'Freedom Waves': Another Challenge to the Israeli Naval Blockade of Gaza and the U.S. Congress

In the overland five trips I have made to Gaza since March 2009, I have seen the disastrous effect the Israeli land and sea blockade has had on the Palestinian people. I have seen the terrible level of destruction the 2008-2009 Israeli attack wreaked on Gaza, in which 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the 22-day attack, 5,000 were wounded and 50,000 were made homeless. I was on the Gaza Freedom March in 2009 and I was a passenger on the US Boat to Gaza, the Audacity of Hope, that was forbidden from sailing June 2011 by the Greek government on behalf of the Israeli government. 

As one of two American citizens on the Gaza Freedom Waves, I represented hundreds of thousands of Americans who are challenging Israeli and US policies concerning Palestine. We are using a variety of methods to let Israeli government officials know that international citizen activists are not going to stop challenging their policies. Boycott, divestment and sanctions programs, international citizens who attempt to protect Palestinians as they farm, fish and go to school, students confronting Israeli officials as they speak around the world and flotillas and waves of boats are part of the international effort. I am very proud to be a part of this movement.

Passengers on the Canadian Boat to Gaza, the Tahrir, left Turkey in good spirits Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011 despite having its passenger list whittled down by the Turkish Port Authority, which allowed only 12 out of 35 passengers who had traveled to Turkey to board the boat. The Turks cited regulations that allowed only 12 persons to be on a boat rated as a “pleasure craft” departing Turkey for international waters, no matter that the vessel was rated for 50-plus passengers. My fellow Americans, Medea Benjamin, Robert Neiman, Paki Wieland, Tighe Barry and David Schermerhorn became our ground crew in Turkey when the passenger reduction was forced on us. On the day we left the Turkish port of Fetiyah, they rented a third boat to attempt to transfer in international waters the other 23 passengers.

Working with our sister ship, the Saoirse, from Ireland, we hit the high seas full throttle, continuing the previous flotilla's efforts to end Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza, which, in combination with Israel’s land blockade, has made the 1.6 million people of Gaza prisoners in a tiny land that is roughly 25 miles long and five miles wide.

Our team, on the Tahrir, consisted of five journalists, including Democracy Now’s Jihan Hafiz, six international delegates and the captain. We bonded quickly and settled into our various chores. Captain George delegated crew duties, journalists set up their satellites and computer stations, cooks and medics tended to physical needs and everyone vied for computer time to reach out to the world.  

Canadian Boat to Gaza organizers did an excellent job stocking the boat with food, water and medical supplies, plus $30,000 of medical aid to be delivered to Gaza.   The next two days were filled with blogging, filming, battling seasickness, sleeping, eating, nonviolence training and preparation for probable Israeli confrontation and imprisonment.

Arriving in the Danger Zone 

Getting into international waters without the Turkish Coast Guard turning us back was our first success. In hopes of not being boarded by the Israeli Defense Forces during darkness, we slowed our speed so it would be daylight Friday morning, Nov. 4, 2011, when we approached 100 nautical miles off Gaza’s shore and probable contact with the IDF.

Each hour brought us 10 miles closer to Gaza. We were thankful to make it past the 70-mile mark where the Mavi Marmara was so brutally attacked in June 2010. 

A momentary excitement permeated the ship as the captain announced we were 50 miles offshore-- until we saw the three giant warships looming on the horizon. 

We got on the satellite phones and computers to get out our last messages. I was on the phone with CNN and I remember them saying, “Call me when something happens,” and I said, “This is probably the last you’re going to hear from me as our communications will be cut" -- and then they were. 

We were told by the Israeli Navy to change our course. Organizers of both boats restated that we were sailing to “the goodness of humanity.” Within half an hour we were surrounded by 17 boats; gunboats, water cannon boats and Zodiacs. The IDF radioed that it wanted to inspect our boats; meanwhile, two Zodiacs were harassing the Saoirse by driving in circles around it, finally forcing the Irish boat to crash into the Tahrir causing damage to the Saoirse

The Saoirse pulled away and was chased by the IDF commandos, who proceeded to blow out the ship's windows and blast it with water from the water cannons. If the Saoirse's auxiliary power had not kicked in, the boat would have sunk.

Meanwhile, the IDF blasted the Tahrir with water cannons. Over bullhorns, IDF soldiers told us to go to the bow of the boat where they were hitting our boat with the most force with the water cannons. We tried to protect ourselves by staying behind the wheelhouse.   

One passenger and a cameraman attempted to remain on the bow, but moved away as the commandos jumped the rail. Twenty-five masked commandos shoved their way on board shouting, “Shut up! Sit down! Move! Get up!" over and over for the next half hour. 

Two passengers  stayed at the wheelhouse, and one was tasered by the IDF commandos. They were shoved out of the wheelhouse and dragged to the benches where they were forced at gunpoint to sit. Commandos continued to yell commands. Our male passengers were searched first, with commandos pointing guns and tasers at them. Everyone had to keep their empty hands visible at all times.

