Boat Trip to Gaza Was a Media Washout

When two boats carrying 44 international activists landed last Saturday night on a Gaza beach, successfully challenging Israel's blockade of the Hamas-ruled Palestinian territory, it was supposed to be a major media event.

The SS Free Gaza and the SS Free Liberty, converted fishing boats decorated with Palestinian flags and banners emblazoned with slogans like "end occupation," sailed from Larnaca port in Cyprus, following a search by Cypriot port authorities that was carried out at the request of Israel. The boats carried hearing aids and balloons -- a symbolic cargo for a symbolic event that was intended to draw attention to the situation in Gaza.

In a telephone interview with PJM, Jeff Halper, the only Israeli Jew in the group, declared the operation a success, despite the general lack of western media attention. "The point was to force the Israeli government to make a choice. They cannot say that they are no longer occupying Gaza, while maintaining control of its borders. If they had prevented us from landing in Gaza, they would have been admitting that they still occupy Gaza. By allowing us to land, they have relinquished control of Gaza's territorial waters and set a precedent."

The blockade-busting event was organized by the California-based Free Gaza organization, but the activists were a mixed group of Europeans and Americans. They included Lauren Booth, sister-in-law of former British prime minister-turned-Middle East-envoy Tony Blair; Anne Montgomery, an 84 year-old American nun; ultra-eccentric British journalist Yvonne Ridley; and Israeli-American academic Jeff Halper, 62, who co-founded the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza in June 2007, declaring it a "hostile entity" after Hamas, which is considered a terror organization by the EU, USA and Israel, seized control of the territory in a bloody civil war against Fatah. The Hamas takeover was followed by more frequent and intense barrages of Qassams, which Gazan militants began launching on Sderot and the western Negev farming communities as far back as 2000.

Israel occupied Gaza in 1967, following the Six Day War. It withdrew its army and settlements in 2005, but maintained control over Gaza's borders and territorial waters.

Currently Israel allows medicine and basic humanitarian supplies into Gaza, but fuel is very limited and there are shortages of all sorts of goods -- ranging from schoolbooks to construction materials.

Few Gazans are able to gain permission to leave the territory -- either through the checkpoints leading into Israel, or through the Rafah border crossing that leads into Egypt and is jointly controlled by Israel and Egyptian authorities.

On the other hand, quite a few residents of Rafah are becoming rich from smuggling goods, ranging from cigarettes to tigers for the zoo, through tunnels they dig under the border fence. And many Palestinians with serious illnesses or gunshot wounds are treated at Israeli hospitals.

Opponents of the blockade call it collective punishment of Gaza's 1.5 million civilians. Supporters of the blockade say it is the only way to prevent the import of weapons and to pressure the Hamas-led government into halting its attacks on Israeli territory.