A crew member waves from the bow of the MV Rachel Corrie, the first ship to sail from Ireland to Gaza this month as part of an international flotilla to break the siege and deliver humanitarian aid to the coastal enclave (Photo courtesy of the Free Gaza Movement)

By Thameen Kheetan

AMMAN – The first ship of an international flotilla aiming to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza and deliver humanitarian aid to the strip will depart from Ireland Wednesday, pro-Palestinian activists said.

Three cargo ships loaded with some 5,000 tonnes of aid and construction materials, in addition to five boats carrying around 600 activists from several countries across the world, will meet in the Mediterranean Sea and head for Gazan shores, where they expect to arrive at the end of this month, the Free Gaza Movement announced on Monday.

More than 150 wheelchairs, a dental chair, blood collecting machines and hospital beds will be on board the cargo ships, as well as 500 tonnes of cement, prefabricated homes, medical equipment, school supplies, water filtration equipment and generators, according to Greta Berlin, a co-founder of the Free Gaza Movement, one of the partner NGOs in the flotilla.

The date of arrival at the Palestinian coastal enclave depends on the prevailing weather, Berlin told The Jordan Times over the phone from Ireland, where activists are preparing for the launch of the first cargo ship, the MV Rachel Corrie, which will carry 1,200 tonnes of humanitarian aid.

A bottle of Palestinian olive oil will be smashed against the ship, named after the American peace activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 while protesting home demolitions in Gaza, as a “celebration of Palestinian land rights and international solidarity for justice and peace”, the movement said in a statement, a copy of which was sent to The Jordan Times.

Other ships and boats taking part in the flotilla will depart on May 22 from Greek and Turkish ports, Berlin said, explaining that one cargo ship and four passenger boats will depart from Greece, while a cargo ship and a passenger boat will sail from Turkey.

On board the passenger ships will be delegations from Ireland, Germany, Norway, Malaysia, South Africa and South American countries, she noted, adding that MPs, journalists and “high-profile” people are among the passengers.

Also on board of one of the ships will be a delegation of Viva Palestina activists, who organised their third land convoy to break the siege and enter Gaza last winter.

The flotilla’s major organising NGOs are the Free Gaza Movement, the European Campaign to End the Siege of Gaza, the Ship to Gaza initiative in Greece and Sweden, the International Committee to Lift the Siege on Gaza, and the Istanbul-based Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, Berlin noted.

In addition to delivering aid to the besieged coastal strip, the initiative’s aim is to break the blockade, which Israel has imposed since the Islamist movement Hamas took power in Gaza in 2007.

The blockade has left around 325,000 refugees in the strip under “abject poverty, unable to meet their basic food needs”, according to UNRWA. The organisation also says that it has been unable to conduct “any significant repairs or reconstruction” since the 22-day Israeli military offensive against the enclave in winter 2008/09.

Tel Aviv said last week it would not allow the flotilla to gain access to Gazan shores due to the sea blockade, adding that the activists have to go through Israeli authorities in order to get the aid into Gaza.

“We don’t ask for their permission to go and travel straight from international waters to the waters of Gaza,” Berlin told The Jordan Times in an e-mail yesterday, considering that “there is no war at present and no reason to stop us”.

Polish-English activist Ewa Jasiewicz highlighted the importance of this month’s flotilla in offering the Palestinians construction materials, which activists say are normally not allowed into Gaza by the Israelis.

“Denying these construction items fits Israel’s strategy of collective punishment. It is about punishing the people of Gaza and disabling them from having a life with dignity and keeping them in a constant state of struggle,” she told The Jordan Times.

Meanwhile, some 15 Jordanians representing professional associations and civil society organisations will leave Amman for Turkey next week to take part in the flotilla, according to activist Wael Saqqa.

He said a special committee formed to organise the Jordanian participation has collected some JD100,000 as donations for the international initiative.

“We hope to do a similar activity on an Arab level… Why not have ships sail from different Arab coastal cities, for
example?” he remarked.