Free Gaza Movement: Anti-Israel Boat Campaign Challenges Israel's "Siege of Gaza"
Background on the Free Gaza Movement
Posted: June 3, 2010
In May 2007, the Free Gaza Movement (FGM) announced its intention to sail a boat carrying international volunteers and humanitarian aid to Gaza later that summer.
In the year leading up to the first mission, which was delayed multiple times due to insufficient funds, organizers criticized Israel's founding, propagated messages about Israel's brutality and recommended international sanctions against Israel.
They ran a highly effective campaign that raised several hundred thousand dollars in funds, and garnered significant international support and media attention.
Since its conception, FGM organizers anticipated that Israeli authorities would try to stop the boats from entering Gaza, thereby validating their claim that Israel still controls Gaza. In advance of the trips they announced their intentions to multiple Israeli agencies, including the Israeli Navy, Ministry of Defense, and/or Foreign Ministry, and underwent security searches by the Cypriot Port Authorities prior to departure from Lanarca.
Organizers also initially indicated their intention to refuse inspection and resist arrest if a confrontation with Israeli authorities should ensue, and stated that they were prepared to remain at sea for up to two weeks in protest against Israel. (None of the groups stayed at sea that long).
During the trips, participants and organizers regularly posted statements, pictures, and in some cases videos of the boats' progress on the FGM Web site. Several of the FGM groups brought Palestinians back to Cyprus when they left Gaza, allegedly for medical and other humanitarian reasons.
Some FGM participants remained in Gaza after the boats returned to Cyprus, either to engage in ISM resistance efforts, humanitarian work, or to cross over into Israel. In multiple cases, these individuals were arrested by Israeli authorities.
In November 2008, for example, FGM participants who stayed in Gaza following the August mission were arrested at sea while accompanying Gazan fishermen on their boats, in what the activists claimed was an effort to protect the fishermen from the Israeli navy. After the boats allegedly crossed into prohibited waters the Israeli Defense Forces arrested 15 fisherman and the three internationals—Darlene Wallach of San Jose, CA, Andrew Muncie from Scotland, and Vittorio Arrigoni from Italy—who were then detained by Israeli authorities and deported to their respective countries.
At least three other FGM participants, all Israeli citizens, were arrested by Israeli border authorities at the Erez crossing between Gaza and Sderot for entering Gaza without a permit, which Israeli law prohibits. They were detained by Sderot police for questioning before eventually being released, some with court dates.
Upon their return to the U.S., many participants were invited by local antiwar and anti-Israel groups to speak about the campaign at churches and other venues.
For example, FGM co-founder Paul Larudee gave several presentations in the Bay Area in November 2008. Describing the steps leading up to the first mission, Larudee told one audience that he had discussed the legality of the trip and the possible Hamas meeting with members of the U.S. State Department and Justice Department, noting that he was told it would be permissible so long as no material support to terrorist organizations was provided. Additionally, he claimed that the Israeli government unsuccessfully attempted to pressure Greece to forbid sales of boats to FGM and to stop the boats from sailing. He also claimed that that Israel threatened to forbid Palestinians from leaving Gaza on the boats.
FGM organizers view their campaign as being the foundation for further action against Israel, and have encouraged humanitarian groups to circumvent Israeli border crossings by sending aid directly to Gaza by boat, as they did. In the months following FGM's first missions, several similar efforts to access Gaza by boat were in fact organized by various other groups in and around the Middle East.
Though FGM missions have delivered medical and other supplies to Gazans, organizers have consistently emphasized the political nature of the campaign. FGM, for example, stated in a June 2007 press release that the transport of aid supplies would not be "a primary part of our mission."
FGM's broader mission, as stated on its Web site, is to elicit international opposition to Israel's policies: "We want to break the siege of Gaza. We want to raise international awareness about the prison-like closure of the Gaza Strip and pressure the international community to review its sanctions policy and end its support for continued Israeli occupation."
In press releases and on its Web site, the group has described the Gaza Strip as an "open-air concentration camp controlled by land, sea and air" and asserted that Israel "withholds food and energy in an attempt to starve [Gazans] into submission." It has accused Israel of committing war crimes and Israeli politicians of "vicious racism." Additionally, it has lamented the "accelerated Judaization of Jerusalem" and referred to the events surrounding the founding of the Jewish State as a "historic injustice."
FGM has been endorsed by several American organizations that regularly promote anti-Israel views in campaigns and at events, including American Muslims for Palestine, International Action Center, Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the Muslim American Society (MAS) Freedom Foundation.
The International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a grassroots movement that spreads anti-Israel propaganda and misinformation and voices support for those who engage in armed resistance against Israel, played a major role in FGM's campaign, particularly during its early missions.
A variety of domestic American anti-Israel groups also played a crucial role in planning, fundraising for and executing FGM's early missions, including 14 Friends of Palestine, South Bay Mobilization (SBM), the Middle East Crisis Committee and Jewish Voice for Peace.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has a history of promoting anti-Israel efforts, stated his support for the campaign in a letter in which he lamented that Gaza "is suffering under a cruel siege."