I arrived in Gaza with 45 others from 16 different countries on August 23, 2008 as part of the Free Gaza Movement. For this we are guilty of exercising the inherent human right to travel as outlined in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In Gaza I have met with and expressed solidarity with those who resist the occupation and for this I am guilty of affirming the lawful right of self-defence. I have also met with, expressed solidarity and initiated work directly with Palestinians who choose non-violence and law as their means of struggle. In this choice we are guilty of conspiracy to expose the truth about the Zionist need for conflict; which explains why people of peace are unwelcome in the eyes of the Israeli Government.
I learned this lesson several years ago when I was jailed by Israel for “illegally attempting” to enter Gaza. In 2004 I came as the founder of P10K (www.P10K.net), a plan that involved an ‘Agreement in Principle’ between the three major resisting factions and 1000 international observers. The agreement proposed that upon the arrival of these international observers, the resisting factions (Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyr Brigades) would enter into a self-imposed cease-fire. My logic being that the presence of these international observers would shine a bright light on Palestine and expose the ongoing crime of occupation, thus compelling meaningful change. I stand by this belief to this day. This agreement was also intended to prove that the resisting factions were not unreasonable; to the contrary, Hamas has since proven its willingness to participant in a non-violent political process.
Likewise, in a deal brokered through the honourable Mohammed Hourani of Fatah, Al Aqsa Martyr Brigades committed to the agreement in principle back in 2004. With that I headed to Gaza with good reason to believe that signed approval from Islamic Jihad and Hamas was forthcoming, but fate and Israel had other plans. I managed to slip past Israeli security at Erez crossing, make it into Israeli Gaza and ride on a settler bus to the sea. I made it as far as the security zone in the north between Israeli and Palestinian Gaza. At that point I was halted at gunpoint by the Israeli Defence Forces. So instead of a ceasefire agreement I was jailed for 20 days and deported on the basis of secret testimony… as a “security threat” of course. Flat out, the Israeli Government wants no part in peace and it makes sure that Palestinians and internationals do not threaten their maintenance of violent conflict. This is a critical truth that must be exposed if there is any chance of a just settlement.
The truth is that back then, as now, Gaza was inaccessible to anyone not approved by Israel; until the Free Gaza Movement that is. Israeli approval inherently means that anyone critical of Israel, no matter how peace minded they are, is extremely unlikely to be permitted by Israel to enter Gaza. Archbishop Desmond Tutu being a perfect example. Making matters worse the people of Gaza cannot get “approval” from Israel, to exit Gaza. But it is not only Israel, it is shamefully the Arab brothers and sisters of the Egyptian Government who collude with Israel in the policy of collective punishment; which results in 99% plus of the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza being imprisoned.
So now I write these words as an honoured inmate of Gaza Prison; and I am proud to be with my brothers and sisters in Palestine. But prison is a generous word for Gaza; western prisons provide medical care, three meals a day, clean water and at least limited access to family. Israeli prisons, at least for Israelis, offer the same. In Gaza however few have these basic needs, while virtually none have all of these needs. Furthermore, prisons are supposedly for criminals, so a place where you are locked up simply for being a particular nationality, is not rightly called a prison. According to the Dictionary.com definition, a concentration camp is;
‘a guarded compound for the detention or imprisonment of aliens, members of ethnic minorities, political opponents, etc., esp. any of the camps established by the Nazis prior to and during World War II for the confinement and persecution of prisoners.’
So in the interest of truth, I shall from this day onward refer to Gaza as an Israeli Concentration Camp for Palestinians.
While in Gaza Concentration Camp I myself can afford three meals a day and clean water, not true for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. But if I am shot I might well die (as many Palestinians do) because adequate medical care will not be possible. If I fall ill, I may die from a completely treatable ailment for lack of medicine. Physical access to family outside of Gaza is impossible, as it is for the 1.5 million people of Gaza.
