By Renee Bowyer
The Gaza blockade has been in place for four years and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have seen their country destroyed around them systematically. Their homes, universities, schools and hospitals have been reduced to rubble; their sick and injured have died; their sons and daughters have been denied their right to education and employment. Israel has increased its stranglehold and has subjected the people of Gaza to deadly attacks, including a full-scale war. International aid organizations have called on Israel to lift the siege as it is acknowledged widely that a humanitarian crisis exists inside Gaza. In the absence of meaningful efforts by governments, it has been left to individuals and civil society movements to act.
For the first two years of the siege no voice was raised in opposition to Israel's brutality in Gaza. Instead, Western countries went out of their way to support Israel's policies leading up to the closure of Gaza; there were arms deals, and trade between Israel and the West boomed. Israeli assassinations in the Occupied Gaza Strip West Bank continued unquestioned and Israeli land-grab increased in the West Bank; Palestinian ministers of the elected parliament were arrested and the West imposed sanctions against the democratically-elected government while supporting Israel's violence against it.
When members of Hamas kidnapped an Israeli soldier the world supported Israel's reaction; It was overlooked that only a week before the soldier was kidnapped (in a legitimate raid on an enemy's outpost by people resisting the military occupation of their land), a little Palestinian girl stood screaming on a beach in Gaza, orphaned and surrounded by her murdered family while an Israeli gun-boat lay offshore with smoking guns. The subsequent attacks Israel initiated against the civilians of Gaza and Lebanon in the summer of 2006 heralded the even bloodier invasion of Gaza in 2008/9. Western governments watched and, at most, cautioned Israel about using "excessive force" while over 1,400 civilians were killed.
For the first two years of the siege the people of Gaza suffered more or less alone. Civil society groups are now exposing the complicity and silence of western governments by challenging Israel's control of opinion in the West. Civil disobedience is a powerful tool when governments fail to act and over the last two years demonstrations against Israel's siege of Gaza have grown in number and momentum.
In August 2008 two fishing boats sailed 200 miles from Cyprus to Gaza and, symbolically at least, broke the siege. There were ecstatic scenes at the port and the action was celebrated as the beginning of non-governmental actors taking the situation into their own hands. Since then, acts of solidarity with Gaza from around the globe have grown in significance. Convoys by land and sea have arrived in increasing numbers and have inspired people from all backgrounds to challenge Israel and national governments' apparent acceptance of Israeli violence.
At first it was the people of Europe who responded; there were incredible journeys made by dedicated individuals and groups who reached Gaza by land. By sea, another nine siege-breaking voyages left European ports for Gaza. Hundreds of individuals joined in these efforts which demonstrated to their own governments that ordinary people will act if their politicians will not. Lives were lost at sea because Israel recognised that their monopoly over the Gaza Strip was threatened by this "people power".
Far from deterring international efforts to reach Gaza, the illegal actions of Israeli forces against unarmed civilians strengthened opposition to Israel's siege and left western governments estranged from their own public on this issue. Indeed, the impetus to do something to help the Palestinians in Gaza has spread across the globe.
On Friday, 17th December, the first Gaza aid convoy from the southern hemisphere arrived in Turkey en route to the beleaguered territory. The convoy began in India and has crossed Asia and Iran; participants are determined to cross Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt before entering Gaza on the second anniversary of the 22-day assault in 2008/9.
The latest convoy reflects the growing anger at civil society over Israel's continued contempt for international law. Called "The Asia to Gaza Solidarity Caravan", it represents 18 countries from the South and shows that Israel's illegal actions are disturbing people in every part of the world. It may not have reached government levels yet, but the public are beginning to speak and their voices are getting louder. Governments will soon have to start listening, because this convoy is not an isolated action.
Apart from the very strong support for Palestinian rights that we have seen in South Africa for many years, the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) scored a major victory by forcing a leading Japanese company to abandon plans to invest in Israel. The company, MUJI, faced immense pressure from citizens in Japan and South Korea over a period of seven months before announcing its intention to withdraw its plan to open a store in Israel.
The success of the BDS campaign in Japan has boosted the confidence of supporters there; likewise the Asian campaign has inspired citizens of countries represented by the caravan to act and it is clear that Asia could well be a major player in pressuring policy-makers around the world to end their unequivocal support for Israel.
I was on board the vessel DIGNITY when it was rammed in the middle of the night by an Israeli navy vessel two days into the Israeli attack on Gaza in December 2008. As we turned away from Gaza and limped to a port in southern Lebanon, I remember thinking despairingly how we were too late for the hundreds of Palestinians who had already lost their lives. You can feel like this every time you take part in action in support of Palestine.
When men, women and children are being killed and imprisoned by Israel every single day it is hard to believe that any action will make up for the loss of life.
It took two years for the first action against the Siege of Gaza to materialise and we felt as we prepared the fishing boats that even that was too late, but it was to take a further two years for that action to inspire other actors from around the globe to respond. It is happening now and as the weeks and months pass the momentum is growing. Civil societies around the world are seeing the need to stand side by side with Palestinians demanding their human and legal rights, and justice for their children.
Yes, we are too late for those hundreds of children killed in Israel's horrific attacks in 2008/2009; we are too late for the hundreds of men and women whose lives and families have been destroyed by the Israeli policy of assassination, land-grab and imprisonment, whose homes have been bombed and whose farm-lands have been stolen. But the tide is turning and the demand for justice is being heard. The Siege of Gaza will be broken and every hateful aspect of it will be crushed; Israeli officials will be held accountable for the thousands of deaths for which they are directly responsible. Then, no matter how late the world has been in recognising Israel's war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gaza, something will be done, and the people of Gaza will be able to mourn with dignity the lives that we were too late to save.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.