After Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and West Bank in 1967, ships from the Mediterranean ceased sailing to Gaza’s ports. The situation significantly worsened in 2006, when Israel imposed a brutal land, aerial and naval blockade on Gaza. But two years later, a small group of activists set out to break it - using two wooden boats.
YORGOS AVGEROPOULOS & YIANNIS KARIPIDIS
In 2008, the Free Gaza Movement was founded by a coalition of human rights activists to fight Israel’s blockade. Today, the group is a registered charity and endorsed by several prominent international figures, including South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire.
But it began as nothing more than what felt - even to its founders - like a crazy idea. They had a clear goal: the end of the Israeli siege. The question was: how to achieve it? They concluded that the only realistic way to breach the blockade on Gaza was by sea, from Greece. For that, they would need a boat. Two, in fact.
The activists believed if they succeeded in dropping anchor in Gaza it would send a powerful message. It would show the Palestinians that ordinary people cared about their plight. It would show the Israelis that even one the world’s most sophisticated military powers couldn’t lock down Gaza forever. And it would show the international community that there was no excuse for abandoning the Palestinians in their time of need.
Sailing to Gaza was an ambitious plan. If the activists reached port, the entire world would take notice.
From the outset, their plan was fraught with danger. The Free Gaza Movement wasn’t the first group to attempt an overseas voyage to Gaza. Previous efforts had been derailed; boats had been blown up or damaged.
Vangelis Pissias, a Greek engineer who co-founded the Free Gaza Movement, found two old wooden boats and a ship-builder who agreed to make them seaworthy. The work took months. During that time, the activists' plans were kept secret; they used pay-as-you-go-phones and the boats’ locations were kept carefully concealed.
Paul Larudee, an American citizen and one of the founding members of the Free Gaza Movement, explained: “This project died a thousand deaths and every time it was about to die someone, somebody new, stepped forward to save the project.”
Before the boats set sail, one of the activists involved in the Free Gaza Movement turned up dead. On April 15th, 2008, Riad Hamed’s body was found floating in a lake in Austin, Texas. His eyes were covered in duct tape. His legs and hands had also been bound. Hamed's death was officially classified as suicide, but suspicion lingers that Hamed may have been murdered for his association with the Free Gaza Movement.
Israel demanded the Free Gaza Movement cancel the flotilla. The group refused. In August 2008, 44 activists from 17 different countries, including Israel, boarded two wooden ships and set sail for Gaza. No foreign vessel had docked in the port of Gaza for 41 years. On August 21, 2008, both boats moored in Gaza’s port. For one brief moment, the Israeli siege on Gaza had been broken.
Palestinians in Gaza welcomed the two boats, celebrating their arrival as a moment of victory.
Since its first mission, the Free Gaza Movement has sailed to Gaza nine times, bringing food, medical supplies and construction materials to the territory. The early aid deliveries managed to reach Gaza, but Israeli forces intercepted subsequent flotillas.
In 2010, Israel sparked intense international condemnation when a raid by naval commandos on the Gaza-bound vessel the Mavi Marmara killed nine people, including eight Turkish nationals and one Turkish-American (a tenth passenger died of his injuries in 2014).
Despite the violence and thwarted efforts experienced by past missions, many activists are committed to breaching the blockade, saying the Palestinians’ plight has only worsened.
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YORGOS AVGEROPOULOS & YIANNIS KARIPIDIS
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YIANNIS AVGEROPOULOS & YORGOS ALEXOPOULOS
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