Sailing into trouble: “To Gaza with Love” reviewed

Originally published on Electronic Intifada.

Asa Winstanley, The Electronic Intifada, 4 January 2010

A scene from To Gaza with Love.

To Gaza with Love is a documentary by Aki Nawaz for Iran’s English-language channel Press TV. It is an account of the first boats that successfully broke the siege of Gaza in August 2008. The filmmakers traveled to the Gaza Strip with the Free Gaza Movement, which organized the trip. The subjective format of the film works well — presenter Yvonne Ridley speaks to the camera in an amiable video diary style, while Nawaz narrates to add context.

The Free Gaza Movement is a group of activists from around the world who decided to sail to Gaza from Cyprus to break the Israeli-enforced siege. The idea came about in response to Israel’s claim that, since the 2005 “disengagement,” it no longer occupies the coastal strip. Despite withdrawing its settlers, Israel still remains in control of all the borders, airspace and coast. The Free Gaza Movement is an effort to call Israel’s bluff. If Israel no longer occupies Gaza, it could surely have no objection to civilian boats sailing in — or so the argument went.

Although it is independent of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), many in the Free Gaza Movement are or have been ISM members, including ISM founder Huwaida Arraf. Israel has banned some of the members from entering Palestine/Israel.

The small group purchased two second-hand boats in Cyprus, and the film recounts the trials and tribulations they went through in the course of preparing to embark on the sea journey.

At the time, many in the global Palestine solidarity movement were skeptical of the chances of success — but were happy to be proven wrong when the two small vessels eventually landed in Gaza. After watching this film, it becomes apparent this success was a near miracle.

It took about a week of false starts before the crew could even embark on the 30-hour sea journey. Beset by a number of logistical problems, the boats very nearly stayed in Cyprus. One of the vessels needed so many replacement parts that it would probably have been cheaper to buy a new boat. There were several changes of captain. And, as Ridley puts it, “consensus raised its ugly head” — referring to the often long-winded consensus decision making process used by the activist group.

Clashing egos, cabin fever and seasickness at times led to tensions within the group. Personalities like Ken O’Keefe (he of the 2002 human shields to Iraq group), Paul Larudee and Jeff Halper certainly make for an interesting cast of characters familiar within the Palestine solidarity movement. Nawaz does not shy away from showing the tensions and disagreements onboard. Ridley also criticizes the “anarchists and communists” (an oversimplified characterization of the group) for their indecision.

Media context is missing from this film. As narrator, Nawaz says the boats had been “a battle for world public opinion” — yet we see none of the coverage itself. Analysis of the media and some TV news clips would have added a lot to this film. At the very least the filmmakers could have shown screen-grabs from newspaper websites.

The narrator incorrectly includes James Miller in a list of “global activists” murdered by Israel along with ISMers Tom Hurndall and Rachel Corrie. Miller was in fact a cameraman, and was not part of any activist group. Death in Gaza, the film Miller was making when he was shot to death by an Israeli tank, ended up reserving most of its criticism for the Palestinians rather than Israel (it was finished after Miller’s death).

This first successful trip set a precedent, and four additional boat trips between October and December 2008 succeeded in landing on the shores of Gaza. It seemed for a while that Israel did not quite know what to do with the activists. Some who arrived on these boats stayed on in Gaza as ISM activists or worked with other organizations. Many stayed through the whole of Israel’s invasion of Gaza last winter. They did important work including documenting Israel’s war crimes against the civilian population of Gaza and medical and emergency workers and personnel.

Israeli ships took advantage of the fog of war and rammed the sixth Free Gaza boat on 29 December (only two days into the invasion). Since then it seems the siege-breaking tactic has itself been broken. Each subsequent boat trip has either been forced back, or, in the case of the last trip in June, had their crews kidnapped and forced into Israel (later expelled to their countries of origin). The narrative of this film ends after the first trip, but a brief summation of these later events would have been useful.

Despite these quibbles, this film is a unique account of an important and historic achievement. It is a useful resource for solidarity activists thinking about strategies on how to break the siege of Gaza, and how to express practical solidarity with Palestine.

Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist who has lived in and reported from occupied Ramallah, working for the Palestine Times and the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre. His website is www.winstanleys.org.

Related Links

Update: letter to EI in response

See also this letter to EI from Free Gaza Movement co-founder Greta Berlin criticising my review for gender bias. It was of course not my conscious intention to tell a “boys own” story, but in hindsight, I will say she has a point. Greta kindly emailed me her criticism in private first and I encouraged her to email her letter to EI for publication — Asa

3 Comments

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3 Responses to Sailing into trouble: “To Gaza with Love” reviewed

  1. joe

    It disturbs me how easily many have taken Press TV as accurate and repeatable news. In one sense, this is understandable – nobody else got as close to the convoys at Rafah recently or was on the Free Gaza boats.

    But we should not forget that Press TV is an official mouthpiece of Iran. The same Iran which is currently embarked on a policy of prosecuting Bah’ai for no apparent other reason than that they’re not Muslim.

    Of course, it is a quandary with many other news organisations that have their own agenda and sources of not-very-reputable cash. But it’d be nice if we could get some good copy about Palestine and Gaza that didn’t come from Iran.

  2. Asa

    I don’t see any reason to discount PressTV as a valid source of news just because Iran is run by an oppressive regime.

    The BBC is also controlled by the state and (especially on TV) is about as critical of British occupations, war crimes and human rights abuses as PressTV is of Iranian foreign policy but I don’t see any reason to discount the BBC as news source out of hand either.

    Personally, as with anything else I watch PressTV critically, bearing its particular biases in mind as I do with any other source. At least PressTV bothers to actually report from Gaza and the rest of Palestine. The BBC generally does not bother unless Israelis are being killed. Contrast that to their extensive coverage of the Green Movement in Iran and you know something fishy is going on.

    If you want some good copy about Palestine from other sources try e.g. http://electronicintifada.net http://palsoldiarity.org and some of my other links to the right :)

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