Made in Gaza: Breaking the Siege

The builders of Gaza’s Ark hope to bring Gazan goods to the world. The latest plan to try to break the illegal siege of Gaza, according to organizer Michael Coleman at Sunday’s press conference in the port of Gaza, is to refurbish their very second-hand fishing boat, fill it with Gazan products (date products, embroidery, craft items and more) and sail to another Mediterranean port, like any normal exporter.

Though this would hardly be earth-shattering news in any other coastal area, it is hoped that this time Israel will blink, and not scuttle this modest attempt to help beleaguered Palestinians in Gaza stand on their own feet. “Israel always claimed that the blockade was meant to prevent the smuggling of illegal weapons into Gaza. In that case, it should have no problem with a boat leaving the Gaza Strip,” said Mahfouz Kabariti, head of Gaza’s fishing and marine sport association.

Efforts to end the siege really got underway following Israel’s 22-day assault on Gaza in 2008–2009, first trying to reach Gaza from the Rafah crossing with Egypt in December 2009, on the Gaza Freedom March. This failed, but led to the Freedom Flotilla in May 2010, which held the world in thrall, as Israeli commandos dropped from helicopters, killing nine Turkish activists, arresting the others, and seizing the boats and cargo of food and medicine.

Three years later, the siege continues and the movement against it is stronger than ever, the focus now Gaza’s Ark. This time, it is not internationals trying to bring aid to Gaza, but internationals helping Palestinians export their products — breaking the siege, but in reverse. Gazans, with a modicum of international assistance, are at this moment converting the old fishing boat into a cargo vessel using Gaza’s meagre resources. Later this year, a crew of internationals and Palestinians will sail it out of Gaza — the only Mediterranean port closed to shipping — carrying Palestinian products destined for international buyers, in the process, breaking through the Israeli blockade.

Though it is paying wages to boat builders and providing business opportunities to traders, Gaza’s Ark is not an aid project, but an attempt to support Palestinians’ right to fish and operate in their territorial waters, where at present they are hounded, stripped, robbed and killed by Israeli patrols, intent on forcing them to give up and leave their homeland. Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights notes that “it is common for the [Israeli] navy to open fire on fishermen, pursue them in Gazan waters, and destroy and confiscate their equipment, including their nets and boats. Such acts constitute flagrant violations of Israel’s legal obligations as an occupying power under international law, and violate the fishermen’s rights to life and work.” Almost all fishing has ceased under the blockade. Even a mile from shore, Israelis have killed Gazan fishermen for sport.

Prior to the imposition of the blockade, Gaza had a healthy export market, including garments, furniture and agricultural products. Gazans are renowned for craft items such as embroidery. Since 2007, there has been a near total ban on exports, 85% of which went to the West Bank and Israel. Goods are only allowed in and out of Gaza through one, severely limited gate on its border with Israel; its airport is no longer functioning and cannot be rebuilt; and for the past seven years, all ships were banned beyond three nautical miles from the Gaza shore. Thanks to an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire agreement signed in November 2012, Gaza fishermen were allowed to venture six miles out from shore, still drastically short of the 20 miles allocated in the 1993 Oslo Accords. Even that agreement is often violated by the Israeli navy.

Sadly, the allowed area has done little to improve the fishermen’s intake as most fish are more than ten miles from the shore. The restrictions have converted a once-productive economy into a dependent society where 80% of the people rely on UN handouts to live. National governments and international organizations have refused to hold Israel accountable. It is up to civil society to take action on its own. Hence, Gaza’s Ark.

Organizers hail from Canada, the United States, Europe and Australia, and supporters include Noam Chomsky, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, six Nobel peace laureates, British, Australian and Canadian former and current members of parliament, two former UN assistant secretaries general, and Hedy Epstein and Suzanne Weiss, both Holocaust survivors. The allusion to Noah’s Ark is to “build a revitalized feeling of hope for a better future among Gaza’s people, a safe one.” Their fervent hope is to waken the international community to the plight of the 1.6 million people in Gaza, to make sure that, “No more flotillas will be necessary because the Israeli blockade of Gaza will end and the economy of Gaza can once again flourish.”