But Israel and its partner Egypt do me personally a great service by denying me exit through their corrupted lands, they have gifted me with a small taste of what it is to be incarcerated in Gaza. They have forced me to see the glaring truth; the way in and out of Gaza, is by the sea. Poetic to a person like myself, considering the fact that my first love, is the sea.
So here I am in Gaza, on yet another peaceful, lawful mission. And I am guilty; guilty of acknowledging that Israel has nuclear weapons and is dangerous enough to use them; guilty of knowing that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a threat to all life on planet Earth. I am guilty of acknowledging that the formation of Israel involved the Black’s Law definition of terrorism and can additionally be defined as ethnic cleansing if we use Bosnian ethnic cleansing as a standard. I am guilty of knowing that Israel has wiped large areas of Palestine, including hundreds of villages, “off the map”. I am guilty of acknowledging that the root cause of so-called “terrorism” includes but is not limited to, occupation, theft of land, denial of human rights, extrajudicial killings and of course mass murder.
Most of all I am guilty of rejecting the role of the cynic who pretends that we as people are powerless. Thus I am guilty, guilty of conspiring to commit acts of consciousness and humanity with like-minded people such as those of the Free Gaza Movement. And I repeat, 46 people, have proven one powerful truth, one undeniable and glaring truth, that Palestine is accessible via the sea.
Think about it, 46 people have proved that the Israeli siege of Gaza is breakable. What could 500 of us do, or perhaps 1000?
There are roughly one billion people in the west, .000001% of that population equals 1000. Are there 1000 such people in the West, people who are ready to act in unison, intelligently and without fear? Would we be ready to train as international observers and sail right into Gaza according to the rights protected by International Public Law? International Observers is what P10K requires and now more than ever I believe it is possible to transport them to Palestine. And so it is that I work now with those who are ready to purchase the ship that will make this a reality.
Wake up world, it is the people of conscience, minority that we are, that offer the real potential for a better world, a world of justice and peace. It is time to renounce powerlessness and act with the power of love in this cause. Only then, will there be peace; let us please stop pretending as if peace is possible amidst the terrible injustice of our world.
As for me I have little doubt that I will soon reunite with my family, and I plan to do so by way of the sea, travelling through Gaza’s territorial waters, into international waters and on to Cypriot territorial waters, which are controlled by a most honourable government. I expect to return as I came, never once needing approval from Israel or Egypt. Only 46 people in the world are confirmed to have done this by sea, and so we shall do it again, but more importantly, we shall do so by the thousands. I cannot think of a better way to visit the people of Palestine, people who bless me every day that I am here.
And special thanks to the Israeli and Egyptian Governments for the unexpected yet welcome extension to my Gaza experience. As a matter of courtesy I shall express my gratitude by pushing for the purchase of a passenger ship capable of carrying thousands of Palestinians and internationals to and from Gaza. This, inshallah, shall be my gift to you… and the people of Palestine of course.
1. “Boats With Pro-Palestinian Activists Reach Gaza”, By Ibrahim Barzak of the Associated Press, August 23, 2008 http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=5638134
2. “Statement by Archbishop Desmond Tutu”, May 29, 2008 www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/Statement_by_Archbishop_Desmond_Tutu.pdf
Departing Cyprus I felt, as did many of us, relief that we were finally setting off for Gaza. I can honestly say that I always believed that we had a better chance then not of making it to Gaza. But I did start to lose a bit of confidence in the couple of days leading up to departure, due to statements by Israeli officials. Now the boats were filled to capacity, the media (including Al Jazeera) were onboard, and our destiny was soon to be revealed.
Because we were already well past our scheduled departure date it was decided to leave Cyprus without delay. As it turned out the weather was just a bit rough and now those with little or no experience at sea (about 9 out of 10) were feeling miserable. The trip lasted roughly 32 hours so this was true agony, I felt very fortunate to feel fine the whole time. By the time we had traversed international waters and approached Gazan waters the passengers were well ready to reach dry land.
