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Human Rights Activist Recounts Path-Breaking Voyage to Break the Siege of Gaza

by Sharat G. Lin Sunday, Nov. 16, 2008 at 12:01 AM
San Jose Peace and Justice Center

Paul Larudee, co-founder of the Free Gaza Movement, described the elaborate measures taken to certify that the first historic voyage to break the Israeli siege of Gaza was completely harmless, non-violent, and transparent. Speaking to supporters in Sunnyvale, California, he said, “We don’t preach non-violence, we practice it!”

Human Rights Activis...
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When Paul Larudee first floated the idea of sailing from Cyprus to Gaza by sea to break through the Israeli naval blockade, people said it was “impossible.” That was several years ago. But even after he and Greta Berlin, co-founders of the Free Gaza Movement, started actually planning the voyage and raising funds over the past two years, many supporters dismissed the idea as “just a dream.” But on August 23, 2008, two small wooden fishing boats, the SS Free Gaza and the SS Liberty, carrying fifty courageous activists and crewmembers did exactly that. They sailed from Larnaca, Cyprus to Gaza Port. They broke the siege of Gaza!

Seeing what strictly non-violent civil disobedience could accomplish, new support poured in from around the world, especially from Europe. Many new people, including European parliamentarians, stepped forward to break the siege themselves in forthcoming sailings. This new support enabled the Free Gaza Movement to buy a modern boat, named the SS Dignity, to make the voyage more safely and comfortably in half the time. In its first two sailings, the SS Dignity arrived in Gaza Port on October 29, 2008 and again on November 8.

Since returning to the United States, Paul Larudee has been telling the incredible story of the innumerable challenges of planning and fulfilling this “impossible” mission for peace and human rights. One of his talks was at the Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church in California on November 8, 2008 in a program sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace, Pilgrims of Ibillin, and South Bay Mobilization.

Larudee opened his talk by showing off the Palestinian diplomatic passport that he and each of the passengers of the first historic voyage received after arriving to a tumultuous welcome in Gaza Port. “It is the highest honor” that the Palestinian Authority could give, he remarked. Then he showed the immigration stamps in his U.S. passport that were especially made for the arriving Free Gaza passengers. They were also produced in the name of the Palestinian Authority.

He recounted the story of Jeff Halper, director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), whose work has frustrated the Israeli government by uniting Israelis and Palestinians to collectively rebuild Palestinian houses demolished by Israeli authorities. After arriving in Gaza on the first voyage, Halper, an Israeli citizen, chose to exit Gaza through the Erez Crossing into Israel on August 26, whereupon he was promptly arrested in Sderot for travelling in Gaza – a zone “off limits” to Israeli citizens. Larudee quoted Halper as saying afterwards, “Now I know what it is like to be a Palestinian. On Tuesday I received my Palestinian citizenship. On Wednesday I was in an Israeli jail!”

The Free Gaza pioneers received a red carpet welcome in Gaza City. Despite the shortage of fuel and supplies owing to the on-going Israeli quotas on supplies allowed to enter Gaza, the visitors were put up in the best hotel and taken wherever they wanted to go. During visits to hospitals and clinics, it was evident that most medicines were “completely out of stock throughout Gaza,” according to Larudee. No hearing aids or hearing aid batteries had been permitted into Gaza for over two years, he said. Knowing this, the Free Gaza Movement arranged to deliver approximately 200 hearing aids for children with hearing disabilities.

However, Paul Larudee reminded the audience that the Free Gaza voyages were never designed to be humanitarian missions. They were intended as political statements to “raise international awareness about the prison-like closure” of Gaza since January 2006, and to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza, a territory from which Israel claims to have “disengaged” since September 2005. For if Israel had really disengaged from Gaza, then why does it still claim control over Gaza’s access to international waters and airspace?

In fact, the Free Gaza activists were very careful about the nature of any material aid. Aware that Hamas, which has political control over Gaza, remains on the U.S. and European Union lists of “terrorist” organizations, they were very clear that no material aid of any kind would be provided to political organizations in Gaza. During the planning for the voyages, the Free Gaza Movement had even contacted the U.S. Department of State to find out if visiting Gaza and meeting Hamas officials was legal. The Department of State responded that that was acceptable as long as no material support was provided. Larudee unequivocally pointed out, “We insist on always being in compliance.”

