As global pressure and regional shifts undermine Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, Palestine supporters from more than 20 countries are preparing for the latest attempt to defy it.
GAZA STRIP — A converted Swedish fishing trawler left the port of Messina in eastern Sicily late Friday evening, sailing into the Mediterranean to meet other vessels before they attempt to break Israel’s nautical blockade of the Gaza Strip.
“The goal is, as always, to challenge and eventually end the inhuman and illegal blockade of Gaza,” David Heap, a spokesperson for the Canadian Boat to Gaza, told MintPress News.
“Whether we reach our destination, as happened five times in 2008, or are stopped by the occupier, as has happened from 2010 to 2012, our course remains the same: the conscience of humanity.”
The Marianne of Gothenburg, which left its home port on May 10, publicized its voyage down the coast of Europe and into the Strait of Gibraltar through the organizations supporting it, Ship to Gaza Sweden and Ship to Gaza Norway.
Other groups in the Freedom Flotilla Coalition have declined to disclose their efforts, including the names and locations of vessels.
“There has been secrecy around details that might be relevant to efforts to obstruct the flotilla, as there usually are,” Robert Naiman, a spokesperson for the U.S. Boat to Gaza, told MintPress.
Heap says the high level of security within “Freedom Flotilla III” stems from past Israeli attempts to prevent similar projects.
“In 2011 some boats were sabotaged, and Greek coast guard authorities stopped some of our boats when Israel outsourced its blockade to European ports,” he told MintPress. “So we have learned to be cautious about what information we release when.”
He added that “more than 50 people from over 20 countries [are] on board or ready to board at least three vessels.”
With the Marianne now at sea, its final departure for Gaza is expected as soon as weather clears.
On Sunday, Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, told the Jerusalem Post her ministry was “working around the clock through all possible diplomatic channels” to block the flotilla.
But a confrontation at sea would come at a time of heightened global resentment toward Israel as reconstruction of the Gaza Strip remains stalled after a 51-day military operation razed much of the Palestinian enclave last summer.
‘The blockade must be lifted’
— Dr. Ramy Abdu (@RamAbdu) May 24, 2015
“The bottom line remains that, if Gaza is to recover from the damage wrought by multiple rounds of hostility and a shattered economy, the blockade must be lifted,” United Nations Special Rapporteur Makarim Wibisono told the Human Rights Council on Friday.
“The people deserve help and realization of their human rights, not collective punishment.”
An HRC report on last year’s offensive released Monday morning, as well as complaints against Israel Palestinians expect to file at the International Criminal Court on Thursday, promise renewed attention to the catastrophic toll of the offensive ahead of its one-year anniversary on July 7.
“The impact of the 2014 hostilities on the Gaza strip cannot be assessed separately from the blockade imposed by Israel,” the report says, echoing Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s assessment of it as “a continuing collective penalty against the population in Gaza” and demanding Israel “lift, immediately and unconditionally, the blockade on Gaza.”
Amid these rising pressures, there are some signs that Israel may seek to modify, if not end, the blockade in exchange for a long-term ceasefire with the Hamas movement.
Officials in both camps have disclosed ongoing, indirect negotiations, mediated by regional powers like Turkey and Qatar as well as U.N. and European diplomats.
Middle East Eye revealed Sunday these negotiations have included two meetings in Doha between Middle East Quartet special envoy Tony Blair and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, an apparent admission that Blair’s attempt to impose Quartet conditions on Hamas as a condition for allowing humanitarian aid to rebuild Gaza had failed.
Other regional shifts — including the resignation of a cabinet appointed last year by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the military-backed Egyptian government’s simultaneous announcements that it would open the Rafah crossing Tuesday for the third time in a month, after extending the last opening, and appoint Egypt’s first ambassador to Tel Aviv in three years — may indicate a realignment of interests that could include a loosening of Israel’s stranglehold on Gaza.
None who know the full significance of these developments will yet explain it publicly. But a deal reportedly under consideration would include Israel allowing the construction and use of a seaport in Gaza, the opening of its checkpoints around the enclave, and a five-year truce.
Whether the Freedom Flotilla reaches the rocky fishermen’s port in Gaza or not, it may help to force Israel’s hand, pushing it to accept a deal that will let Palestinians trade and travel by sea.
“On life support”
Meanwhile, conditions in Gaza continue to deteriorate, according to rights groups.
A briefing released on June 14 by the Jerusalem-based Ma’an Development Center reports that 17,600 families in Gaza remain homeless since the destruction of their houses in last year’s offensive, and at 44 percent, Gaza is home to the world’s highest unemployment rate.
