‘Gaza’s Ark’ to break blockade, this time from within

A new initiative will strive to export produce from Gaza rather than bring supplies in

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Hamas naval policemen and Palestinians prepare for the arrival of the flotilla to Gaza on May 30, 2010. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Hamas naval policemen and Palestinians prepare for the arrival of the flotilla to Gaza on May 30, 2010. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

A group of Palestinian and international activists are gearing up for a new attempt to break the Israeli naval blockade on the Gaza Strip. But unlike previous flotillas that attempted to reach Gaza, organizers hope to get a boat out of the Strip and into international waters.

Titled “Gaza’s Ark” and initiated by local organizations and international solidarity groups including the Freedom Flotilla Coalition, the initiative seeks to highlight the plight of Gaza’s exporters who have been banned from delivering their produce via the sea. The initiative is also intended as a protest against Israel’s restrictions on Gaza’s fishermen, who are only permitted to fish three nautical miles from the shore (reduced from six miles after last week’s rocket fire into southern Israel).

The organizers are in the process of raising funds to refurbish a boat in Gaza and stock it with Palestinian products, an endeavor estimated to cost $400,000. A number of local and international solidarity activists are to sail on the boat, although its destination is as yet unknown.

According to its website, supporters of the initiative include American linguist Noam Chomsky, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and six Nobel peace laureates.

“Gaza’s Ark is not an aid project. It is a peaceful action to challenge the blockade, which Israel unilaterally and unreasonably enforces on Gaza,” reads the mission statement on the group’s website.

Mahfouz Kabariti, head of Gaza’s fishing and marine sport association and the initiative’s local spokesman, told The Times of Israel that Gaza’s Ark is a new attempt to break the Israeli naval blockade in favor of Gaza’s neglected farmers and manufacturers who are forced to use Israel’s Ashdod port to export their produce.

“Why should we use an Israeli port and be subjected to the political moods of Israel’s leadership, which can shut us off at will?” Kabariti asked.

“Israel always claimed that the blockade was meant to prevent the smuggling of illegal weapons into Gaza. In that case, it should have no problem with a boat leaving the Gaza Strip,” he said.

Kabariti claimed that most of the funds for refurbishing the ship have already been secured, adding that an official announcement regarding the initiative will take place within weeks.

But Sari Bashi, head of Israeli NGO Gisha, which deals with Palestinian freedom-of-movement issues, said that exporting produce overseas was the least of Gaza’s problems.

According to Bashi, export from Gaza has diminished to 2 percent of what it was before the intensification of Israel’s blockade in June 2007, with a current average of two truckloads per day. However, the main markets for Gaza’s exports — which include furniture, clothing and  packaged food products — are Israel and the West Bank, not Europe.

“Prior to June 2007, more than 85% of Gaza’s goods were being sold in Israel and the West Bank,” Bashi told The Times of Israel, stating that Israel had relied heavily on sweatshops in Gaza for the manufacturing of clothes and on Gaza farmers for labor-intensive agriculture such as cucumbers and citrus crops.

“Israel and the West Bank remain the realistic and lucrative markets for farmers and manufacturers in Gaza,” Bashi added.

Israel banned all export from Gaza to Israel and the West Bank upon Hamas’s violent takeover of the Strip in the summer of 2007, although trucks leaving the Strip for Israeli ports or for Jordan — where export is permitted — undergo Israeli security checks at the Erez crossing.

Israel officially declared its naval blockade on Gaza in January 2009 during Operation Cast Lead, but has effectively prevented all international naval traffic to and from the Gaza Strip since capturing it from Egypt in the Six-Day War of June 1967. Israel says it maintains the blockade to prevent Hamas from importing weaponry to use against Israel, and says the blockade meets international legal provisions.

Numerous flotillas have attempted to break the Israeli naval blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip since 2008, with at least one being allowed to dock in 2008.

In May 2010, Israeli commando forces raided a Turkish vessel, the Mavi Marmara, which was part of a larger flotilla organized by the Free Gaza Movement and the Islamist Turkish charity IHH. The Israeli soldiers were attacked by activists on board, leading to violent clashes and the deaths of nine Turkish nationals and the injury of seven Israeli soldiers.

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