When the borders of Gaza were sealed by Israel in June 2007 the population faced a situation that was, inevitably, going to deteriorate on every level very quickly. A total blockade of an overcrowded and already economically devastated country should have been condemned across the world from the beginning, but it has taken over three years to convince the international community to hold Israel to account for the suffering it is causing.
The political aim of the blockade was to foment dissent against the democratically-elected Hamas government in a blatant use of collective punishment against the 1.5 million civilians in the occupied territory. By March 2008 the blockade was so severe that many international aid and human rights groups, including Medecins du Monde UK, Oxfam, CARE and Amnesty International, drew up a report that stated the humanitarian situation in Gaza was the worse it had been since the beginning of Israeli occupation in 1967.1 It was reported by Israeli human rights organisation B'tselem that up to 80% of the Palestinians living in Gaza were below the poverty line in 2007 at the onset of the total blockade. This figure rose and the degree of poverty became more acute as the siege wore on.2
While humanitarian aid is essential in such situations, it does nothing to address the root cause of the problem. During the Israelis' military assault on and invasion of Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009, thousands of civilians were injured and over 1,400 were killed; much of the civilian infrastructure in the Gaza Strip was destroyed. Almost two years later reconstruction has not been allowed to take place; the Israelis do not class building supplies as "essential humanitarian goods" and so they are forbidden. Even when Israel does allow such goods into Gaza, the volume is nowhere near enough to allow a return to normality. It is obvious that humanitarian aid on its own is not the solution.
Left to their own devices, the people of Gaza would not need charity. They are a resourceful and self-sufficient people with enormous potential, evidenced by the high standard of education they achieve. The situation in Gaza is not the result of a natural disaster; the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip is entirely man-made. The local military and political power wants to crush the people of Gaza into submission, and is abusing human rights and breaking international laws and conventions to do so. Such a man-made disaster will not be resolved by plugging up the holes with survival level medical and food supplies. Gaza's reliance on humanitarian aid will only end when the siege ends.
Up to August 2008 the international community criticized Israel's severe restrictions on Gaza and deemed the siege illegal but did nothing to address the issue apart from sending humanitarian relief. However, in that month a new phenomenon appeared on the scene with the arrival in Gaza of 44 activists from 17 countries who broke the siege using two converted fishing boats. Sailing from Cyprus, this was a direct challenge to Israel's military blockade. The Free Gaza Movement's boats were met by thousands of Palestinians who recognised that this was the first such international act of solidarity to uphold their dignity and support their human rights. The two boats were too small to carry any significant amount of material aid, but they symbolised the power of civil society and peaceful protest. As a grass-roots direct action group formed in response to the Israeli siege of Gaza, the Free Gaza Movement was the first of a growing number of similar projects designed to challenge Israel's illegal blockade.
The underlying principle of attempts to break the siege is that until the people of Gaza have direct access to the outside world and autonomy over their political decisions there can be no resolution to the current situation. There can be no compromise or acceptance of anything short of the full dismantling of the siege. Another fundamental aspect of the Free Gaza focus is that the siege is imposed by Israel, not Egypt. Although Egypt has assisted Israel by keeping the main crossing at Rafah closed for almost all of the last three years, the origins of the blockade lie in Israeli policy. To focus on opening Rafah and getting humanitarian supplies in through Rafah is to shift responsibility for the siege from Israel. Rafah is a secondary problem, so the international effort ought to be on opening a sea route to Gaza or challenging Israel's monopoly over the airspace.
The Free Gaza Movement's historic first voyage inspired solidarity activists around the world to step up and challenge Israel physically over the blockade. The Movement itself made five more successful voyages in 2008 before Israel's assault on Gaza. During the first three days of the bombardment the flagship of the action group, the "Dignity", was rammed by the Israeli Navy and disabled. This incident revealed that the direct action of the Free Gaza Movement threatened Israel more than any other human rights focused actions had done previously. Israel acted illegally when it rammed the "Dignity" in international waters, and has increased its brutality since then against international challenges to its illegal blockade.
George Galloway's Viva Palestina convoys were the first land-based follow up to the Free Gaza Movement's seaborne efforts. Viva Palestina mobilized whole communities into direct action against the siege. In an unprecedented move, the leader of Viva Palestina, George Galloway (a member of the British Parliament from 1987 to 2010) went so far as to challenge the international political siege on Gaza when he acknowledged Hamas as the government of Palestine. The Viva Palestina convoys have continued to attract support around the world and the 5th convoy with delegations from London, Casablanca and Doha are already en route to the Egyptian port of Al-Arish. While the practicality of a land convoy means that a certain amount of focus is directed towards Egypt – both Viva Palestina and the Gaza Freedom March inadvertently placed Egypt in the international spotlight rather than Israel – Mr. Galloway insists that it is Israel, not Egypt, which bears the responsibility for the blockade. "I have no wish to have a fight with the Egyptian government; my fight is with Israel," he said in Paris.
The most significant and serious escalation of the solidarity action took place at the end of May 2010 with the Turkish-flagged Freedom Flotilla. While this single effort gained world-wide recognition it grew out of the cumulative efforts of the Free Gaza Movement's voyages and the difficulties of pushing world attention back on the Israelis when land convoys have to pass through Egypt and the Rafah crossing. The Freedom Flotilla, of course, was stopped by Israeli commandos using, says a recent UN report, disproportionate and excessive violence. Although the level of violence was no surprise to activists who have witnessed the excesses of the Israeli military in Palestine itself, the images of the assault and hijacking of the flotilla vessels shocked the world. The nine civilian activists killed by the commandos were the latest in a long line of victims of Israel's deadly policy of silencing protesters with bullets. However, in this action Israel may have sounded its own death knell. At last, the world responded to Israel's actions and the United Nations Security Council condemned not only the attack on the flotilla but, most importantly, the siege of Gaza itself.
One of the most heartening results of the flotilla attack has been the determination of activists to continue with the peaceful efforts to break the siege of Gaza. These have included an attempt by a small British-flagged catamaran carrying eight Jewish activists who were intercepted by the Israeli navy, again in international waters, on the way to Gaza. The "Irene" carried Zionists on board, one of whom said, "The state of Israel was a big dream, and it has become reality. We have to make sure it does not become a nightmare".3 Clearly, even some of those who support Israel are now acknowledging that the Zionist state has gone too far.
After more than three years of Israel's illegal siege on Gaza, it is fair to say that grass-roots activism to open the borders of Gaza is here to stay. Individuals, community groups, NGOs and politicians are coming together to demand that Israel ends – not simply "eases" – its siege, and this activism is global.
The people of Gaza are waiting. For the first time in years the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank were united in their response to the Flotilla attacks. Weaknesses are appearing in the Israelis' military and political stranglehold over them so perhaps there is a glimmer of hope that the end of their suffering is in sight. It is the responsibility of us all to uphold our commitment to the people of Gaza to put pressure on Israel to end the siege, and make it accountable for its actions. Many initiatives need our support, including sea and land convoys to break the siege, to turn that glimmer of hope into a reality.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.