As a ship crewed by Palestine solidarity activists from Sweden and Norway navigates the northern European coast, political shifts across the Mediterranean could affect both the reception and the impact of its impending voyage.
The Marianne of Gothenburg, which left its home port on May 10, is the first of at least three vessels to depart for a new effort to challenge Israel's naval blockade of the Palestinian Gaza Strip. In late June, "Freedom Flotilla III" will rendezvous in the Mediterranean before the final leg of its journey.
The flotilla will follow previous efforts by international activists to sail into Gaza, starting with the August 23, 2008, arrival of two small wooden boats launched by the Free Gaza Movement. They were the first foreign vessels to sail into Gaza since Israel closed its seaport after occupying the Strip in June 1967.
After four more Free Gaza voyages successfully reached the enclave in 2008, the Israeli navy began intercepting them, starting with the Dignity, which Israeli warships rammed on December 30. The damaged craft limped to Lebanon. Others would not be so lucky. In coming years, the new Israeli policy of strictly enforcing its blockade brought detentions, injuries and deportations.
They culminated in the deaths of nine Turkish citizens and a Turkish-American after Israeli naval commandos stormed the Mavi Marmara, a massive Turkish aid ship, on May 30, 2010. The attack on the vessel, one of six seized while sailing in the first "Freedom Flotilla," sparked global protests and plunged Israeli-Turkish diplomatic relations to their lowest point in decades.
Chocolate and Ketchup
Amid the 2010 firestorm, Israel quickly announced changes to its closure of the Gaza Strip. Previously two lists had defined permitted and prohibited imports. Israel allowed the enclave to receive canned foods through its checkpoints, except for canned fruits, which it banned. Tea and cinnamon were permissible; sage and ginger were not. Newspapers, notebooks, writing implements and toys were prohibited. So were all construction materials, while fuel and electricity were severely limited.
Many had criticized the policy - part of sweeping restrictions imposed on the movement of goods and people during the First Intifada, then tightened after Hamas' victory in parliamentary elections held by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on January 25, 2006 - as collective punishment.
Under escalating pressure, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced reforms to the tight closure on June 17, 2010. Ratified by his security cabinet three days later, the changes streamlined import restrictions to a single list of prohibited goods. The Israeli government also agreed to allow some international agencies to import building materials, sorely need after its destruction of 3,540 homes during a 22-day bombardment and invasion of the Gaza Strip the previous year.
In late June 2010, shipments of chocolate and ketchup resumed for the first time in years. But the movement of Palestinians from Gaza to the West Bank, as well as their ability to travel outside the country, remained severely limited. All but token amounts of exports were still prohibited, freezing the local economy and forcing residents to rely on international aid. And the naval blockade remained.
"Desperate for the Simplest Human Needs"
"What Gaza really needs to break the siege is a maritime window that guarantees free movement of the population without depending on the mercy of Israel and Egypt," Ramy Abdu, chairman of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, told Truthout.
In May 2014, the Gaza-based organization published a working paper calling for the opening of a Gaza seaport with international monitoring.
"Gazans have become desperate for the simplest human needs," Abdu said. "About 80 percent of the population depends on international aid and is food insecure."
Israeli policies have further restricted some of the few remaining vocations left for Palestinians in the absence of a viable industrial sector. The threat of military gunfire, as well as the army's bulldozing of planted fields, keeps farmers from using land in a "buffer zone" stretching hundreds of meters from a separation barrier erected by Israel in 1994. Similarly, fishermen venturing off the coast risk shootings, detentions and confiscations of their boats by the Israeli navy.
In April, Israeli forces invaded the "buffer zone" at least four times, wounding nine Palestinians and detaining three amid a dozen shooting incidents, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. During the same month, fishermen reported 15 shootings and a shelling at sea, resulting in the injury of a fisherman and damage to a fishing boat. On March 7, an Israeli gunboat killed Tawfiq Abu Riyala, a fisherman ferrying rocks to build an artificial reef offshore.
"Taking the Future Away From Palestinians"
The Marianne is itself a symbol of solidarity with these Palestinians on the bloody front lines of Israel's naval blockade. It is a converted fishing trawler, and its Norwegian and Swedish organizers intend it to show their support for Palestinian fishermen under fire.
"The siege is taking the future away from Palestinians," said Charlie Andreasson, one of six members of a permanent crew accompanying seven alternating passengers on the craft. "It doesn't even let them dream of a possible, better future."
