye, Turkey, organizers insist that the Turkish government is not involved with Freedom Waves for Gaza. Says Huwaida Arraf, “because Freedom Flotilla 1 was mostly an international effort, and because with the Mavi Marmara Turkish people were killed, it became mainly a Turkish thing…which detracted from the fact that it really was an international effort. So this time we want to show that it’s not just Turkey, its an international effort.” In fact, no Turkish citizens are aboard either of the two ships.
Freedom Waves for Gaza comes at a time when minor improvements to the situation- such as the opening of the Rafah land crossing from Egypt to Gaza in May- or minor concessions by Israel- such as its allowance of minor consumer goods into Gaza in the wake of the Mavi Marmara massacre in 2010, touted internationally as an ‘easing of the blockade’ (though it led led 10-year-old Gaza schoolchild Abed Rahmen Jadee to lament ‘I don’t want any more snacks or coke. I want a new school’)- have done little to meaningfully alleviate the humanitarian crisis that plagues the 1.6 million inhabitants of Gaza, half of whom are under the age of 16.
Organizer Huwaida Arraf, chair of the Free Gaza movement, stresses that “by reaching Palestinians through their own port, the flotilla defies the dehumanization of a whole population and supports the continuing efforts of the people of Gaza to assert their dignity. The Palestinians will accept nothing less than a total end to the illegal Israeli blockade of Gaza and all forms of violence and discrimination against them.”
The most recent figures published by the UN and international humanitarian and human rights organizations confirm that roughly 75 – 80% of the population rely on international aid in order to survive; 65% live below the poverty line; 52% are food insecure; approximately 40% are unemployed; there are no building materials for much-needed schools and hospitals; 90 – 95% of the drinking water is contaminated and unfit for consumption; seriously ill patients cannot get access to the specialist treatment that would potentially save their lives; and children are suffering untreated post-traumatic stress as a result of the white phosphorous shells used illegally in Israel’s invasion in January 2009.
In its declaration to the UN, the Palestinian youth stated that “in our schools, universities and through our organizations, we are taught about human rights and international law, and yet it seems like Palestinians fall into a class of people upon whom these rights don’t apply. Like the blacks in America a half a century ago, or in South Africa two decades ago, we are victims of an exclusivist ideology and those who tolerate and enable it.”
The declaration continues- “Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit has been returned to his family, removing one of Israel’s main pretexts, albeit not a justification, for its Draconian closure policy. And while 1027 Palestinian prisoners have been exchanged for Shalit (although 550 have yet to be released), over 1.5 million Palestinians remain caged in the prison that is Gaza.”
During the campaign, Witness Gaza (witnessgaza.com) will be a central information hub, in contact with representative organizations from activists’ home countries. Palestinian youth representatives will be updating the world via Twitter at #PALWaves, as will international activists aboard the ships- unless Israel jams the communications signal, as has occurred in previous flotilla aid attempts.
In Wednesday’s press release, Majd Kayyal, a Palestinian activist from Haifa aboard the Tahrir, insisted that “Israel has caged Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, prohibiting physical contact between us. We want to break the siege Israel has imposed on our people. The fact that we’re in international waters is already a victory for the movement.”
As new Israeli airstrikes are claiming lives in Gaza, and as Benjamin Netanyahu threatens to intensify the bombardments, it is due time to once again bring to the world’s attention what the UN in 2009 called the ‘protracted human dignity crisis’ caused by Israel’s closure of Gaza. Says Huwaida Arraf, “the people of Gaza have called on the peoples and governments of the world to challenge an illegal, immoral, and irrational Israeli naval blockade that has caused, and continues to cause, incalculable human suffering. We are responding to that call. Our primary aim is to overcome the continuing blockade of Gaza through civil resistance and non-violent direct action, and to establish a permanent sea lane between Gaza and the rest of the world.”
– Ben Lorber is an American activist with the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank and a journalist with the Alternative Information Center in Bethlehem. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Visit his blog at: freepaly.wordpress.com.