Flotilla Activists Still Have Much to Learn About Gaza Siege

The activists who sailed to Gaza are determined and enthusiastic, but they still have something to learn about the siege that began in 1991.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The glittering lights of the magical Greek island of Kastelorizo, from which we had distanced ourselves only two to three hours earlier, once again came into sight on Saturday night, July 16. For the 12 passengers on board the Karama - including crew and journalists whose presence the coast guard had permitted - the boat was too small. The French delegation in the flotilla had bought a pleasure yacht, called it "Dignite" (karame, dignity ) and turned it into a floating situation room, a sauna full of stale cigarette smoke, with eight sleeping berths without water for showering, a deafening motor and poisonous diesel fumes.

Another four "clandestine" passengers were supposed to join those officially registered, and to participate in the group experience of becoming adjusted to discomfort as an act of political rebellion. Three had jumped into the boat the moment it moved away from the pier, without the coast guard noticing. Or to be more exact - pretending not to notice. The only one remaining was the sociologist, the Greek professor Vangelis Pissias, who for mysterious reasons didn't get his new passport on time, and had only a passport that had expired four days earlier.

A quiet moment on board for some of the Karama’s 12 passengers and crew.Credit: Amira Hass

The adventure became the goal

We returned after midnight in order to pick him up, aboard a fishing boat with a sympathetic fisherman who knew very well under which cliff on the tiny island to hide in order to evade the radar. It wasn't easy to find them - without a flashlight, without a phone connection. Karama slowly and cautiously made its way through the dark, quiet water and turned around, a bit lost, until someone said in a loud whisper: "Here they are." A full moon painted the outlines of the boat with a weak stripe.

"Hasamba" [a reference to an Israeli children's adventure series], said Pissias' good friend, Dror Feiler, who almost wept when the man with the white beard walked between the shaking boat and rocking yacht. Feiler is no longer an Israeli citizen. But culture and childhood memories need no stamp of approval from the Interior Ministry. We sang the Israeli song "A fishing boat is sailing, with two masts," and together forgot several of the rhymes, when the Karama, which had begun its journey on June 25 from Corsica, sailed (with us ) from a Cretan port on July 12. The other passengers must have found associations from their own culture in order to express some self-mockery and to put into words the contradiction of which everyone was aware: The means (a sea voyage to protest the siege of Gaza ) had turned into the end itself. The adventure had become the goal. And this boat would sail!

The island of Kastelorizo is about two miles from Turkey's territorial waters. In 1942 and 1943, the fear of German attacks caused the flight of its inhabitants, some of whom found refuge in Gaza for several years. The idea was that there, the sympathy for Gaza and the proximity to Turkey would neutralize the tricks of Greek bureaucracy, which proved so effective in preventing the sailing of the other eight boats. That's why it was worthwhile to invest 20 hours of sailing northeast, on a stormy sea, and to enable Pissias to negotiate with the coast guard there.

The official destination was Alexandria. The idea was to refuel there and then to continue to Gaza. That plan was abandoned out of a desire not to become involved in the sensitive political entanglements in Egypt. The 10 activists on the Karama have worked in the past year in their respective countries (France, Sweden, Greece and Canada ) to raise money from tens of thousands of people at informative meetings about the siege of Gaza, to convince trade unions to join, to interest writers and actors, to look for suitable seagoing vessels.

In the past week, they unwillingly turned into a symbol of the flotilla and into the representatives of all the hundreds of participants who didn't sail. These hundreds, including young people who are still studying in university or looking for work, paid for the cost of the flights and the stay out of their own pockets. These hundreds were united in their frank and natural revulsion at the existence of a huge prison like the Gaza Strip. The thought that an open sea could become a prison wall gives them no rest.

There is no lack of food in Gaza

That doesn't mean the details of the Israeli siege are clear to them. I had the impression that most of the participants knew too little. In their (mistaken ) opinion, the siege began five years ago. And in fact, a Canadian-Syrian doctor asked me in amazement, after I tried to explain something about the denial of right of movement of the Palestinians: "Do you mean to say that the closure in Gaza has been going on for 20 years"? Yes, I said, since 1991.

I explained to a Spanish actor, who had come straight from the 15-M protest encampment in Madrid, that neither Rafah nor the Israel Navy are the main barriers that must be removed to enable the Palestinians in Gaza to have the freedom of movement to which every human being is entitled. "Cutting off the natural link to the West Bank, which is 50 to 70 kilometers away, is the worst thing in terms of the lives of the residents of the Strip," I explained to him. "The fact that Israelis exercise an almost unlimited right to move around and live between the sea and the river, while the Palestinian are dependent on a regimen of permits and prohibitions and their movement is restricted although they live in the same country - this is the essence of the closure and the demographic separation."

In other words, concluded the Spaniard, "During the entire information campaign of the flotilla, we were talking about the wrong thing." And with a few body movements, without words, he said: "Yallah, then I'm getting out of here." A Danish activist seemed displeased when I exceeded my role as a journalist and said, in one of the preparatory meetings on the boat Tahrir, that it was a mistake to talk about "a humanitarian mission" in addition to a political one. How fortunate I didn't say that all the insistence on bringing material assistance has its roots in a religious mentality of giving charity.

But I did repeat the words of my friends in Gaza: "We are not lacking food. Nor clothing and electrical appliances. Medications are lacking because of the quarrel between Ramallah and Gaza. What we lack is the freedom to come and go, to study, to manufacture and export, to go on vacation, to visit friends, to host people here. Like all human beings."

The Karama avoided the problems faced by boats such as Tahrir by docking in Kastelorizo, an island with historical links to Gaza.Credit: Amira Hass

Activists from each boat were asked to send their "VIPs" to one press conference in Athens, when the depth of Greece's commitment to preventing the sailing was not yet understood - Alice Walker from the American ship, for example, and Swedish writer Henning Mankell. The VIP from the Canadian boat Tahrir (which also had the Danish, Australian and Belgian delegations ) was Bob Lovelace - a member of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation and formerly its chief - who has experience in struggles against the harassments of white rule and is a professor of the history of the First Nations. He is 60-years-old, and this was his first trip to Europe.

Appetite for freedom

As such he represented, for example, the Belgian doctor in his fifties who, as a young man, was ousted from the doctors' association because his small car did not suit his prestigious status, because he distributed leftist flyers to the workers and - mainly - because he charged too little. A protest by his patients led to his reinstatement in the association.

Lovelace also represented, among others, a Canadian feminist who works in a shelter for battered women, who is an advocate for the rights of members of the First Nations and plans to run for Parliament on behalf of a Quebecois slate (she is also transsexual ); a former member of Copenhagen's collective mayorship/leadership; a man who was a Belgian war correspondent for 25 years ("and that's why I'm a pacifist" ); a Canadian social activist who, in the late 1980s, worked with opponents of apartheid in South Africa; and an Indian-Kashmiri born in Zambia, who was on a peace mission in Iraq with "the Christian peace teams" and was kidnapped and held for four months in captivity.

In their calculated willingness to endanger themselves, the participants in the present flotilla expressed their resistance to the diplomatic and political assistance that their governments give Israel, in order to enable the existence of the large prison called Gaza.

They didn't reach Gaza. They still have something to learn about the siege. But in their countries and their societies, they expand the essence of democracy, as continual civic participation that is motivated by an appetite for freedom and is not satisfied with voting only. We can only hope that the ripples from there will reach the country between the river and the sea.



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