Freedom Sailors is a first-hand account of the first successful attempt to break the Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip by sailing two boats into Gaza City, a port that had been closed to international ship traffic since Israel initiated the 1967 war.
With contributions from 24 persons who either took part in the sailing or helped organize it, the book takes us from the initial inception of the idea through the drama of organizing the voyage while keeping the details secret from Israel’s prying eyes to the final jubilant welcome by tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza on 23 August 2008.
Freedom Sailors offers an often-riveting narrative and gives important information about the inhumane consequences of Israel’s siege. But this book may ultimately be valued simply for documenting the fact that a group of ordinary people came up with an extraordinary idea that succeeded in calling world attention to the plight of Gaza’s 1.6 million people.
Knowing what we know now, it was also an extremely dangerous idea. Subsequent attempts to break the blockade by sea resulted in boats being rammed and taken into custody by the Israeli Navy, their passengers and crew imprisoned and then deported. And then came the killing on 31 May 2010 of nine Turkish citizens on board the Mavi Marmara, including the point-blank, execution-style slaying of Furkan Dogan, a 19-year-old Turkish-American student who apparently committed the grave crime of pointing a video camera at an Israeli commando.
Historic precedent of solidarity
Many of the 44 international activists who took part in the voyages of the boats Free Gaza and Liberty were self-described “idealists” but not necessarily naifs. Among them were veterans of the International Solidarity Movement who had been shot at or injured by Israeli occupation forces during protests in the occupied territories.
Most were aware that in February 1988, during the first intifada, Palestinians attempted a similar symbolic protest by planning to sail a “right of return” ship to Israel carrying more than a hundred refugees. Three Palestine Liberation Organization officials involved in organizing the return ship were assassinated by a car-bomb in Limassol, Cyprus, where the ship was docked. The same day the ship’s engine was destroyed by a bomb. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir had denounced the planned sailing as “a declaration of war.”
As co-editor Greta Berlin writes in the preface, “Before we sailed, one of our coordinators told us: ‘If you aren’t willing to face attack, injury, imprisonment or death, don’t get on the boat.’ Everyone got on the boats.”
Activists painted as “radicals”
The Israeli media attempted to paint the activists as “left-wing radicals,” which co-editor Bill Dienst finds laughable. Among the participants were an oil company consultant, a member of the Writer’s Guild, a retired film producer, a Catholic nun, a rural physician, civil engineers, attorneys, teachers, information technology specialists, postal workers and a few journalists who accompanied the boats on assignment.
One of the journalists was Lauren Booth, sister-in-law of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Her presence and that of a Greek member of parliament may have factored into the Israeli government’s decision not to attack the boats or prevent their entry into Gaza. More likely, however, is an explanation offered by Israeli media, which reported that Israeli officials decided on trying to deprive them of publicity by not intercepting them, as Freedom Sailors points out.
The book describes the internal conflicts and disagreements among the activists as they prepared to set sail, but notes how all that dissolved upon their arrival — they were received by 40,000 people streaming to the beach, fishing boats sailing out to greet them, hundreds of youth swimming out and clambering aboard, nearly swamping the boats. Gamaal Al-Attar, a Gazan resident, recalls his reaction the day the boats arrived: “It is the day everyone in Gaza has been waiting for a long time; a day we will feel like there are some people in the world who care for our suffering. A day we will feel that we belong to the human race, and that our brothers and sisters in humanity care for our daily struggles.”
The activists are accorded a hero’s welcome and are made Palestinian citizens. Jeff Halper, co-founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, quips: “I now am a Palestinian in every sense of the word: On Monday, I received my Palestinian citizenship, and on Tuesday I was already in an Israeli jail.” Halper was arrested immediately on his return to Israel.
Many of the activists were ill-prepared for their arrival, never anticipating that they would actually get through. Some, like Booth, took advantage of an opportunity to become more familiar with conditions in Gaza. In her contribution, Booth concludes that comparing Gaza to an open-air prison is off the mark since inmates in British prisons are afforded “access visits from family members, three square meals a day, rehabilitation and education programs, good sanitary conditions,” all benefits that most Palestinians in Gaza are denied by the ongoing Israeli occupation.
More voyages planned
Free Gaza and Liberty were the first two boats to break the Israeli siege. After their departure, another boat, Dignity, made four successful voyages from October to December 2008. Then came Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli massacre that killed approximately 1,400 Palestinians, including more than 350 children. During that attack the Israeli Navy rammed the Dignity three times while it was in international waters, severely damaging it.
But despite this and the attack on the Mavi Marmara, the international solidarity movement has not abandoned its hopes of breaking the blockade. More voyages are planned, and another innovative initiative, Gaza’s Ark, intends to build a ship within Gaza and set sail from there, carrying export products to European markets.
As the late Italian activist and freedom sailor Vittorio Arrigoni puts it in his entry, “History is us / History is not cowardly governments / with their loyalty to whoever has the strongest military / History is made by ordinary people.”
Rod Such is a freelance writer and former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He is a member of Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights and was active with the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign.