Five hours after our Women's Boat to Gaza, the Zaytouna-Oliva, was stopped in international waters by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) on its 1,000 mile journey from Messina, Italy, the coast of Gaza came into view. The Gaza shoreline was starkly visible...for its darkness. The contrast of the bright lights of the Israeli coast from the border city of Ashkelon north to Tel Aviv where the brilliant lights continued out of sight up the Mediterranean coast to the area south of Ashkelon -- the coast of Gaza -- shrouded in darkness. The electricity shortages caused by the Israeli control of much of the electrical network of Gaza condemns the Palestinians in Gaza to a life of minimal electricity for refrigeration, pumping of water from roof tanks to kitchens and bathroom and for study -- and it condemns the people of Gaza to a night...every night...to darkness.
In the bright lights of Israel live 8 million Israeli citizens. In the Israeli controlled darkness in the small 25-mile long, 5-mile wide Gaza Strip live 1.9 million Palestinians. The internationally isolated enclave called Gaza has almost one quarter of the population of Israel yet is kept in virtually perpetual darkness by the policies of the State of Israel that limits the amount of electricity, water, food, construction and medical supplies that come into Gaza. Israel attempts to keep the Palestinians in yet another type of darkness by imprisoning them in Gaza, severely limiting their ability to travel for education, medical reasons, family visits and for the pure joy of visiting other peoples and lands.
The Women's Boat to Gaza, the Zaytouna Oliva, set sail from Barcelona, Spain on September 15 to bring international attention to this Israeli imposed darkness. We sailed with thirteen women on our initial voyage, a three-day trip to Ajaccio, Corscia, France. Our captain was Captain Madeline Habib from Australia who has decades of captaining and sailing experience recently as the Captain of the Dignity, a Doctors Without Borders ship that rescues migrants from North Africa, and our crewmembers were Emma Ringqvist from Sweden and Synne Sofia Reksten from Norway.
The international participants selected to be on this part of the journey were Rosana Pastor Munoz, Member of Parliament and actor from Spain; Malin Bjork, member of the European Parliament from Sweden; Paulina de los Reyes, a Swedish professor originally from Chile; Jaldia Abubakra, Palestinian from Gaza now a Spanish citizen and political activist; Dr. Fauziah Hasan, medical doctor from Malaysia; Yehudit Ilany, political consultant and journalist from Israel; Lucia Munoz, Spanish journalist with Telesur; Kit Kittredge, US human rights and Gaza activist. Wendy Goldsmith, Canadian social-worker human rights campaigner and Ann Wright, retired US Army Colonel and former US diplomat were designated by the Women's Boat to Gaza organizers as co-leaders of the boat.
Other participants who had flown to Barcelona but were unable to sail due to the breakdown of the second boat, Amal-Hope, were Zohar Chamberlain Regev (a German and Israeli citizen resident in Spain), Ellen Huttu Hansson from Sweden, boat co-leaders from the international Freedom Coalition, internationally recognized non-violence trainer Lisa Fithian from the US, Norsham Binti Abubakr medical administrator from Malaysia, Palestinian activist Gail Miller from the US and crew members Laura Pastor Solera from Spain, Marilyn Porter from Canada and Josefin Westman from Sweden. Ivory Hackett-Evans, a boat captain from the UK flew to Barcelona and then to Messina from work with migrants in Greece to help find another boat in Sicily to replace the Amal-Hope.
A new group of women joined us in Ajaccio, Corsica, France for the 3.5 day trip to Messina, Sicily, Italy. In Ajaccio we were greeted by the President of the Corsican Regional Assembly; we met with three elected women from the Corsican Territorial Assembly, listened to music by a local group called AlteVocci and had a community potluck picnic with supporters. Besides our crew Captain Madeleine Habib from Australia, crewmembers Emma Ringqvist from Sweden and Synne Sofia Reksten from Norway, the participants were boat co-leaders Wendy Goldsmith from Canada and Ann Wright from the US, medical doctor Dr. Fauziah Hasan from Malaysia, Latifa Habbechi, member of Parliament from Tunisia; Khadija Benguenna, Al Jazeera journalist and broadcaster from Algeria; Heyet El-Yamani, Al Jazeera Mubasher On-Line journalist from Egypt; Yehudit Ilany, political consultant and journalist from Israel; Lisa Gay Hamilton, TV actor and activist from the United States; Norsham Binti Abubakr medical administrator from Malaysia; and Kit Kittredge, US human rights and Gaza activist.
A third group of women sailed for nine days and 1,000 miles from Messina, Sicily to 34.2 miles from Gaza before Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) stopped us in international waters, 14.2 miles outside the illegal 20-mile Israeli imposed "Security Zone" that limits access to Palestine's only port located at Gaza City.
