Like many Israelis in the summer months, Prof. Jeff Halper departed for Cyprus last week from Ben-Gurion International Airport. However, Halper, a veteran left-wing activist from Jerusalem, will not be returning by plane. This weekend, he and 40 other human rights activists will sail for the Gaza Strip, with the goal of breaking the siege Israel has imposed there.
Halper, a lecturer in anthropology and the chairman of the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions, is the only Jewish Israeli who will sail aboard the ship, Free Gaza.
After arriving in Cyprus, he met with activists from 17 countries around the world. They are now preparing for their departure at the University of Nicosia dorms. "Right now, we're holding discussions and training," Halper said on Tuesday. "We are presenting different scenarios of what might happen, and preparing ourselves for every situation. It is possible the navy will stop us and not allow us to enter. We have no idea how they'll do it, but we're organizing. If they catch us, we will resist passively."
It is still unclear how the Israel Defense Forces will react to the arrival of the two ships on the Gaza coast, but Halper is not worried. "All the participants on board are very experienced and determined people and they know why they're going in," he says. "The beauty of a non-violent activity is that we win, no matter what. If we break the siege, we win, and even if they arrest us, we win, because this will expose the face of the occupation and prove Israel is still an occupier in Gaza."
The trip is expected to last 24 hours. Before entering Gaza, the ship plans to anchor overnight on the border between international waters and Gaza's territorial waters. "We believe Israel will not be able to stop us there," he says.
Halper, 62, immigrated to Israel from the United States in 1973 because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1997, he set up the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions - an organization that works to block the IDF's activities in the territories in general and the demolition of Palestinian homes in particular. Over the years, he has participated in numerous protest activities against Israeli policies and was, among other things, one of the supporters of the academic boycott against Israel.
Nevertheless, in participating in the journey to Gaza, he emphasizes he is an Israeli. "I see this is as a mission, also as an Israeli who is saying that the occupation is destroying all of us. We hoped that more Israelis from the peace movements would come," he says.
Doesn't he feel a need to show solidarity with the residents of Sderot and the areas around Gaza, who suffer from Qassam rockets fired from the Gaza Strip?
"There is no coming to terms with Palestinians' attacks on civilian populations in Sderot," he says but stresses that Sderot residents are also victims of the Israeli occupation. "The residents of Sderot have more in common with the Palestinians than they have with the people of Tel Aviv, who go to the beach and live the good life."
Halper also calls for the release of Gilad Shalit. "I hope I don't join him," he says jokingly, but adds he is not worried about entering the Gaza Strip. "I asked the Palestinian organizations that invited us if they were interested in having an Israeli aboard the ship. They told me: 'Come. You're our guest.' I've been traveling freely around the territories for years. I know that if you come in peace, there is nothing to worry about. I'm more worried about the Israeli army's response."
In any event, Halper does not even hope to return to Jerusalem via Gaza. "I know there's no way," he says. "I'll have to go back to Cyprus and fly from there. Then we'll see whether they arrest me when I arrive in Israel."
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