Can a Handful of International Activists and Two Boats Break the Siege of Gaza?

The voyage to “break the siege of Gaza” was originally planned for the summer of 2007. But it did not materialize for lack of funds and because of logistical challenges in arranging for purchase and delivery of the boats. Many observers wondered whether the ambitious grassroots project without the backing of any major organization or agency would ever get off the ground.

But on August 10, 2008, two small Greek-flagged boats finally arrived from Greece to Chania, Cyprus. They were the 21-metre long SS Free Gaza (??? ?????) and the 18-metre SS Liberty, named in memory of the 34 American sailors who were killed when Israel attacked the USS Liberty in apparent error during the Six Day War in 1967. Before their arrival in Chania, the identity of the vessels had been a closely-guarded secret for genuine fear of Israeli sabotage. Once the vessels were renamed and presented at a press conference, activists remained on board both vessels 24 hours a day for security reasons.

After days of additional delays due to soaring prices for supplies and diesel fuel, a shortfall in funds, and turbulent weather, the vessels finally departed Crete en route to Cyprus, where they will take on the remaining half of the activists waiting apprehensively in Nicosia. Along the way, the activists have received tremendous support, including material assistance, from local residents in Crete and Cyprus.

Some forty peace and justice activists from 17 countries will be on board, including Israeli peace activist Jeff Halper, founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. Other notable individuals include 84-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein of Saint Louis, Missouri; Lauren Booth, sister-in-law of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair; members of the European Parliament; a survivor of the Palestinian catastrophe (al-Nakbah); and Free Gaza Movement co-founders Paul Larudee and Greta Berlin. Including professional crewmembers and journalists, the number of people on the two boats could reach as high as sixty.


The Israeli government and Zionist organizations like the Anti-Defamation League have tried (unconvincingly) to link the Free Gaza Movement and its affiliations to the International Solidarity Movement to armed Palestinian resistance organizations that they have labelled as “terrorists.” In fact, the Free Gaza Movement and the Break the Siege campaign in particular have received no funding from any Palestinian organizations, armed or otherwise. The $200,000-300,000 raised for the voyage from Cyprus to Gaza has been entirely from small fundraising dinners in private homes and restaurants, individual contributions, and from the sale of fair-trade Palestinian olive oil rebottled in Berkeley, California by community volunteers. Donna and Darlene Wallach, twin sisters of Eastern European Jewish descent who have lived for many years in Israel and the Palestinian territories, were among those tireless volunteers and will be on the boats to Gaza.

More ominously, Lauren Booth reported on August 15, 2008 that a dozen threatening anonymous calls, text messages, and voice mails had been received by Free Gaza participants in Nicosia. This escalated to family members of activists. Booth reported that on August 14, an anonymous call to her husband in France threatened, “Your wife is in great danger. These ships will be blown up.” Who but a state intelligence agency like the Mossad could readily obtain private telephone and mobile numbers around the world?

Meanwhile, the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz reported on August 17, 2008 that Israeli “defense officials favor forcefully blocking two boats which a group of U.S.-based activists plan to sail to Gaza to protest what they call ‘the Israeli siege on the Strip.’” The statement was based on a position paper by the legal department of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, arguing that Israel has the right to use force against the protesters under the Oslo Accords, which gives Israel responsibility for Gaza’s territorial waters.

Why Gaza?

When the Israeli government withdrew thousands of Israeli settlers and troops from Gaza at the end of 2005, it called the move “disengagement.” Many thought that the occupation of Gaza would come to an end. But on January 25, 2006, the day of Palestinian elections, Israel sealed off Gaza by closing the last open crossing at Erez owing to “security concerns” relating to the anticipated strong turnout for Hamas. Karni crossing had been closed since January 15, 2006, and three other checkpoints had been open only intermittently.

The final election results gave Hamas 74 seats out of 132 in the Palestinian Legislative Council, and an overwhelming majority in Gaza. After the elections, Israel proceeded to tighten control over the flow of goods and people into and out of Gaza in an attempt to destabilize popular support for Hamas and block Hamas’ participation in the Palestinian government headquartered in Ramallah in the West Bank.