Among the enclave’s population, Ma’an reports that 57 percent are food insecure, and almost 80 percent are aid recipients.
A report issued on May 20 by the Geneva-based Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor traces the effects of Israel’s closure of the Strip, including its attacks on farmers near the separation barrier and fishermen at sea, whose economic impacts have been aggravated by waves of military onslaughts.
“[T]he Strip’s gross domestic product plunged 24 percent in the third quarter of 2014,” according to the report. “This, in an economy that already was on life support.”
Speaking to MintPress from Euro-Mediterranean’s regional office in Gaza, chairman Ramy Abdu said, “Gazans are eager to welcome the flotilla.”
“They believe that such activity will make a real shift in the nine-year blockade,” Abdu said. “This shift may not be significant, but they believe it will at least bring the blockade up to the international community.”
He added that Palestinians plan a number of demonstrations supporting the flotilla. “Different entities will carry out welcome activities either in the sea or on the beach.”
Basem Naim, former minister of health in Gaza’s Palestinian cabinet between June 2007 and January 2009 and now head of the Gaza-based Council on International Relations, told MintPress that local activity for the Freedom Flotilla had already begun.
“Preparations are going on day and night from all groups in Gaza, including factions, the Palestinian Legislative Council, NGOs and activists,” Naim said. “For example, today [Tuesday] at 9:00 p.m. a group of activists are going to ignite a flame in the seaport.”
He added that many in Gaza were following events closely, with “media coverage 24 hours a day about the activities of the flotilla.”
“Attacked and totally destroyed”
— Joe Catron (@jncatron) July 11, 2014
Like others that have sailed before it, the latest Freedom Flotilla will contain small amounts of aid intended to partially alleviate a few of Gaza’s most pressing needs.
“There is a solar panel on the Marianne, donated by a Swedish magazine, and it is bound for Al-Shifa hospital,” Awni Farhat, Gaza-based products and endorsements coordinator for Gaza’s Ark, told MintPress.
The group attempted to refurbish a Palestinian fishing boat to challenge the blockade from within Gaza before an Israeli strike demolished the vessel last year.
“There are also some other items of medical equipment: an asthma ventilator and material for injections, as well as midwife equipment donated by the Swedish midwife organization,” Farhat added. “These are bound for Wafa hospital.”
“Lastly, we consider the Marianne to be cargo herself, because she is a fishing trawler, and could be put to use in the Gaza fishing industry.”
Farhat added that other flotilla ships would export Palestinian goods trapped in Gaza by the blockade to purchasers abroad.
“Between June 6 and 8, Gaza’s Ark organized an exhibition of products from all of Palestine,” he said. “These products were supposed to sail with Gaza’s Ark from Gaza, but it was attacked and totally destroyed in the Israeli war last summer.”
‘No amount of humanitarian aid can “fix” the blockade’
— Dr-Abu Rayan Ziara (@Medo4Gaza) May 31, 2015
Supplies brought to Gaza by the Freedom Flotilla were meant to augment its mission of public awareness and political action, Robert Naiman, of U.S. Boat to Gaza, says. He explained:
“The aid carried by these boats is symbolic of international solidarity. The point is to publicize and challenge the fact that the port of Gaza is completely closed to civilian cargo and passenger traffic, and to engage international public opinion to pressure governments to act to end the blockade.”
Canadian Boat to Gaza’s David Heap added that supplies alone could not remedy the damage of the Gaza closure.
“No amount of humanitarian aid can ‘fix’ the blockade,” Heap said, adding:
“Our main cargo is always human solidarity, as on previous voyages. Some medical supplies, some solar panels: these will help with immediate problems, but the real goal must always be drawing the world’s attention to the human rights of Palestinians of Gaza, in particular their right to freedom of movement.”
“We are all eager to see it”
Although Freedom Flotilla organizations have not yet announced all participants, those revealed by Wednesday included former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki, former Ardoch Algonquin First Nation chief Robert Lovelace, survivor of Israel’s 1967 attack on the USS Liberty Joe Meadors, and members of both the European and Israeli parliaments.
Basel Ghattas, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and Balad party member elected to the Knesset this year from the Joint List, announced his participation Sunday in an open letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I request that you command the Israeli security forces to stay away and allow the flotilla to arrive at its destination,” Ghattas wrote. “Any form of takeover to prevent this will only involve Israel in yet another difficult international scandal that you and your government will be responsible for.”
“Palestinian fishermen and youth will welcome the flotilla with fishing boats,” Farhat told MintPress. “We are all eager to see it.”
Watch the Freedom Flotilla III set sail for Gaza from an Italian port: