Freedom Flotillas Will Sail Until Blockade of Gaza Is Lifted

The French-flagged ship, Dignité – al Karama, was halted by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) en route to the shores of Gaza on July 19. The small vessel was boarded and reportedly towed to the Israeli port of Ashdod. There were 16 people on the boat, with French, Greek, Tunisian, Canadian, and Swedish passengers among them. As coalition organizers stated, “It is now the representative of the entire Freedom Flotilla II.”

The ten passengers, three crew, and three journalists, including the respected Israeli journalist, Amira Hass, Greek coalition representative Vangelis Pissias, al-Jazeera television, and a French member of parliament, were in frequent contact with land teams until being cut off by Israeli forces.

The boat was stopped while still in international waters and before entering Gazan waters (let alone Israeli waters, which the flotilla has never planned to enter).

It became the sole representative of the flotilla to escape the clutches of the Greek coast guard when it was able to depart from the island of Kastelorizo late Saturday and head towards Port Said, Egypt on Monday.

The ship did not dock in Egypt (for fear of being trapped by yet another government bowing to U.S.-Israeli pressure), but rather anchored in international waters off the Egyptian coast overnight – precluding the threat of another predawn raid like the IDF pulled last year – to set sail in the morning for Gaza.

Before embarking on their final Tuesday morning run, the activists had previously sent messages from the Mediterranean exclaiming, “Morale here is like the sky and sea, very good …. Gaza, off we go, stay connected!!!”

As Israeli deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon announced Monday, “If this boat is on its way to Gaza, which is a breach of international maritime law (sic!), and tries a provocative act — yes, we shall intercept it… But I assure you we shall try our best to make those on board very comfortable.” Clearly, the Israeli government is still smarting from the public relations drubbing Tel Aviv suffered last year in the wake of its state murder of 9 flotilla passengers. Yet so incongruous was the promise to be gentle that it was difficult not to read it more as some sort of ironic threat. When a mafia don offers you tea and biscotti, do you relax?

The Dignité set off around 6 AM local time this morning. The French-flagged vessel would have been due to touch down on the sandy beaches of the Gaza strip around noon.

First contact by the IDF was made while the small craft was still some 50 miles out. Organizers lost contact with the boat at 10:10 AM, as the IDF began jamming the boat’s communications systems, while it was in international waters, north of Arish, Egypt. The boat was reportedly some 40 miles from Gaza and surrounded by four Israeli naval warships when communication was cut. The French vessel then received direct contact from Israeli forces initiated around 10:30 AM.

The Israeli naval tracking of the ship and initial radio encounter – in which the Dignité can be heard declaring their unwavering intention to sail to Gaza – was recorded by the IDF.

Israeli naval authorities claim the boarding of the ship by Israeli commandos, known as the Shayetet 13, occurred when the Dignité was some 12 nautical miles off the coast of Gaza. Initial reports have thankfully not indicated abusive treatment thus far of the nonviolent activists.

Israeli authorities asserted that the area off the shores of Gaza was under “a maritime security blockade.” The leading Israeli establishment news site, YNet, reports that the Israeli government considers the Dignité members to be “effectively entering Israel illegally.” Anyone who can contemplate how it is possible to illegally enter Israel for attempting entry into Gaza while also believing that Israel does not occupy Gaza is indeed a skillful practitioner of the Orwellian arts of double-think.

The Israeli commandos demanded to know if the boat full of peace activists was armed, maintaining the necessary ruse with presumably straight faces and appropriate earnestness. Doubtless the small pleasure craft was a grave security threat to the mighty warships flanking it.

In another IDF recording, commandoes can be seen boarding the ship from Zodiac boats. One must appreciate a power so smugly out of touch that it obligingly posts footage of its own misdeeds. Passengers were apparently escorted off their ship and onto a naval craft for the journey into detention ashore.

The AP notes that, “Israeli naval commandos… report[ed] no resistance during the takeover in international waters.” A great surprise, to be sure.

Israeli forces have since towed the Dignite to the port at Ashdod, Israel.

I was certainly not alone among the many passengers now returned to our home countries who avidly watched with great enthusiasm the progress of the little yacht, as it finally compelled the Israeli government to enforce its cruel blockade directly, rather than through hapless intermediaries.

Though English language television coverage was, to my knowledge, careful to studiously avert its gaze from the unfolding events, social media came to the rescue. Although I have been a casual user for some time, I confess to having never much relied upon Twitter for news. That changed last night.

As I mastered the finer points of hashtags and compulsively refreshed my #Dignité browser tab, I was scarcely able to look away long enough to pour a new cup of coffee. I was filled with Twitter-fueled, anxious excitement for our Flotilla’s free boat. I relate these feelings only as an indication of the enormous bonds of solidarity we in the Freedom Flotilla have forged amongst ourselves.

A steady stream of updates began issuing forth in the early morning hours on the U.S. East Coast. Messages such as “3:36AM EDT – AthenianDemocra Athenian: #BREAKING #DIGNITE israeli Warships asked for destination-answer #GAZA RT #flotilla” fed the drama. A selected digest of the late-night tweets on the travails of the blockade-running French ship is available online. Through one of the last communications with the outside from the boat, we were able to chart its position in the Mediterranean Sea at the time.

It would be a serious error to judge the success of the Flotilla simply by its movement through the Mediterranean. The true goal is to raise global awareness of the horror of the blockade upon the youthful population of Gaza, whether that entails physically reaching Gaza or not. Yet there was an undeniable element of emotional satisfaction to be had in seeing the Dignité make a run for it.

“The Freedom Flotillas will keep sailing until the illegal blockade of Gaza is ended,” vowed Dylan Penner, a passenger from the Canadian boat, the Tahrir.

Nor is the detention of the Dignité the end of this flotilla. The departure of the French boat, loaded with representatives from across the Flotilla coalition, “prov[es] that the will of global civil society cannot be intimidated.”

Moreover, organizers declared, “the remaining ships in Freedom Flotilla II: Stay Human are regrouping to fulfill our obligations to the besieged people of Gaza and to the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people around the world who funded and organized this act of solidarity. As long as the illegal blockade of Gaza remains in place, ships will sail to confront it.”

The call has already gone out for people to mobilize immediately at the nearest Israeli embassy or consulate to protest the stopping of the French boat. Protests were announced for later today in cities in Canada, France, and Greece almost as soon as the boat was seized.

Messages of support can be sent to the passengers of the Dignité here (though, as they are now under detention, there is no telling when they will see them).

Meanwhile, the U.S. boat, The Audacity of Hope, continues to languish in indefinite detention in a military port outside Athens – punishment for challenging the Greek government’s complicity in Gaza’s collective punishment. As the Greek authorities are ultimately acting under instruction from the U.S. and Israel, we are calling for all citizens to apply continued pressure to Washington, through daily phone calls to the U.S. State Department.

The movement of international solidarity has emerged stronger from our time in Athens. And we’re only getting started!

Steve Fake was a passenger on the U.S.-flagged Audacity of Hope in Athens. He is co-author of The Scramble for Africa: Darfur – Intervention and the USA (Black Rose Books). He currently lives in New Orleans.