Sailing for freedom and solidarity

Why I am sailing on the Women’s Boat to Gaza.

Gaza tends to appear in Western media most frequently when Israeli war planes launch major attacks on the tiny Palestinian territory on the Mediterranean Sea. In the summer of 2014 the Israeli army killed more than 2,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the vast majority of them civilians. Across the world, including St. John’s, protest marches took place demanding an end to the bombardment. But continued harassment and more minor attacks take place on a daily basis.

On Sept. 14 the Women’s Boats to Gaza will set sail from Barcelona with the aim of bringing solidarity, publicity and support to the beleaguered women of Gaza. Two boats—the Amal-Hope and the Zaytuna-Olive—will be sailed by women delegates, accompanied by media, from around the world. Three Canadian women—Eva Manly from Nanaimo, B.C., Wendy Goldsmith from London, Ont. and myself—will sail aboard the Amal-Hope.

Why are we going?

Amid the turmoil and tragedy of the Middle East, including the death-laden five-year conflict in Syria, we tend to forget the ongoing misery inflicted on the Palestinians and on the tiny enclave state of Gaza, which is 360 square kilometers—not quite the size of Terra Nova National Park.

The history of Gaza is complex, punctuated by numerous outbursts of violence interspersed with so-called ‘cease-fires’. What is certain is that Gaza, even more than the West Bank, has been subject to a more or less constant state of war, especially since Hamas won the local election in 2007. New Palestinian elections are scheduled for October.

The State of Israel controls Gaza’s air and maritime space and six of Gaza’s seven land crossings. Its military can enter Gaza at will and enforce a no-go buffer zone that is within Gaza territory, and restricts Gaza citizens’ movements even further. Gaza is dependent on Israel for its water, electricity, telecommunications, and other utilities. The territory is already over-crowded, with the UN assessing it as the third-most densely populated area in the world. The UN says that 11 percent of the population is officially ‘displaced’, which does not take into account the people who are crammed into tiny apartments with their relatives. All this makes the impact of the violence even worse and stretches the already thin resources even thinner.

A woman amid the destruction in Gaza following a military campaign by Israeli forces. Photo: Women's Boat to Gaza /
A woman amid the destruction in Gaza following a military campaign by Israeli forces. Photo: Women’s Boat to Gaza /

Citizens of Gaza are not free to leave — even to go to the other part of the truncated Palestinian territory of the West Bank. Gaza has been described as essentially an ‘open air prison’ where people are trapped, living in dire conditions, and with no hope of escape. According to various estimates, 70-80 percent of the population are already dependent on humanitarian aid for their survival. Israeli bombing campaigns have specifically targeted essential infrastructure, as well as homes, schools and medical facilities.

According to the BBC, over 17,000 homes were destroyed or severely damaged by the bombing and almost half a million people were forced into emergency shelters. Al Jazeera recently reported that only an estimated 3 percent of Gaza’s water is suitable for drinking, and that the Palestinian Water Authority and the United Nations have warned that Gaza’s “underground water aquifer — upon which the territory is almost entirely reliant, apart from a small amount of water imported from Israel — may be completely contaminated by the end of the year.”

Common and non-life threatening illnesses and injuries are left untreated until they become life threatening. Specialist medical services are simply non-existent; the sick and disabled are completely dependent on their families, a burden mostly borne by women.

In one example of the daily troubles they face, Gazan fishers—some of whom are women—have been restricted to fishing within six nautical miles of the shore, while the better fishing is to be found closer to 12 nautical miles off shore. In April Israel expanded some of the Palestinian fishing zone off Gaza’s coast to nine nautical miles, though as the New York Times reported earlier this year, the Oslo peace accords mandated the Palestinian fishing zone be extended to 20 nautical miles. Given the precarious nature of imported goods, and the dangers of farming, fish constitute one of the only sources of nourishing food for Gazans.

Is it genocide?

Israel and its borders were imposed, without Palestinian consent, by guilt-ridden western nations after World War 2, in 1948. Since then Israel has massively expanded its borders in conflicts, especially during the “Six Day War” in 1967.

In addition, Israel has imposed hundreds of ‘settlements’ of Israelis in Palestinian territory, which are aggressively defended, threatening Palestinian homes, by demolition and farming by the destruction of olive trees. The situation has worsened with the appointment of a new defence minister, Avigdor Liberman, whose first act in office this year was to come up with a plan to defeat Hamas in the Gaza Strip, an approach previous defence ministers had shied away from openly articulating.

Genocide is a term most often used in the modern era to refer to Nazi crimes against Jews and to the explicit policy behind them. Yet today scholars are more often referring to the Israeli policies and actions against Palestinians.

In 1943 Polish-Jewish legal scholar Raphael Lemkin defined genocide as “not necessarily signify[ing] mass killings,” but more often referring “to a coordinated plan aimed at destruction of the essential foundations of the life of national groups so that these groups wither and die like plants that have suffered a blight.

“The end may be accomplished by the forced disintegration of political and social institutions, of the culture of the people, of their language, their national feelings and their religion,” he continued. “It may be accomplished by wiping out all basis of personal security, liberty, health and dignity.”

Today the United Nations accepts genocide to mean “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

It is hard not to see the incessant incursions and harassment, the settlements and the enforcement of illegal blockades as anything else but an attempt at the forced disintegration of Gaza.

What can we do to help?

Israel, like any other state, has the right to exist in peace and security. So do the Palestinians. The blockade of Gaza is illegal. The suffering of the people of Gaza is an outrage. Yet it is invisible in most of the world’s media, which has been reluctant to offer any criticism of the actions of the State of Israel. This is, at least in part, because of the fear of being accused of anti-semitism. But to critique specific actions of a state is not to discriminate against a people as a whole. Our first task is to separate our support for Jews in general and the State of Israel as a legitimate political entity from our protest against specific policies and acts aimed at the Palestinian people.

Groups like the Jewish Voices for Peace and the United Church of Canada understand this. In February 2015 local activists invited the co-founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, Jeff Halper, to speak in St. John’s. Halper toured Canada, he said, “to raise political awareness of the conflict and to convince Canadians, that this conflict has to be settled, and urgently.”

The Women’s Boat to Gaza is just one part of a worldwide effort to focus attention on the plight of Gaza, and especially of the women of Gaza. The women need protection, medical and humanitarian aid and materials to rebuild their homes. But above all they need to know that their plight does not go unnoticed.

We must bring the worlds’s focus to the women of Gaza, to their courage and to their will to continue to take care of their families and their homes.

Marilyn Porter has combined academic and political and social activism for many years. She is currently Professor Emerita at Memorial University and Co-Chair of the NL Social Justice Co-operative.

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