It is a great honour to be able to accompany the Swedish sailing ship Estelle for a few days, from Barcelona to Ajaccio (Corsica), on its way towards Gaza to challenge the illegal and inhuman blockade which has lasted now for more than five years.
The Estelle in a 90 year-old three-masted schooner purchased from a Finnish fair-trade organization by Ship to Gaza Sweden in April and renovated for this sea voyage. She began a Swedish coastal tour in June, with solidarity and information events in communities to raise awareness about the blockade in Gaza.
From Sweden she traveled to ports in Norway, France, Spain and will stop in Corsica and two Italian ports before continuing towards Gaza. The educational value from the hundreds of people who visited the ship in different harbours has made thousands of connections with the Estelle and her mission of solidarity. The beauty of a tall ship coupled with the pace of sail power (which the skipper and crew prefer to motors wherever possible) has brought this voyage towards Gaza into the hearts of communities as never before.
The Estelle is unique in that she has been both a commercially licensed cargo vessel and a sail training ship for some years. There are no passengers on a training vessel: everyone who is not part of the crew is a “trainee” and we all do a watch (two shifts of four hours each day), where each person contributes according to their ability. While I am at the beginning of my learning curve when it comes to knots, rigging, steering or charting a course, I can mop a floor and wash dishes as well as the next trainee (which on our watch includes a Swedish MP who is Chair of his party’s parliamentary caucus). There are also several professional mariners who are donating their time: the ship and all aboard are in good hands.
The Estelle carries a varied cargo: from school supplies donated by school-kids to cement to aid the reconstruction of Gaza. But as always the most precious cargo on these trips is human solidarity: the Palestinians of Gaza need that much more than they need material aid.
Indeed, the crippling dependence on humanitarian aid is entirely a product of the blockade. If their right to trade and travel freely were upheld by ending the blockade, the Palestinians of Gaza would be able to rebuild their formerly thriving economy and eliminate the need for aid.
International solidarity with the Estelle’s voyage is growing with every port of call. The receptions in the Spanish ports of Donosti, Bermeo, Santa Pola, Alicante and Barcelona were huge: performances by international artists such as Che Sudaka and Manu Chao as well as boat tours reached beyond the usual activists to touch a broad spectrum of the population.
On its last leg, from Naples to Gaza, the Estelle will carry another Canadian representative, as well as material needed for the construction of Gaza’s Ark, the ship we are rebuilding in Gaza to challenge the blockade from the inside out. The international Freedom Flotilla Coalition is now involved in sailing both to and from Gaza as we continue steadfast on same course: the conscience of humanity.
We know all too well the dangers faced by the Estelle and everyone on board as she approaches her destination. Those of us who have been attacked by the Israeli navy, abducted in international waters and imprisoned in Israel know it in personal detail, but the whole world is now becoming aware of the lawless actions of this rogue state.
Israel continues to defy international law with impunity because the governments of the world fail to hold it accountable. So it falls to civil society to demand accountability and to support those who personally defy this flagrantly illegal and inhumane blockade.
There is not room on a few small boats in the Eastern Mediterranean to welcome all the supporters of the Freedom Flotilla Coalition, but there is more than enough room for everyone to get on board with your support for the Estelle in defying the blockade of Gaza.
Please sign the statement of support and please spread the word far and wide. You can also follow the Estelle’s progress towards her destination here.
When I leave my shipmates in a few short days, my thoughts will go with these brave souls as they continue their voyage of solidarity to defy injustice with their bodies: as always, their best guarantee of safety is our eyes and voices. Where the governments of the world fail, engaged international civil society must act instead.
We sail until the Palestinians of Gaza regain their freedom of movement.
David Heap is a Steering Committee member with the Canadian Boat to Gaza and Gaza’s Ark. He was on the Tahrir in July and again when it was attacked in November 2011, spending six days in Israeli prison before being deported back to Canada.