The Free Gaza Movement

The Free Gaza Movement

A mission to Gaza motivated by human misery broke the Israeli siege and raised Nobel hopes for a group of dedicated activists.


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.

Given such background, the FGM knew it faced energetic, possibly violent Israeli opposition to its plans. In the run-up to the departure, the Israeli defense ministry announced that it would consider use of force to subdue the two ships, the S.S. Liberty and the Free Gaza, on the high seas. The foreign ministry tried the good cop, bad cop approach by offering to transfer the FGM’s humanitarian aid via a land crossing and under Israeli auspices. The group rejected this offer, of course, because the entire point of the project was to remind the world that Gaza should be free of Israeli control.

It turns out there was a robust debate within the Israeli government. The military wanted to stop the FGM by whatever means necessary. The foreign ministry argued that doing so would only play into the hands of the activists by making them martyrs and making Israel look brutal in the eyes of the world. Further, they predicted that a peaceful end to the journey would diminish interest by the international media. This judgment was partially redeemed by the almost complete lack of coverage of the trip in the US media (the European media did a better job).

Israel’s decision not to intervene surprised and shocked the FGM, making for a wild celebration as the boats docked in Gaza’s tiny harbor on Saturday, August 24. With them, they brought 200 hearing aids for Gaza children and 5,000 balloons. Most Gazans were unfazed by the token humanitarian aid and focused on the symbolic significance of breaking the siege. For them, the impact of this event was akin to Hamas’s breaking the international boundary separating Gaza from Egypt several months earlier. It meant breaking through a psychological as well as a physical barrier. It meant showing that a group of unarmed peace activists could successfully disrupt the Israeli occupation.

Among the forty-six peace activists who sailed on the S.S. Liberty and Free Gaza were four Israeli citizens, one of whom was Halper. He is a veteran of thirty years of activism against the Israeli occupation. The focus of Halper’s work has been on protesting the illegal demolition of Palestinian homes by the Israeli army. He does this in the most direct and physical way possible: by literally standing in the path of a bulldozer or running into a home just before it is demolished. He has been detained so many times he’s probably lost count.

Here is how Halper explained his participation in the project:

I cannot stand idly aside. I can no more passively witness my government’s destruction of another people than I can watch the occupation destroy the moral fabric of my own country. To do so would violate my commitment to human rights, the very essence of prophetic Jewish religion, culture and morals, without which Israel is no longer Jewish but an empty, if powerful, Sparta.

After their arrival, most of Halper’s fellow sailors attended a meeting with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya. Halper could not. He knew that he had already violated an IDF order prohibiting Israeli civilians from entering Gaza. Meeting with Hamas would open him to further punitive actions. Instead he received honorary Palestinian citizenship and a Hamas-issued Palestinian passport.

When Halper inquired with the Israeli authorities about returning to Israel, they advised him to leave Gaza the way he came in–by boat. Later, the authorities changed their mind and told him he could return to Israel via a land crossing. But when he did so, he was detained, brought to the town of Sderot and held overnight. The next morning he was arraigned for violating the military order against entering Gaza and (this seemed especially ironic) for putting himself in danger of being kidnapped while in Gaza.

Once again, there was a vociferous debate among the Israeli authorities about what to do, this time regarding Halper. The local police in Sderot (keep in mind this is the city most affected by Palestinian rocket attacks) argued for a harsh approach, while the attorney general and foreign ministry urged moderation. This time, the harsh approach won out. Someone decided to make Halper an example to others who might be considering following in his footsteps.

Though he was eventually released, Halper must return to Sderot for a future court hearing. The day he was freed, and by one of those feats of historical synchronicity that happen so rarely, Abie Nathan died. Nathan was a pioneer of the Israel peace movement. Yossi Sarid, one of Israel’s leading doves, said it would be hard to imagine such a movement without the example Nathan provided.

Nathan was an Iranian-born Jew who flew in Israel’s first air force during the 1948 War of Independence. After flying professionally for El Al, he opened a Tel Aviv restaurant, which became the unofficial headquarters of the local bohemian set. Nathan ran unsuccessfully for the Knesset in 1965. A year later, in a journey that brought Don Quixote to mind, he set off on a flight that would forever change Israel. He rented a small plane and flew to Egypt, where he asked to meet with President Gamal Abdel Nasser in order to talk peace. Nathan figured if governments couldn’t act in their citizens’ best interests on behalf of peace, then private citizens might have a better change of breaking through the logjam.

Though he never met with Nasser, Nathan did begin a career as a perpetual Israeli dissident and peace activist. In May 1973, a few months before the Yom Kippur War broke out, frustrated by the inability to communicate across national boundaries, he bought a ship with the aid of John Lennon and created Kol Shalom, the pirate radio “voice of peace.” It was the first radio station in the Middle East deliberately to seek out an audience of both Israelis and Arabs.

Later, in the 1980s, Nathan openly advocated Israeli talks with the PLO and even went so far as to meet personally with Yasir Arafat. This landed him in prison twice, the longest sentence for eighteen months. Nathan was bitter about the personal price he had to pay for his vision of peaceful coexistence. Though at his death he had been rendered partially paralyzed and mute by repeated strokes, Jeff Halper paid tribute (in Hebrew) to Nathan’s outsized contribution to the cause of Israeli citizen activism and its relevance to today:

Abie Nathan met with Arafat and was imprisoned twice. Today the president and prime minister eulogize him. Then [when Nathan met Arafat] the situation was exactly as it is today. Nathan believed that the citizen must act even if he pays a personal price. Had they listened to his voice then [in 1966 when he flew to Egypt], perhaps they would have avoided the occupation, made peace with the Egyptians and prevented thousands of Israeli dead.

In an interview with the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, Halper also noted his philosophical approach to citizen peacemaking, which precisely mirrors Nathan’s:

The attempt to break the Gaza siege “could only be mounted by private citizens. Governments with political agendas are not suited to do this. Only after private citizens break down the walls can there be an opening for governments to begin negotiations.”

I’m hoping the Nobel committee is watching this episode with interest. I can’t think of a more fitting gesture than to award the prize jointly to Israeli and Palestinian peace activists dedicated to ending the occupation by peaceful but forceful means.

Meanwhile, Halper’s FGM colleagues left Gaza for their return journey, taking along with them seven Palestinians, including a teenage boy who had lost a leg to an Israeli tank shell. He hoped to get fitted for an artificial leg, a treatment not possible in a Gaza beset with shortages of all manner of medical equipment and medicine due to the Israeli siege.

Once again, the defense ministry argued for forcibly detaining the ships after it left Gaza. But when the foreign ministry pointed out that Israeli sailors would be removing a Palestinian boy in a wheelchair in front of the eyes of the world media, it seemed too high a price to pay. The boats returned without incident to Cyprus.

Trip organizers plan to turn their ships around as soon as possible and return to Gaza. Next time, they will take a more substantial cargo of food and other humanitarian supplies. The Israeli government has pointedly said the first journey did not set a precedent. Which could mean that future trips will not be treated with kid gloves.

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