When two dozen women sail from Barcelona on September 14, mounting the latest international challenge to Israel’s naval blockade of the Palestinian Gaza Strip, their boats — the Amal, or “hope,” and Zaytouna, or “olive” — will confront a seemingly intractable impasse.
“There is no freedom of transport or travel owing to the closure of cross points and borders, which led to the death of a score of patients [from Gaza] who were unable to receive their treatment abroad,” Samar Al-Dreamly, media coordinator for Gaza’s Women’s Affairs Center and editorial secretary of its Al-Ghaidaa magazine, told Truthout.
The closure, she said, “also caused countless students to lose opportunities to continue their education abroad.”
The Gaza Strip, a small, 141-square mile Palestinian enclave, lies at the southwestern corner of Israel, bordered by it on two sides and facing its navy, which patrols the Mediterranean Sea offshore, on a third.
Only a modest pedestrian walkway at Rafah, connected to Egypt and frequently closed by its military-installed, Israel-allied government, lies outside the immediate regulation of Israel, which otherwise dominates the territory through control of its airspace, banking and telecommunications systems, building permits, customs and tax policies, electromagnetic spectrum, passports, and population registry, among countless other aspects of daily life.
Israel’s web of restrictions on Gaza, alternately called the blockade, the closure or the siege, includes hundreds of laws, military regulations and state policies adopted over decades, many exclusive to the Gaza Strip but some also applying to both the West Bank and Israel itself.
One of its most significant components, the naval blockade, dates to Israel’s June 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which ended the international maritime traffic that had once thrived in a bustling Gaza seaport.
It is Israel’s tight grip on Palestinians’ use of their own sea, enforced by the gunboats and warships of a world-class navy, which the Women’s Boat to Gaza (WBG) will confront.
“The blockade of Gaza is invisible in mainstream media all around the word, mainly because of wars and crises in the Middle East, but also because journalists and lots of people are tired of the so-called conflict, which in reality is an ongoing war of harassment against Palestinians in Gaza,” Gerd von der Lippe, who will be traveling on the Women’s Boat to Gaza, told Truthout.
Von der Lippe is a feminist activist and sports sociologist, as well as a former sprinting champion, from Telemark, Norway.
She added that she joined the Women’s Boat to Gaza in solidarity with Palestinian women. “I want to contribute in order for them not to lose hope,” she said.
The Blockade Persists
The Women’s Boat to Gaza follows various efforts to challenge the closure. During each of Israel’s three military offensives against the Gaza Strip — in 2009, 2012 and 2014 — Palestinians have pressed to end it as a term of ceasefires.
Other international activists have sailed to Gaza as well, starting with small boats launched by the Free Gaza Movement in 2008 and including three large Freedom Flotillas in 2010, 2011 and 2015. Israeli naval commandos raided the 2010 Flotilla on May 31, killing nine Turkish activists and one Turkish-American on board the MV Mavi Marmara, and injuring dozens.
Facing withering criticism, Israel modified its restrictions on imports to the Gaza Strip in July 2010, allowing basic consumer goods like fabric, paper and toys through its checkpoints for the first time in years. Other elements of the closure remained intact.
Many Palestinians hoped talks to end an ensuing rift between Israel and Turkey would lift the blockade, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan repeatedly promised. But when protracted negotiations ended with a reconciliation agreement on June 26, nothing had changed but an Israeli agreement to allow increased Turkish aid into Gaza.
“Like other agreements, the Turkish agreement did not bring any real change to the current situation of the siege on Gaza,” Al-Dreamly said. “People in Gaza have stopped believing or trusting any political attempts, initiatives or agreements, since there is no positive outcome reflected upon their lives.”
Few Women’s Boat to Gaza participants see the Israel-Turkey deal more favorably.
“As we read the reports, it is clear that the blockade has not been lifted,” Wendy Goldsmith of Ontario, Canada, told Truthout. “The Turkish government is complying with Israel’s demand to use so-called ‘proper channels’ using ‘proper checkpoints’ to deliver aid.”
