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The boat people who came… and couldn’t leave

When two small fishing vessels sailed into Gaza Port on 23 August with their renegade crews of international solidarity activists, thousands of Gazans came to greet them. It was a glorious sunny afternoon, and the 46 activists on board the boats had done something amazing: after sailing more than 30 hours from Cyprus, they’d broken the siege of Gaza. Few of us who live here thought they’d make it, and we were delighted to be proved wrong.

The ‘boat people’ were whisked away to a local hotel, where they were congratulated, fed and interviewed. They spent several days dashing up and down the Strip visiting local communities, and then, on 28 August, most of them sailed back to Cyprus, taking seven local Palestinians with them. Another of the group, Jeff Halper, founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, crossed the northern Gaza border into Israel, where he lives, was promptly arrested and then released. Now just nine of the boat people are left in Gaza.

‘We tried to get out through Rafah and Erez crossings,’ one of them, Donna from America, told me yesterday (Rafah is the crossing to Egypt and Erez the crossing to Israel). She told me they had been turned back from both crossings, and are now stranded inside Gaza. ‘We are like the Palestinians now,’ she added.

Many international pundits accused the boat people of being naïve do-gooders who arrived in Gaza almost empty-handed, and have changed nothing about the siege, and in some ways this has been a missed opportunity. The boat people could have been far more media savvy and used their 15 minutes of fame to highlight how the Israeli siege is strangling life in Gaza, but instead seem to have been swept up in the drama of their own voyage. Donna and the others are not ‘like Palestinians’: they chose to come to Gaza, have foreign passports and will probably be stranded for no more than a couple of weeks before the diplomatic efforts kick in. Meanwhile, many of my friends have not been able to get out of Gaza for years. At the end of the day the other boat people are privileged foreigners who will be allowed to go home.

But on the other hand it is very easy to snipe at ‘do-gooders’ from the comfort of Europe, the US or Canada. The boat people did something remarkable because they took positive action to break the siege of Gaza. When Donna and the others took the risk of sailing here, they opened a crack in the wall – and when a crack opens it is only a matter of time before the light gets in.

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