From the Editors
[This interview was conducted by Jadaliyya co-editor Noura Erakat. Huwaida Arraf is Chairperson of the Gaza Freedom Movement Coalition and Co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement.]
NE: Let's get some of the basics first—how many passengers were a part of the Freedom Flotilla II? How many ships and how many nations did they represent?
HA: Twenty-two initiatives or national campaigns participated in organizing Freedom Flotilla II – Stay Human. Each of these had hundreds, if not thousands of people who wanted to be on the ships. For the Mavi Marmara alone, we had nearly half a million applications.
We originally expected to have seats for 1000 passengers. Unfortunately in mid-June we learned that the Mavi Marmara would not be ready to sail by our projected launch date, meaning that we lost over half of our seats. On the remaining 10 vessels we would have room for approximately 350 passengers.
Some of the notables who were planning to sail with the flotilla include American poet and Pulitzer Prizewinner Alice Walker, Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell, 87-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, Irish Rugby star (retired) Trevor Hogan, Former Chief of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation Robert Lovelace, several European parliamentarians, and more.
The ships that were ready to sail in Freedom Flotilla II were:
Audacity of Hope – US passenger vessel
Dignité – Al Karama – French passenger vessel
Freedom for All – European Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza cargo vessel
Guernica – Spanish passenger vessel
Juliano – Greek, Norwegian, Swedish passenger vessel
Louise Michel – French passenger vessel
Methimus #2- Greek, Norwegian, Swedish cargo vessel
Saoirse (Freedom) – Irish passenger vessel
Stefano Charini – Dutch / Italian passenger vessel
Tahrir (Liberation) – Canadian passenger vessel
NE: The Freedom Flotilla II was supposed to set sail in late June from the shores of Greece to break the siege on Gaza, a little over a month since Israel's fatal attack on the Flotilla in 2010. Although the international community subjected Israel to solid rebuke for its attack, marked by statements, a call to end the siege, and most notably a spike in BDS activity, by 2011 the siege remained firmly in place and governments were not willing to support another Flotilla describing it as a provocation. What do you think underpinned the international community's meek approach to the Gaza siege and their lackluster support for the Freedom Flotilla II?
HA: Governments didn’t exactly support the Freedom Flotilla last year, but, aside from Cyprus, neither did they take action to foil the flotilla as Greece, the US, and perhaps other countries did this year.
A number of world leaders came out in solid rebuke of Israel for its attack on the flotilla and also criticized the ongoing blockade of Gaza, calling for it to be lifted because our action forced a situation where it would have been politically costly for them not to. I compare it to the US’s initial lack of support for the people’s uprising in Egypt. The US Administration did not like what was happening in Tahrir Square and found itself in a bind. Eventually Obama had to express support for the liberation movement or the US would lose too much in terms of its credibility.
Governments do not support or even like what we do because we disturb the status quo. We force them into situations they would rather not deal with. We put Gaza and Israel’s ongoing crimes in general on the international agenda in a high profile way. And particularly by getting the citizens of these various countries involved, we force the countries to have to engage, if for nothing else than to ensure the protection of their citizens.
In terms of the international community’s meek approach to Israel’s closure of Gaza, it’s pertinent to understand that governments do what is in their own interest, not what is morally correct. What incentive is there for governments to take stronger action on Gaza, especially when it means standing up to Israel and the United States? None that make it worthwhile for these governments to act. Therefore, aside from making general statements about the humanitarian conditions, the community of states has been impotent in the face of Israel’s massive human rights abuses towards the people of Gaza. This is why our actions are important. We aim to make governments have to take action. The high profile nature of the flotilla also aims at educating the masses in order to create outrage and subsequent citizen pressure on governments to act.
Arguably, if the Palestinian Authority would lobby governments to take a stronger position against Israel’s Gaza closure, as they are now lobbying for statehood, the situation would be different. Currently we are seeing governments express their support for Palestinian statehood despite Israel and the United States. Unfortunately, the Palestinian Authority’s neglect of Gaza contributes to the meek approach of other states towards Israel’s blockade of Gaza.
There are no indications that the Palestinian Authority has even asked the European Union to take a position on the closure of Gaza. Were the European Union forced to deal with the question of the Gaza closure, recognizing it as collective punishment, as has been stated by various UN bodies and the International Committee of the Red Cross, and thereby as an international crime, then it would have to deal with Israel as the perpetrator of an international crime. The European Union has thus far avoided this by avoiding the question.
NE: Greek authorities prevented the ship from sailing from its shores and in effect became complicit in the siege on gaza. In her article for Mondoweiss, Charlotte Kates explains that this is a function of its economic crisis, which made it more vulnerable to pressure imposed upon it by Israel and the US. Can you describe what happened, what were you told, and how did the Flotilla passengers respond? Did the pressure come simply from the US and Israel or were other countries eager to see the Flotilla not set sail?