The action is intended to raise consciousness not just among the committed, but among businesses who believe in free and fair trade. Organizers are securing orders for Palestinian products — date products, embroidery, crafts from the Atfaluna society for Deaf Children — from international businesses and individual buyers. “All Palestinian producers will be paid in full for their goods before we sail. All purchasers will do so knowing that there is real risk that the goods will be confiscated by the Israeli military, and thus perhaps will not reach their markets. However, the risk will be worth the relationships they will build and the visibility the project will generate.”

Organizers insist that helping Gazans earn their own livelihood is what is needed, not just more handouts. Said Canadian organizer David Heap, a linguistics professor at the University of Western Ontario, “Aid is only a palliative remedy and does not address the root cause of why the Palestinians of Gaza are in need: the Israeli blockade. We believe that aid provides a cover for the Israeli occupation, alleviating the consciences of international powers while leaving the blockade in place.”

Even as Gaza’s Ark is preparing to bring Palestinians a lifeline, the fight to bring Israel to account for killing activists in 2010 received a boost when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan in March, promising compensation to the bereaved and agreeing to ease a six-year blockade on Gaza.

There is no evidence that the blockade is easing, however, so the Israeli crocodile tears have not dampened the anger of activists. There are legal proceedings in Turkey and elsewhere, including the International Criminal Court, demanding that the Israelis who killed the activists be identified and brought to justice. An Istanbul court is hearing charges against four of Israel’s most senior retired commanders, including the ex-army chief, which could lead to life sentences. Ahmet Varol, a journalist who was on the Mavi Marmara, said Israel must provide a timetable for ending the blockade of Gaza, and suggested Turkey could monitor the process. “Our efforts are for the full lifting of the blockade. While an apology may have diplomatic meaning, it means nothing to the victims,” he said. Musa Cogas was shot in the shoulder by Israeli marines and his friend of 30 years, Cengiz Songur, was killed in the raid. “Unless these soldiers are punished and the blockade is lifted … we won’t accept compensation.”

The Canadian and Irish boats, the Tahrir and Saoirse, repeated their trip as Freedom Waves in November 2011, and were. of course, seized by Israel. This time their boats weren’t returned. Heap, who was on board the Tahrir both in May 2010 and November 2011, told Al-Ahram Weekly:

It is important to demand justice from Canadian authorities, although we know that the Harper government supports Israel’s crimes unconditionally. Israel can steal our boats, as they steal Palestinian boats all the time with impunity, but Freedom Flotilla Coalition will keep challenging the blockade until Palestinians win full freedom of movement.

In June 2012, the Canadian Boat to Gaza steering committee officially requested the return of the Tahrir and its cargo. A year later, Israel still hasn’t responded. The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade washed its hands of the intrepid sailors, stating that they consider it a “private matter”.

As Canada’s Conservatives continue to ignore the plight of the Palestinians, Canadians continue to react. Shamed by the government’s support for Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2008 and its litany of crimes since, last October Canadian retired New Democrat Jim Manly, a former United Church minister, frail at 79 after two heart bypass operations, nonetheless joined 30 people from eight countries, including Israeli activists, aboard the most recent boat to attempt to break the blockade, the Swedish registered Estelle, and spent three days in an Israeli prison for his troubles. (The Estelle was also stolen by the Israelis.) Upon his return he vowed: “We will continue our efforts until the siege has been broken and the Palestinian peoples can once again live with freedom and dignity.”

Eric Walberg is a journalist who worked in Uzbekistan and is now writing for Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo. He is the author of From Postmodernism to Postsecularism: Re-Emerging Islamic Civilization and Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games. Read other articles by Eric, or visit Eric's website.