The plan had always anticipated the possibility however of a stand off at sea; this prospect was not lost on anyone. But we had what would become a very comical event. All the way from Cyprus we had no contact or sighting of the Israelis, although we do have every reason to believe that they were using electronic sabotage on our satellite equipment, making live transmission over the Internet impossible. When we reached Gazan territorial waters (approximately 22 miles out from Gaza) we stopped and attempted to rendezvous with a media boat. That led to the idea of wait and see what happens rather than simply continue on course to Gaza, the rationale being that this would attract more media attention and thus we should wait. But eventually it was unanimously decided on the Free Gaza that there was no need to wait, as we had not been confronted Israel. I certainly agreed although I was fine to stay at sea longer if there was good reason.
So the free Gaza pushed on and the Liberty followed. Each mile closer the excitement grew. Keep in mind it had been decades since any ship or boat had travelled the open sea to Gaza, it has been prohibited by Israel and the only attempt in all this time was by Palestinians who never even set sail as their boat was sabotaged and their leaders killed by Israel (as “terrorists” of course). What we were attempting to do was and is truly historic. Most never thought it would happen. I truly did, as much as I believed then and now that the Human Shield strategy I initiated for Iraq could indeed stop the invasion of Iraq. The keys to success are mass media exposure and western nationals in sufficient numbers. For Iraq the numbers needed to be much bigger, but for the Free Gaza Movement 46 was enough in my mind.
As it turned out we never even saw the Israeli’s. They had said they would stop us. We had been told there were mines in the Gazan waters. We were threatened with arrest but the Israelis never showed up. To me the reason is clear, the liability of stopping a peaceful, lawful, internationally exposed mission comprised of western nationals intent on exposing the siege of Gaza made the Israelis impotent. They certainly never wanted us to do it; they just could not stop it, that is the power of strategy.
When we first sighted Gaza’s skyline it really started to sink in that we might very well make it. As we got closer that belief developed confidence and by the time we were just 3 miles offshore it seemed that everyone knew we had made it. It is hard to describe the feeling as the first small boat greeted us about one mile out. The Palestinians aboard were beside themselves. And we were likewise. I had the honour of piloting the Free Gaza into Gaza Port so my experience was a little more reserved, but emotional nonetheless. Then the next boat appeared from the harbour, and the next, and next, and… More than one boat was bursting at the seams, challenging the load that such a boat could carry. All of the people were in a state of euphoria. It is not an exaggeration to say that we truly provided a bright light of hope in a place where desperation and grief are daily and grinding.
When we entered the harbour you could see that the jetties were completely filled with people. It was a standing room only outdoor event. You simply could not fit any more people in the harbour. As we pulled in boats surrounded us, I doubt I will ever experience anything like it again both as a spectator and a Captain. I was continually concerned about the children who were in the water and impossible to see much of the time. Boats and people were everywhere, thankfully it turned out to be a harmless game of bumper boats. Boats came alongside and people started to pull themselves up onto our boat. Before you knew it we were mobbed by overjoyed Palestinians, hugs and handshakes were going on everywhere. I was caught between the extreme joy of it all and concentrating on keeping the boat out of harms way. Eventually we sort of migrated over to the dock.
Once we tied to the dock we were joined by even greater mobs of happy people with Hamas security joining in; I will never forget this day, I will cherish it forever. Nobody will ever be able to erase this day. Despite all the terrible injustice, pain and death of Gaza, this was a day of pure joy for the vast majority of Gazans and Palestinians in the West Bank and abroad. There was reason to hope for a better day, Free Gaza has proven the sea offers passage into and out of Gaza/Palestine. I only hope that we do not rest on our laurels, if we do not relent, if we maintain sustained, intelligent and united pressure, we will truly break the siege and more than that, we will prove once more the immense power of people of conscience in action.
Leaving Sitia Port in Crete we finally confronted the test of the boats that would include a minimum of 20 hours straight in the open sea. But the departure from Crete was picture perfect; conditions to the next port on the island of Megisti were magical, mostly glassy seas and picturesque Greek Islands along the way. Megisti had a port that was nothing short of intoxicating, made famous in the1991 Oscar-winning movie Mediterraneo.
