Jeff Halper, co-founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 2006. With his arrest by Israeli authorities for participating in the Free Gaza Movement voyage, which successfully broke the Israeli siege of Gaza, his Nobel stock has likely risen dramatically if you’re a betting person.
The Free Gaza Movement story is one of citizen activism succeeding beyond the wildest dreams of all who participated. It began two years ago, when three California peace activists, each of whom had been deported or detained by Israeli authorities for their work on behalf of Palestinian human rights, decided to return. Losing hope that they could ever get there by normal channels, they hatched a plan that would bring them back to Gaza by circumventing Israeli control. One of the group came up with the idea of sailing to Gaza, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The original mission was motivated by the sheer economic misery caused by Israel’s siege, instituted after Hamas won legislative elections in 2006. The FGM sought to publicize Gaza’s plight in the most graphic terms possible–by breaking the blockade. Until then, Palestinian suffering there had been relegated to the back pages of the world’s newspapers. In Israel, it caused barely a ripple, as the IDF has prohibited Israeli reporters from entering the enclave since November 2006. The journey was a way to break out of this lethargy of indifference.
Though they knew they faced a tough adversary, this didn’t deter the activists. One of the original founders, Mary Hughes-Thompson, wrote to me:
We figured from the beginning we were in a win-win situation. Israel said there was no siege…. If they stopped us then they were admitting there is a siege.
…During the time we were all in Cyprus…the media attention grew. It became obvious that Israel, which had been ignoring us from the start, knew what we were planning and was beginning to take action to stop us.
…It became clear that, as we had hoped, Israel realized it had only two choices, neither of which could have been very appealing. Stop us and risk world condemnation. We had a couple of pretty well-known people aboard: Jeff Halper, Lauren Booth — sister-in-law of Tony Blair — and a member of the Greek Parliament sailing on a ship flying the Greek flag. Israel admits it had tried to pressure both Greece and Cyprus into stopping us from sailing, without success.
Israel’s only other option was to let us sail to Gaza. Wisely (for us and for the people of Gaza) they chose this option. Israel says, of course, that they “won” because what we wanted was a confrontation, which they denied us. We found that very amusing because what we wanted, of course, was to sail to Gaza.
Israel’s opposition had to weigh heavily on their minds. Before them was the sobering historical memory of the PLO ship Al Awda (originally the Sol Phryne), which had planned to sail from Cyprus to Haifa in 1988 to protest Israel’s refusal to resettle Palestinian refugees displaced by the 1948 war. Shortly before the ship was to sail, it’s thought that Israeli intelligence operatives mined the ship’s hull, which made the ship list seriously. And the day before, three PLO operatives had been murdered by a car bomb a short distance from the port. Though Israel denied involvement, it’s thought that the assassinations were a warning shot to the PLO against pursuing the Haifa project. Shortly after, the idea was shelved.