By Greta Berlin
Two years ago today, forty-four people from seventeen countries set sail on the Mediterranean heading towards Gaza. We were on two dilapidated fishing boats, the seas were rough, most of us were seasick, and all of us were worried that Israeli warships would prevent us from getting into Gaza's illegally blockaded port.
Israel blocked our communications equipment so the two captains, experienced seafarers, navigated the traditional way, using by paper maps and a compass. At 3pm, we sighted the shores of Gaza with no Israeli warship to prevent us from sailing in to a raucous welcome of shouts, applause and joy from the 20,000 beleaguered Palestinians waiting on the shore.
Except for a few media outlets in the Middle East, our historic blockade-breaking trip was ignored. But we had faced down the Israeli military machine that had threatened us with physical assault, cut off our communications equipment and, finally, ignored us. The Israelis had spent millions of dollars trying to stop us; we had spent $300,000 for the boats, captains, crew and fuel, plus a lot of energy and determination. Israel thought we were a bunch of activists who would go away after the first trip. They were wrong.
We went to Gaza successfully another four times, taking in another 100+ witnesses, European Members of Parliament, charity workers from the Gulf, doctors, activists who stayed to work in Gaza and Palestinians who just wanted to go home and visit. We brought out 38 Palestinians, including students who had visas to attend universities but whom Israel would not allow to leave.
Although our accomplishments were relatively small, sailing in with no Israeli attempts to stop us set a precedent. The Israelis knew that their blockade was illegal and hoped we would go away.
Today, on the second anniversary of that historic voyage, we are still sailing. As one of our activists said after the Freedom Flotilla was attacked, "We have suddenly become sexy. Everyone wants to go with us. We have requests from media around the world pleading with us to save them a seat. Even the US media wants to come." It is tragic that 9 men had to lose their lives before the blockade of Gaza was put back on the map, and more tragic that thousands of Palestinians have lost their lives with no reaction from the international community.
We have grown from the five who started this initiative to hundreds around the world, from the occupied West Bank to New York to India to Australia. From the two small boats that landed on August 23, 2008, we grew to six ships in the last flotilla, and will have nine to twelve in the next flotilla this autumn. There are boat initiatives in the US, UK, Belgium, Holland, Australia, Canada and Ireland.
Although many in the Western media have tried to spin the story that the Freedom Flotilla was a Turkish effort, it was not; it was truly international. Of the 650 passengers on board, half were Turkish and the rest came from around the world. The Free Gaza movement spearheaded the flotilla, collected the coalition members and helped them find the boats to sail. We were the ones with the experience. Now six members of the coalition have the same experience and are eager to sail again.
Although the supplies on the May flotilla's ships were supplies that Israel has forbidden to the people of Gaza, our primary objective has always been to break Israel's illegal siege on 1.5 million Palestinians, denying them the right to trade, movement and freedom. We have accomplished only part of what we set out to do by putting the collective imprisonment of the Palestinians of Gaza on the front page. But that is not close to being enough.
For those who say we have no right to challenge Israel, we say we do. If governments refuse to act, we, as citizens of the world, will sail. If Israel says it has the right to stop us, we say it does not. We sail from international waters into the waters of Gaza and never come near Israel. If Israel says it has the right to inspect our cargo, we say the cargo is inspected by certified inspectors at the point of embarkation and does not need further inspection. If Israel says the Palestinians have no right to rebuild their society after Israel bombed it to dust, we say they have every right to rebuild. International law is on our side, not on the side of the occupier.
If Israel says it has the right to attack us in international waters, citing "security issues", we say, along with an increasing number of Israelis as well as political analysts worldwide, it is the violence of the occupation that continues to destroy the hope of any security for Israelis and Palestinians. The upholding of international law is the only way to security and peace for any of us.
So: happy birthday Free Gaza. We have much more to do. In partnership with the Palestinians, human rights groups and supporters throughout the world, may we continue to sail. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your support, donations and advocacy.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.