Dignity is a 20 metre, 8 berth motor yacht, built of wood and about 30 years old. I was privileged to be on board on her maiden voyage to break the Siege of Gaza. This was the second actual sailing of the siege-breaking Free Gaza Movement, the first being in August, when two elderly and slow fishing boats took over 30 hours to do the 240 mile trip from Larnaca, Cyprus. Dignity, a faster boat, was able to do it in half the time.
Aboard Dignity were 23 passengers and 4 volunteer crew. Several of the passengers were making their second trip including the skipper and all the crew. The leader Huwaida, is a Palestinian American, and among the others were an American Human Rights Lawyer, an Italian opera singer, an Israeli freelance journalist who opposed the occupation of Palestinian Territory. There were several other doctors and human rights workers. We came from Italy, Spain, Greece, Ireland, England and Scotland and Palestine. Among us was Mairead Maguire, joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize 30 years ago in Northern Ireland. We were all united in our anger at the continued brutality and injustice of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the siege and blockade of Gaza and the failure of our governments to call Israel to account.
The beauty of the Free Gaza Movement's plan was its openness and simplicity. Israel had been informed of our intention but their permission was not sought. All on board were listed on the internet site. The boat with its cargo of 3 tonnes of medical supplies were examined by the Cyprus Customs and declared to be entirely peaceful.
We arrived off the coast of Gaza in the early morning and were met as expected by 2 Israeli warships. Contact was made by radio, we were asked the name of the boat, its port of registration, last port of call and where we were bound, all of which they already knew. Huwaida informed them that we were bound for Gaza.
There was no further conversation and we continued onwards, the City of Gaza emerging from the slight haze of the eastern horizon. About 6 miles offshore, we met some local boats fishing who gave us a wave and a little further on a small flotilla of fishing boats came out towards us full of waving and cheering people. Dignity entered Gaza Harbour to an amazing welcome from many small boats and from people on the harbour jetty. She was only the second vessel from abroad to sail into Gaza Harbour in 41 years.
For 3 nights and 4 full days we went in small groups and together throughout the length and breadth of the Gaza Strip trying to absorb all we saw and heard. Gaza is a piece of flat land about the size of Kintyre (say 30 miles by 5 miles) teeming with 1.4 million people, half of whom are under the age of 18. Two-thirds of the population are from refugee families driven from their ancestral lands which were taken from them to form Israel in 1948, and which they can still see beyond the wall.
Israel's settlements inside the Strip were withdrawn in 2005 but their iron grip of the borders continued and has been tightened since 2006 when elections produced a result they were not expecting, a majority for Hamas. Since then the European Union, a major contributor of aid has also withdrawn much of its funding. The Siege in the last 2 years has severely limited the entry of much essential medical equipment and supplies including food, fuel and spare parts. Citizens of Gaza can neither enter nor leave without special permission which is almost impossible to get. With us came Dr. Mustafa Barghouti from Ramallah. He is an independent MP widely seen as the man who could bring unity between Hamas and Fatah, who had been prevented from visiting Gaza from the West Bank.
On our first evening there Dr. Barghouti and the senior Catholic Prelate of Gaza called a meeting in the Ecclesiastical Residence to which came the leaders or senior members of all the political parties, including Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and several others. Each made a short speech of welcome to us with the theme of unity - if we could come and show support for the people of Gaza - surely they could settle their own differences. It was quite obvious there was no oppression of Christians by the Moslem majority and the priest was treated with much respect.
The borders of Gaza were marked by a "wall" of stone and barbed wire with frequent watch towers. Above it flew tethered observation balloons. Within sight of the wall, for about half a mile, Israel had laid waste to the land to give an open field of fire. Most of this land had been agricultural, orchards, fields of grain and market gardens. It had been known as the Garden of Palestine. Its loss to cultivation has added to the widespread nutritional problems. We saw the ruins of smashed farmhouses, the families living in shacks further back, unable to get to their land.
The main hospital, Al Shifa, is in central Gaza city and we were shocked at the conditions there. It had been a modern sophisticated hospital and had run out of many basic drugs such as antibiotics and painkillers. Essential equipment was deprived of spare parts needed for maintenance; of the 36 dialysis machines, only 25 were usable. A brand new scanning and radiotherapy unit completed 18 months previously had never treated a patient, as the necessary radioactive isotopes had not been allowed through. A surgical wing remained half built, no further building materials being available. So men, women and children had been denied what we in the West take for granted. The Medical Director of Al Shifa told me about 270 had died for these reasons or because their transfer to specialist units in the Occupied West Bank, Jerusalem or Cairo had been blocked.
Additionally malnutrition was widespread particularly among children, the under fives most affected through lack of milk. What did come in was mostly brought in through the tunnels under the Egyptian border at Rafah.
We saw many small factories and workshops idle for lack of supplies and equipment. Quite a few fishing boats still went out but they were subject to daily harassment by Israeli gunboats which used water canon and sometimes machine guns. Several fishermen had been killed and many more injured. Some of the Internationals went out in the boats hoping their presence would be a deterrent, as it was to some extent. Among them were 2 Scots, Theresa McDermott (who suffered a water canon attack) and Andrew Muncie (who was kidnapped by a gunboat, taken to Israel and then deported).
We met many students, over 500 had acceptances to European or US universities, often with scholarships. They had been denied exit from Gaza and were unable to take up the places offered to them. We heard stories of standing all day at the border crossings only to be turned away with a "try tomorrow".
Perhaps most striking of all was the presence, almost wherever we went, of large numbers of children, usually smiling waving and obviously loved and well cared for. They all seemed to know the words "you are welcome". I was made to feel more welcome by more people than anywhere in my lifetime.
Each evening there was a concert. On our third and last night, one of our number Guiseppe Fallisi brought tears to many eyes with an aria sung in Italian, partly to the melody of Amazing Grace and describing the long struggle of the Palestinians for peace with justice
During our brief stay, I saw no "terrorists". I saw farmers who could not cultivate their fields, fishermen - the dangers of whose calling were multiplied, workers with no work and shopkeepers with half empty shelves. I saw the staff of hospitals unable to treat all their patients as they should and I saw grieving families. I saw a brave, determined, spirited people showing astonishing resilience, determined to survive their hardship. It reminded me a bit of my war time childhood, but we have had peace at home for the last 60 years, while they have endured dispossession, military occupation, siege and hardship.
On 30th December, shortly after the present military assault on Gaza started, Dignity set sail again carrying doctors and medical supplies on a completely peaceful mission. Ninety miles from Gaza in international waters and without warning, it was rammed during the night by an Israeli warship, severely damaged and forced into Lebanon. Last night (14th January) a replacement boat set sail with the same peaceful intent.
Jock McDougall MB,ChB Edinburgh
Retired family doctor
15th January 2009