The eight women participants were Nobel Peace Laureate from Northern Ireland Mairead Maguire; Algerian Parliamentarian Samira Douaifia; New Zealand Parliamentarian Marama Davidson; Swedish First Substitute Member of the Swedish Parliament Jeanette Escanilla Diaz (originally from Chile); South African Olympic athlete and university student rights activist Leigh Ann Naidoo; Spanish professional photographer Sandra Barrialoro; Malaysian medical doctor Fauziah Hasan; Al Jazeera journalists British Mena Harballou and Russian Hoda Rakhme; and Ann Wright, a retired US Army Colonel and former US diplomat and boat team leader from the international Freedom Flotilla coalition. Our three crew that sailed us the entire 1,715 mile voyage from Barcelona to 34 miles from Gaza were Captain Madeleine Habib from Australia, crewmembers Swedish Emma Ringqvist and Norwegian Synne Sofia Reksten.
While the Zaytouna-Olivia sailed to Sicily, our international coalition attempted to find a second boat to continue the mission to Gaza. Despite great efforts, ultimately a second boat could not be fully crewed due to the delayed timeline and many women who traveled from around the world to Messina were unable to go on the final voyage to Gaza.
Those participants whose hearts and thoughts for the women of Gaza were carried on the Zaytouna-Oliva but whose physical bodies remained in Messina were Cigdem Topcuoglu, a professional athlete and trainer from Turkey who sailed in 2010 on the Mavi Marmara where her husband was killed; Naomi Wallace, playwright of Palestinian issues and author from the US; Gerd von der Lippe, athlete and professor from Norway; Eva Manly, retired documentary maker and human rights activist from Canada; Efrat Lachter, TV journalist from Israel; Orly Noy, online journalist from Israel; Jaldia Abubakra, Palestinian from Gaza now a Spanish citizen and political activist; boat co-leaders from the international Freedom Coalition Zohar Chamberlain Regev, a German and Israeli citizen resident in Spain, Ellen Huttu Hansson from Sweden, Wendy Goldsmith from Canada; and crew members Sofia Kanavle from the US, Maite Mompo from Spain and Siri Nylen from Sweden.
Many members of the Women's Boat to Gaza steering committee and national and organization campaign organizers traveled to Barcelona, Ajaccio and/or Messina to help with media, ground preparations, logistics and delegate support. They include Wendy Goldsmith, Ehab Lotayeh, David Heap and Stephanie Kelly of the Canadian Boat to Gaza campaign; Zohar Chamberlain Regev, Laura Aura, Pablo Miranzo, Maria del Rio Domenech, Sela Gonza'lez Ataide, Adriana Catala'n, and many others from the Rumbo a Gaza campaign in the Spanish state; Zaher Darwish, Lucia Intruglio, Carmelo Chite, Palmira Mancuso and many others from Freedom Flotilla Italia; Zaher Birawi, Chenaf Bouzid and Vyara Gylsen of the International Committee for Breaking the Siege of Gaza; Ann Wright, Gail Miller and Kit Kittredge of the US Boat to Gaza campaign; Shabnam Mayet of the Palestine Solidarity Alliance in South Africa; Ellen Huttu Hansson and Kerstin Thomberg from Ship to Gaza Sweden; Torstein Dahle and Jan-Petter Hammervold of Ship to Gaza Norway. Many other local volunteers in each port opened their homes and their hearts to our travellers, participants and support crew.
Supporters of Palestinian human rights who came to Barcelona, Ajaccio and/or Messina or at sea off Crete to help where needed included large delegations of supporters and students from Malaysia studying in Europe who were organized by MyCare Malaysia, Diane Wilson, Keith Meyer, Barbara Briggs-Letson and Greta Berlin from the United States, Vaia Aresenopoulos and others from Ship to Gaza Greece, Claude Leostic of the French Platform of NGOs for Palestine, along with Vincent Gaggini, Isabelle Gaggini and many others from Corsica-Palestina, and Christiane Hessel from France.
Many others who worked on the logistics, media or delegate committees stayed in their home countries to continue their important work from there, including Susan Kerin of the US on delegates and media committees and Irene Macinnes from Canada on the delegates committee, James Godfrey (England) on the media committee, Zeenat Adam and Zakkiya Akhals (South Africa) along with Staffan Grane'r and Mikael Lofgren (Sweden, media), Joel Opperdoes and ...sa Svensson (Sweden, logistics), Michele Borgia (Italy, media), Jase Tanner and Nino Pagliccia (Canada, media), Roger Fowler (New Zealand, media) and Kamarul Zaman Anwar (Malaysia, media). The United European Left/Nordic Green Left parliamentary group in Strasbourg and the European Coordinating Committee for Palestine in Brussels were also there when we needed them, for political and institutional support.
At each of our stops, local organizers arranged for public events for the participants. In Barcelona, organizers had three afternoons of public events at the Barcelona harbor with the Mayor of Barcelona speaking at the farewell ceremony for the boats. In Ajaccio a local band entertained the public.