onboard the tahrir: "our course is the conscience of humanity. our final destination is the betterment of mankind."

This post is based on my notes on a talk by David Heap, supplemented by graphics from David's presentation, about his experience as part of the Canadian Boat to Gaza.

To see David's presentation in its entirety, go here. It was videoed and put online by Paul S. Graham (with additional footage from Harold Shuster) for Winnipeg Community TV. You can see more of Paul's videos on his Red River Pete YouTube channel. Images in this post courtesy of Tahrir.ca.

Illegal, ongoing, and only getting worse

The closure of Gaza has been going on for decades. The blockade of international aid is the end of a long process of increasing restrictions of the movement of Palestinians.

Israeli journalist Amira Hass reminds us that restriction on movement is a hallmark of apartheid regimes. The inability to move around one's own country, needing passes (often impossible to get and laden with arcane bureaucracy) to visit family or conduct trade, adds humiliation to the constant reminder of one's subservient status. This was the case in apartheid South Africa, and it's the case in apartheid Israel/Palestine.

Like the checkpoints in the West Bank, the blockade of Gaza has become increasingly severe over the last five years. In 2006 and 2007, the blockade was becoming extreme. By 2009, Israel was harassing, ramming, and boarding boats bound for Gaza - all of which is illegal under international law.

The blockade of Gaza is, without a doubt, illegal under international law. This was reiterated by four UN special rapporteurs in September 2011.

According to Amnesty International, the International Red Cross/Red Crescent, and many other NGOs, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is desperate. It is also unnecessary and avoidable, as it is a direct product of the blockade.

The first flotilla, 2010

Against this backdrop, the Mavi Marmara and nine other boats sailed for Gaza in May 2010; a tenth boat, the Rachel Corrie, arrived later. This was the Freedom Flotilla of 2010.

The world watched in horror as Israel attacked the boats. When the IDF attacked, the boats were in international waters, heading away from Israel and from Israeli waters.

Nine unarmed people were killed, at least six of them "execution style", shot at close range in the back or the back of the head. Everything aboard the boats was confiscated. Israeli soldiers forced the boats to sail to Ashdod, Israel, where all survivors were first jailed, then deported.

Two Canadian responses to this crime are worth noting.

On the streets, the peace movement erupted in spontaneous protests. Activists began to ask, "When will we have a Canadian boat to Gaza?" Not could we have, or perhaps we should discuss, but when.

In the halls of power, within hours of this heinous crime, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyaho.

The second flotilla, summer 2011

A group of activists immediately began the greatest fundraising challenge any of them had ever faced: the cost of a boat and the expense of putting it to sea.

With a lofty goal of $300,000, they raised $350,000. This money was raised exclusively through people-to-people solidarity - no foundations, no grants, no official funding channels. With the money raised, Canadian activists were able to help people from other countries come onboard. They began to call it the ABCD boat: Australian, Belgian, Canadian, and Danish.

The ABCD boat joined with 10 other initiatives, representing campaigns in over 20 countries. This was Freedom Flotilla II.

The ABCD team held a contest to name the boat. Many suggestions were heavy on the Maple Leaf, but they wanted a name that reflected the international character of the movement. They settled on a name which reflects a universal human value: liberation. It's a word that we're all now familiar with, a word made famous by the Egyptian revolution: Tahrir, the Arabic word for liberation.

Now the group needed to find a boat and the expertise needed to get it inspected, file the correct paperwork, hire a crew, and so on. They had to bring delegates and journalists in a port in eastern Crete, in Greece.

There were 10 boats in the flotilla, distributed around the Greek islands and Turkey. Everyone undertook nonviolence training together, as were committed to reacting only nonviolently to whatever was thrown at them.

Almost 50 delegates and journalists from more than eight countries were trained. The group included a former MP from Australia, a former Senator from Belgium, a former Mayor of Copenhagen and a former Chief of the Ardoch Algonquin first nation, Bob Lovelace. Lovelace describes himself as a former political prisoner, having been arrested while defending First Nation land from uranium mining.
The African-American writer Alice Walker called the flotillas "the freedom rides of our generation," drawing a comparison to Palestinian solidarity and the US civil rights movement.

At this point, the Greek authorities began to find (or invent) mistakes in the boats' paperwork, which had perviously passed all inspections. Funny how these abnormalities appeared now. All kinds of delays were invented.

On July 1, the Greek Minister of Civil Protection issued a decree forbidding any ship from leaving any Greek port with Gaza as its destination. The Israeli foreign minister immediately thanked Greece - and offered to help with its economic troubles.

At the time, no one knew the extent of Israel's bribe to Greece. It turned out that Israel sent Greece tear gas and armoured vehicles that later would be used against Greeks protesting the imposition of austerity measures. So Israel helped the Greek government attack its own citizens.

The flotilla members now had to decide whether they would face down the Greek authorities before meeting the Israeli ones. The answer was a resounding yes.

The same day the decree was issued, the US boat, The Audacity of Hope, made a break for it. As Bob Lovelace says, "As indigenous people one of the things we learned about colonialism is that you never ask the oppressor for permission."

The Americans were barred from bringing supplies, so they carried only love letters - expressions of solidarity with the people of Palestine. They were stopped by the Greek coast guard and impounded in a joint US-Greek naval dockyard.

On July 4, 2011, in what might be the first use of the word kayaktivism, two people in kayaks blocked the Greek coast guard ship to give the Tahrir time to get out of port.

