Canadians to sail in flotilla protesting Gaza blockade
Canadian peace activist Kevin Neish, who was on board a ship raided by Israeli forces off the Gaza coast last Monday and managed to hide photos of the flotilla raid during his detention, speaks about his experience during a press conference at the Velox Club in Victoria, B.C., Monday, June 7, 2010. (Deddeda Stemler / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Saturday, June 11, 2011 8:57AM EDT
More than 30 Canadian activists are preparing to sail for the Gaza Strip as part of a controversial international flotilla protesting Israel's blockade of the Palestinian territory, a year after nine people were killed in a similar undertaking.
A group called The Canada Boat to Gaza says it's raised more than $300,000 and has purchased a ship -- dubbed the Tahrir, after the uprising in Egypt -- which is docked at an eastern Mediterranean port they will not disclose.
At least 10 such ships are planning to set sail for Gaza later this month, carrying aid supplies and around 1,500 protesters from dozens of countries, according to organizers.
Ehab Lotayef, a spokesman with the Canadian group, said that several protesters from Australia, Belgium and Denmark will also be onboard the Tahrir, along with between $30,000 and $50,000 worth of medical supplies they hope to deliver to Palestinian doctors.
"Our main objective is that Israel should not have jurisdiction over the waters of Gaza," Lotayef said from Montreal. "This is the least we can do to try peacefully to break the blockade they're living under."
When six ships carrying pro-Palestinian activists, humanitarian aid and construction supplies attempted to travel to Gaza last year they were boarded by Israeli commandos in international waters. Clashes erupted onboard one vessel, the Mavi Marmara, in which eight Turkish nationals and a Turkish-American were killed.
The incident damaged relations between Israel and Turkey and deepened international pressure on Israel to lift its naval blockade.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said his government hopes to head off the new flotilla through diplomatic means, but will resort to force again if protesters disobey orders from the Israeli navy and try to reach Gaza's shore.
At issue is an embargo that Israel imposed on Gaza after Hamas seized power in a 2007 gun battle. Hamas had unseated Fatah in elections there a year earlier, but a number of countries including Canada, the United States and members of the European Union consider Hamas a terrorist group.
Last year, the International Committee of the Red Cross said the blockade violated international law due to its impact on Gaza's 1.5 million residents. Israel says the blockade is necessary because it prevents Hamas from obtaining weapons with which it could attack Israeli troops or civilians.
In the wake of the Mavi Marmara raid last year Israel eased its embargo on Gaza, allowing in things like biscuits and soft drinks. Last month Egypt announced it was reopening its border crossing with Gaza, further loosening the embargo.
Kevin Neish, a retired marine engineer from Victoria who has been fundraising across Canada for the Tahrir, said he doesn't believe those developments go far enough toward improving living conditions in the Palestinian territory.
The protesters want the blockade lifted so that more aid can flow into Gaza and its dense population can trade freely with other countries, Neish said.
"If the people of Gaza have the blockade lifted then they won't be firing rockets at Israel," he said from Vancouver. "They'll have a normal life."
Neish, 54, was onboard the Mavi Marmara when Israeli troops boarded it in the last flotilla and he witnessed the deadly clashes that ensued. He was taken into Israeli custody and says he was subjected to "brutality" before being released a few days later.
Israel has banned Neish from visiting the country for a decade, but he intends to return to Gaza onboard the Mavi Marmara again this month.
The new flotilla has gained a number of high-profile supporters including three Nobel Peace Prize laureates, author Alice Walker, a former Israeli Air Force captain and a Holocaust survivor.
But the protesters have drawn criticism from officials in Canada and abroad. In a statement last month Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird called the flotilla "provocative" and "unhelpful."
"I strongly urge those wishing to deliver humanitarian goods to the Gaza Strip to do so through established channels," Baird said, citing "Israel's legitimate security concerns."
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has indicated he would like governments to discourage activists from staging flotillas bound for Gaza because they could "escalate into violent conflict."
The Canadian group is also reportedly the focus of a million-dollar lawsuit, filed by a dual Canadian-Israeli citizen in an Ontario court, which claims that it is providing material support to Hamas.
Lotayef would not comment on the lawsuit. But he said medical supplies the Tahrir will transport, such as baby aspirin and blood pressure medicine, are intended for hospitals and clinics in Gaza that aren't associated with Hamas.
Organizers will provide non-violence training to those who will sail on the Tahrir, he said, and are seeking an independent organization to inspect the boat before it leaves port to show that it's carrying no weapons.
Emanuel Adler, an expert on Israel at the University of Toronto, said the protesters' strategy is to court international support for Gazans on humanitarian grounds, by prompting Israel to confront the flotilla.
He believes the best way for Israel to respond is by inspecting the ships for weapons and allowing them to proceed to Gaza's shore.
"If the other side wants a response, the logical thing is not to respond," Adler said from Tel Aviv.
But he's afraid that domestic pressures in Israel, including from the country's formidable military, may lead to a different outcome.
"There's always an aspect of deterrence, that if we don't stop the flotilla this time, they'll send one three times as large."