Freedom Riders on the sea

The SS Dignity arrives at the Gaza port, 29 October 2008. (FreeGaza)


This morning I walked to the Indian Ocean and made salt in defiance of the British Occupation of India. This morning I marched in Selma, I stood down tanks in Tiananmen Square, and I helped tear down the Berlin Wall. This morning I became a Freedom Rider.

The Freedom Riders of the 21st Century are sailing small boats into the Gaza Strip in open defiance of the Israeli occupation and blockade. This morning I arrived in Gaza aboard the SS Dignity, part of a Free Gaza Movement delegation of 27 doctors, lawyers, teachers, and human rights activists from across the world, including Mairead Maguire, the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

When I close my eyes, I still hear the crash of ocean waves, I still feel the warm sun on my face, and I still taste salt from the sea spray. When I close my eyes, I can still see the Israeli warship that tried to intimidate us when we reached the 20-mile line outside Gaza, and I can still see a thousand cheering people crowding around our ship when we refused to be intimidated and finally reached port in Gaza City. Today, there is no prouder boat, crew or passengers than the SS Dignity.

Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, an independent member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, sailed aboard the Dignity, along with six other Palestinians from the West Bank, Israel, and countries in Europe. What should have been a 90-minute drive from Ramallah to Gaza City became a three day odyssey as he traveled from the West Bank to Jordan, then flew to Cyprus, before finally coming onboard the 15-hour sea voyage to Gaza.

“We’re challenging Israel in a manner that is unprecedented,” said Dr. Barghouti. “Israel has prevented me from visiting Gaza for more than two years now. I am so pleased that we managed to defy Israel’s injustice so that I can see all the people I love and work with in Gaza. Israel’s measures are meant to divide us, but it is our defiance and resistance which unite us.”

This is a resistance which can and should light the fire of all our imaginations, and bring hope not just to Palestinians, but to peoples suffering the terrible tides of oppression and injustice the world around.

After watching the Dignity’s arrival, Fida Qishta, the local coordinator for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in the Gaza Strip, said “If Gaza is free then it’s our right to invite whomsoever we wish to visit us. It’s our land and it’s our sea. Now more groups must come, not only by sea, but also the crossings at Erez and Rafah must be opened. This second breaking of the siege means a lot, actually. It’s the second time in two months that people have come to Gaza without Israel’s permission, and that tells us that Gaza will be free.”

For over 40 years, Israel has occupied the Gaza Strip. Despite the so-called “disengagement” in 2005, when they dismantled their illegal settlements here, Israel still maintains absolute control over Gaza’s borders and airspace, severely limiting the free movement of goods, services, and travel. Israel is still an occupying power.

For over two years, Israel has maintained a brutal blockade of Gaza. Compared to 2005, less than 20 percent of the supplies needed are allowed in. This has forced 95 percent of local industries to shut down, resulting in massive increases in unemployment and poverty rates. Childhood malnutrition has skyrocketed, and 80 percent of families are now dependent on international food aid just to be able to eat. An hour after we arrived, I watched as a teenage boy dug through the garbage looking for something he could use.

Israel’s siege isn’t simply illegal — it’s intolerable.

Renowned human rights activist Caoimhe Butterly also sailed aboard the Dignity, and will remain in Gaza for several weeks as project coordinator for the Free Gaza Movement. But, said Butterly, “My feelings are bittersweet. Although we’re overjoyed at reaching Gaza a second time, that joy is tempered by the fact that the conscience of the world has been reduced to a small boat and 27 seasick activists. This mission is a reminder of not only the efficacy of non-violent direct action, but also of the deafening silence of the international community.”

The first voyage of any international ship to Gaza in over forty years in August demonstrated that it was possible to freely travel. This second voyage shows that it is repeatable, and sets a precedent: The siege of Gaza can be overcome through non-violent resistance and direct action.

Today, the Free Gaza Movement has a simple message for the rest of the world: What are you waiting for?

Ramzi Kysia is an Arab-American writer and activist, and one of the organizers of the Free Gaza Movement. To find out more about Free Gaza and what you can do to help support their work, please visit FreeGaza.org.

Related Links