Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Dicing with death for the freedom of Gaza

In a few days time, I will be stepping on board a boat in an attempt to sail into the world's largest open-air prison - known as Gaza - to help break the vicious Israeli siege which has virtually destroyed the economy, health, education and welfare systems there.

Joining me will be an amazing group of people of all ages, backgrounds, religions, nationalities and cultures including Palestinians, Israelis and internationals who are determined to sail directly to Gaza without going through Israeli territory or seeking permission from Israeli authorities.

I arrived in Cyprus, our sailing point, with Indy film-maker Aki Nawaz who will be charting our trip for Press TV -Aki is also known as the large-than-life band leader of the group Fun-Da-Mental.

As I walked in to the university campus where we're staying with our fellow travellers there was a feeling of a reunion as I recognised some old, friendly faces and some not so familiar ones.

Over the coming days I will give you an inside account of our training, preparation and bonding before we embark on what will doubtless be a memorable, if not hazardous, journey.

The Israeli Navy is already patrolling the waters off Gaza, guns primed and ready to scupper our heroic little mission.

"You have little or no chance of reaching Gaza," said the remarkable Dr Uri Davis, Jewish peace activist, academic and author with a welcoming smile, adding, "But your chances of entering Israel are pretty good. What you have to think about is the publicity that could be achieved to highlight the injustices against the Palestinians."

Admittedly, I was a wee bit crestfallen by his assessment although slightly buoyed by the fact he thought the Israeli Navy might just push us into international waters and create another siege with me and my fellow passengers as hostages rather than blow us out of the water. Mossad actually did blow up one ship in Larnaca to stop it from doing a similar voyage in February 1988.
What I do know is that you cannot swing a cat in Cyprus at the moment without bumping into some dodgy-looking characters that look as though they've come straight from the pen of Ian Fleming.

Happily though, none of our fellow passengers are behaving spookily although we are all a bit edgy, and with good reason. There is a bit of gallows humour in evidence and I am sure I heard someone make a reference to the Titanic ... I wonder if we have an orchestra joining us?

However, there is still a huge shroud of secrecy over our whole operation which reminds me of the old World War II saying my mother used to tell me if I talked too much. "Loose lips sink ships," she would say.

In truth, even if I wanted to, I could not give you the exact location of our sailing vessel so, dear reader, you will have to be patient like me. When the time is ready, you will be among the first to know where she is anchored.

I have only been here a few hours and already the tears have been trickling down my cheeks - tears of sadness, pity, high emotion, anger and laughter.

Most of it was generated by retired British trauma surgeon Dr David Halpin - a former Agenda TV guest - who is here with his wife Susan. They actually did hire a boat - a massive big ship actually - a few years ago to bring aid to Gaza. Their Dove and Dolphin charity is small but powerful and a wonderful tribute to their hard work.

Their ship sailed in to an Israeli Port since the one in Gaza was previously blown to smithereens by the Israeli Army, and they got their aid to the Gazans by way of a convoy of trucks.
Sadly, Dr Halpin will not be joining us either, although he really inspired us with his own personal fortitude and courage about his experiences of life in Gaza.

There were more tears over supper - spontaneously prepared by Gaza-born Monir - as Aki and I sat round a table feasting on ripe melon, feta cheese and pitta bread. We listened in complete silence to Hedy Epstein as she talked us through her childhood.

German-born Hedy spoke clearly and calmly as I sat open-mouthed listening to how she escaped the Holocaust ... her parents were not as lucky. Her remarkable tale of survival against the odds was full of high drama fueled by Nazi hatred towards Jews, unspeakable hardships and heroic deeds.

At 83 she is the oldest on board and I will be standing right next to her should the Israeli military decide to take any action. This remarkable woman is now my new best friend and there is no way this amazing defender of justice and human rights should be exposed to any hostility from the Israelis.

Hitler did not get her and I am damned if the Israelis will!

"My parents were against Zionism when they were alive and I am too," she told me.

I have yet to meet the 81-year-old Catholic nun who I am told is just as amazing. There is a buzz going around that we will be joined shortly by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's journalist sister-in-law, Lauren Booth another friend of mine and a wonderful supporter of the Palestinian people.

Someone else who I've just bumped in to is an amazing American called Ramzi Kysia who I last saw in Baghdad just before the outbreak of "shock and awe".

In truth, I never thought I would see Ramzi alive again - he had just volunteered to stay behind in Baghdad as a human shield and said he was prepared to die if being there could prevent a full-scale war. I cannot wait to listen to his story and what prompted him to sign up to the Free Gaza Campaign. I will find out tomorrow, and as soon as I do, I will let you know.

On Monday, August 4, the Free Gaza Movement publicly introduces its international team that will take volunteers from Cyprus to Gaza in popular solidarity with Palestinian human rights.
From that day, any attempt to damage the project will be considered an act of aggression against a nonviolent international human rights mission, I am told.

So if you really want to know what's happening ... watch this space for regular updates, photos and messages of goodwill and support.

If you want more information, go to www.freegaza.org where the actual voyage can be watched in real time, by video streaming from the satellite broadcasting onboard.

Since this non-violent voyage is being funded by private donation, Free Gaza Movement welcomes donations online at its website.

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