Andreasson, a skilled seaman from Gothenburg, recently spent a year living in the Gaza Strip as an international activist, leaving shortly after Israel's 51-day military operation against the enclave in 2014 to begin preparing for the flotilla.
"When you see all the children playing with smiling faces, and know that one day they'll realize they won't have any future, its breaks your heart," he said. "And their parents' hearts. And that's what's hardest to make people here in the free world understand."
Last summer's bombings heightened Gaza's already dire needs. Beyond killing more than 2,200 Palestinians, including at least 1,492 civilians and 547 children, airstrikes and shelling damaged or destroyed 178,000 homes, along with hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure, displacing more than 500,000 residents at the offensive's height and leaving 100,000 still homeless.
"Not a Single Housing Unit Has Been Rebuilt"
The August 26 cease-fire agreement ending the onslaught contained no obligations for Israel to modify its closure, only a commitment to open-ended negotiations mediated by Egypt. In two previous truces with Palestinian resistance groups, reached on June 19, 2008, and November 21, 2012, Israel had pledged to ease its restrictions on the Gaza Strip. Due to the political demands of Israeli domestic politics, coupled with a lack of international pressure, those promises went unfulfilled.
But the toll of the 2014 attacks sparked unprecedented outrage. Amid calls for war crimes investigations of its leaders and warnings by UN agencies and humanitarian organizations that its closure could prolong Gaza's reconstruction by anywhere from 20 to 100 years, Israel announced slight changes, allowing small numbers of Muslim pilgrims and other travelers, as well as Palestinian exports, to reach Israel and the West Bank.
"The most meaningful changes are reflected in Israel's decision to allow marketing of goods from Gaza to the West Bank and marketing limited types of vegetables, with fixed quotas, from Gaza to the Israeli market," Shai Grunberg, spokesperson for Gisha - Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, an Israeli human rights organization, told Truthout. "There has also been some limited expansion of access for people, mainly more travel permits to senior traders."
But these changes have done little to boost Gaza's dismal economy, she said. "Onerous logistical requirements and a continued ban on marketing goods to Israel still limit the positive economic benefits. The existing set of access rules - which Israel calls the 'separation policy' - remains unchanged, designed to separate Gaza from the West Bank and Israel."
She added that the closure had particularly hampered the war-torn enclave's reconstruction. "Construction materials continue to be restricted through a slow and cumbersome procedure that monitors cement and gravel as if they were highly specialized weapons. Nearly nine months since the fighting ended, not a single housing unit has been rebuilt."
"Life in Gaza Is Ceasing"
Across the checkpoint, the picture hardly improves. "It's impossible to describe the misery in Gaza," Basem Naim told Truthout.
Naim, minister of health in the first Gaza cabinet led by Hamas from June 2007 through January 2009, now heads the movement's Council on International Relations.
"Life in Gaza is ceasing," he said. "All sectors are destroyed - health education, economy, agriculture, water facilities etc. - which has led to poverty, with 80 percent below the poverty line, unemployment over 50 percent, malnutrition and depression."
Others in Gaza agreed that the situation remained dire. "The blockade is murdering the ... Palestinian people," said Mohamed al-Nahal, an associate professor of international law at the Islamic University of Gaza and director of the Hemaya Center for Human Rights. The flotilla, he said, "expresses the solidarity of people for freedom, in a time which is witnessing the inability of international institutions and organizations to end the blockade."
"We Will See Life, Liberty and Hope"
Israel's modifications of its closure in response to international condemnation show one changing dynamic that could affect the Marianne's chances of reaching Gaza, as well as its long-term consequences. So does the May 14 seating of a cabinet widely considered the most extremist in Israeli history, with members who have explicitly advocated collective punishment of Palestinians.
Which of these conflicting factors decide the ship's fate, and that of the blockade, will likely hinge on continued global pressure and flotilla organizers, Palestinians in Gaza said.
From the deck of the Marianne, support looks strong. "Lots of people have come down to the boat to help us rebuild it for free, given us materials, equipment and food," Andreasson said. "People of all levels in society traveled from Norway, Belgium and Canada, just to give us a hand."
In Gaza, al-Nahal said Palestinians await the passengers' arrival. "It will make us weep with joy when we see them on a Gaza beach, because in them, we will see life, liberty and hope."