While only in Megisti for less then 24 hours I was able to run our Zodiac after seeing that the island had some impressive sea caves. Myself, Peter and Courtney set out on an impromptu trip around the island. The scenery was quintessential Greece, absolutely spellbinding. Peter was so enthusiastic he jumped into the turquoise blue water and forgot the mobile phone in his pocket. Didn’t matter, it was worth it. It was sad to leave this place, I would love to return.
The journey from Megisti to Cyprus was a bit rocky for some but overall we once again had favourable weather. Time at sea is tiring however, especially if you are on watch behind the wheel. Rocking and rolling, standing and having to keep very attentive in darkness and light, life at sea is hard and I have much respect for those who choose such a life. And the sea is nothing to be fooled with, this was one thing underestimated by the organizers of Free Gaza in my opinion. The plan as a whole was brilliant, that is why I joined. But understanding of a Captains role was somewhat absent. This is a small criticism given all the praise I have for them, but I say it for those who may consider a similar action involving sea travel. Get yourself a Captains opinion and expertise before you make any inflexible plans involving sea travel.
Along the way I put the Hawaiian flag prominently under the Palestinian flag on the bow of the Free Gaza. Of course I was going to need to explain the Union Jack within a Hawaiian flag (Hawaii was a protectorate of the British, and the British so honourably did nothing when America stole Hawaii in 1893).
On the other end of the honour spectrum, we arrived at Larnaca Port in Cyprus to a most honourable Cypriot Port authority. It cannot be underestimated how much this government was under pressure by Israel and likely America to stop our journey. As far as any of us could tell they were having none of it, they helped us and provided security and escorted us to international waters when we left. Credit to the Cypriots, they have not forgotten their direct ties to the Palestinians.
We also arrived in Cyprus to a group of people who were weary for a different reason then sea travel, they were weary from waiting. We arrived in Cyprus on August 20, over two weeks later then our scheduled departure date. The whole group finally united and we prepared for the ultimate test of the mission, the journey from Cyprus to Gaza.
The Free Gaza Movement had already been delayed for various reasons including lack of funding, probable interference from Israel in the purchase of a boat, the death of one of the contributors (Riad, a lovely man), etc. So the August 5, 2008 departure date was eagerly sought for all the organizers and I arrived in Greece on July 22 with the intention of meeting that departure date. When it came down to it however it became impossible and the delays were exacerbated by the fact that crewmembers were waiting in Cyprus for the August 5 departure. Greece to Cyprus for the two boats (Liberty and Free Gaza) was an adventure in itself and much could be written about it, but I will just summarise the Greece to Crete leg.
The journey was full of challenges, not least of which was the continual pressure from the Israeli Government to the Greek Government that was intended to stop our journey through bureaucratic means. To the credit of the Greeks they did not cave in and overall they were helpful to our cause. However, they were very interested in getting us out of Greek waters ASAP, and that made the stress of dealing with boat repairs and typical challenges associated with long haul boat journeys that much more stressful. For me the greatest stress was a sort of limbo I was put in as to whether I would serve as Captain or not. This was an issue due to the fact that although I was a licensed U.S. Captain beginning in 1999, in 2001 I lawfully renounced my U.S. citizenship. So as a result I was compelled to let my Captains license expire in 2004 since the license was acquired as a U.S. citizen. My renunciation of citizenship was no frivolous act so I could not claim the benefit of a U.S. license while not agreeing to the terms of citizenship… and I most certainly do not agree. The sacrifice was I lost the license; this was the issue regarding the Free Gaza mission. Although my situation was unique, and all I would have needed to do to renew my license was sign the renewal papers, I was technically not licensed.
Even though we were not a commercial enterprise and strictly by law we did not require a licensed Captain, we did not want to give Israel any excuse to stop our mission. As it turned out I did Captain the boat for some of the journey, but when it came to the Cyprus to Gaza leg another Captain was called in. I was disappointed by this reality but I understood it.
