Saturday, October 6, 2012

Between Naples and Gaza

The city of Gaza is on the shore of the Mediterranean. Like in many other coastal cities, there are inhabitants of Gaza who are interested in sailing as a sport and hobby. But putting such interests into practice is far more complicated in Gaza than in most other coastal cities. In 2006 Qatar donated ten small sailing boats to the newly-founded Gaza Sailing and Surfing Association, but it took until September 2012 for the Israeli military inspectors to make up their minds and conclude that there was no security threat involved in letting them through.

The boats' arrival in Gaza provided a rare chance for a bit of positive news, with the twelve-year-old Darin Kabariti enthusiastically telling journalists that she feels completely free when launching her sailboat off the Gaza coast.

Not long after the sailing boats' joyous entry into Gaza, the 22-year-old fisherman Fahmi Abu Rayash was shot near Beit Lahiya and hit in the abdomen and foot. At first his wounds were not considered fatal but he succumbed after two days in hospital.

What did happen there? According to the Israeli military communiqué, he had approached  too close to a forbidden zone, arousing the suspicion that he intended to carry out an armed attack. According to the Palestinians, he had intended harm to nobody (at least, to none but fish). There had not been – and it is very unlikely that there will ever be – an impartial investigation. There had been no report of his death in the Israeli or international media, and not very much in the Palestinian press, either. It is too much of a daily routine. And nowadays, Israeli officials have a ready-made answer to anyone who asks too many questions about such things: "More horrible things are happening all the time in Syria". Which is a matter of undoubted, documented fact

The gunboats which are Israeli Navy's own pride and joy continue patrolling day and night off the Gaza shore, charged – as they had been over more than a decade with making the siege of Gaza, so to say, watertight. It is the gunboats' daily job to  prevent Gazan fishing boats and Gazan sailing boats and any other kind of Gazan boat from venturing "too deep" into the open sea, and to equally prevent any other vessel from any other place on Earth from approaching anywhere close to the shores of Gaza 

And just now, there is such a vessel approaching besieged Gaza from the west. Not by stealth – in fact, its approach had been announced and heralded many months in advance. The Estelle had been purchased by the Swedish “Ship To Gaza” association and had set out last May from Finland by a long a complicated route, touching at ports in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Holland, France and Spain.

The seventeen activists on board – Swedes and Norwegians and also some dissident Israelis – had had many interesting experiences en route. There were rallies and artistic performances in every port, and they participated in a film festival in Bretagne, and in Barcelona the well-known artist Manu Chao came to take part in the solidarity concert, as did Adeila Guevara, daughter of the legendary Che Guevara. And by now they have reached Naples and are engaged in a very full program: a concert, and  Catholic Mass celebrated on the pier, and an organized tour of the ship for Neapolitan school children, and also a visit by Naples Mayor Luigi de Magistris, who has declared himself the Estelle’s official protector for the length of her stay in Naples. Meanwhile Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu's Foreign Minister, is exerting considerable pressure on the Italians to block the ship from departing – but unlike the case of last year's Freedom Flotilla, blocked at Athens, he does not seem to get very far.   .

So, the Estelle will shortly depart on the final lap of its journey. It is not so far from Naples to Gaza, as nautical miles go. The Israeli Navy gunboats are equipped with high-quality radar, and it is not difficult to detect a ship which makes no effort to hide (quite the opposite, in fact). And so the outcome, sometime later this month, is fairly predictable.

Most probably, it will not be anywhere near the actual shores of Gaza. In the past, Israeli Navy gunboats have eagerly gone deep into the Mediterranean to intercept Gaza-bound vessels, sometimes, as far as 65 kilometers from the shore. (In undoubted international waters, but the Foreign Ministry's lawyers in Jerusalem have come up with a legal opinion explaining why this was OK, digging up some precedents from bold actions taken by the British Royal Navy in its bygone proud days of empire…)

The Estelle will be sternly warned to turn aside, the activists on board will ignore all warnings, and the crack Naval Commandos will come aboard. The ship will be towed to the Port of Ashdod, and the Swedes and Norwegians aboard will be remanded in custody and charged with "Illegally entering Israel" and their plea that they had no intention of entering Israel and that Gaza is not Israel will be ignored by the learned judges. And the Israelis on board will be charged with… Well, there are creative minds in the Israeli Public Prosecution, and they will think of something.

Will it end the siege of Gaza? Definitely not. But for at least a few days it might remind some people who don't want to be reminded that Gaza is still under siege, out of sight and out of mind, and that this siege is causing a considerable daily suffering to a million and six hundred thousand people, a large part of them children. Even though it is quite true that at this moment there is a worse suffering in Syria.

Ongoing reports on the Swedish Ship to Gaza website:

Online petition against the Siege of Gaza (English after Hebrew)