WHEN GOVERNMENTS FAIL, THE PEOPLE MUST TAKE ACTION. THEY MAY TRY AT FIRST BUT THEY CANNOT KILL US ALL. OUR NUMBERS ARE LARGE AND OUR CAUSE IS JUST.
July 29, 2009
When governments fail to protect human rights, civilians must step up, human rights group Free Gaza Movement said during a talk at the American University of Beirut on Tuesday.
We live in an era defined by its brutality. Our challenge is whether to accept this ~ or to take the risks necessary to transform our world commons in beloved community. Above all, what is being tested is whether the imaginative engagement of dedicated private citizens can influence the struggle of a beleaguered people for basic human rights, and whether their courage and commitment can awaken the conscience of humanity to an unfolding tragedy.
“Civilians have a very important role to play, especially when government institutions fail to do their job in upholding the law and human rights,” Huwaida Arraf, Chairperson of the Free Gaza Movement (FGM), said.
Delivering a lecture entitled “What we learned from breaking the siege, confronting Israel,” at the American University of Beirut, Arraf recounted how a group of activists from the FGM, herself included, set sail from Larnaca in Cyprus with two fishing boats to deliver aid to Gazans.
“In 2006 when Israel began tightening the siege, we couldn’t even get into Gaza to stand by the Palestinians. So we began to think, what can we do?”
Since the election of Hamas in 2006, Israel has allowed only limited humanitarian supplies into Gaza, causing around half of the 1.5 million population to rely on food aid, according to UN agencies.
The FGM took out loans, sold possessions and borrowed from where they could to raise money for the trip. They filled the boats with medicines, toys, writing equipment and anything that was denied the Palestinian people by the blockade.
“It was the most beautiful and memorable moment of my life when we arrived in Gaza to see thousands of people standing along the shore, fishing boats coming out to meet us and children swimming out,” Arraf said.
The next time the FGM was to return to Gaza, this time on a ferry, they were rammed by Israeli navy boats. This would not deter them from repeating their mission four more times.
“We could not back down. We could not allow violence to triumph. So we went back again,” said Arraf.
The group once again left Larnaca on their vessel named “Spirit of Humanity” to carry more aid to Gazans suffering under the blockade. Accompanying them were former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and Nobel Laureate Mairead MaGuire.
A video played at the lecture showed Israeli naval vessels surrounding the boat and demanding they return to Larnaca. "We will be forced to take all necessary action if you do not return to Larnaca immediately," a voice from an Israeli naval vessel said over the boat's radio
The reply from "Spirit of Humanity" came back: "The Israeli navy is mistaken. Since you occupy Gaza, under international law you are responsible for the safety of Gazans. We are delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza and it is illegal for you to stop us."
"Spirit of Humanity" was boarded and all 20 activists on board were arrested and detained within Israel for seven days, until they were deported.
The group also ran a short film shot by the FGM showing the Israeli navy opening fire on Gazan fishing boats, shooting the water surrounding them and forcing them to return to shore.
Documentary filmmaker and human rights activist Adam Shapiro spoke at the meeting of his motivation for getting involved with the campaign.
"I was quite skeptical at first. I had lots of concerns, especially when I saw the boats. But I went to Gaza in February for the first time in 10 years, and I saw tremendous devastation. I couldn't see anything new being built; I realized that the blockade was stopping people from rebuilding their lives."
Shapiro also added that "Spirit of Humanity" was in international waters when it was boarded by Israeli naval personnel.
Both speakers expressed the need not just for humanitarian aid, but for this action to be undertaken alongside political attempts to end the blockade.
They also described as "complicit" the NGOs who adhere to the blockade by not taking in items which Israel doesn't consider to be "essential humanitarian aid."
"The blockade is collective punishment, it constitutes a war crime under the Geneva Convention. Many organizations have declared the blockade to be illegal including Amnesty International and the International Red Cross. Who is standing up against it? Which state?" Arraf asked.
The FGM is planning another voyage to break the siege on Gaza later this year.
By Richard Hall