THE Israeli massacre of nine activists on the Freedom Flotilla could in time to be a game-changer with regard to the siege of Gaza. International attention has focused on the humanitarian crisis there and on the sheer brutality of Israel’s enforcement of the blockade.
There was widespread dismay at Israel’s response to the global outcry that followed the killings on the MV Mavi Marmara. Instead of lifting the illegal siege, the Israeli authorities engaged in a PR exercise that will do little to resolve the humanitarian crisis they have created. The so-called “easing” of the land blockade in reality leaves the siege fully in place with both the port and airport still closed and the local economy in tatters. Exports and raw materials remain banned or restricted as 80% of Gazans live below the poverty line.
It was in response to this crisis that the Freedom Flotilla set sail in late May. Those who participated felt strongly that direct action was required because the three-year-old siege of Gaza was scarcely registering with the international community — the illegal collective punishment of 1.4 million people in a short-sighted strategy to undermine Hamas had almost become normalised. The purpose of the blockade was to destroy Hamas through the immiseration of the entire civilian population, a tactic that is contrary to international law and in violation of basic human rights.
Although active on Palestinian issues for many years, it was the Israeli assault on Gaza in December 2008 to January 2009 that made Palestine a central issue for me. In the course of a few weeks, the Israeli military slaughtered 1,400 people.
The purpose of the Freedom Flotilla was two-fold — to bring aid to Gaza and break the blockade to accelerate the ending of the siege. This was a political and practical act of solidarity with the Palestinian people.
This, of course, wasn’t the first attempt to breach the maritime blockade. But the difference this time was that various other NGOs had joined together with Free Gaza to assemble an impressive fleet of large vessels. Six ships participated in the flotilla, comprising three cargo boats and three passenger ships. A seventh ship, MV Rachel Corrie, was delayed by technical difficulties and went in later.
Along with two other Irish — Fiachra Ó Luain and Shane Dillon — I set off from Crete on the Free Gaza boat Challenger 1 on Thursday, May 27. It was the smallest boat in the fleet with just 17 people on board. We sailed to join the main flotilla on the Saturday, eventually arriving at the rendezvous point in the middle of east Mediterranean at 2am on Sunday. To make it easier for us to locate the ships in the dark, the captain of the Mavi Marmara turned on all his lights.
At daylight, we awoke to see the flotilla stretched across the horizon around us and we were elated. It was amazing to think that the large ships around us — and the cargo on board — were the result of grassroots activism and the hard work of thousands of voluntary activists and supporters.
We knew, of course, that the Israelis would intervene at some stage, but there were mixed views as to what would happen. Some felt that they would board and search before allowing the ships through, while others expected them to stop the flotilla with a naval blockade just outside Gazan waters. Indeed, there was always a measure of hope that we would make it to Gaza.
We were aware of an Israeli naval presence around the flotilla for some hours before the assault but when it happened, it was without warning. We couldn’t see the Israeli boats but we knew they were out there circling us like hyenas in the dark. The larger ships appeared on our radars and lights were occasionally seen in the distance.
When the Israeli zodiacs (small assault boats) moved in at high speed after 4am on May 31, they attacked Challenger 1 as if they were confronting terrorists. We were still 70 to 80 miles out in international waters. A stun grenade was thrown towards me as I went to shut the door to the back deck; nonetheless, I got the door closed and we piled up some furniture to slow them down. We non-violently impeded their boarding party to allow journalists on board time to conceal photographs or footage they’d taken, but were soon overwhelmed by more than 20 heavily armed commandos.
The only violence used was that deployed by the commandos. They tasered an Australian photojournalist and shot a young woman in the face with a plastic bullet. They badly hurt a Palestinian activist. I was stomped on and had a gun pointed into my face by an agitated commando, shouting that he was going to shoot me. They also confiscated all our phones and cameras and none of these have been returned.
They were clearly under orders to take control of the flotilla as quickly as possible with as much force as necessary. I was shocked but not surprised when I heard later about the deaths on the Turkish ship — it was clear to me that if the aggressive storming of our boat was replicated on a ship with hundreds of passengers, then inevitably innocent people would die.
The attack on the Freedom Flotilla was an outrage and a tragedy, but it is important that the deaths of the nine activists not be in vain. The Free Gaza Movement and our partners are currently organising another flotilla — we are determined to continue until the siege of Gaza is fully lifted.
Moreover, we are asking the Irish Government to push for EU sanctions against Israel to force it to finally recognise the Palestinian right to self-determination. At the very least, the EU’s preferential trade arrangement with Israel — the Euro-Med Agreement — should be suspended or annulled.