GAZA CITY — A gleaming new memorial towers in the center of Gaza City’s battered port. Flanked by flags of various nations whose citizens have sailed to the Gaza Strip to highlight the all-out siege on Gaza, the memorial’s inscription bears the names of the Turkish solidarity activists who died one year ago when Israeli commandoes firing machine guns air-dropped onto the Freedom Flotilla, killing nine and injuring over 50 of the civilians on board.
On the one-year anniversary of the illegal Israeli attack on and abduction of over 600 civilians on the Freedom Flotilla from international waters, Gaza’s harbor bustles with people and energy: they have come to mourn the dead and to herald the coming boats of Freedom Flotilla Two. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya addresses the audience, thanking the Turkish activists and government for their continued solidarity with Palestine.
Since Free Gaza boats arrived in 2008 — the first blockade-breaking boats and first boats to dock at Gaza since Israel’s 1967 occupation of the Strip — the boat movement has grown exponentially. Free Gaza successfully docked in Gaza five times, with another four voyages violently thwarted by the Israeli navy.
The December 2008 sailing ended when an Israeli warship rammed a Free Gaza vessel carrying medical supplies, non-violent activists, surgeons and journalists. The February 2009 attempt ended with Israeli soldiers forcibly boarding the ship, beating and abducting the passengers from international waters. A June 2009 sailing was likewise forcibly halted by the Israeli navy, the passengers aboard abducted and deported.
The various vessels have carried non-violent activists, international television and newspaper journalists, European parliamentarians, Jews in solidarity with Palestine, including Holocaust survivors and Israeli activists and journalists, and even Palestinians unable to get out of Gaza for studies in universities abroad and those unable to enter Gaza to re-unite with family.
Israel’s pretext in blocking boats’ passage to and from Gaza is for security reasons, claiming weapons are being smuggled into Gaza. In each instance when a Free Gaza or Flotilla vessel has been forcibly absconded to Israel, only humanitarian supplies were found aboard. Rather than defeating the boat movement, Israel’s aggressions have had the opposite effect.
Vessels from Libya, Malaysia, and a boat carrying Jewish activists have all sailed for, and been blocked by Israeli gunboats from, the Gaza Strip. Two weeks ago, Israeli soldiers fired upon a Malaysian aid ship carrying piping for a sanitation project in Gaza, forcing it to dock in Egyptian waters.
In May 2010, Free Gaza, supported by Turkish humanitarian organization IHH, again sent vessels and activists sailing to the besieged Strip, this time accompanied by the massive Turkish ship the Mavi Marmara. As the six vessels with over 600 passengers in the Freedom Flotilla approached Gaza, Israeli commandoes unleashed a barrage of machinegun fire on the boats still sailing in international waters. Equipped with satellite streaming, the Israeli assault was videoed and broadcast to disbelieving viewers in Gaza and worldwide.
Keven Niesh, 53, a Canadian activist on board the Mavi Marmara, described the killings. "There were several guys who had two neat bullet holes side by side on the side of their head — clearly they were executed," Niesh told CounterPunch in an interview after the Flotilla massacre last year.
Undaunted by last year’s massacre, international activists have organized the Freedom Flotilla 2, due to sail in one month’s time with at least 10 boats and over 1,000 activists. Canadian and US boats will join those of Europe, Turkey, and other nations.
Immediately following the massacre one year ago, Egyptian authorities partially opened the Rafah crossing. In an effort to deflect criticism, Israeli authorities subsequently announced they would ease the siege on Gaza. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)’s Mathilde De Riedmatten, in a May 2011 interview, noted that "the entry of goods into Gaza is also still highly restricted, not only in terms of quantity but also in terms of the particular items allowed."
More recently, Egyptian authorities announced the continued opening of the Rafah crossing. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), however, notes that this change will not impact on imports, exports or Gaza’s economy. "These procedures will not ease the suffering of the Palestinian civilian population or change the economic situation caused by the strict closure imposed on the Gaza Strip," a PCHR statement reads.
It calls for "lifting the Israeli closure imposed on the Gaza Strip, opening the crossings for commercial transactions and allowing the freedom of movement of persons, including the movement between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, through the outlets that are controlled by the Israeli occupation forces."
The siege on Gaza impacts drinking water (95 percent of Gazan water is below the World Health Organization standards), the sanitation system (untreated sewage is pumped into the sea daily for want of storage capabilities), and the agriculture and fishing sectors (farmers and fishermen are shot at on a daily basis by Israeli soldiers). Unemployment and malnutrition levels soar, power outages occur daily, impacting on hospital machinery, and Palestinians continue to live in what more and more outsiders are describing as an "open-air prison". Renowned classical pianist Anton Kuerti, endorsing the Canadian boat to Gaza, says the siege has rendered Gaza "indistinguishable from a concentration camp."
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggested nations prevent their citizens from sailing, saying governments should "use their influence to discourage such flotillas, which carry the potential to escalate into violent conflict."
Free Gaza’s attorney Audrey Bomse stated "the flotilla violates no international laws or laws of the sea and so an outright ban on our sailing to Gaza is essentially a statement against the rights of the Palestinian people to control their own ports and lives."
Turkey has demanded an apology and compensation from Israel to the martyred activists’ families, with Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on NTV television warning "Turkey will give the necessary response to any repeated act of provocation by Israel on the high seas."
As was Free Gaza’s goal, the expanded Flotilla aims to end the illegal siege on Gaza. The Canadian Boat to Gaza (CBG) will "challenge Canadian foreign policy and the uncritical support of Israeli war crimes by the current government."
CBG’s David Heap says the Freedom Flotilla participants are not intimidated. "Where our governments have failed the Palestinians of Gaza, civil society must act instead."
(Inter Press Service)