Marian Houk, The American Chronicle, June 26, 2009
The Free Gaza movement has been warned not to try to sail to Gaza, but the international activists say they "will not back down from Israel's threats and intimidation".
The latest Free Gaza expedition of two ships was supposed to leave Cyprus Thursday morning, but did not, after Cypriot authorities required additional detailed inspections.
The activists said last night that "our ships were not given permission to leave today [Thursday] due to concerns about our welfare and safety. Our friends in Cyprus tell us that the voyage to Gaza is too dangerous, and they are worried we will be harmed at sea".
In response, the group says, they intend to deliver a waiver "signed by all going to Gaza, that we absolve Cyprus of all responsibility for our safety" -- and will set sail anyway today, Friday.
According to their latest update on Friday afternoon, the Free Gaza activists say that maybe only one ship will go, but it will not be carrying the 15 tons of cement they had vowed to bring through the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.
They say they have a plan.
If it actually departs, this would be the eighth Free Gaza expedition from Cyprus to Gaza.
The two boats in this expedition were supposed to be carrying "3 tons of medical supplies, and 15 tons of badly needed concrete and reconstruction supplies", according to the Free Gaza movement, which began sea expeditions to Gaza last August with the express intention of breaking the seige -- which Israel has since elevated into a formal naval blockade of Gaza.
In its latest statement issued Thursday night, the Free Gaza expedition spokespersons said that "The purpose of nonviolent direct action and civil resistance is to take risks - to put ourselves 'in the way' of injustice. We take these risks well aware of what the possible consequences may be. We do so because the consequences of doing nothing are so much worse. Anytime we allow ourselves to be bullied, every time we pass by an evil and ignore it - we lower our standards and allow our world to be made that much harsher and unjust for us all".
They added that "The journey to Gaza is dangerous. The Israeli navy rammed our flagship, the Dignity, when we attempted to deliver medical supplies to Gaza during their vicious assault in December/January. Israel has previously threatened to open fire on our unarmed ships, rather than allow us to deliver humanitarian and reconstruction supplies to the people of Gaza. The risks we take on these trips are tiny compared to the risks imposed every day upon the people of Gaza".
On Friday afternoon, the group indicated it was buying childrens' toys to take with them to Gaza (in place of the cement, which Israel bans). But actually, childrens' toys are banned as well -- as the Israeli military-administered sanctions are said to be designed to allow in only the most basic supplies needed -- what the Israeli Defense Ministry calls a "humanitarian minimum".
The Free Gaza statement says that "the American consulate in Nicosia warned us not to go to Gaza, stating that: '…[T]he Israeli Foreign Ministry informed U.S. officials at the American Embassy in Tel Aviv that Israel still considers Gaza an area of conflict and that any Free Gaza boats attempting to sail to the Gaza Strip will "not be permitted" to reach its destination'. Former U.S. Congresswoman and presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney [who is on the passenger list] responded to this warning by pointing out that, 'The White House says that cement and medical supplies should get into Gaza and that's exactly what we are attempting to take to Gaza. Instead of quoting Israel policy to us ... the U.S. should send a message to Israel reiterating the reported White House position that the blockade of Gaza should be eased, that medical supplies and building materials, including cement, should be allowed in. The Free Gaza boats should be allowed to reach their destination, traveling from Cyprus territorial waters, through international waters, and straight into Gaza territorial waters. The State Department has chosen to advise us to take the Israeli notification seriously. Our question is, Can we take President Obama seriously? Will he stand by his own words and allow us to provide relief for Gaza or will he back down?'."
Nobel peace laureate Mairead Maguire is also on the passenger list, which is posted here.
There do not appear to be any journalists on board -- and there has been precious little media interest in this saga.
The groups' statement added that "Cyprus has been a wonderful home for the Free Gaza Movement over these last 10 months. Cypriots know first-hand the terrible consequences of occupation. They too know what it is to suffer from violence, injustice, and exile. Since our first voyage to break through the siege of Gaza, the Cypriot authorities have been extremely helpful and understanding of our goals and intentions".
Nevertheless, the Free Gaza movement is indicating it plays to defy the Cypriot authorities on this matter.
A Cypriot diplomat in the region says that there is no physical way the Cypriot authorities will try to stop this Free Gaza expedition from leaving port, if they intend to do so. But it would be a violation of Cypriot law or regulations, he indicated, because there is no "port" at the Free Gaza expedition's destination in Gaza.
While this technicality was not invoked during the earlier Free Gaza expeditions, there has been a powerful international effort in recent months to close all the loopholes.
There is a little fishing port in Gaza City, but not a real seaport, despite the provision in the Agreement on Movement and Access that former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice helped negotiate — staying up all night on her birthday on 15 November 2005 - after Israel's unilateral "withdrawal" from Gaza. The Agreement, signed by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, stated that "Construction of a seaport can commence. The GoI [Government of Israel] will undertake to assure donors that it will not interfere with operation of the port". This Agreement allowed the opening of the Rafah crossing from Gaza into Egypt for about six months, until June 2006. Since the tightening of Israeli sanctions at that time, there has been no way to move forward with plans for the construction of a deep sea port in Gaza.
Meanwhile, the Cypriot diplomat added, "we cannot stop these people (the Free Gaza expedition, if they tell us they're going to Crete, or someplace else, then change once they're at sea and head toward Gaza".
But, he added, if they do so, they will lose their base of support in Cyprus.