The Palestinians in Gaza don't get many visitors. That's because the Israelis have imposed an air, land and sea blockade since 2007 when Islamic militants seized control of the coastal strip on the Mediterranean, making it impossible for friends to just drop by. So when two vessels loaded with 46 peace activists arrived on Saturday, thousands of Palestinians lined the harbor in a party mood. Fishing scows honked their foghorns and swarms of kids swam out to the arriving boats just as the sun was turning the water to molten reds and gold.
It was a remarkable odyssey for the two battered ships of the "Free Gaza" movement, a U.S.-based pro-Palestinian group, which set out from Cyprus on Friday morning with few hopes of reaching Gaza. The activists, who hail from 14 countries, said that before they even set sail, they faced anonymous death threats, the mysterious drowning of one potential sponsor, and constant badgering by Israeli spies badly disguised as guitar-strumming hippies. "They kept popping up, everywhere," said Angela Godfrey-Goldstein, an organizer. "They were really annoying."
Once at sea, the activists who include an 81-year old nun, a Greek leftist parliamentarian and the sister-in law of ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair braved a squall and a bizarre communications blackout, which they say was caused by lsraeli electronic jamming, and which thwarted a rendezvous in heaving seas between peace activists and a ship of journalists.
The biggest danger they faced was possible arrest by the Israelis. Earlier, Israel had declared Gaza's waters to be a "designated maritime zone" and warned the peace activists to steer clear or face arrest. At one point, says Palestinian-American law professor Huwaida Arraf who joined the activists, the radar picked up three vessels which were shadowing them from just over the horizon. The "Free Gaza" crew presumes the ships were Israeli.
But Israel chose to play nice, letting the peaceniks into Gaza on a once-only pass instead of acting the part of a high seas ogre. "They wanted a provocation at sea, but they won't get it," explained Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Aviv Shiron. Now, Israel has to contend with a barrage of international media coverage of the two peace vessels sailing into Gaza harbor and the publicity boon this will give to the Hamas militants who have ruled Gaza since June 2007 when they split with Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who governs from the Palestinian inland enclave in the West Bank. Hamas' leader in Gaza, Ismael Haniyeh, personally welcomed the activists. Israel and Hamas are sworn enemies (the Islamic militants say they want to destroy the Jewish state) but nonetheless they agreed to a cease-fire in June that has largely held firm.
The cruise into Gaza was bracingly celebrity-free. As Jeff Halper, the sole Israeli aboard the "Free Gaza" flotilla, says: "We didn't have anybody famous. It was old-fashioned 'people power.' We just wanted to show what happens when ordinary people from around the world get together to try breaking this immoral siege on Gaza."
With international backing, Israel in 2007 clamped a strict economic boycott on the territory's 1.5 million inhabitants, barring all but a minimum of humanitarian aid to the Hamas-controlled enclave. Some Palestinians at dockside grumbled that the activists should have brought in more relief supplies they came only with 200 hearing aids for children and 5,000 balloons. But as Godfrey-Goldstein says, "We never intended for this to be a humanitarian mission. It's about human rights in Gaza."
The next question: how will the peace activists get out of Gaza? The Israelis will probably allow them to sail back to Cyprus, without much shore leave in the Palestinian territory. It will be an especially circuitous and watery route home for Halper, who usually lives in Jerusalem. "It's funny. From Gaza, I'm only an hour from home. I should be able to go home by bus, but instead I have to go back to Cyprus and then fly to Israel," says Halper. Still, the voyage home should be far less of an ordeal than it was running through Israel's sea barricade.