On Saturday, after 32 hours on the high seas, I sailed into the port of Gaza City with 45 other citizens from around the world in defiance of Israel’s blockade. We traveled from Cyprus with humanitarian provisions for Palestinians living under siege. My family in Michigan was worried sick.
They are not naïve. They knew that Israel could have attacked us — as Israeli forces did in 2003, killing nonviolent American witness Rachel Corrie (Editor’s note: Corrie, also of the International Solidarity Movement, was run over by a bulldozer operated by Israeli Defense Forces during a protest against the destruction of Palestinian homes; an Israeli military investigation ruled the death accidental) and Brit Tom Hurndall (an ISM representative who died nine months after being was shot in the head in Gaza by an IDF sniper; the sniper was convicted of manslaughter) as well as thousands of unarmed Palestinian civilians over the years.
My family members, though, remember that 60 years ago part of our own family was uprooted and driven from their homes in Palestine by Israeli forces. This loss no doubt fueled my decision to risk my safety and freedom to advance the human rights of innocent men, women and children in Gaza.
Our two boats were greeted upon arrival by thousands of jubilant Palestinians who in 41 years of occupation had never witnessed such a scene. To get there we braved anonymous death threats and the Israeli military interfering with our means of communications despite rough seas that jeopardized our safety. Before our departure, the Israeli foreign ministry asserted its right to use force against our unarmed boats.
We nevertheless resolved to act, to symbolically end the siege of Gaza – and to do as civilians what governments have lacked the compassion or courage to do themselves. Once here, we delivered critical supplies such as hearing aids, batteries for medical equipment, and painkillers.
When a massive earthquake rocked China and cyclones ravaged Myanmar, the world responded. Governments and civilians alike rallied to help. Yet world governments have witnessed a manmade humanitarian catastrophe unfold before our eyes in Gaza. Karen Koning Abu Zayd, head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), has asserted that “Gaza is on the threshold of becoming the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution, with the knowledge, acquiescence and – some would say – encouragement of the international community.”
Israel claims that its occupation of Gaza ended three years ago with its pullout of soldiers and settlers. But because Israel objected to the outcome of a 2006 Palestinian election that the Carter Center deemed free and fair, it has blockaded Gaza, severely restricting movement of goods and people. Dov Weisglass, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, was quoted shortly before the swearing in of the new Hamas government as saying, “It’s like a meeting with a dietitian. We need to make the Palestinians lose weight, but not to starve to death.”
More than 200 Palestinians have died in the past year according to Physicians for Human Rights – Israel because they could not exit Gaza for needed medical care. Over 80% of Gaza’s population now depends on food aid from UNRWA and the World Food Programme. Unemployment is up to an astonishing 45%. And hundreds of young people are being intellectually starved by Israel’s decision to prevent them from taking up overseas academic opportunities.
Now that we have made it into Gaza, we intend to assist Gaza’s fishermen. We will sail with them beyond the six nautical mile limit illegally enforced by the Israeli navy. Palestinian fishermen are routinely harassed and attacked as they ply the waters to eke out a living. We hope our presence will keep the Israeli military at bay.
We do this because we are horrified that this siege of 1.5 million men, women and children is allowed to continue. We are saddened for the state of our world when decision-makers can sit back and watch an entire people being slowly and purposefully starved and humiliated.
We know that with our two small boats we cannot open all of Gaza to the outside world. We could not bring with us the freedom of movement, access to jobs, medical care, food and other critical supplies that they are denied today. But we brought with us a message to the people of Gaza: they are not alone. With our successful journey we show them that American citizens and others from around the world have been moved to advance humanitarian principles and human rights. Our efforts this week are undertaken in that spirit and with the hope that our elected representatives will one day follow our example.
Huwaida Arraf, a human rights advocate from Roseville, is a lecturer at Al-Quds University School of Law in Jerusalem and co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement. This essay was sent to The Free Press on her behalf by the Institute for Middle East Understanding.