Hamas prepares welcome for activists

Fatah, other factions are being frozen out of the celebrations.

Fisherman 311 (photo credit: Ashley Bates)
Fisherman 311
(photo credit: Ashley Bates)
GAZA CITY – Fisherman Jamal Abu Watfa looked out to sea as the sun set on the Gaza City harbor on Thursday. He raised his chin as he imagined the flotilla carrying over 700 Western activists trying to outmaneuver Israel Navy ships seeking to force the vessels to turn back or to dock in Israel.
“We will give those heroic foreigners a beautiful, respectful welcoming,” the fisherman said, beaming.
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In Watfa’s shirt pocket was a letter from the Hamas Ministry of Transportation inviting him to bid for work towing the flotilla’s humanitarian supplies into the harbor. However, Watfa and his fellow fishermen decided not to submit bids. “We want to help welcome the foreigners in a unified way, even if this means no wages at all,” he said.
Watfa’s letter from the ministry was part of the Hamas government’s carefully controlled efforts to prepare for the activists’ arrival. Even though Israel has vowed not to let the ships through, senior Hamas official Salah al-Bardaweel said experience had taught Hamas that it should organize the receiving effort. These experiences include the arrival of five smaller blockade-busting fleets in 2008 as well as the arrival of about 90 “Gaza Freedom March” activists by land via Egypt in January.
Earlier this week, the Hamas naval police organized a training drill to prepare for emergency scenarios, such as boat collisions and water rescues. Khaleel Hamada, press officer for the Hamas Governmental Committee for Breaking the Siege and Receiving Delegations, emphasized that this was not a military preparedness exercise. “There will not be a single pistol or weapon [in the police boats that escort the flotilla],” he said. “The activists do not want a quarrel with the Israeli navy.”
The harbor has undergone a marked facelift in recent weeks. Its entrance has been deepened and widened, a large canopy tent has been erected, and a line of hanging electric lights has been installed along the sandy half-kilometer walkway – in case the activists arrive at night.
Hamada predicted that the ships would arrive on Saturday evening or Sunday morning, but he was hoping for the latter.
“God willing, they’ll arrive in the morning, because that’s what we’ve prepared for,” he said. “There will be a beautiful view for pictures. We want to get out the story about the humanitarian needs here.”
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They didn’t give us the opportunity to share in the preparation'

The Hamas government has distributed invitations to about 500 people who will be permitted to enter the closed-off port area and join in the welcoming celebrations. Hamada said that these invitations were given to representatives from all Palestinian factions, including Fatah, as well as to leaders of Gaza’s Christian minority.
However, Fatah parliamentarian Feisal Abu Shahla said that his party, which lost control of Gaza after a quick, brutal civil war in June 2007, had not been included in the coordination efforts. He was also unaware of any formal invitations given to high-ranking Fatah members to join in the celebrations.
“They didn’t give us the opportunity to share in the preparation, and I feel sorry for that,” Abu Shahla said. “We want unity, new elections, and to get the democratic life back. But we are welcoming these foreigners. We know they are not looking for a political tag. They are against the siege and they know [the Palestinian people] are suffering... We especially appreciate the courage of the Israeli citizens who come on the flotillas.”
Leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which is helping Hamas prepare for the vessels’ arrival, both said they would welcome and protect any Israeli citizens on the ships. “This is a human issue,” Bardaweel said. “We want to show the horrific humanitarian issues in Gaza caused by the Israeli government. We don’t look at our struggle as a religious struggle, but as a political struggle... Hamas is strong in Gaza and we’ll make sure [the Israeli activists] are safe.”
Hamada estimated that the government would permit only 20 civilianboats carrying about 100 people to greet the activists at sea, becauseof safety concerns. These boats will be accompanied by unarmed Hamasnaval police. Journalists who wish to ride the civilian boats haveregistered at Hamas’s Ministry of Information and received specialpress cards with a picture of a Palestinian flag waving over the opensea.
More governmental organizations are responsible for protecting theforeigners upon their arrival, finding them places to sleep inbeachfront hotels, and coordinating the unloading and distribution ofthe humanitarian cargo. Some Gazans complain that Hamas-affiliatedcharities have received disproportionate amounts of such aid in thepast. Bardaweel insisted that “the aid comes to everyone in society –not just Hamas. The wheelchairs are for everyone. The medical suppliesare for everyone.”
Some Gazan community organizations and political parties are makingtheir own plans. Jameel Mezher is a leader of the Popular Front for theLiberation of Palestine, a leftist party that distributed leaflets lastmonth calling for uprisings against new taxes imposed by Hamas. Mezherinsisted that his members would enter the welcoming celebration with orwithout invitations.
“We will force ourselves upon the boat welcoming event,” he said.“Hamas cannot stop us from coming. These boats are coming to supportthe Palestinian people themselves, not to support Hamas.”