For a first time since 1967, two wooden boats set off from Gaza heading to Cyprus on Tuesday, charting their course in protest of Israel’s decade long siege.
Five hours after leaving the dock, the Israeli Navy intercepted the boats arresting 17 passengers while they were 9 nautical miles off the shores of Gaza, according to the International Committee to Break the Siege on Gaza. Since Israel began its blockade of Gaza in 2007, Palestinian boats have not been allowed past 12 nautical miles from the shore.
Israel is obligated to permit fishing up to 20 nautical miles according to the Oslo Accords, however, Gaza’s fisherman have never been allowed this distance.
Head of the Committee, A’laa el Batta, told Mondoweiss the vessels carried the passengers who are university graduates, medical patients seeking treatment abroad, and protesters from the Great March of Return who were wounded with live-fire.
Batta said over the past two weeks Israeli forces attacked two other boats that organizes had intended to use for the initiative.
One boat, dubbed the al-Hurriyeh (Freedom), was named as a symbolic gesture to commemorate the eighth anniversary of the Israeli raid of the Mavi Marmara, a ship where Israeli commandoes killed nine Turkish and one Turkish-American on May 31, 2010 as they attempted to break the siege on Gaza.
Early this morning, spirits were hight as the passengers loaded the boats in Gaza with luggage, bringing along their travel documents ready to leave for good. El Batta said arrangements were made to provide the some with medical treatment in Turkey.
Two deaf passengers, Ahmad Abu Oudeh, 32, and Mohammed al-Khaldi, 31, said they were seeking cochlear implants abroad as Gaza’s hospitals are not equipped to conduct this otherwise routine surgery.
“I want to restore my hearing, I don’t want to give up… all methods should be exhausted,” Al-Khaldi said using sign language.
Al-Khaldi and Abu Oudeh waved to a crowd of thousands on the shores, some enthusiastic to join the cruise.
A total of 54 Palestinians in Gaza died awaiting exit permits in 2017 from the Israeli authorities, according World Health Organization, in what rights activists call an overly bureaucratic system that deprives Palestinians of their right to healthcare.
Others were boarded looking to pursue education outside of Gaza.
Salma al-Qadoumi, 27, was noticeably tense as the journey started. She wants to finish her master degree in Istanbul, but said that she can not afford the exit bribes many pay to Palestinian middlemen as a means of black market safe passage through the Rafah crossing to Egypt.
“I have been banned to travel via Erez checkpoint for security reasons,” she told Mondoweiss, referring to the Israeli crossing at the north of the Gaza Strip.
The rate she said she would have to pay to leave through Egypt runs between $2,500 – $3,000 per trip, locally it is called “Egyptian coordination.”
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights estimates the blockade prevents 95 percent of Gaza’s population from traveling abroad or to the West Bank.
Today’s boat trips come hours after a barrage of mortar fire from the Gaza Strip and Israeli airstrikes, and nine weeks of protests where at least 113 Palestinians were killed and thousands more injured along the Gaza Strip’s eastern border.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to “respond with great force” after nearly 30 rounds were fired into Israel.
Organizers of the flotilla reportedly warned participants to expect Israel to use force to prevent the flotilla from breaching the blockade.
“This bid is a scream to the whole world that the Gaza seaport should again carry passengers and goods to Haifa and Jaffa, it is a scream again that the Gaza’s people will not afford the life under blockade,” said Adham Abu Selmeyeh, a spokesman for the Committee.
Jason Greenblatt, the United States’ Special Representative for International Negotiations, blasted Hamas ahead of the attempt by Gazans to breach Israel’s naval blockade on Gaza.
In a series of tweets, Greenblatt wrote, “Shame on all involved in inciting the so called “reverse flotilla” today. Hamas treats this like a play being acted out for a live media audience. But these are real lives Hamas is cynically risking in a grim bid to hold on to power.”
Since 2007, the Gaza Strip has groaned under a crippling Israeli – Egyptian siege that has gutted its economy and deprived its roughly two million inhabitants of many vital commodities, including food, fuel and medicine.