David notes that the Greek soldiers preventing the ship from leaving seemed embarrassed, and it is noteworthy that Greek authorities did not interfere with the media. Onshore, Greek citizens demonstrated in favour of the flotilla. The soldiers said, "We are under orders." The activists shouted, "From who, Athens or Tel Aviv?"

In the end, the Greek coast guard was guarding the flotilla boats. Two ships in the flotilla were sabotaged. There was no investigation. Officially, the incident never happened.

Freedom Waves, autumn 2011

The delegates learned valuable lessons about strategy from this experience, and they brought hope to the people of Gaza. Now they felt an urgency to act sooner rather than later. They didn't want to wait an entire year to try again. After discussion and consultation, they decided to try again with two boats. It wasn't a full flotilla, but neither were they giving up.

The same Greek captain - well known to the Greek coast guard, and a veteran of three successful missions to Gaza - signed on. The Tahrir joined with the Irish boat Saoirse (which means freedom in Irish) to form Freedom Waves to Gaza.

Unfortunately, the Tahrir had to prune their delegation from 35 to 12, forcing some painful decisions about who would go. They were forced to leave behind friends, media, and their own videographer. The media still on board had to leave behind their film crews, so they took turns filming each other.

Among the crew was a Palestinian student from Haifa. If he was arrested, there would be serious consequences, and he stayed with the mission at great personal risk. He was travelling illegally to his own homeland.

On November 2, 2011, the Tahrir and the Saorsie were authorized to leave, with their declared destination the Greek island of Rhodes. On their first night at sea, the Tahrir was followed by Turkish navy vessels until they were well out of Turkish waters.

Two delegates got a crash course in steering, so that George, the captain, could get a few hours of sleep (in the wheel room, in case he was needed). There was some urgency, as they wanted to approach within 100 nautical miles of Gaza during daylight. (The first flotilla had been attacked at night.) Israel has unilaterally decided that its borders extends 100 nautical miles off the coast - a legal fiction that no other nation assumes for its own security zone. (This is reminiscent of the US's self-declared, elastic borders, which extend 50 miles into Canada and Mexico.)

Once the boats were in international waters, they turned left - towards Gaza - and began the media campaign they had prepared, sending out releases, tweeting, posting on Facebook. Democracy Now and Al Jazeera began broadcasting. They did all their interviews in advance, knowing once they approached Israel, their communications would be blocked.

They hoisted the Palestinian flag, and hung signs in English and Hebrew.

Next came this:

[This video exists because, as the IDF was confiscating the equipment on the boats (tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, never returned) some quick-thinking media person swapped in a blank memory chip and smuggled out the used one.]

On the radio, they were hailed, and they responded:

What is your course?

"Our course is the conscience of humanity."

What is your final destination?

"Our final destination is the betterment of mankind."

The IDF sprayed them with water cannons, soaking the boats and creating both dangerously slippery conditions and a fire hazard. The Irish boat caught on fire. They were ordered to the rear deck, then sprayed with water cannons. They were ordered to the front deck, then sprayed there.

Hundreds of Israeli soldiers were present. At least 30 boarded the Tahrir. They took control of the ship, tasered the delegates, threatened them with electricution, dragged them out, strip-searched them, and so on.

It was an overwhelming show of force: three large warships, at least 15 smaller attack boats, and air support. Against 12 unarmed people. By contrast, the Greeks used six people to subdue four times as many people, and most of the Greek guards never drew their weapons.

(At this point, in David's backyard, it was difficult to take notes, as the story was so riveting and disturbing.) I later asked him, How did you feel when you saw those boats? Knowing the year before, they executed nine people with total impunity, how did you feel?

David said, Of course I was afraid. You're afraid of what they will do - and also afraid because you know that the governments of the world will not hold them to account for anything they do.

But solidarity is not about not being afraid. It's about being afraid and doing it anyway.

Both boats were forced to sail to the Israeli port of Ashdud. Everyone was strip-searched, the boat was searched and x-rayed. All their electronic equipment was confiscated (supposedly temporarily, but it was never returned). (Eventually, the entire boat was confiscated, and is still being held in Israel!)

They were brought to a low-security immigration prison, where they were searched and interrogated several times. In prison, they had no contact with other prisoners. The Irish activists, with their history of resistance to colonial occupation, were better prepared for prison, and approached it with humour and the Irish feck off attitude.

They didn't know how long they would be held for, whether it would be days, weeks, or months. But they knew that Palestinian prisoners are held for years without charges in far worse conditions with far less support.

David and Ehab Lotayef, the other Canadian on the Tahrir, were held for six days. For more about David's experience during his six days in Israeli prison, visit his blog: More mind games, and the language of resistance and Lies, misinformation and manipulations.

"Your message has reached all of Palestine"

On November 4, David received an email from a Palestinian comrade. It said, in essence, "Whether or not you reach the shores of Gaza, your message has reached all of Palestine." In this and many respects, the Canadian Boat to Gaza was a success. Freedom Waves:

• sent a clear message to the Palestinian people of Gaza: peoples of the world have not forgotten you, and never will,

• shook the myth of Israeli invincibility, as civil society organizations working quietly, managed to keep an element of surprise and break the outsourced blockade, and

• exposed the inhumane and illegal actions of Israel against Gaza.

As the Irish activists on board the Saoirse said: Tiocfaidh ár lá. Our day will come.

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