Free Gaza ships returned to Cyprus late Friday

Amazingly, the Free Gaza expedition managed to leave Gaza’s port late Thursday afternoon and sail unmolested — though not unnoticed — back to Cyprus on Friday evening.

Seven Palestinians who managed to get out of Gaza on the two converted fishing boats in the Free Gaza expedition — a ten year old boy whose leg had to be amputated after being injured by IDF fire and his father, and five members of a family who have relatives in Cyprus.

Their visas had been arranged weeks beforehand, just in case the opportunity arose for these people to travel …

The Gaza students who had won, then lost, Fulbright scholarships were not on board, apparently because there was absolutely no indication that the U.S. would issue them visas — despite U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s personal involvement in this fiasco at one point (her interest waned abruptly when one of the Gazan Fulbright scholars actually managed to get out of Gaza and all the way to Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. — and was then forced to turn around after U.S. officials said they had been given unspecified new information on the security risk involved, which they would have to investigate further…

Jeff Halper, who had been on board the trip to Gaza, and who was arrested when entering Israel through the Erez land crossing from the Gaza Strip, told journalists at a press conference at the American Colony Hotel on Thursday afternoon that “the first and only mission of the expedition was to break the siege of Gaza”.

Israel, he said, had confused the world into believing that there was no siege of Gaza, and that “there’s no occupation, therefore there’s no responsibility — though Israel has maintained ‘control’.”

“If Israel is an occupying power, it can stop us from going in — but this means responsibility”, Halper said. “But if Israel is not an occupying power, there’s no reason the Palestinians can’t come and go at will…We broke the confusion about this situation (where Israel claimed to have control but no responsibility) … It’s a real dilemma, and both options are actually unacceptable to Israel … This mission created clarity about Israeli actions in policy terms, and this cloud of ambiguity that Israel has used all these years is gone, in my view”, Halper added.

He said that in Gaza, “everybody wanted to talk to me in Hebrew — they were thirsty to speak Hebrew, and kept dragging me for coffees. THere were two messages: (1) everyone, from Hamas to the extreme left, told me “we want peace’. They were talking not on the basis of ideology or a political program, but a more fundamental desire to live in peace in this country….People want peace. One guy said: ‘Where are we going with all this…Why can’t we all go to the beach together? Why can’t we pray in Al-Aqsa?”

Halper reported that a number of human rights organizations in Gaza are preparing a letter from the people of Gaza to the people of Sderot. The wording is still under negotiation, Halper said, but he hoped to be able to bring it to Sderot, and to bring a reply back to Gaza.

Halper has been barred from entering Gaza for 30 days, under the terms of his release from Shikma prison in Ashkelon — where he said he spent a “harrowing night” being threatened by Israeli Jews for his actions in favor of Gaza. There, he said, he was much more afraid than he ever was prior to or during the Free Gaza expedition. Halper said the guards came once, to remove him from the cell he was first placed in — but they then merely moved him to the cell next door, whose inmates were all aware of the threats against him. “Then the guards turned off the lights and went away, while in the dark a bunch of people were making threats … If there was any fear or any danger to my life, it was in Shikma Prison”.

He called the situation in Gaza “a crime against humanity”.

Halper also reported that “the Palestinian government has given me Palestinian citizenship, and I have a Palestinian passport — though very few Palestinians have one. I’m (now) a Palestinian in the complete sense”, he said. “On Monday, I got my citizenship citizenship; on Tuesday, I’m in an Israeli jail.” Halper said.

In response to a journalist’s question about Egypt’s role in all this, Halper said that “Egypt is not an occupying power — Egypt is an accomplice. This siege isn’t only an Israeli siege — all our countries played a role. [the former UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Palestine] John Dugard worte that this is the first time in history that an oppressed people have been [so] sanctioned”.

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