Sailing for solidarity with Gaza – Mondoweiss

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The Freedom Flotilla ship, the Handala, was warmly greeted by cheering crowds in European ports this summer.

The Freedom Flotilla Coalition, an international organization, has a Norweigan contingent called Ship to Gaza-Norway (StGN), whose purpose is to try to reach Gaza by sea. Yet given that these flotillas are always inevitably stopped by the Israeli military’s naval force, StGN also seeks to bring attention to Gaza’s plight every time the ship is commandeered — an act that speaks volumes about the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Its other goal is to get the truth out about the Israeli occupation and the inhumane treatment of the Palestinian people. 

This summer, the Handala has been on a solidarity tour of Europe, with a special focus on the living conditions for the children of Gaza. The journey started in Oslo in mid-June, and the ship visited ports in England, Holland, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden, before recently returning to Norway.

In each of the countries, local Palestine support groups have arranged public meetings and greetings with the participants on the boat. 

Test run for Gaza 

This mission has also been a test run for the next attempt at reaching Gaza, which will take place next summer. The Handala is a former fishing boat that can house up to 18 people. More than a handful of this summer’s participants have seen the inside of an Israeli prison in previous attempts at reaching Gaza — and they are willing to get arrested again.

The first stop in Sweden was a relatively small town of 50,000 people, Halmstad. The Ship to Gaza-Sweden is a very active organization with lots of members all over the country. The leader of StGS, Jeannette Escanilla, says that she is particularly happy to see so many Palestinians turning up to join in.

People who visit Palestine may be baffled by the Palestinians’ everlasting ability to show joie de vivre in the midst of tragedy. One explanation we heard was that it’s one of their “secret weapons” — an expression of strength that they can never be beaten down. They keep up their dancing, music, and singing, and the Palestinians in Sweden were no exception. As the boat approached, Palestinian folk music filled the quay, and Palestinians danced the dabke folk dance, pulling Swedes with them in the line dance. 

Speaking to the crowd in Halmstad, Jeannette said, “It’s time now for politicians and the media to highlight what is going in Gaza, and the crimes that Israel is committing, especially against the children.” 

Jeannette was herself a participant in the Women’s Boat to Gaza mission in 2016 on the sailboat, Zaytona Olive. The 13 women risked their lives on that journey when the main mast broke in a heavy storm in the Mediterranean Sea. They had no control over the boat for almost 24 hours, all thinking that the next wave would sink them. When the sea calmed, a Greek vessel turned up and towed them ashore.

The mast was repaired, and the Women’s Boat to Gaza continued onwards. The mission came to a dead stop when the Israeli army boarded the boat. Jeannette and all the other women on board were arrested and taken to an Israeli prison. Their boat, like all the other ones before them, was confiscated by Israel, never to be returned. 

Each time a boat is confiscated, the work starts to finance a new one, based mainly on donations from private people. There are no wealthy companies or governments supporting this effort. The fact that the boats are still being bought and that missions are still being carried out is due to idealism and the strength of solidarity. Activists hand out leaflets and pass around a collection box, and people give.

Recently, however, the Ship to Gaza-Norway did receive a substantial donation from the Red Party — mainly thanks to a Member of the Norwegian Parliament, Hege Bae Nyholt, 45. She joined the Handala from Gothenburg to Oslo.

Focus on apartheid

“The Ship to Gaza boat is a very concrete way to gather attention, and I think it’s very important that the ship sails from port to port around Europe, with a very clear message,” Nyholt says. “It’s very difficult to get through to the press with ‘more bad news from Palestine,’ but this is a highly visual happening, with a much better chance of getting the information out there.”

Hege Bae Nyholt, member of the Norwegian Parliament and a lifelong supporter of Palestinian freedom, was a participant on the boat. (Photo: Marianne Bergvall)
Hege Bae Nyholt, a member of the Norwegian Parliament and a lifelong supporter of Palestinian freedom, was a participant on the boat. (Photo: Marianne Bergvall)

Nyholt is no newcomer in the Palestine support movement. Her parents were firm supporters, and she was one of the little kids in demonstrations, in a stroller, waving the Palestinian flag before she could walk. She lived in Bethlehem in 2000 as the Second Intifada started. Last year, as an MP, she nominated the human rights organizations Al-Haq and B’Tselem for the Nobel Peace Prize — and will do so again. On May 15 this year, on the 75th year anniversary of the Nakba, she delivered a proposal to the Norwegian Parliament to recognize Palestine as a sovereign country and to join the UN’s Apartheid Convention. 

“The proposal is to be voted over in Parliament this autumn, and I’m very excited and hopeful,” Nyholt told me. “The focus on the apartheid situation in Palestine has a potential for change, since the worldwide understanding of apartheid started the end of the regime in South Africa. We have to try to reach a collective understanding of apartheid in Palestine because we need the outside pressure from the public — the voters. And that is also why I think the work that Ship to Gaza is doing is so important.” 

Greetings to children in Gaza

In her civil life, Nyholt is a kindergarten teacher, and she was very pleased to see so many children turning up in Gothenburg. Children were entertaining the public with Palestinian songs and traditional dances, and on the third and last day, the boat was full of children making drawings with greetings to children back home. 

The drawings are now decorating the walls in the galley of Handala. They will most likely never reach the children of Gaza on paper since the boat will be stolen by the Israeli military as it tries to reach Gaza next summer. So the drawings are photographed, with the hope that many people will send them to friends and family in Palestine — to send the message that they are not alone, and that people are struggling for their freedom all over Europe. 

Nyholt says that she really hopes to join the mission next year.

“Are you ready to be arrested and thrown in an Israeli prison in Ashdod, like all the others who have tried since 2010?” I ask. 

She hesitates a moment. 

“That is something I need to think about, because of my two children, who are 11 and 13,” she answers. “They have grown up with the Palestinian flag in their hands, like I did, and joined demonstrations since they were newborns. The horrible conditions that the Palestinians live under is the reality they grow up with. But I don’t want them to be afraid for me. I have almost a year to decide on that. But I very much want to join the mission — even if I jump ship on the last leg,” she answers.

The Gothenburg Palestine committee sent out a message to send Handala off, and people showed up with flowers and heart-shaped red balloons, which were attached to the side of the ship as she sailed off from the last port in the summer of solidarity.

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