Barcelona, Spain – As the two boats pulled out of the harbour, a large crowd of people chanted: “Gaza, don’t you cry; we will never let you die.”
The Zaytouna and the Amal – meaning “olive” and “hope” – set sail last week from Barcelona, Spain, en route to the besieged Gaza Strip.
Led by an all-female crew, the flotilla will spend three weeks making its way across the Mediterranean Sea before reaching Gaza, where the boats will attempt to nonviolently push through a naval blockade that has been strictly enforced by Israel for a decade. A previous Turkish flotilla in 2010 ended in tragedy after Israeli forces stormed aboard, killing 10 people. Since then, three more aid flotillas have attempted to navigate Gaza’s waters – all without success.
This time, Captain Madeleine Habib says she is determined to break the siege on Gaza.
“It’s preventing freedom of access to the people of Palestine,” Habib, a skipper with more than 30 years of experience, told Al Jazeera. “It’s creating a jail in their own country and denying them access to the … basic rights that they deserve.”
Tasmanian-born with Egyptian roots, Habib has travelled extensively around the Middle East, during which time she says she developed an avid interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The current journey is more about provocation than aid, she said; although the boats are stocked with a few small items, the broader goal is to raise awareness about Gaza’s plight and the fact that without a political solution, aid alone is not the answer.
“We are trying to provoke a reaction [through] a very positive and symbolic action in a peaceful way,” Habib said.
Asked about the all-female aspect of the flotilla, Habib said this was for pragmatic reasons: Some women would be less likely to participate if they had to stay in cramped conditions with men. Khaldiya Abu Bakra, one of the only Gaza-born activists on board the Amal, said the goal was also to honour Palestinian women.
”The Palestinian woman has been participating in the cause for years just like men – if not more – but there is no recognition of her role,” Abu Bakra told Al Jazeera. “Palestinian women suffer from the occupation and siege the most, so women from all over the world wish to honour and recognise the role of the Palestinian woman.”
The boats each set off carrying a crew of 11, with flotilla members planning to eat and sleep in shifts. More people are expected to join at different ports, including peace activist and Nobel Laureate Mairead Maguire, playwright and screenwriter Naomi Wallace and Turkish athlete Cigdem Topcuoglu, whose husband was killed in the 2010 Mavi Marmara raid.
Flotilla member Ann Wright, a former US army colonel and state department diplomat, was also on board the Mavi Marmara six years ago.
“I saw the helicopters coming down and shooting, killing people on the deck,” Wright told Al Jazeera. “Our boat was boarded; we were kidnapped and taken to Israel.”
Wright, who resigned her state department position in protest against the 2003 Iraq war, has also questioned her country’s pro-Israel stance, becoming deeply involved in pro-Palestinian activism. In 2009, Wright organised the Gaza Freedom March, a group of more than 1,000 people from around the world who planned to enter Gaza through Egypt. When Egyptian authorities stopped them, they instead marched to Tahrir Square. Wright has since become a member of the organising body sending flotillas to the impoverished territory.
In June 2015, one of those flotillas, which set sail from Sweden but was ultimately intercepted by the Israeli military, prompted Israeli Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Hotovely to comment: “Flotillas like the one making its way to Israel are the handiwork of provocateurs who only want to make Israel look bad.”
The siege on Gaza has crippled the Palestinian territory, severely impeding the movement of goods and people. A 2015 World Bank report found that Gaza’s economy was on the “verge of collapse”, while a subsequent report by Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics noted that the unemployment rate in Gaza surpassed 40 percent.
Back on the flotilla, Habib said she was excited about the trip ahead – despite the inherent difficulties, including cramped conditions, little sleep, potential seasickness and the possibility of arrest upon arrival in Gaza.
In the meantime, she is going to enjoy the journey.
“When we’re looking for shooting stars, phosphorescence in the water, dolphins, being at sea – I still find it completely enchanting and magical,” she said.
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