When the Spirit of Humanity finally received authorisation on 30 June to depart from the Cypriot port of Larnaca, it was with equal measures of relief and excitement that the 21 passengers boarded the small sailing vessel laden with medicines, toys and cement destined for the besieged people of Gaza.
There had been a five-day delay to the boat setting sail, the result of pressures imposed on the Cypriot authorities by the Israeli government to stop the boat from leaving port. Thus we were informed by the authorities that our boat was “under arrest”. It was only after exhaustive communications with the Cypriot Port Authority and an absurd legal tug-of-war that the vessel was released and permitted to set sail on its journey.
Owned by the Free Gaza Movement, the Spirit of Humanity was on the eighth such journey to deliver her cargo of symbolic aid to the people of Gaza. More importantly, the mission was to break the two-year embargo imposed on the Palestinian people by Israel and to challenge the morality and legality of a blockade stopping medicines and vital supplies from reaching a people under siege.
Israel unilaterally imposed this blockade on Gaza in the hope that it would eventually suffocate Hamas into submission; but over the past two years all it appears to have done is to worsen the hardships of everyday life for the 1.5 million people who live there.
This form of collective punishment is illegal under both international law and the rules of the Geneva Convention, but Israel is a law unto itself. With the protection of the United States and the European Union, Israel acts with impunity and has had a free hand to commit some of the most heinous crimes against civilians recorded this century.
Israel’s 22-day bombing campaign of Gaza at the beginning of the year claimed the lives of over 1,500 people, injured another 5,000, destroyed or damaged up to 37 schools, 58 health facilities, 25,000 homes and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless.
Many international organisations have demanded an investigation into possible war crimes and two scathing reports have recently been released by the United Nations and Amnesty International. Richard Falk, a United Nations human rights investigator, described Israel’s destruction of Gaza as “a war crime of the greatest magnitude”.
It was amidst this backdrop of failings and hypocrisy on the part of the so-called ‘international community’ that the Spirit of Humanity set sail from Cyprus with 21 civilian passengers and their cargo of contraband: medicine, toys and one bag of cement. The passengers were not the usual fare of ‘activist types’; apart from the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Mairead Maguire and former US Congresswoman and presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney, these were ordinary people, with ordinary lives, who felt the need to act in the face of injustice.
There was the English Captain, Denis Healy, a reserved and composed gentleman of about 55; his love of boats and the sea was evident in every conversation. There was the electrician and First Mate of the ship, Derek Graham, from the west coast of Ireland, who had an infectious sense of humour and often joked that he was headed to Gaza to set up a brewery and open a pig farm. There was Theresa McDermott, the postal worker from Edinburgh and Adie Mormesh, the student from northern England. These were just some of the ordinary people who had come together to form an action that aimed to challenge the Israeli government’s brutal policy toward the Palestinian people.
At approximately 1.30am on the morning of 1 July, about 60 miles from the coast of Israel and in international waters, the Spirit of Humanity was intercepted by the Israeli navy, which threatened to open fire on the boat if it refused to return to Cyprus. The Spirit of Humanity continued on its course after informing the Israeli navy that the boat contained solely medical aid and toys destined for the people of Gaza and constituted no threat to the state of Israel.
At 2.30pm the following afternoon, 18 miles from the coast of Gaza, Israeli Special Forces stormed the Spirit of Humanity, arrested all those on board and commandeered the boat to the Israeli port of Ashdod. There in the bay lay the remains of the Tali, another vessel belonging to the Free Gaza Movement that had failed in its February mission to circumvent the Israeli blockade.
After seven days in an Israeli prison, all members of the Spirit of Humanity’s crew were deported to their countries of origin, minus the £180,000 boat and some of their personal electronic equipment.
In spite of the fact that the passengers on the ship included a Nobel Prize winner and a former US congresswoman and presidential candidate, the mainstream western media ignored the story. If western viewers wanted to find out what was happening, they had to tune in to Al Jazeera or Press TV.
Word of the illegal arrests spread through the internet, via Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and a plethora of other social-networking sites, blogs, and forums. Twitter did a better job covering the arrests than did the BBC. Facebook made more advancements than CNN. When social networking sites meant for friendships, jokes, and dating are doing the media’s job better than the media can, perhaps it is time to put the major media networks under the microscope.
The failure to circumvent the Israeli blockade of Gaza has not deterred the Free Gaza Movement; it is actively seeking a replacement boat and will set sail again in the coming weeks. Since August 2008, the Free Gaza Movement has sent eight boats to Gaza. The Spirit of Humanity was the third boat either confiscated or destroyed; the others had successfully made it through.
It is this type of determination and civilian-led action that hallmarks the external resistance to Israel’s brutality. By land or by sea, ordinary civilians are facing down Israeli aggression to get the much-needed supplies into the open concentration camp of the Gaza Strip. They come together from all walks of life, and are of different races, religions, social classes and values, yet they are all united in the spirit of humanity to bring justice and solidarity to the people of Gaza.