I asked if we could go down below, as it was getting dark and cold, and they corralled us into the tiny galley room and “guarded” us, while other soldiers searched our backpacks and suitcases and threw our computers, cameras and bags on the floor. All the electronics confiscated on the boat were never returned to us. 

I felt sad and angry looking into the eyes of the young, masked IDF soldiers who had been so successfully brainwashed into doing horrific, illegal acts for the Israeli government. They pirated our ship, kidnapped us and tasered us, and now many of them were asleep on the benches, every bit as tired as we were. About three hours later, we arrived at the Israeli port of Ashdod, where Israeli officials strip-searched, demeaned and dehumanized us. However, nothing they did to us is comparable to what the Palestinians endure.

The officials in the Israeli Immigration and Deportation office processed us. They told us that if we signed a document stating that we had entered Israel illegally, we would be deported the next day. This was one of the many lies we were told by Israeli authorities. Another untruth they told us was that after 72 hours we would be deported automatically. 

Three Days in Israeli Prison

After processing at the port, we were separated again and taken in small groups to Givon prison where once again we were strip-searched. Our packs were pawed through by at least 10 people and we were handed a list of our possessions they were going to keep. 

Five women, including myself, spent the next three days in our own wing of the prison. We were locked in our cells in the women’s section of the prison, and then behind two more locked gates. Still, the guards repeatedly counted us and checked to make sure we weren’t plotting an escape, as if we could dig our way out through the floors. Maybe they thought we could break out with the flimsy toothbrushes we were given. Again, only a small taste of what Gazans have felt for years. 

I didn’t get my phone call out, nor did we see anyone from the American Embassy for two days, whereas a representative of the Irish Embassy to Israel met the Irish boat when it arrived at the Port of Ashdod.

When the American Embassy officials finally arrived at the prison, they recommended I sign the form saying I had entered Israel illegally. I refused.

Embassy officials did contact my family and continued to keep in touch with them during my stay in the Israeli prison. However, the official later told me there wasn’t much the US Embassy could do since we were in Israel and Israel was calling the shots (despite the US giving $3 billion in military aid annually to Israel).

We were locked in our cells for hours on end, and ended up having a sit-down strike in the corridor demanding that we be allowed out of the cells more than once a day. We were tormented one night by an irate guard beating on our door, and awakened many times a night so they could count us. We were berated and treated like criminals the entire time.

Finally, Monday night, November 7,  after almost 72 hours, the Israelis said I could leave if I paid for my own deportation air ticket. I agreed so that I could get back to the U.S. and tell the story of the Freedom Waves. I was taken to the notorious Ben Gurion Aiport Detention Center with a fellow passenger, who flew out that night. I was locked up in the airport facility for another 14 hours until my flight left the following day.

There is no surprise in Israel’s act of piracy in attacking two civilian boats in international waters trying to sail to Gaza, imprisoning the passengers and stealing the cargo and personal possessions. This is yet another example of Israeli defiance of International Law and basic human decency. In my interactions with the IDF commandos and the Israeli government officials at the Port of Ashdod, in the prison and at the airport, I was struck by the desensitized, inhumane behavior they displayed—and again, I only experienced a small taste of what Palestinians routinely face.

Freedom Waves to Freedom Riders

There’s another dangerous passage, this time over land, about to set forth. On Tuesday, November 15, Palestinian activists plan to board settler-only public buses in the West Bank and attempt to sit down and ride the bus, in the great tradition of the Freedom Riders who challenged segregation in the American South. These brave change-makers have called on the international community to stand in solidarity, and many actions are planned around the US. Activists plan to protest Veolia, the French company that runs many of the settler buses and is the subject of an international boycott campaign. If the Palestinian Freedom Riders are arrested and detained, it will be important for us to speak up and take action as well.  

Because of this experience in trying to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza, I am more resolved than ever to work to stop the US government allocation of military aid to Israel and policies supporting the Israeli government’s apartheid treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

The US Congress should be held accountable for the illegal and unlawful uses of the weaponry the U.S. has provided to Israel – including the F-16s, Apache helicopters, white phosphorous and dense inert metal explosive bombs that killed 1,400 Palestinians, wounded 5,000 and left 50,000 homeless during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-'09.

Instead, 13 congresspersons want those of us who have challenged Israeli and US policies on Palestine investigated for terrorist links and have introduced House Resolution 3131 toward that end. 

The legislation introduced in the United States Congress in October 2011, by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Congressman Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), would require the State Department to “submit a report on whether any support organization that participated in the planning or execution of the recent Gaza flotilla attempt should be designated as a foreign terrorist organization and any actions taken by the Department of State to express gratitude to the government of Greece for preventing the Gaza flotilla from setting sail in contravention of Israel's legal blockade of Gaza, and for other purposes.” 

Twelve other strong supporters of the Israel Occupation have signed onto the bill: Engel, Ros-Lehtinen, Sarbanes, Carter, Frelinghuysen, Young, Grimm, Diaz-Balart, Rothman, Roskam and Sires.  Coincidentally, these representatives, especially Ros-Lehtinen, receive big contributions of campaign funding from the right-wing Israel lobby. 


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