Loaded down with chocolate, crayons, crutches, CAT scanners, tons of cement, and some 750 passengers, a fleet of eight ships organized by an international coalition of humanitarian organizations is on its way to the besieged Gaza Strip, despite the Israeli government’s repeated threats to block it.
A delegation from the California-based Free Palestine Movement, including a retired U.S. diplomat, a decorated U.S. Navy veteran, and three Bay Area activists, set sail Tuesday evening from Piraeus, Greece, aboard the Sfendoni, one of the vessels that make up the Freedom Flotilla.
The passenger ship, purchased by the European Campaign to End the Siege of Gaza, is carrying 54 passengers from more than a dozen countries. This morning it rendezvoused near the island of Rhodes with a Greek cargo ship that is also taking part in the flotilla, and later this week it will meet up in the eastern Mediterranean with the rest of the fleet, including a freighter and passenger ships that have already left from Turkey, two smaller ships soon to embark from Crete, and the MV Rachel Corrie, which is on its way from Ireland. The convoy aims to dock in Gaza City this coming weekend.
Israeli officials have vowed to prevent the ships from landing in Gaza - even though the fleet plans to reach Gaza directly from international waters, without entering Israeli waters. According to reports in the Israeli press, Defense Minister Ehud Barak has signed an order declaring the entire area 20 nautical miles from the Gaza shoreline a “closed military zone,” and the military has reportedly established a joint task force with the Israeli Police, Prison Service, and Foreign Ministry to prepare for the potential arrest of the passengers.
Participants in the flotilla, however, vowed to proceed despite the threats. “I can’t understand why the Israeli government feels threatened by some educational and medical supplies for Palestinian children.” said Janet Kobren, a retired math teacher from Oakland, CA, a co-founder of the Free Palestine Movement, and a passenger on the Sfendoni.
Altogether, the ships will carry 10,000 tons of relief aid to Gaza, which has been under Israeli blockade since 2006. Provided by the European Campaign to End the Siege of Gaza, the Free Gaza Movement (FGM), The Foundation For Human Rights And Freedoms And Humanitarian Relief of Turkey (IHH), and other groups, the cargo includes pens, crayons, soccer balls, basketballs, and 20 tons of paper for school children; $1 million worth of medical equipment, including CAT scanners, wheelchairs, crutches, and a complete dental surgical unit; electrical generators; water-purification equipment; and cement and prefabricated homes intended to help the people of Gaza rebuild from devastating Israeli attack of December 2008-January 2009.
In addition to Kobren, the FPM delegation includes:
• Ambassador Edward L. Peck, who served as a paratrooper during two tours of wartime active duty; spent 32 years in the Foreign Service; including stints as Chief of Mission in Iraq and Mauritania, Deputy Director of the Cabinet Task Force on Terrorism at the Reagan White House, and State Department Liaison Officer to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon; and after retirement was Executive Secretary of the American Academy of Diplomacy.
• Joe Meadors, a decorated Navy veteran and one of the survivors of the 1967 attack on the U.S.S. Liberty, in which Israeli fighter planes and ships killed 34 Americans and wounded 173;
• Gene St. Onge, an Oakland, CA-based civil/structural engineer, who is working with Palestinian engineers to rebuild housing destroyed in Israel’s 2009 invasion of Gaza; and
• Dr. Paul Larudee of El Cerrito, CA, a piano tuner and FPM co-founder, who also co-founded FGM, the movement that first broke the siege of Gaza in 2008.