Breaking the Siege of Gaza

On August 22, two small boats left the port of Larnaca in Cyprus bound for Gaza, with 44 peace activists from around the world on board. The captains and crew were seasoned sailors. Few of the activists had sea legs prior to this voyage.

The names of the two boats that carried the activists to Gaza identify the movement’s purposes. The SS Free Gaza expresses the central purpose of the action: “to break the siege that Israel has imposed on the civilian population of Gaza…, to express our solidarity with the suffering people of Gaza, and to create a free and regular channel between Gaza and the outside world.” The SS Liberty honors the memory of 34 American sailors killed and over 170 sailors severely injured on the USS Liberty, which came under attack by Israeli fighter planes and torpedo boats in the Mediterranean on June 8, 1967.

None on board the SS Free Gaza or SS Liberty could be certain that the State of Israel would regard their action as a benign humanitarian gesture. Indeed, if history is prologue, the voyagers had cause to wonder whether their own safety was in jeopardy.

In January of 1988 Israel deported hundreds of Palestinians it deemed responsible for the outbreak of the First Intifada. The UN Security Council unanimously – with the full support of the Reagan Administration State Department – denounced the deportations as a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.  Within weeks the PLO chartered a Greek ferry boat called the SS Sol Phryne, and announced that they would sail the boat – renamed the SS Al-Awda (“The Return”) – to Haifa with 135 Palestinian exiles and hundreds of journalists on board.

It was a bold move for Palestinians to evoke the memory of the ill-fated journey of the SS Exodus 1947 that had carried thousands of Holocaust survivors to Haifa only to have the British authorities expel these “illegal immigrants” to Cyprus. Perhaps too bold. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir branded the PLO announcement a “declaration of war.” Foreign Minister Shimon Peres called the PLO effort “propagandistic.” Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin ordered military opposition “in whatever ways we find.” Trade Minister Ariel Sharon was certain that the Navy would insure that Al Awda never entered Israeli territorial waters.

Three PLO officials who arranged the voyage of the Al Awda were murdered in their car, which suddenly exploded in the port town of Limassol. Within hours another bomb ripped a hole in the side of the ship, rendering it unseaworthy. After these bombings only Israeli Transport Minister Chaim Corfu had a comment: if the PLO gets another ship, “its fate will be the same.” The PLO got the hint and dropped its plan to set sail for Haifa.

Would the government of Israel respond to the SS Free Gaza and SS Liberty in the way it apparently did in when the PLO tried to sail a boat to Haifa? The first answer came from Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Defense: “This is some kind of pirate ship. You can demonstrate. That’s OK with us. But you are not allowed to break international law.”

It is, of course, gratifying to read a statement from the Ministry of Defense expressing Israel’s commitment to nonviolent demonstrations and to international law. But to characterize the SS Free Gaza as “some kind of pirate ship” casts doubt on Israel’s vaunted reputation for military intelligence. The unarmed land lubbers on these little boats hardly represented any plausible, let alone imminent, threat to the peace and well-being of the only nuclear power in the Middle East. As Greta Berlin, one of the organizers of this peaceful protest, put it: “We hope that the Israeli government will have some wisdom. To drag us in and say we are a danger is absurd.”

To underscore the peaceful intent of their mission, the “Free Gaza” sailors invited Israeli Foreign Minister Zippi Livni to join them on their voyage. Ms. Livni declined the honor, but acknowledged that a cargo of hundreds of hearing aids for deaf Gazan children and thousands of balloons for kids robbed of their childhood in this devastated war zone does qualify in her view as a “humanitarian gesture.” The piracy story turned out not to have legs.

That did not mean that the government of Israel liked the central idea of the “Free Gaza” movement. The second official response was that these activists were “agents provocateurs.” A more apt designation, perhaps, than “pirates.” But a bellicose term nonetheless, one that gave cover for jamming the radios on these little boats, thus threatening their capacity to navigate safely. This condition was immediately reported to the outside world. After a quick outburst of protest was heard, the jamming ceased, and the boats sailed on.

More importantly, the voyage of these two boats allows the world an opportunity to reflect freshly on who has provoked whom in this series of events. Jeff Halper, coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, describes his participation in this action as a nonviolent response to provocative violence committed against Gazans by his government: “The mission is to break the Israeli siege, an absolutely illegal siege which has plunged a million and a half Palestinians into wretched conditions: imprisoned in their own homes, exposed to extreme military violence, deprived of the basic necessities of life, stripped of their most fundamental human rights and dignity. The siege violates the most fundamental principle of international law: the inadmissibility of harming civilian populations…. I cannot stand idly aside…. To do so would violate my commitment to human rights.”

Framed as a violation of international humanitarian law, the current conditions in Gaza are the reality on which the “Free Gaza” sailors wish to focus the world’s attention. Although Israel claims to have “withdrawn” from Gaza in 2005, in reality it still tightly controls the land borders, airspace, and territorial waters of Gaza.

