On 30 June the Israeli navy boarded the Free Gaza boat Spirit of Humanity when it was approaching Palestinian waters quite opposite the Gaza Strip. The boat was towed to the Israeli port Ashdod where the 21 persons on board were arrested. It was only after almost a week had passed that they were released and deported to their respective home countries
It was the eighth attempt that the Free Gaza organization made in order to break the blockade on the Palestinian Gaza Strip, where a majority of the people are dependent on aid organizations for their survival. The borders are closed. The inhabitants cannot set off for leaving the Strip and Israel only allows in the most necessary for not dwindling away.
Spirit of Humanity in the port of Larnaca before leaving. The boat was boarded on 30 June by the Israeli navy who towed the ship to the Israeli port Asdod
The Spirit of Humanity, a tourist ferry from Greece had left port of Larnaca on 29 June, loaded with three tons of medicines, toys, building material including a symbolic sack of cement. Israel does not allow to import material for rebuilding houses that had been destroyed during the war around the turn of the year - with the the motive the material could be used for attacks on Israel by Hamas.
There were also 21 solidarity workers and journalists on board. Among them were the Irish Mairead Maguire who in 1976 got the Nobel peace prize, and the American Cynthia McKinney, former Congresswoman, it was the second trip for both of them.
- The Palestinians in the Gaza Strip asked me to come back and I promised to do so. Things have become worse since I was there last time. Israel has violated both, International Law and the Geneva Conventions. The world must not forget the Gaza Strip. They have to force Israel into lifting the siege, said Mairead Maguire before setting off.
The youngest on board was Adam Quist, 23, from Denmark, who also went on his second trip.
For me this is a chance to come back. Last time I stayed five weeks and worked with the fishermen. The Israelis shot at us when we sailed out, but warning shots only. When we are not onboard, it's more serious. All the fishermen here have scars from shots at their legs, he tells us.
Adam Quist in port Larnaca just before his first voyage to the Gaza Strip in August 2008, when the organization Free Gaza succeeded in breaking the blockade
In the night after their departure they were contacted by the Israeli navy who threatened to open fire in case they would not turn around. The boat continued her trip in spite of this [warning] and in spite of their radar and navigation system being blocked
- They tried to force us into Israeli water, reports Dens Healey, who navigated by the compass. But when the boat approached Palestinian waters they were stopped. The boat got surrounded and was boarded.
- They said we had been in Israeli controlled waters, since this was an embargo on the Gazastrip, he adds.
When the boat was towed in to port Ashkelon, the people on board were arrested on the grounds of having moved into Israel illegally. The Israeli authorities explained that humanitarian goods should legally be passed over via Israel. But no building material.
The Free Gaza organisators were indignant and held a press conference in Nicosia, Cyprus.
- They took the boat and the passengers against their will and brought them to Israel. This is illegal. They came from Cyprus in international waters. We want all to know that we did not violate any law. Where is the world, the UN, the EU? We only demand from Israel to observe the law, said Ramzi Kysia.
The boat was in the area that the Oslo agreement grants to the Palestinians for fishing and economic development. The agreement was signed by the Palestinian leader at that time, Yassir Arafat, and Israel's Prime Minister, Yizhak Rabin, in 1993. The area has even been acknowledged internationally, states Ramzi Kysia.
Greta Berlin, one of the five founders of the organization Free Gaza, aboard of the Spirit of Humanity
It was the third time that Israel prevented a Free Gaza boat to approach the Gaza Strip. Two times in last winter the boats were stopped with the explanation that there was a war. One of them, the Dignity, was rammed and damaged so severely that she later sank in the port of Larnaca, in Cyprus, before repairs had been finished
In the year before, however, the Free Gaza boats five times made their way through to the Gaza Strip where they were received enthusiastically. The first two boats broke the blockade in August 2008 and the organisation views the event as a victory.
When the boat went back, they had Palestinians on board who were prohibited from leaving the country by the Israeli authorities. Students with a scholarship abroad belonged to this group, as well as a boy who had lost a leg in a shell attack and hoped to find a prothesis
It was the first boat that reached the Gaza Strip for more than 40 years. A Palestinian attempt in 1988 failed, since somebody blowed the boat up in the harbor of Larnaca.
Further boats were able to sail into the harbor of Gaza in October, November and December, thus breaking the siege. On one of these boats the Palestinian parliamentarian Mustafa Barghouti from the Westbank was a travelling guest. This was his only chance to visit the Gaza Strip.
A group of European parlamentarians also went on the journey and came back promising they would do their best within the EU to lift the blockade
Hugh O'Donnell, member of the liberal democats in the Scottish Parliament, was very upset about the distress he saw in Gaza. He told about broken dialysis apparatus which will be dismantled in order to save spare parts for the only functioning one, and about a two-months-old baby with a heart defect in an incubator and that would soon die because the Gaza Strip lacks medical resources.
This is a shame. I only once saw a place that was similarly ghastly. This was the Kosovo under war, said O'Donnell.
The Palestinian parliamentarian Mustafa Barghouti participated in one of the trips to the Gaza Strip last year in October. This was his only chance to get there. Israel only exceptionally allows trips between the Gaza Strip and the Westbank
The last unsuccessful trips have not moved the Free Gaza group to surrender. They are now looking for new boats which can replace the captured Spirit of humaniy and the sunk Dignity. They hope to start a new attempt in some months.
- We have learnt not to go with one boat only, therefore we are looking for two boats, says Greta Berlin. We are looking for a passenger boat and a cargo boat.
The money fo the boats is coming from donators from all over the world. The smallest sum someone donated was one and a half dollar, the highest amount was 100.000 dollar. People give what they can in order to help the isolated Palestinians.
The American Greta Berlin is one of the five persons who started the organization Fre Gaza.
- We want the world to know that Israel keeps Gaza like a prison, she says. Most Americans are ignorant of what happens there.
The organisation Free Gaza is politically independent and the boats are unarmed. Each time they are controlled by the Cypriotic authorities that they do not import any weapons to the Gaza Strip.
Text and photos: Eva Boss
Footmark: Free Gaza has a homepage: www.freegaza.org
There is a new movement , Ship for Gaza, in Sweden, for more information: http://www.shiptogaza.se/
Protestbåtar ska bryta blockaden av Gaza (Amnesty Press 22 augusti 2008)
Israel/Gaza: Straffrihet för krigsförbrytelser leder till mer lidande för civila (Amnestys rapport om Gazakriget - 2 juli 2009)
Translated from amnesty Swedish: