Freedom Flotilla: From the other side

Originally posted as an author guest post at

On Sunday evening, May 30th, at 10.30pm, I was in bed reading. In bed with me was my mobile phone; it had taken me several days to understand how Twitter worked and set it up so I could receive FreeGaza flotilla updates, but I’d finally achieved it. Earlier in the day I’d spoken at a Transition Town event locally, taking advantage of a crowd to ask for people to do the same, to go online that night and witness the journey of the Freedom Flotilla, with a particular concern for 8am Monday morning when the boats would reach Gaza waters. When the Israeli navy had rammed and stolen FreeGaza boats in the past, it had waited until Gaza waters, daily occupied by its gunboats which weekly kill, injure and kidnap Gaza fishermen.

So as the twitter texts had several times announced good progress in international waters that evening, I thought that perhaps we would all get some sleep tonight, even the people on the flotilla. When I journeyed on FreeGaza missions one and four, two of the five trips that successfully reached Gaza, I’d managed to doze a little myself – they may have been two of the most exciting nights of my life, but by the time we made it onto our beautiful boats, after the weeks, months, years of work, we were knackered!

On FreeGaza’s first trip in August 2008, I was one of the nonviolence trainers. It was a job which also involved vetting of participants. We were all excited and full of hope. Yet I had to help everyone figure out if they were ready for what might come. Many of us had faced Israeli violence in the past – some of us carried the injuries to prove it – but not all of us. Without scaring anyone unreasonably, I had to make sure everyone faced the possibility we may be facing our deaths in only a few days’ time. I remember when the reality of the whole thing hit Irish Derek.

“Wait on. You mean… if Israel tells you to turn around, you’re not going to turn around?” he said. “But… you people… you’re all mad, so you are!” Through the rest of that day’s training, he kept pointing this out, apparently stuck in disbelief. So later on I took him aside, acknowledged that this wasn’t everyone’s idea of fun, and reminded him the land team greatly needed more people; he’d be just as vital there (a bit of a white lie since he knew more about boats than almost all the rest of us put together.)

Were we all mad? Well, it depends on your viewpoint. International law is a reasonably sensible thing; upholding it seems to me similarly reasonable – though I would agree it’s mad that it’s left up to a bunch of self-funded citizens donating their holidays to do it. Many journalists, scrabbling round for someone to provide another narrative of events to the one Israel was pushing while very tactically keeping my flotilla friends out of contact of media as well as family and lawyers, asked me “what do all you people have in common?” That made me laugh, and I didn’t have to think twice about the answer. “That we’re all just like anyone else! Most people, if they saw a child in front of an oncoming car, would step in without a second thought. It’s the same instinct. Gaza’s population is 50% children.”

But anyway, there I was, that Sunday night, on the other side of the story. Back home from Gaza last year to study midwifery. Trying to think longterm, trying not to consider throwing it all in and attempting to blag a place on one of the boats. Receiving, at about 10.30pm, a flurry of texts that Israeli gunships had just appeared on the scene. Worrying that maybe, since we seem to let Israel get away with anything, they weren’t going to respect international waters, that maybe their presence meant they planned to attack in the dark. Thinking in turn of Alex, Ewa, Osama,Theresa, and all the others I hold dear. Sleeping fitfully between twitter texts, each saying gunships were following but progress continued. Until, just minutes after the last reassuring message, another followed: “2 dead, 30 injured.”

I leapt out of bed, grabbed the laptop with shaking hands, and watched the livestream satellite footage Israel had tried, and failed, to block, as it happened. Listened to the gunshots, watched the wounded being carried below deck. Knew, from my personal experience, that the Israeli forces would likely not allow them to be rescued, that there would be unnecessary deaths.

But then, they were all unnecessary deaths, weren’t they? All nine – or is it more, since last I heard, some people from the Mavi Marmara seemed to still be missing, and the numbers still under guard in Israeli hospital were not clear. Israeli gunships had travelled about 70 miles away from Israel to attack 6 boats that weren’t going anywhere near Israeli waters; that were going, as they had gone in the past, direct to Gaza waters. To Gaza, which Israel says it not longer occupies. Boats that had been certified as free of anything other than aid at every port they’d left. Checked by authorities in countries such as Greece and Turkey, that Israel shares military manoeuvres with.

Anyway, back to Derek. If you’ve been following the story of the Free Gaza Movement, you’ll know that he not only was the first mate on that first trip, when our boats were the first international ones to reach Gaza in 41 years, but also on trips 2-5 that successfully reached Gaza, as well as of trips 6-8 that didn’t. They simply couldn’t have happened without the skill, charm, and humour of both of himself and his partner Jenny. So by the time of the 2010 flotilla, he’d already lost an aid cargo once to Israeli hands when they stole the Free Gaza boat Spirit of Humanity – cargo that funnily enough never was delivered by Israel to Gaza.

And if you were watching the flotilla news, you also know that electrician Derek, and hotel manager Jenny, were on the bravest mission of all that week. They were on the Rachel Corrie, the Irish cargo boat named for the American activist killed by Israel, whose purchase they’d masterminded, whose cargo of cement and schoolbooks they’d got together along with Irish, British and Malaysian people. The Rachel Corrie, who was delayed by “engine trouble” – perhaps the sabotage Israeli representatives have virtually acknowledged – and who therefore set off alone to Gaza, with her crew knowing that at least 9 people who had followed the same course only days before were dead. This crew included Nobel Peace Prize Winner Mairead Maguire and former UN Assistant Secretary General Denis Halliday.

Vik and Eva in Gaza, who shared the Sunday night vigil with me via text messages, told us later that people in Gaza could actually see the Rachel Corrie on the horizon, before the Israeli navy boarded her on June 5th.

She almost made it.

I want the Flotilla attack to be a turning point in public awareness, in international political action. Within the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions movement, it already has been. Today the word online is that Israel has announced it will “ease” the blockade restrictions. Yet since what is needed is an absolute end to the siege of Gaza itself, I am wary this may be a token response to international pressure, and hope the international community will not be fooled if so. And if this is, finally, a real turning point, a part of me will always be angry that the deaths of nine brave Turkish folks (one a US citizen also) got the world’s attention more successfully than the deaths of 1,400 Gazans beneath the bombs of Israel’s 22-day Operation Cast Lead.

In July, a predominantly Jewish-organised aid boat – or maybe two, since the first is now oversubscribed – will be sailing to Gaza. When Israel began killing and injuring international volunteers like myself in the West Bank in 2002, they might have reasonably supposed it would discourage volunteers. But it didn’t – their numbers increased. Aid boats will continue to head to Gaza. Until the siege ends; until Palestine is free. Until the end of the Occupation brings peace to Palestinians and Israelis alike.

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