Gaza is a strip of land approximately 40 kilometres long by 7 kilometres wide. It includes cities, towns, 8 major refugee camps and several minor ones, agricultural land, and uncultivable sand dunes and saline intrusion areas. With nearly 1.5 million people, Gaza has an overall population density twice that of a typical large U.S. city or roughly comparable to a European city. Gaza cannot possibly feed itself. It has no natural sources of energy — neither fossil fuels nor hydroelectric potential. It has no natural aquifers to provide a renewable source of fresh water. As a relatively unindustrialized territory, it is completely dependent on the outside for nearly all of its consumption needs and the majority of its viable employment.

After 1967, Gaza residents gained employment inside Israel and became dependent on the crossings for daily commutes to their jobs in Ashkelon, Tel Aviv, the Negev, and elsewhere. But that source of employment was largely cut off by Israel during the Second Intifada, and completely eliminated with the economic siege imposed on Hamas in Gaza in 2006. In reality, the drastic lack of employment, and the obstacles placed on the supply of food, drinking water, medicines, fuel, and electricity became a chronic collective punishment on all Gaza residents in full violation of international law.

Israeli “disengagement” from Gaza changed nothing with respect to the wall and fence that completely encircle Gaza from its northern boundary with Israel to its southern boundary with Egypt. Even the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt is effectively controlled by Israel through European Union monitors who have acceded to Israeli demands to have veto power over any person or baggage moving through the Rafah crossing. The Kerem Shalom crossing for goods from and to Egypt is controlled directly by Israel because it operates on an intervening sliver of Israeli territory. The remaining checkpoints not only are opened by Israel very sparingly, but are each used by Israel for very restricted purposes. The Erez crossing in the north is the primary gateway for people, but not for goods. Nahal Oz crossing is exclusively for liquid fuels. Karni crossing is the primary entry point for food, medicines, and manufactured goods. Sufa crossing is mainly for bulk aggregates and building materials. Kissufim and Elie Sinai crossings are effectively closed.

Gaza has a commercial airport southeast of Rafah, but all Palestinian air traffic is banned by Israel. That leaves the sea. The Israeli Navy controls all waters around Gaza and does not allow any vessels in or out of Gaza’s fishing limits. There are over 700 boats, mostly fishing boats, registered in Gaza. The boats provide a livelihood for 3000 Palestinian fishermen according to a United Nations survey. Under the 1993 Oslo Agreement, the fishing limit for Gaza fishermen was set at 20 nautical miles from the shore. A “no fishing zone” 2 nautical miles wide was established as a security buffer from the Israeli sea boundary (as if fishermen were a threat to Israel’s security) within Gaza’s territorial waters and extending out from shore to the fishing limit. A similar “no fishing zone” one nautical mile wide was established on the sea border with Egypt. But in 2002 as a result of the comprehensive Israeli military assault on all the occupied Palestinian territories launched at the end of April, the Bertini Agreement restricted Gaza’s fishing limit to 12 nautical miles. Then, as part of the ever-tightening noose around Hamas-ruled Gaza, the Israeli Defense Forces began enforcing a 6-nautical-mile fishing limit from October 2006. Not only has Gaza effectively become the world’s largest open-air prison, but some of the walls of the prison have been progressively closing in on the inmate population.

So it is not surprising that perhaps hundreds of Gaza fishing boats may be preparing to greet the uncertain arrival of the SS Free Gaza and the SS Liberty. In Gaza Port alone, there are over 470 registered boats. If the Israeli siege is broken by sea, it will be a tremendous morale boost to Gaza fishermen whose operating territory has shrunken from the Eastern Mediterranean before 1967 to a mere sliver of coastal water under Israeli military control. Even in the years following the Israeli occupation, Gaza Port continued to be a bustling hub not only for fishing but for international shipping as well. I remember well in 1973 how ocean freighters used to wait in queue offshore for a berth in Gaza City’s cargo port. Few places on Earth have witnessed such a drastic and comprehensive economic decline under military occupation.

The SS Free Gaza and the SS Liberty either may pave the way for unrestricted international access to Gaza by symbolically breaking the Israeli naval blockade, or they will be stopped by the Israeli Navy which will prove that Israel still occupies Gaza despite its denials. The action places the Israeli government on the horns of dilemma, out of which neither outcome will work in its favor. It is only regrettable that no Arab government or organization has had the courage to challenge the Israeli blockade.

It is the responsibility of all activists for human rights and social justice worldwide to stand behind the courageous passengers of the SS Free Gaza and SS Liberty in the coming critical days as they prepare to depart from Cyprus. This is an act of nonviolent civil disobedience following in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi — unarmed ordinary people with an unshakable moral conviction facing down one of the most powerful military machines on Earth. Global awareness is key. The probability that they will be harmed is drastically reduced if the eyes of the world are focused on Gaza’s coastal waters. The siege of Gaza must be broken!