HA: While it’s true that the economic crisis in Greece made it vulnerable to pressure from Israel and the US, we also cannot ignore the fact that there has been a dramatic upgrading of relations between Greece and Israel taking place over the past two years, corresponding to the strain in the historic relationship between Turkey and Israel that began showing during Operation Cast Lead. In July 2010 Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou made a ground-breaking visit to Israel; and in August 2010, Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli Prime Minister to make a state visit to Athens.
Flotilla organizers were certainly aware of this and the fact that Israel was expending a great deal of energy lobbying European governments to stop the flotilla in order to avoid another confrontation with us at sea. While we knew that leaving Greece, or any port, would not be easy, we were counting on popular support for our effort, including support from many European parliamentarians to constitute a counter to Israel’s pressure. At the same time, we believed that as long as we did everything by the book, Greece would not be able to legally stop our boats. They could however, delay us, which is exactly what they did.
The Greek government was very quiet in the lead up to the scheduled launch of the flotilla. They didn’t say anything to us, nor give an indication of what they were planning to do. Our problems began with bogus “anonymous” complaints that were filed against two of our ships – The Audacity of Hope and one of the cargo ships, alleging that our ships were not seaworthy. Then governmental obstacles became noticeable – inspectors going through our ships with a fine toothcomb, port authorities not giving us answers, procedural delays, unreasonable demands being made on us. For the Free Gaza Movement, this was our tenth sailing; and so we knew the drill and we knew that we were being purposely obstructed.
In addition to the administrative delays, the Greek government issued an order banning all ships from leaving Greek ports to head to Gaza. This is devastating, not because of the practical implications (as we don’t have to declare Gaza as the destination of our ships), but rather because it codified Greece’s recognition of an illegal policy and therefore its complicity in an international crime.
NE: In addition to Greece's direct role in preventing the Flotilla to set sail, there were also other incidents of sabotage of the ships themselves. Can you describe these incidents and what you've learned about their cause?
HA: We know of two cases of sabotage that debilitated our boats. There was at least one other case that we suspected might be attempted sabotage, but it was discovered before damage could be done to the vessel.
(1) On Monday June 27, we learned of the sabotage to the MV Juliano, docked in Pireaus, Greece. Captain Theodoros started the engines of the boat to conduct a sea trial. Upon engaging the propellers, one of the engine stopped. At first the captain thought that a rope or something similar had gotten caught in the propeller. When a diver was sent down to check and remove whatever it was, we learned that damage had been done to the propeller shafts. Each of the two propeller shafts appeared as though they had been cut. The gouges were enough to cause the shafts spinning the propeller to bend.
(2) Around the same time in a different port, in a different country (Turkey) damage to the MV Saoirse was detected. On Monday, June 27, the captain, crew and a few passengers had taken the boat out for refueling and a test run. On the way back to port Pat Fitzgerald the ship’s engineer, was in the engine room and noticed that something was very wrong with the boat. He then reported this to the captain Shane Dillon. Upon returning to the dock the first inspections began. The next day crew members hired experts to dive down and inspect the damage closer; upon their return to land they noted that the boat had very serious damage done and that a piece was missing from one of the propeller shafts. The boat was then removed from the water and inspected on dry land where the same deep cuts to the propeller shafts inflicted on the MV Juliano could be clearly seen on one of the MV Saoirse’s propeller shaft. The captain and crew state that they did not hit anything in the water or they would have known. Just to be sure, they sent people to snorkel the area where they had taken the ship. They did not find anything that the ship could have hit.
We can’t prove that Israel is responsible for the sabotage. However, it would be beyond reason to believe that the same damage to two vessels of the flotilla in two different ports, 300 miles from each other, occurring at around the same time, was just coincidence. Also, various experts have given their opinion that the damage inflicted on these vessels was man-made. If the damage was done deliberately, which we believe it was, then it’s not hard to deduce who might have done it? Which entity has openly declared its intentions to use all available means to stop the flotilla? Which entity has the resources and know-how, not to mention a record in carrying out illegal and outrageous operations around the world?
Furthermore, statements from Israeli leaders imply involvement in the sabotage of the MV Juliano and MV Saoirse. Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon, praising the preparatory work of Israel towards the flotilla, said ‘those problems the Flotilla’s having in realizing their plans didn’t just happen. They’re thanks to the work of the political echelon whose focus was on diplomatic political issues, and operational work of the IDF to prepare for every possible eventuality’.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Israeli military sources did not deny the accusations of sabotage against our vessels last year, notably against the Challenger I, Challenger II both of which malfunctioned at the same time and in the same way. On the contrary, as an article in the Independent revealed: “A senior IDF officer hinted to the Knesset’s [Israeli Parliament] Foreign Affairs Committee that some of the vessels – though not the Mavi Marmara – had been tampered with to halt them far from the Gaza or Israeli coast.”
So, while we may never be able to prove it, we are pretty confident that Israel sabotaged our boats. The funny thing is, with all the intelligence at Israel’s disposal, one would think Israeli leaders should know better than to believe that such actions can or will stop us. They end up having the opposite effect. We may not have been able to sail all the ships at the end of June as we had planned, but we’re regrouping our vessels and growing our movement.
