Defying blockade, Palestinians set sail from Gaza

Although Israel stopped the latest attempt by sea to break the siege on Gaza, Palestinians are determined to continue efforts to draw attention to the blockade.

al-monitor People ride in boats as Palestinians prepare to sail a boat toward Europe aiming to break Israel's maritime blockade on Gaza, off the Palestinian coast, May 29, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Mohammed Salem.

May 31, 2018

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Israeli navy stopped the Palestinian flotilla that had set out from the Gaza port to break the Israeli blockade with 17 Palestinians aboard. The boat was towed on May 29 to Ashdod naval base in the south of Israel after it had crossed 14 nautical miles from the Gaza Strip toward Limassol port in Cyprus.

Dozens of small Palestinian boats carrying local and international media staff and Palestinian activists accompanied the flotilla transporting students and sick and wounded people across several nautical miles in the waters off the Gaza Strip before leaving it to continue the journey on its own to the Cypriot port.

Israel has been imposing a sea and land blockade on the coastal enclave for 12 years, ever since Hamas’ victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections. The blockade prevents residents of Gaza from traveling outside the strip, and the Rafah land crossing that connects Egypt to Gaza has opened for only a few days each year since Hamas expelled the Palestinian Authority (PA) from Gaza in 2007.

Chairman of the Gaza-based National Committee to Break the Siege, Aladdin al-Batta, told Al-Monitor that he totally blames Israel for what he deemed an "attack" on the Palestinian boat, and described it as “Israeli piracy.” He noted that they contacted several international organizations in the Gaza Strip, mainly the Red Cross, and filled them in on the actions of the Israeli navy against the boat and its passengers.

Batta added that the Israeli navy encircled the boat at a distance of 14 nautical miles from Gaza port, and they transported the 17 passengers to Ashdod port after arresting them. All except the boat’s captain were released hours after their arrests. He said that they contacted several international organizations around the world, mainly the United Nations, to protect the boat and its passengers and to prevent the Israeli navy officers from stopping it, to no avail.

He indicated that the goal behind the journey was to show the world the suffering of 2 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip under the ongoing Israeli blockade.

The boat’s departure marks eight years since Israel targeted the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, which included several vessels that took off from different areas around the world to break the siege May 31, 2010. Israel killed back then 10 Turkish men who were on the Turkish Mavi Marmara ship near the territorial waters of the Gaza Strip.

Media spokesperson for the National Committee to Break the Siege on Gaza, Adham Abu Selmiya, told Al-Monitor the naval journeys will resume soon despite the "piracy" against the Palestinian boat.

He called on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who want to travel across the sea on these boats to register at the office that was recently opened for this purpose.

The coordination committee of the Great March of Return and Breaking the Siege opened May 27 an office to register Palestinians who want to travel by sea on boats to break the siege. The turnout was high, with 180 people who showed up before the first trip, according to the committee.

Mahmoud Abu Ataya, 25, was among those who participated in the journey. Speaking to Al-Monitor shortly before the ship set sail, he said he was motivated to join the trip after having been banned from traveling across land crossings with Egypt and Israel to continue medical treatment in an Arab or European country. He was injured March 30 while participating in the Great March of Return in the east of the Gaza Strip.

Abu Ataya said, “I was shot with an explosive bullet in my right foot, which I lost use of due to broken bones and severed tendons. My injury worsened due to the lack of medical care in the Gaza Strip. I decided to take a risk by participating in the journey, hoping to reach a European country where I can be treated.”

Shadi al-Nakla, 28, who was also on board, told Al-Monitor, “I participated in the first sea journey from the Gaza Strip toward Cyprus to pursue my studies. I received my bachelor’s degree in psychology six years ago from the Palestinian Technical College, and I haven’t been able to cross the Gaza Strip border to continue. This was the only way for me to travel.”

He asserted that he went on the journey willingly, although he was aware of the risks due to the Israeli navy. He hoped the journey would succeed in breaking the siege on the Gaza Strip and would be the starting point for several other sea journeys in the future.

Israel banned several sea activities conducted by Arab and Western activists to break the siege in the past years. It attacked all boats that approached the international waters of the Gaza Strip and led them to Ashdod port, later releasing the passengers and deporting them to their countries.

Salah Abdel Ati, head of the legal commission of the Committee of the Great March of Return and Breaking the Siege, condemned the latest attack on the Palestinian flotilla and considered it a new Israeli violation against peaceful Palestinians.

He told Al-Monitor that in his view Israel is responsible for the safety of those on board and called on it to release them as soon as possible. He noted that they participated to break the siege on the Gaza Strip, and this siege is a war crime against humanity given the catastrophic repercussions on the citizens.

The blockade has faced wide international condemnation, and the United Nations Human Rights Council called on Israel May 19 to lift it as soon as possible.

Although Israel foiled this attempt by sea to break the siege, Palestinians are determined to move forward and send new boats in the hope that one attempt might eventually succeed.

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