Will the Freedom Flotilla Sail to Gaza?

Yves here. “Freedom flotilla” seems both a bit generic and neoliberal for an urgent sea-borne mission to bring food and supplies to starving people in Gaza. The anodyne name is even more striking when you read below the real physical risks the member of the relief team are taking. Ray McGovern, who participated in a stymied 2011 mission, recounted long form on one of his many YouTubes (this one I think was with Nima) on how the Greek government found repeated lame excuses for barring the ship from leaving port, the last being it was unfit to travel because one of its air conditioners was malfunctioning. When the captain defied the edict and tried leaving (I presume at high) it was quickly pursued and surrounded, with the officials saying they would board it if its crew did not return to port. The captain relented, concerned not just for the ship but also the crew and passengers, since (as the history below shows), previous relief efforts have resulted in Israeli forces killing people on board.

By Medea Benjamin, the cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and the author of several books, including Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran

Photo credit: Medea Benjamin

The non-violence training to join the Freedom Flotilla Coalition’s ships to Gaza has been intense. As hundreds of us from 32 countries gathered in Istanbul, we were briefed about what we might encounter on this voyage. “We have to be ready for every possibility,” our trainers insisted.

The best scenario, they said, is that our three ships–one carrying 5,500 tons of humanitarian aid and two carrying the passengers–will reach Gaza and accomplish our mission. Another scenario would be that the Turkish government might cave to pressure from Israel, the United States and Germany, and prevent the boats from even leaving Istanbul. This happened in 2011, when the Greek government buckled under pressure and ten boats were stalled in Greece. With our boats docked in Istanbul today, we fear that Turkish President Erdogan, who recently suffered a crushing blow in local elections, is vulnerable to any economic blackmail the Western powers might be threatening.

Another possibility is that the ships take off but the Israelis illegally hijack us in international waters, confiscate our boats and supplies, arrest and imprison us, and eventually deport us.

This happened on several other voyages to Gaza, one of them with deadly consequences. In 2010, a flotilla of six boats was stopped by the Israeli military in international waters. They boarded the biggest boat, the Mavi Marmara. According to a UN report, the Israelis opened fire with live rounds from a helicopter hovering above the ship and from commando boats along the side of the ship. In a horrific display of force, nine passengers were killed, and one more later succumbed to his wounds.

To try to prevent another nightmare like that, potential passengers on this flotilla have to undergo rigorous training. We watched a video of what we might face—from extremely potent tear gas to ear-splitting concussion grenades—and we were told that the Israeli commandos will be armed with weapons with live rounds. Then we divided up into small groups to discuss how best to react, non-violently, to such an attack. Do we sit, stand, or lie down? Do we link arms? Do we put our hands up in the air to show we are unarmed?

The most frightening part of the training was a simulation replete with deafening booms of gunfire and exploding percussion grenades and masked soldiers screaming at us, hitting us with simulated rifles, dragging us across the floor, and arresting us. It was indeed sobering to get a glimpse of what might await us. Equally sobering are Israeli media reports indicating that the Israeli military has begun “security preparations,” including preparations for taking over the flotilla.

That’s why everyone who has signed up for this mission deserves tremendous credit. The largest group of passengers are from Turkey, and many are affiliated with the humanitarian group, IHH, an enormous Turkish NGO with 82 offices throughout the country. It has consultative status at the UN and does charity work in 115 countries. Through IHH, millions of supporters donated money to buy and stock the ships. Israel, however, has designated this very respected charity as a terrorist group.

The next largest group comes from Malaysia, some of them affiliated with another very large humanitarian group called MyCARE. MyCARE, known for helping out in emergency situations such as floods and other natural disasters, has contributed millions of dollars in emergency aid to Gaza over the years.

From the U.S., there are about 35 participants. Leading the group, and key to the international coalition, is 77-year-old retired U.S. Army colonel and State Department diplomat Ann Wright. After quitting the State Department in protest over the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Wright has put her diplomatic skills to good use in helping to pull together a motley group of internationals. Her co-organizer from the U.S. is Huwaida Arraf, a Palestinian American attorney who is a co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement and who ran for congress in 2022. Arraf was key to organizing the very first flotillas that started in 2008. So far, there have been about 15 attempts to get to Gaza by boat, only five of them successful.

The incredible breadth of participants is evident in our nightly meetings, where you can hear clusters of groups chatting away in Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, Malay, French, Italian, and English in diverse accents from Australian to Welsh. The ages range from students in their 20s to an 86-year-old Argentine medical doctor.