Sharat G. Lin is president of the San José Peace and Justice Center. He writes on global political economy, the Middle East, India, and public health. He lived in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, and spent time in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Captured by a Palestinian militia in 1973, he has first-hand experience of their internal workings. Read other articles by Sharat.

11 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. bozhidar balkas said on August 18th, 2008 at 8:46am #

    i am awed at the significance of ss liberty and ss free gaza mission to break the siege of gaza.
    it’s no wonder that mossad is threatening the people on the two ships.
    i do not recognize the state of israel; i recognize only the state of palestine. than k u

  2. Hugh said on August 18th, 2008 at 8:55am #

    Here’s a letter sent by the gov’t of Israel to the FreeGaza gang.

    18 August 2008
    The Steering Committee for the Free Gaza Movement, Cyprus

    Dear Committee Members:

    Your letter to Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni as published on your website has been brought to our attention. We assume that your intentions are good but, in fact, the result of your action is that you are supporting the regime of a terrorist organization in Gaza, an organization dedicated to non-recognition of the State of Israel and its right to exist; an organization that sends women and children to commit suicide in order to hurt others; an organization that has committed dozens of terrorist acts against Israeli civilians, including massive attacks of rockets and mortar bombs on Israeli communities in the heart of Israel’s sovereign territory. It is this organization that does not allow the Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace. In 2005, Israel withdrew all of its forces and all of its citizens from the Gaza Strip so that the Palestinians could manage their own lives; in return, innocent Israeli citizens were the targets of repeated attacks launched from within Palestinian civilian population centers, turning the Palestinian population into hostages of the terrorist organizations and the Hamas regime. The attacks from the Gaza Strip against Israeli communities continue to this day.

    In June 2007, Hamas led a violent coup in Gaza and seized the government illegally, a fact which led to an international boycott and isolation of its government. The international community also set clear conditions that Hamas must fulfill in order to be regarded as a partner for diplomatic contacts and normal economic relations. Hamas is the central player in the Gaza Strip and the address to which you should direct your complaints concerning the situation there. In this protest voyage to Gaza , you seek to remove legitimate pressure on the Hamas government and to violate the conditions of the international community; therefore we cannot cooperate with your efforts.

    Your claim that the residents of the Gaza Strip are suffering from hunger is groundless considering the amount of food that passes every day from Israel to the Gaza Strip. There isn’t another conflict in the world in which one side supplies all the needs of the other side – food, medicines, water, fuel and electricity. Thousands of Palestinians have crossed into Israel from the Gaza Strip to receive medical treatment at Israeli hospitals.

    We would like to point out that the area to which you are planning to sail is the subject of an advisory notice that has been published by the Israeli Navy, which warns all foreign vessels to remain clear of the designated maritime zone off the coast of Gaza in light of the current security situation.

    We have received information that you are planning to bring humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. We would like to bring to your attention that the transfer of humanitarian aid to Israel is effected, at present, through agreed-upon channels, and the Israeli authorities will ensure that the shipment reaches its destination via the land crossing points. We will be happy to assist you in this endeavor.

    If your intentions are good, please choose this way; if you do not intend to deliver the humanitarian aid via Israel , this proves that your goal is political and constitutes the legitimization of a terrorist organization.

    Noam Katz
    Director, Public Relations Department
    Ministry of Foreign Affairs

  3. bozhidar balkas said on August 18th, 2008 at 2:56pm #

    according to noam katz, the people bringing aid (medicine and food) to children of gaza are thus supporting a terrorist regime in gaza.
    oh, it is so easy to call names; and as we know namecalling does not ever elucidate any situation and in the besieged gaza the name “terorist” for gazan govt freely elected cannot apply.
    what noam wants is peaceful occupation of expalestine. or as in case of gaza, peaceful siege.
    in fact, gazans are morally and legally obligated to try to break the siege by all means.
    down with the criminal israel. thank u

  4. Hugh said on August 18th, 2008 at 4:09pm #

    bozhidar …there are 7 million people in Israel.

    What do you want to do with them? Kill them? Gas them? Drive them into the sea?

    For peace?

