Gaza Freedom Flotilla 2018: Israel stole our boat & imprisoned us but we spoke up for Palestine

The aim was simply to break the illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip by sea, using two boats made up of international activists carrying medical aid with the aim of donating the boats to Palestine’s fishing community. 

Each activist ultimately, however, ended up in prison in Israel, with the two boats impounded in the Israeli port of Ashdod (joining many other small, regular Palestinian fishing vessels), with the medical aid on board confiscated. Any semblance of international law had been well and truly violated by Israel in international water. This is what happened.

The blockade of the Gaza Strip has been in place since 2007, impacting every and all aspects of Palestinian life. Palestinians have no means to defend themselves against violent occupation and an economic blockade, and have no freedom of movement within their own country. This is why many people compare the situation to apartheid South Africa. The illegal blockade on Gaza, imposed by Israel, represents one aspect of the war waged against them – nothing can get in or out of Gaza.

But the world sits idly by while international law and United Nations Resolutions are violated by Israel on a daily basis with the full backing of the United States and the United Kingdom.  The constant backdrop, of course, is the ongoing theft of Palestinian land.

Therefore, it’s vitally important that those with the ability to do so, challenge the blockade and make the case as to why it is both illegal and immoral. Having a British passport, as I do, means I personally have a special responsibility to speak up for the Palestinians; the Balfour Declaration was written in Britain more than 100 years ago, and reminds us of the central role Britain played and continues to play in allowing Israel to subjugate Palestinian life and freedom.

So, in late July, three boats originally from European ports set off from Palermo Sicily, Italy, with the aim of sailing across the Mediterranean Sea and reaching Gaza port to deliver a small gesture of medical aid, and 3 fishing boats to the Palestinians. 

I was aboard the ‘Freedom’ which sailed under the Swedish flag and which was made up of 12 people including myself with nationalities from around the world including Sweden, France, Spain, Canada, Germany, and also Britain.

In the end it was two boats, the third dropped out, which would try and breach the blockade of Gaza. The ‘Al Awda’, which translates as ‘The Return’ was a couple of days ahead of us. 

The boats themselves had spent weeks travelling through many European ports, drumming up as much publicity for the Palestinian cause as possible. Aboard were individuals from all walks of public and civic life; activists, doctors, teachers, journalists, musicians and politicians were among those selected to participate in the final leg to Gaza. The ethos of the mission was completely non-violent, and participants had been instructed and briefed on the likely event of Israeli occupation forces attacking and taking the boats by force.

After almost 2 weeks at sea, sailing across the Mediterranean, on evening of the 3rd August, at around 9pm, roughly 40 nautical miles from the coast of Gaza, the Israeli forces made initial radio contact with our boat, the ‘Freedom’. They instructed us, over the radio to turn around, suggesting we were in a “restricted military zone“. We were, however, in international waters and repeatedly underlined the point.

Again we were asked to change course. Again we refused. The back and forth continued, until we were issued a ‘final warning’. After this, radio contact ceased, and at this point all of our radio and satellite communication had been cut.

Lights in the distance on the ocean’s horizon, from several sources, began to flicker. Gradually they began to get closer, circling us and making zig zags across the front and the rear of our boat. A hum and buzz of military engines accompanied the lights, growing thicker as our boat simply drifted in the water, no match for the military might of the Israeli occupation forces.

Eventually, after several hours, 14 or 15 Israeli boats surrounded ‘Freedom’ in a show of military might which was as unnecessary as it was extravagant. Lights were shone in our faces, and beamed on deck, as young Israeli soldiers clambered aboard, armed, faces masked like bandits in the night, seizing our boats in a blatant act of piracy. They took the boat and us into custody. A criminal gang patrolling the high seas in international waters had halted us in our tracks – an almost daily occurrence for Palestinian fisherman trying to make a living and feed their families.

We were of course fully aware that the ‘Al Awda’ had been seized a few days before us with crew members had been beaten, tasered and injured. To my knowledge, none of our crew was physically injured during the takeover of our boat. We were on deck when the soldiers boarded, and offered no physical resistance. But our boat had been taken by force by armed soldiers. And they were doing so in the full knowledge that they had diplomatic support and backing from the countries and governments of the activists they were taking hostage.

It took several hours to be towed to the Israeli port of Ashdod, all the while surrounded by Israeli soldiers, towing our small sailboat much faster than it was designed to be. As we entered the port, our vessel past around 40 or so Palestinian fishing boats which had been stolen by Israeli forces. Stories of Palestinian fisherman simply ‘going missing’ have been heard.

We then spotted the ‘Al Awda’ – our sister boat from the Flotilla. Once full of life and promise, it sat moored in the water, empty and abandoned and deliberately isolated. My guess is it’s still there now several weeks on, sitting in the water.

This was of course done to demoralise the rest of us and to send an obvious message. We were finally towed into Ashdod, with dozens and dozens of Israeli military personnel, police officer and bureaucrats standing around and staring at us, pointing, and observing the ‘freaks’ from the ‘Freedom Flotilla’ who had dared to try and reach Gaza – the only thing missing were cartons of popcorn. 

We had broken no laws but were treated as if we had committed a crime. This process repeated itself throughout the next few days while imprisoned at Givon prison. Israel, of course, contrary to our demands avoided any trial or real due process and deported us to our countries of origin within a few days. Due process would have meant a trial and a real judge, and, ultimately for us, a chance to expose the hypocrisy and criminality of the Israeli occupation forces. Israel doesn’t want this. We presented a political headache and they wanted us gone as soon as possible.

The time in prison was unpleasant but doesn’t need emphasizing and our ordeal is nothing compared to what the Palestinians deal with every day. But in every layer of the system in Israel what I observed was deeply indoctrinated hyper nationalism at every turn, no different to any other colonial occupation, which is what Israel is and also behaves like. 

Israel operates a blockade on the Gaza Strip and Palestine as a whole by land, sea and air. We had tried and failed to break it. But it is clear that Israel only acts as it does because it is not held to account by those backing it, primarily the UK and US. For the status quo to truly change there needs to be political will from governments and from those with the power to influence governments, the people. This was the objective of the Freedom Flotilla in 2018, to highlight the situation in Gaza and to increase pressure on those with the power to change things, to speak up for the Palestinians.

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