Anyway, the trip from Greece to Cyprus meant meeting new people who joined us once the boats reached Crete. Crete was brilliant, the people were very supportive and the port of Chania was lovely. That was where I met Aki (of the band Fundamental), Yvonne Ridley, Jeff Halper (our only Israeli crew member), Vik from Italy (“Come on!”), several others and Lauren Booth (Tony Blair’s sister in law). Lauren came up to me at a typically hot and hard working moment where I was perhaps just a bit tired of some of the stresses, she came and stood right in front of me and announced that she was “reporting for duty Captain”. I did not know who she was but offered a hello, she jokingly said something like “nice reception mate” and offered me a drink of water, it was hot and I was thirsty so I took a drink, it ended up being a Greek liquor that you will definitely feel as it goes down. I laughed, told her she would get that back, and we hit it off from that point on.
While in Chania I was able to have a good dance, which always inspires me. I also ran into Leone who I met as part of the TJP Human Shield Action to Iraq. He was with his lady Marianthi and together they made us a great meal at the squat which overlooked the port. All the people of the squat were lovely as well, thanks to all of you for your hospitality. Eventually we set off for Iraklio and did some minor repairs, then off to Sitia on the Eastern edge of Crete. We had now covered a good portion of the journey to Cyprus but the longest open sea leg was before us. To be continued
Free Gaza Movement
I first heard about the Free Gaza Movement via an email from a friend who sends me such info from his email list. The first moment I read about it I had the utmost respect and I decided right away that I would endorse the action and volunteer my services if they were desired. So I sent off an email and within a few days I had a response, the immediate answer was not to be however, the organizers of the action were committed to allowing only those who had direct experience with the organizers or others close to the action in other direct actions… my respect grew stronger. My experience with the Human Shield Movement I created in 2002 made painfully clear that “volunteers” are all too often agents of the enemies of justice, specifically working for the CIA, MI6 and other such government agencies who deal in the business of deception masqueraded as “national security”. So I supplied all the information requested and although my name has been stained to a degree by those within the Human Shield Movement who consider me the devil incarnate, my record of activism and thoughtful response won out and I was accepted as a volunteer for the Free Gaza Movement.
It became clear that my experiences as a boat captain and as a U.S. Marine were most valuable for the mission and the needs it required so I was charged with security issues and possible service as a boat captain. The action was scheduled to set off from Cyprus on August 5 and I was asked to set off early to Greece (Athens), where the vessels had been purchased and preparation for the journey to Cyprus was needed. I arrived in Greece on July 22, one day after my birthday. There I met two of the primary organizers, Paul and Bella. I was excited to meet all of the people, especially the organizers as I had considered their organizational intelligence to be of a very high standard. As per usual I found much in common with them, and our Greek hosts were all an absolute joy. At the same time I found some disagreement with strategic direction in a couple of key areas and as always I expressed my alternate view. At the end of the day however I did not come as an organizer and I fully appreciated the fact that I was not a decision maker, I myself had done the hard work for Human Shields which they were doing for Free Gaza. I have experienced first hand those who think simply showing up to the action warrants equal say in the strategic decision making process. I was not going to do as had been done to me, I was there to work for the boat preparation and journey to Cyprus and I was happy to do just that.
It was apparent however that the workload for the person who was leading virtually the entire boat prep and all the enormous political hurdles it involved had not the time to provide the tools and materials needed for the others who were to work with me in the preparations so I asked my wife and soon to be mother of my child Fadwa to join me in Greece, a place she had already visited six times and loved very much. This was a great blessing as the one thing wrong with the Free Gaza Movement for me was the timing for me personally (child on the way). I am very sad to not be there for the woman I love during this pregnancy, her first, and my first time as a father. I can only thank her thank her for supporting my commitment to this cause. The down time I had with boat work allowed for some consolation as I was able to swim in the Mediterranean Sea with my lady and have some truly quality time.
But our time was short and the hard work of preparing the boats and setting off for Cyprus was upon us. To be continued.