What brings us together is our outrage that the world community is allowing this genocide in Gaza to happen, and a burning desire to do more than we have been doing to stop people from being murdered, maimed and starved. The aid we are bringing is enormous–it is the equivalent of over 100 trucks—but that is not the only purpose of this trip. “This is an aid mission to bring food to hungry people,” said Huwaida Arraf, “but Palestinians do not want to live on charity. So we are also challenging Israeli policies that make them dependent on aid. We are trying to break the siege.”

Israel’s vicious attacks on the people of Gaza, its blocking of aid deliveries and its targeting of relief organizations have fueled a massive humanitarian crisis. 
The killing of seven World Central Kitchen workers by Israeli forces on April 1 highlighted the dangerous environment in which relief agencies operate, which has forced many of them to shut down their operations.

The U.S. government is building a temporary port for aid that is supposed to be finished in early May, but this is the same government that provides weapons and diplomatic cover for the Israelis. And while President Biden expresses concern for the suffering Palestinians, he has suspended aid to UNRWA, the main UN agency responsible for helping them, after Israel made unsubstantiated claims that 12 of its 13,000 employees in Gaza participated in the October 7 attacks.

Given the urgency and danger this moment presents, the Freedom Flotilla Coalition is entering rough and uncharted waters. We are calling on countries around the world to pressure Israel to allow us “free and safe passage” to Gaza. In the U.S., we are asking for help from our Congress, but having just approved another $26 billion to Israel, it is doubtful that we can count on their support.

And even if our governments did pressure Israel, would Israel pay attention? Their defiance of international law and world opinion during the past seven months indicates otherwise. But still, we will push forward. The people of Gaza are the wind in our sails. Freedom for Palestine is our North Star. We are determined to reach Gaza with food, medicines and, most of all, our solidarity and love.

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  1. Alan Sutton

    Thank you Yves.

    That is inspiring and impressive.

    Recently a little group of us here in my little town in South East NSW made a “Free Palestine” banner and hung it on the bridge across the river at the entrance to town.

    This was at 4am on a Saturday so the weekly Saturday market customers and stall holders would see it. We thought we were doing some sort of admirable guerilla activity, which we were I think.

    But, funding and filling a ship with food and getting on it and sailing to Gaza is amazing.

    Given the MSM cover for genocidal actions and Israel’s murderous determination it is highly likely that all these admirable people will be attacked, sunk and killed.

    I am full of admiration.

  2. JohnA

    One issue that I think former British diplomat Craig Murray raised, namely the flag under which the vessels would sail. The previous flotilla changed flag from a European flag to some tiny country that had no weight in international affairs. Accordingly the Israelis were able to attack the boats, kill several people, and block the aid, with impunity.
    Were the same scenario play out this time, it would likely end with similar results. And Israel is given ironclad protection for all its actions, however heinous, by Biden.

    1. Emma

      As we’ve seen with USS Liberty, even being an American warship offers no protection from the US government against the Israelis. Have to disagree with Murray on this – where the ships are flagged is irrelevant. It’ll either get through because the events are overtaking Zionist grip on the matter (though ideally they could have somehow gotten Erdogan’s military protection, which would go some ways to restore his credibility as a leader in the Muslim world) or it won’t. But if the boats get close enough to Israel to engage wit the Israelis, it will be a win for focusing attention on Gaza and Israel no matter whether they dock.

  3. Joker

    Whoever came up with name “freedom flotilla”, should be sent to Gaza, and just left there. I expect this seafaring endeavour to do even worse than “prosperity guardian”.

  4. Es s Ce Tera

    This is a lot of people across only three boats. They’re making it too easy for the IOF, could they at least make things more difficult? Maybe retrofit the boats to make it difficult for commandos to rappel? I imagine they’re probably making do with what they have, but that’s the problem.

  5. The Rev Kev

    I fear for the lives of those people. The Israelis will attack them and then claim impunity because of the blank check that old Joe gave them. They don’t care what the international community will think because they know that they will always have cover from the US. And if there is an attack, the US will stop it from going to the UN Security Council like they did the Israeli attack on the Iranian Consulate.

    1. Feral Finster

      Exactly. Israel could not care less about optics, as long as it can rely on naked terror, applied by its American thug.

    2. Emma

      I do too. And I wish that it was someone famous famous like Roger Waters or John Cusack on the boat, rather than Medea Benjamin. Over half of official Washington is probably cheering for her death or incapacitation, unfortunately.

  6. Kouros

    I hope they have installed a lot of hidden cameras feeding directly on the cloud, on their ships, so that any Israeli trespassing would be properly recorded and broadcasted.

    Also, by the laws of war, Israel could claim all kinds of things, being its “purveiw” to look over the Gazan littoral…

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