NE: The US Boat to Gaza was an additional feature to the Freedom Flotilla. It is especially powerful given the US's intransigent and uncritical support for Israel's colonial and apartheid policies. What do you think this effort signifies in the context of the US-based solidarity movement for peace and justice? Do you think it demonstrate a growing trend in the U.S. that effectively challenges Israel's security narrative?
HA: Undoubtedly there is a growing trend in the US to challenge Israel’s security narrative. The US Boat to Gaza is only the latest example of this trend. When we organized the first International Solidarity Movement (ISM) campaign a decade ago, almost half of the 50 people that joined us from various countries were from the United States. These volunteers answered a call to come to the occupied Palestinian territory to engage in nonviolent direct action against Israeli occupation forces and policies at the height of the second Intifada, when violence was raging, and in the mainstream US media, Palestinians were being blamed for the violence. Since that time, hundreds of Americans from across the US have joined the ISM. After having our offices raided a couple of times by the Israeli Army and our files confiscated, the ISM stopped keeping record of our volunteers. We estimate that over the past 10 years, over 7500 volunteers from over 30 countries have joined us; perhaps one-fourth to one-third of these volunteers are from the US. Even after the Israeli military injured and killed international activists, with some of the most seriously injured being US citizens, volunteers continued to come work with us. After a few weeks, or in some cases, months, these volunteers would return to the US and engage in education, media work and advocacy on Palestinian human rights. Many of these activists are now at the forefront of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) efforts against Israeli colonialism and apartheid in the US and across the globe.
In terms of Freedom Flotilla II, it was a strategic decision by the Free Gaza Movement to encourage nationally organized boats. Doing so would bring our international effort closer to home, increasing the involvement and interest of people around the world in our effort, ultimately strengthening our media and political effect. The US Boat to Gaza organized one of the strongest national campaigns, involving people across the country in fundraising for and readying the “Audacity of Hope” to sail to Gaza. College students organized pot luck fundraisers, New York cab drivers donated their tip money, and children gave their allowances to the effort; hundreds applied to be passengers on this ship and over 3000 wrote letters for the boat to deliver to the people of Gaza. All of this despite the fact that Israeli violently attacked Freedom Flotilla I, killing nine of our colleagues, and our boats did not make it to Gaza. People recognize our effort as not being about delivering humanitarian aid but rather about the human rights and dignity of the Palestinian people.
NE: Some of the most ardent supporters of the first Flotilla have claimed that the second Flotilla is not effective because it repeats a tired "tactic" and while they would support other efforts to break the siege, they do not see value in continuing the effort to break the siege by sea? How would you respond to that-is there value to continuing to try to break the siege by sea in the form of an international flotilla? Are you planning for a Freedom Flotilla III?
HA: I would love to stop sailing!
It’s important to recognize that the flotilla is just a “tactic” – one of many that Palestinians and international solidarity activists are using in the freedom struggle. At some point, this tactic might indeed become ineffective, though I don’t believe this is the case yet. As with all nonviolent direct action, the goal of the flotilla is to confront and challenge an unjust policy. We set it up so that no matter what Israel does, it loses. Either Israel uses underhanded and violent tactics to confront civilian ships carrying peace activists and humanitarian aid, thereby exposing its policy as not being about security; or it chooses to do nothing, allowing the flotilla to reach Gaza. Either way, the blockade is delegitimized.
Despite most of the ships being unable to leave Greek ports, Freedom Flotilla II succeeded in achieving the above. Israeli leaders showed their willingness to use intimidation, lies, economic blackmail, threats of violence, and sabotage to stop boats that Israel’s own military officials admitted would not be carrying weapons. This highlighted the malicious and absurd nature of Israel’s policy towards Gaza.
Furthermore, the decentralized nature of, and large-scale involvement of people in this effort ensures that its effect extends far beyond the direct-action phase to outreach, education, advocacy, and more action. The preparation of the sail involved tens of thousands of people participating in various global events to raise money for the ships and cargo for Gaza (e.g. Run for Gaza Marathon in Spain; Skydive for Gaza in Ireland, as well as hundreds of lectures, concerts and other events); Local, national, and international networks have been created to organize and provide support for the flotillas; during and following the action; Hundreds of passengers spend time speaking, writing and engaging in other media, education, and advocacy work, including high profile individuals like Alice Walker, who can help us reach different audiences. And all of the above, combined with Israel’s outrageous actions directed at us, provides fuel for the global BDS movement.
Will there be a Freedom Flotilla III? Most likely; or at least a Freedom Flotilla 2.1. We are currently working on getting our boats out of Greece and regrouping to strategize next steps. Whatever those steps, one thing is clear: as long as Israel continues its occupation, colonization, and violent repression of Palestinians and governments are silent about it, Palestinians and the global solidarity movement will mobilize to challenge it directly.
Israel is running out of options and we’re only getting stronger.
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