Because the Israeli Mossad was known to be tracking the activities of Free Gaza leaders, the two small fishing boats needed for the first voyage had to be purchased secretly in Greece through a trusted intermediary. The Israeli government applied “tremendous pressure” on Greece to block the Free Gaza Movement from acquiring boats in the country, claiming that the activists were planning to enter “a closed military zone in violation of Israeli law,” said Larudee. The government of Greece refused to block the purchases, saying that the trip was legal under Greek and international laws.

In order to leave no shadow of doubt that the Free Gaza voyage was peaceful and posed absolutely no conceivable threat to Israel’s national security, the human rights activists requested the government of Cyprus to inspect the boats for dangerous goods. It readily agreed. Apparently further concerned about possible sabotage, the government of Cyprus offered to provide a naval escort into and out of Larnaca port and provide secure berths in the port.

At sea as the boats entered Israel’s self-declared security zone around Gaza’s waters, 20 nautical miles from shore delimited by the fishing limit for Gaza fishermen set by the now-defunct 1993 Oslo Agreement, they were confronted by Israeli gunboats. One gunboat crossed the bow of a fishing boat with Israeli officers demanding to know who was on board. According to Larudee, Huwaida Arraf replied, “Just go to our website!” Indeed the passenger manifest has always been public information, complete with biographies of all passengers. Intentionally, nothing was hidden to prove that the human rights activists had nothing to hide.

As the Free Gaza activists were preparing to leave Gaza Port, Israel gave its assent, but said it would not allow any Palestinians to leave, asserting its “right” to stop the boats and arrest the Palestinian passengers. An Israeli journalist asked Larudee if he could reveal the identities of the Palestinians who would be sailing with the SS Free Gaza and SS Liberty to Cyprus. Larudee replied by saying that there are a mother and her five children who have been trapped in Gaza, unable to return to the rest of their family outside of Gaza. And then there is a man injured by an Israeli bomb who needs a hip replacement, which is not available in Gaza.

“We did something that no government in 41 years had been able to do,” exclaimed Larudee.

In pondering the future of the Free Gaza Movement, he said the organization had approached various aid agencies with the suggestion that future Free Gaza shuttle boats could ferry aid into Gaza without the uncertainty of transit and warehousing in Israel. Current humanitarian aid through Israel is frequently stalled, limited by quotas, or blocked. He revealed that the organization had already evaluated the use of a hydrofoil to cut the transit time down to eight hours at relatively little added cost. He reported that the Free Gaza Movement was also looking into breaking the siege by air by landing at the long-disused Gaza International Airport at the southern-most tip of Gaza. He said the runway had been inspected and evaluated to be “repairable.”

We want to “assert the human right of transit and return,” he insisted. “We want to say ‘Gaza is open for business!’”

In response to a question about whether breaking the siege of Gaza provides moral support to groups that use violence, Larudee replied that we cannot dictate what type of struggle is right for a people under unjust occupation. They have a right to resist and to determine the means by which they resist. “We don’t preach non-violence, we practice it!”

Sharat G. Lin writes on global political economy, the Middle East, South Asia, and labor migration. He is affiliated with the San Jose Peace and Justice Center.

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Latuff cartoon: Breaking the siege of Gaza

by Sharat G. Lin Sunday, Nov. 16, 2008 at 12:01 AM
San Jose Peace and Justice Center

Latuff cartoon: Brea...
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Cartoon by Brazilian political cartoonist Carlos Latuff, depicting the first two FGM boats breaking through the Israeli blockade of Gaza, was projected on the screen by Paul Larudee.

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First immigration stamp at Gaza Port

by Sharat G. Lin Sunday, Nov. 16, 2008 at 12:01 AM
San Jose Peace and Justice Center

First immigration st...
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Palestinian Authority immigration stamp in Larudee’s passport was made especially for the arrival of Free Gaza activists, an historic first.

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Paul Larudee

by Sharat G. Lin Sunday, Nov. 16, 2008 at 12:01 AM
San Jose Peace and Justice Center

Paul Larudee...
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Paul Larudee speaking to a supportive audience at the Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church.

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Break the siege of Gaza!

by Sharat G. Lin Sunday, Nov. 16, 2008 at 12:01 AM
San Jose Peace and Justice Center

Break the siege of G...
5.jpgbqyt9i.jpg, image/jpeg, 707x1000

Poster celebrating the breaking of the siege of Gaza.

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