Reports by the United Nations and by nongovernmental human rights organizations paint a bleak picture. The blockade imposed by Israel on the Gaza Strip over a year ago has created a humanitarian crisis of alarming proportions. The entire population of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza is trapped in an economy in ruins. Over 80 per cent of the population now depend on the trickle of international aid that the Israeli army sporadically allows in. Medical patients are typically denied exit visas to get treatment routinely available in Israeli hospitals and completely unavailable in Gazan hospitals; scores have died. Students who have been awarded scholarships in universities abroad (including Fulbright scholarships) are also trapped in Gaza.

When the “Free Gaza” sailors returned to Cyprus, they carried with them precious human cargo that represents some of the reasons for their journey. A patient denied an exit visa can now get the medical attention he urgently needs. A very bright student admitted to a university in the West can now pursue her dream of a brighter future won the hard way, through diligent study and commitment to learning.

Is the “Free Gaza” action a success? That depends on how one measures success. For one thing, it is significant success that both sides – the activists and the Israeli authorities – acted in a nonviolent way. The activists were armed only with courage. The Israeli Navy had plenty of weapons available, but somebody gave an order to stand down. Whoever gave that order refused to follow the awful precedents of the attack on the USS Liberty in 1967 and the explosions that stopped the PLO from sailing to Haifa in 1988 on the SS Al Awda.

The peace activists thus turn out to be neither pirates nor provocateurs, but peaceful pests who have reminded the world that an urgent crisis of vast proportions in Gaza cries out for an immediate end. A nonviolent action of this sort succeeds if it enables others to consider a question in a fresh light. This particular action has certainly sparked new interest in the moral arguments surrounding the maintenance of this siege. The principal justification urged by Israeli authorities is that the blockade on Gaza is in response to Palestinian attacks, especially the rockets fired from Gaza at the nearby Israeli town of Sderot. Even though an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire with Hamas has silenced these rockets since June 19, 2008, it is still de rigueur for all visiting foreign dignitaries – including Senators McCain and Obama – to go to Sderot to see firsthand the effect of random violence upon civilians. And that is a good thing too, for in this way these visitors can learn to express appropriate revulsion at indiscriminate targeting of civilians, a claim that Palestinians cannot avoid merely by noting that their technology is primitive or has not been nearly as lethal as the power of the Israeli Air Force.
As Rabbi Henry Siegman noted recently in The London Review of Books: “That these primitive Qassam rockets have resulted in no more than two or three Israeli deaths over the years, while Israeli retaliations cause the daily killing not only of militants but of innocent men, women and children, is not a justification for Hamas’s targeting of Israeli civilians. That Qassam rockets have not fallen on a kindergarten full of children in Sderot is not the result of skilful humanitarian targeting on the part of Islamic Jihad and Hamas militants. It is simply extraordinary luck.”
Of course, Siegman knows that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: “the immorality of Hamas’s assaults on Israeli civilians is not a licence to bring Gaza’s civilian population to a state of near starvation. The insensitivity that prevents Israelis from seeing that their behaviour towards Palestinian civilians – whether in Gaza or in the West Bank – is not very different from the Palestinians’ targeting of Israeli civilians could not have found more unfortunate expression than in [former Prime Minister] Olmert’s assurance that … `we will not supply luxuries that would make the life [of Gazans] more comfortable.’” Did Olmert say “luxuries”?  According to Karen Abu Zayd, Commissioner-General of UNRWA (the UN agency that administers the relief programs for Palestinian refugees), these people have not been denied a few “luxuries,” but have been “intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution.”
These activists set out “to break the siege that Israel has imposed on the civilian population of Gaza…, to express our solidarity with the suffering people of Gaza.” However one evaluates their action, they did sail past a very mighty Navy and reached the port of Gaza. And their expression of solidarity was warmly welcomed by over 40,000 Gazans who turned out to greet these Westerners who refused to forget a people cast into oblivion by the world’s mainstream media.

Another criterion for the success of nonviolent action is whether it troubles our consciences sufficiently to move us to action. That is the hope expressed by the anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” These activists dared to believe their action would “create a free and regular channel between Gaza and the outside world.” That is a very a tall order. It is also the point where all of us come into the story. The “Free Gaza” sailors have done what they could. Now it is up to us to do what we can.

Each of us can become better informed about the current situation in Gaza. A good place to begin would be the open letter on Gaza written by Palestinian psychiatrist Eyad el-Sarraj ( Or we can join Jewish Voice for Peace in supporting the International Campaign to End the Siege of Gaza. Or we can demand of our leaders a saner, more sensible policy in the Middle East. A policy that refuses to countenance collective punishment of the entire population of Gaza for the violations of international law committed by a few. A policy that refuses to ignore the daily human needs of those who inhabit the most densely concentrated space on the planet.

ED GAFFNEY teaches international law and the use of force at Valparaiso University. He can be reahed at:

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