Goldsmith, a social worker and spokeswoman for the Canadian Boat to Gaza, part of the Freedom Flotilla Coalition coordinating the project, will also sail on the boat.
“We will not ask the oppressor for permission to reach the shores of Gaza,” she said. “Our goal is clear. We will continue to sail until the blockade is totally and unconditionally lifted.”
The Spread of Despair in Gaza
Turkey’s planned infusion of aid can do little to resolve two of Gaza’s most pressing crises. Israel’s devastating 2014 military operation not only killed over 2,200 Palestinians but also damaged or destroyed 18,000 homes. Seventy-five thousand remain displaced, with reconstruction hobbled by both shortfalls in pledged international donations and Israeli restrictions on the import of cement and other necessary building materials.
After devastating much of Gaza’s economic infrastructure, Israel banned both the much needed industrial imports and all but token exports. Since the start of 2016, it has allowed 69,684 truckloads of imports, but only 472 truckloads of exports and a further 108 for transfer to the West Bank. With few means of economic development, unemployment has ballooned to 41 percent, one of the world’s highest rates. Among younger Palestinians, it is even higher.
“Despair has spread among most Gazans, especially the youth who are suffering from the unemployment, which has affected 75 percent,” Al-Dreamly said.
With few signs of improvement in Gaza, most of which still consists of rubble from Israeli shells and airstrikes, further conflict seems inevitable.
As the Women’s Boat to Gaza sails into troubled waters, its participants face clear dangers. Beside the bloodshed on board the Mavi Marmara in 2010, Israel has met other efforts to challenge its blockade with obstructions, such as ramming attacks on boats and capture at sea.
“It took us months to repair her and sail her down to Gaza to break the siege,” Charlie Andreasson told Truthout about the Estelle, a Swedish vessel that attempted to sail to Gaza in 2012. “But the Israelis wanted otherwise and boarded us in international waters, used Tasers, interrogated us and then threw us behind bars.”
Andreasson, an “able seaman” from Gothenburg, Sweden, also sailed on the Marianne, the lead ship of the third Freedom Flotilla in 2015. He also lived in the Gaza Strip for a year in 2014 and 2015.
“The Israeli jailers’ primary goal seemed to be to humiliate, isolate and disempower us, so prisoner solidarity and visible nonviolent resistance was crucial,” Kevin Neish, a retired marine engineer in Victoria, British Columbia told Truthout.
Neish, who was captured by Israeli forces on both the Mavi Marmara and the Marianne, likewise lived in Gaza between the two voyages.
Standing in Solidarity
Women’s Boat to Gaza participants face the threats of violence, detention and deportation with clear, if varied, reasons for their risks.
“I am a playwright,” Naomi Wallace told Truthout. “It’s both my duty and inspiration to engage with and attempt to expose systems that diminish us, like occupation, racism and brutality.”
Wallace, a native of Prospect, Kentucky, has addressed Palestine in three of her plays and worked on other issues including Cuba, facing brief detention by the Department of Homeland Security after openly defying the United States ban on travel to the island in 2007.
“Our taxes arm Israel,” she said. “Our government has been supporting the occupation for decades now.”
Others found inspiration to participate by viewing their country’s history in a different light.
“Irish people coming out of their own experience of violent conflict can identify with the suffering of the people of Gaza living under Israeli siege and occupation,” Mairead Maguire, a peace activist from Belfast, told Truthout.
Maguire won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for her efforts to achieve justice in Northern Ireland.
“The [Women’s Boat to Gaza] is important to be in solidarity with the people of Gaza and let them know the world stands with them in their struggle for the freedom and rights of Gaza and all the Palestinian people,” she said.
In Gaza, Al-Dreamly thinks the boat has already achieved much of its purpose.
“The mere idea of the flotilla raises Gazans’ spirits because they feel that people are standing with and for them,” she said. “They do not only feel their suffering, but also want to help them.”