  5. bozhidar balkas said on August 18th, 2008 at 5:02pm #

    i do not recognize israel only palestine. if you want to reward war criminals with recognition of what they have stolen and grant the thiefs the right to bar retrurn of people who were driven out, please say so.
    i never will.
    where these criminals belong if anywhere is not my responsibility.
    if you reward then you too are a criminal.
    i can’t thank you for putting your word in m y mouth. that is dishonest.

  6. Joe said on August 19th, 2008 at 4:57am #

    “If your intentions are good, please choose this way; if you do not intend to deliver the humanitarian aid via Israel , this proves that your goal is political and constitutes the legitimization of a terrorist organization.”

    Ergo, if you get shelled its because you’re in league with terrorists.

    With regards to the average Israeli, if you want a country worth living in you have all the cards, the current situation is moving further away from the two-state solution and toward the one state one. Olmert himself presciently said the same thing a while back. The “Jordanian option” is not an option, that ship has sailed.

    Do you really want to share all of historic Palestine and end up with one man, one vote. That would be the end of Israel as a Jewish state without firing a shot.

    You need the settlers in Israel proper, they’re the ones having all the (Jewish) babies…..unless you incorporate the occupied territories into Israel proper and face (one day) a free election of all the people who live there.

    Zionism is at a crucial juncture. Discuss…..

  7. bozhidar balkas said on August 19th, 2008 at 6:48am #

    if i have understood you, you are for onestate solution?! so am i.
    it can be called israel or palestine.
    my understanding is that many israeli and palestinians are impious in all its degrees,
    thus they can preclude establishment of theocracies.
    mizrahim being semites can get along with other semitic peoples.
    euro-asians with judaic faith are trouble makers. they always have been just about everwhere.
    it is these people, nonsemitic, who are master of the semites and who hate semites beyond belief. thank u

  8. Joe said on August 19th, 2008 at 2:48pm #

    Broadly speaking, yes, however this will not happen without things getting worse in the interim.

    If Israel had embraced Arafat and stood by Oslo then the Religious on both sides would have been weakened, however this was not to be, hence the religous partys becoming the antagonistic powers they are (I am referring to the Settler Movement and Hamas).

    One thing is for sure though, and that is history has a habit of turning around if you give it enough time. Israeli’s I’m sure want to be on the right side of it when it does. Simply making your enemies bow before your might will not do alone.

    Balkas, if you think like I do with regards to Palestine then I would suggest you do away with generalisations about troublemakers, it doesn’t really help. There is a reason most of Europe’s Jewry was concentrated in eastern Europe when Nazism kicked off, constant grief from other Europeans, a long interminable history of persecution long before the “Protocols” were written. EVERY people has it’s troublemakers, but to quote an old english expression, it is foolish to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” we all have good people amongst us.

    The trick is trying to empower the good.

  9. richard bartholomew said on August 20th, 2008 at 10:45am #

    Sharat Lin’s article and the comments of your correspondents are blithely unaware of the recent report by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights condemning the illegal occupation of Gaza by the Hamas gang. This objective report documents the creation of a giant prison camp by the Hamas theocrats for the opponents of their illegal coup. Torture there is commonplace, including the brutal Hamas practice of crushing testicles, and multi-rapings of married women. Some 25,000 poor Palestinians are beaten daily by the Hamas sadists. Foreign activists are fearful of protesting because they know Hamas will kill them. Thus, I am afraid that this planned sailing to Gaza by left-wing deviationists is an infantile – if not entertaining – affair.

  10. bozhidar balkas said on August 20th, 2008 at 1:47pm #

    my reply to you had not appeared.
    in torah you’ll find following:
    you shall be lenders; not borrowers.
    you’re chosen.
    you are the light onto the world
    you shall have servants but will not serve others
    utterly destroy canaanites
    and by extension, destroy also pals

  11. bozhidar balkas said on August 21st, 2008 at 6:16am #

    richard b,
    what you wrote about hamas may be true in every detail. however, badness of some people in any nation does not remove its right to be free of siege and occupation.
    often, by the Left and the Right bad deeds- alleged or actual- by individuals are cited in order to punish a people collectively.
    eg, kosovo had no right to independence because so many leading kosovars were drug dealers/murderers/terrorists, etcetc.
    often, too often, too many amers/zionists aver how bad arabs and pals are; ergo, how cld such primitives ever govern selves and live in peace with peaceful/noble/gentle zionists.
    thank u.