NICOSIA // It is not often that an 83-year-old grandmother learns to swim, but Hedy Epstein, a Holocaust survivor, had a strong motive. The skill was required for her to join a group of activists from around the world who plan to sail from Cyprus to Gaza next week. The expedition's aim is to "break the siege of Gaza" and to raise international awareness of the plight of 1.4 million Palestinians suffering shortages of everything from fuel to food since an Israeli crackdown led to a "prison-like enclosure".
The Free Gaza Movement (www.freegaza.org), whose members include human rights observers, aid workers and journalists from many countries, said: "We've tried to enter Palestine by land. We've tried to arrive by air. Now we're getting serious. We're taking a ship." Mrs Epstein, from St Louis, Missouri, quotes from Leviticus 19:16 to explain her desire to be on the mission: " 'Thou shalt not stand against the blood of thy neighbours.' With this voyage we are fulfilling one of Judaism's most sacred values which is not to stand idly by when people are dying of starvation, disease and lack of medical treatment."
Two sailing boats, the 21-metre Free Gaza and the 18-metre Liberty, are due to set sail from Cyprus on Tuesday or Wednesday carrying about 40 people from 17 t countries. Among them will be a Palestinian survivor of the Nakba or "catastrophe", the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians from their ancestral homes during the creation of the Israeli state 60 years ago. The passenger list also includes an 81-year-old Catholic nun and Lauren Booth, the half-sister of Cherie Booth, the wife of Tony Blair, Britain's former prime minister. Ms Booth, a broadcaster and journalist, is a campaigner for Palestinian justice and was a vocal opponent of the war in Iraq.
Details of the event are being kept under wraps for fear Israel could take action to thwart the voyage. "There's a real danger they [Israelis] may scupper the boats," said Angela Godfrey-Goldstein, a Jerusalem-based British-Israeli dual national who is working on the event's media team. She also works for the Israeli Committee Against [Palestinian] House Demolitions. The expedition's organisers, who have raised most of the US$300,000 (Dh1.1m) needed for the voyage from private donations, said they have not informed the Israeli authorities of their plans.
"Israel says it's pulled its soldiers from Gaza so they should have no objection to us going there," said Paul Larudee, one of the organisers. A press release added: "any attempt to damage the project will be considered an act of aggression against a non-violent international human rights mission." In 1988, the Palestine Liberation Organisation chartered a ferry to transport 130 Palestinian deportees on a symbolic voyage to the Israeli port of Haifa. The "ship of return", carrying foreign dignitaries and scores of journalists, deliberately evoked the image of the ship Exodus, which attempted to carry Jewish refugees to Palestine after the Second World War but was turned back by the British.
The ferry, the Sol Phryne, never set sail: a limpet mine attached to its hull, possibly by frogmen, crippled the ferry in the Cypriot port of Limassol. A day earlier three PLO officials who were involved in acquiring the ferry were killed in a car-bomb attack in Limassol. The PLO blamed Israel for both attacks. Israeli officials, who had vowed not to let the ship land, refused to comment. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but imposed a blockade on the territory after Hamas seized control there a year ago from the security forces of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. The waters of the Gaza Strip are controlled by the Israeli navy. The sailing ships plan to deliver food and medical supplies, including hearing aids for Palestinian children.
They hope to return with seven Palestinians who have visas to study in the United States. If the boats are prevented from reaching Gaza, they plan to stay for 10 days at sea and have prepared publicity events, including the release of 5,000 balloons. Mrs Epstein could still be at sea when she celebrates her 84th birthday on Aug 15. The boats will then return to Cyprus and try again. Their aim is to establish a permanent sea bridge between Cyprus and Gaza.
The Israeli Embassy in Nicosia declined to comment on the story. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Israel was "worried" about the plan, which would see the boats enter a "special security zone" in Gaza's territorial waters that has been declared off-limits to all boats by the Israeli navy. But Israel has few details and is not sure the event will even come off, Haaretz said. Ms Godfrey-Goldstein insists that the mission does not aim to be provocative. "It's an entirely peaceful, non-violent demonstration. The last thing we want is a clash. The Israeli government is putting out misinformation about who we are and what we want," she said in an interview with The National.
The few Israelis planning to sail have been discussing whether they could face prison at home as the Israeli government has banned its citizens from entering Gaza, which it considers "hostile territory", Ms Godfrey-Goldstein said. Mrs Epstein said the activists on the boats hope to do humanitarian work if they reach Gaza, such as helping in schools, hospitals and clinics. Born in Germany, she was eight when Hitler came to power. "My parents decided it was not a place to raise a family." They wanted to leave for any country but Palestine because "they were ardent anti-Zionists", she said.
On May 18, 1939, she left Germany on a "children's transport" for England. "By sending me away to England, my parents literally gave me life for a second time." Her parents perished in Auschwitz in 1942. If she reaches Gaza, Mrs Epstein hopes to work with Palestinian children or work with fishermen "if they'll have me". She said with a smile: "I've caught one fish in my life. Maybe I'll have the chance to catch a second one, or a third or a fourth."