Anticipation rises for Gaza freedom flotilla visit to Irish port of Cobh

Harbour will host solidarity boat after the Titanic town mobilised in support of Palestinian cause

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After the war in Gaza began last October, Palestinian solidarity groups sprang up across the Irish Republic.

Residents in the County Cork port town of Cobh have been at the heart of the cause, organising evening vigils and rallies.

This week, the southern town is preparing to welcome a ship sailing from Norway to Gaza as part of a campaign to raise aid and awareness of the nearly two-decade-long naval blockade on the Palestinian enclave and its effect on children.

With a 15-strong crew on board, the Handala departed from the Norwegian capital of Oslo at the beginning of May and is expected by Irish supporters to arrive on Saturday.

So far, the ship organised by the Freedom Flotilla Coalition has stopped in ports and harbours in Sweden, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. A storm stopped the Handala docking in London at the end of May.

The Handala is currently at sea for the Irish leg of its three-month journey, which will culminate with a final leg to Gaza in July.

Community groups have decided they can’t just sit back and watch what’s happening

Fellipe Lopes, an Irish-Brazilian member of the crew, told The National that the boat had received a “beautiful welcome” from every country they stopped in – especially Germany, where Palestinians, grass roots groups and local politicians welcomed the boat in Bremen. The Handala is not carrying aid but Mr Lopes said that the groups it meets along the way are raising funds and gathering aid.

Irish parallel with Palestine

Until 1921, when Ireland became independent from Britain, Cobh was known as Queenstown and the town’s port remained under the control of the British navy until 1938. It was the last port of call for the doomed Titanic liner before it sailed for America in 1912.

Irish people today see parallels between their own history and the plight of the Palestinian people.

The Irish government last month, alongside Spain and Norway, formally recognised the state of Palestine, with Ireland's Prime Minister Simon Harris saying it was “the only credible path to peace and security for Israel, for Palestine and for their peoples”.

In doing so, he established a parallel with Ireland's struggle for liberty from Britain, which neared its apogee in 1919.

“Our message to the free nations of the world was a plea for international recognition of our independence, emphasising our distinct national identity, our historical struggle and our right to self-determination and justice,” he said.

“Today, we use the same language to support the recognition of Palestine as a state. We do so because we believe in freedom and justice as fundamental principles of international law and because we believe that permanent peace can only be secured upon the basis of the free will of a free people.”

Locals in Cobh (pronounced Cove) have organised monthly evening vigils on the promenade beside the port to highlight their support for the people of Gaza in the wake of Israel's invasion sparked by the surprise Hamas attack of October 7.

“They’re really beautiful,” said Gill Carney, who is part of a team organising several days of events to welcome the Handala and its crew.

There will be live music and a mixture of family-friendly events such as kite flying and speakers including Irish senator Frances Black and comedian Maeve Higgins. The main event in the Sirius Art Centre in Cobh is sold out, said Ms Carney.

As the death toll in Gaza neared 35,000 last month, a large puppet with bloodied hands depicting US President Joe Biden – a proud Irish-American whose family emigrated to the US during the Great Famine in the 1840s – was carried through the 14,000-strong town as part of a march calling for a ceasefire.

“For a small town, it was a big protest and there was a lot of support from surrounding [Palestinian solidarity] groups,” said Ms Carney. “There's a really strong kind of solidarity campaign here. I only joined the group in October, but I know there's a number of activists who have protested previous wars.

“There are all ages and all walks of life involved but [they’re] all very passionate.

“A lot of people are bringing their kids to protests – I think it's something new for a lot of people. The protests are always very safe and they're always very family-friendly. In the Cork [City] rallies every week, there's a family section which tends not to have graphic posters and be more kid-friendly.”

Tom O’Halloran became involved with the Cork Solidarity campaign during the 2014 Gaza war when 2,251 Palestinians and 71 Israelis were killed. Last year, the Irish activist visited the occupied West Bank for the first time, as instances of settler violence dramatically increased. “It was like a pressure cooker,” he said. “I couldn't understand how the Palestinian people were living through that on a daily basis.”

“We were tourists, and we were treated better in their land than they were. We were allowed to use roads they weren’t allowed to use,” said Mr O’Halloran who described how at checkpoints manned by the Israeli military in the West Bank, he and other tourists would be brought to the front of the queue, while Palestinians were left waiting for long periods of time.

During the visit, he went to the West Bank city of Hebron to visit the family of a Palestinian friend in Ireland. He described the haunting experience of visiting theIbrahimi Mosque inthe centre of Hebron, which is controlled by the Israeli military because of the presence of extremist settlers.

Such stories as those told by Mr O’Halloran help to drive the increase in solidarity groups that have spread organically throughout the island since the war began.

“Community groups have got together and decided they can’t just sit back and watch what’s happening.”

He said weekly protests and events like the Handala arriving in Cobh are a good way for “like-minded people” to come together and share “their grief and their anger after seeing images of Gaza week after week.

“People do candlelit vigils, arts and crafts, yoga and music events. We’ve really broadened the meaning of solidarity,” he said.

“There's been a huge awakening across so many different levels and sectors of society. So many community groups have got involved, from healthcare workers to lawyers to psychologists to sports people.

“Whenever there is a ceasefire we just need to maintain the momentum and harness it to help rebuild Gaza after the war.”

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Updated: June 05, 2024, 2:05 PM