This morning I am sorry to find myself back on dry land in Cyprus,separated from my fellow sailors who are now completing the final legof their trip to Gaza. They are carrying humanitarian and medical aidto a people now suffering both an international boycott and the illegalIsraeli occupation. On board the refurbished fishing boats, SS FreeGaza and SS Liberty, are more than 50 activists from 17 nations - Jews,Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, farmers, fishermen, officials, languageteachers, piano technicians and one 85-year-old Holocaust survivor -all united in their determination to break the Israeli siege.
After months of preparation, the Free Gaza Movement’s perilousrelief mission is under way. But I am not with them, despite the factthat I am the only Palestinian-born organiser involved. Last week, myimmediate family, who still live in the West Bank, were attacked andterrorised, and I also received numerous anonymous death threats. Myfamily were warned that I must leave the project, and that I must notcontact the media. This psychological terrorism now forces me to make apublic protest. Though I am no longer on board, I will not leave thismission, even as potential confrontation with the Israeli militarylooms closer.
The UN has called the situation in Gaza a humanitarian disaster, butthe inhumanity goes on. More than 200 civilians have died due to therefusal to let people leave Gaza to seek medical care. The UnitedStates, the country that assumes stewardship of the world and whoseinfluence could change the situation, stands by. Worse still, itendorses absurd Israeli claims, such as the recent labelling ofinnocent Fulbright scholars as “potential security threats” to bar themfrom taking up their scholarships abroad.
Internationally, the thin veneer of diplomacy has shattered again.On June 19 Israel agreed to halt military invasion and theindiscriminate shelling of Gaza, in return for an end to the launchingof homemade rockets towards Israel. Israel has not met its obligations.Gaza’s borders, gates that imprison 1.5 million civilians, remainlocked, and scant supplies get through. Even medical supplies are beingblocked.
I grew up in Palestine and have lived in fear since childhood. Thehorror of witnessing elders of my family being bullied and humiliated,the daily terror of losing my parents. Watching my family elders beinghumiliated, the child’s voice inside me would cry out silently: “Howcan I stop this?”
While I was on board the Liberty, I listened to the threateningmessages hijacking the ship’s emergency channel, illegal for use unlessin distress. These voices reawakened a deep, familiar feeling in me:that no matter how civil, kind, non-violent I am, I will always bewatched, or far worse, hunted.
Now I realise that the biggest friend of psychological terror issilence. The Free Gaza Movement aims to challenge the physicalstranglehold on Gaza, but more importantly, this mission seeks to breakthe silence for millions of voiceless civilians whose daily stories ofpersecution go so cruelly ignored by the international community.
When our boats arrived in Cyprus on August 20 to collect the rest ofour 40-plus group, news reached us that Israel’s deputy prime ministerand minister of foreign affairs, Tzipi Livni, had finally responded toour invitation. The Free Gaza Movement had invited her to join theCypriot authorities, who were coming aboard to search our boats inorder to address their security concerns. Citing the Oslo accords, adocument from the legal department of the foreign ministry assertedIsrael’s right to use force against our boats. It claimed that securityforces were permitted to detain the vessels upon entry to Gaza’sterritorial waters, and that the peaceful, unarmed activists on boardcould be forcibly arrested, detained and “interrogated” in Israel. Whydoes a peaceful relief mission bring fury, fear and threat from theIsraeli government?
Is this the way Israel observes its responsibilities under the Osloaccords? Under the accords and the Gaza-Jericho agreement, the onlyauthority Israel reserved for itself was for “security” purposes. Ourboats are no threat. Our David and Goliath mission is a focused, directaction to challenge the inertia of the international community whichallows the “humanitarian disaster” suffered by the people of Gaza tocontinue. The activists carry no arms or threat of violence. If theIsraeli government orders the destruction of this mission, it willsurely be an act unequalled since the blowing up of the USS Libertymore than 30 years ago, a secret mission of sabotage to draw theAmericans into the war against Egypt.
The prospect casts a shadow on our mission. But Liberty and FreeGaza will bring their peaceful cargo to the people of Gaza. Manyfamilies will now be gathered on the Gaza beaches, waiting and prayingfor the boats’ safe arrival. For those families, simply to be afloat inthese crystal blue seas, enjoying the freedom of international waters,would be a truly wonderful thing indeed.
Osama Qashoo is a documentary film-maker and broadcaster