Departing Cyprus I felt, as did many of us, relief that we were finally setting off for Gaza. I can honestly say that I always believed that we had a better chance then not of making it to Gaza. But I did start to lose a bit of confidence in the couple of days leading up to departure, due to statements by Israeli officials. Now the boats were filled to capacity, the media (including Al Jazeera) were onboard, and our destiny was soon to be revealed.
Because we were already well past our scheduled departure date it was decided to leave Cyprus without delay. As it turned out the weather was just a bit rough and now those with little or no experience at sea (about 9 out of 10) were feeling miserable. The trip lasted roughly 32 hours so this was true agony, I felt very fortunate to feel fine the whole time. By the time we had traversed international waters and approached Gazan waters the passengers were well ready to reach dry land.
The plan had always anticipated the possibility however of a stand off at sea; this prospect was not lost on anyone. But we had what would become a very comical event. All the way from Cyprus we had no contact or sighting of the Israelis, although we do have every reason to believe that they were using electronic sabotage on our satellite equipment, making live transmission over the Internet impossible. When we reached Gazan territorial waters (approximately 22 miles out from Gaza) we stopped and attempted to rendezvous with a media boat. That led to the idea of wait and see what happens rather than simply continue on course to Gaza, the rationale being that this would attract more media attention and thus we should wait. But eventually it was unanimously decided on the Free Gaza that there was no need to wait, as we had not been confronted Israel. I certainly agreed although I was fine to stay at sea longer if there was good reason.
So the free Gaza pushed on and the Liberty followed. Each mile closer the excitement grew. Keep in mind it had been decades since any ship or boat had travelled the open sea to Gaza, it has been prohibited by Israel and the only attempt in all this time was by Palestinians who never even set sail as their boat was sabotaged and their leaders killed by Israel (as “terrorists” of course). What we were attempting to do was and is truly historic. Most never thought it would happen. I truly did, as much as I believed then and now that the Human Shield strategy I initiated for Iraq could indeed stop the invasion of Iraq. The keys to success are mass media exposure and western nationals in sufficient numbers. For Iraq the numbers needed to be much bigger, but for the Free Gaza Movement 46 was enough in my mind.
As it turned out we never even saw the Israeli’s. They had said they would stop us. We had been told there were mines in the Gazan waters. We were threatened with arrest but the Israelis never showed up. To me the reason is clear, the liability of stopping a peaceful, lawful, internationally exposed mission comprised of western nationals intent on exposing the siege of Gaza made the Israelis impotent. They certainly never wanted us to do it; they just could not stop it, that is the power of strategy.
When we first sighted Gaza’s skyline it really started to sink in that we might very well make it. As we got closer that belief developed confidence and by the time we were just 3 miles offshore it seemed that everyone knew we had made it. It is hard to describe the feeling as the first small boat greeted us about one mile out. The Palestinians aboard were beside themselves. And we were likewise. I had the honour of piloting the Free Gaza into Gaza Port so my experience was a little more reserved, but emotional nonetheless. Then the next boat appeared from the harbour, and the next, and next, and… More than one boat was bursting at the seams, challenging the load that such a boat could carry. All of the people were in a state of euphoria. It is not an exaggeration to say that we truly provided a bright light of hope in a place where desperation and grief are daily and grinding.
When we entered the harbour you could see that the jetties were completely filled with people. It was a standing room only outdoor event. You simply could not fit any more people in the harbour. As we pulled in boats surrounded us, I doubt I will ever experience anything like it again both as a spectator and a Captain. I was continually concerned about the children who were in the water and impossible to see much of the time. Boats and people were everywhere, thankfully it turned out to be a harmless game of bumper boats. Boats came alongside and people started to pull themselves up onto our boat. Before you knew it we were mobbed by overjoyed Palestinians, hugs and handshakes were going on everywhere. I was caught between the extreme joy of it all and concentrating on keeping the boat out of harms way. Eventually we sort of migrated over to the dock.
Once we tied to the dock we were joined by even greater mobs of happy people with Hamas security joining in; I will never forget this day, I will cherish it forever. Nobody will ever be able to erase this day. Despite all the terrible injustice, pain and death of Gaza, this was a day of pure joy for the vast majority of Gazans and Palestinians in the West Bank and abroad. There was reason to hope for a better day, Free Gaza has proven the sea offers passage into and out of Gaza/Palestine. I only hope that we do not rest on our laurels, if we do not relent, if we maintain sustained, intelligent and united pressure, we will truly break the siege and more than that, we will prove once more the immense power of people of conscience in action.