Breaking the Blockade By Sea

Pro-Palestinian Activist and Author Recounts the Journey of Bringing Aid to Gaza

Photo Geoffrey Vendeville

On August 22, 2008, Greta Berlin and 44 other pro-Palestinian activists left Cyprus in a couple of ramshackle boats in an attempt to deliver aid to Gaza, bypassing the Israeli naval blockade.

They set sail without knowing if they would reach their destination or survive the trip. Many of the passengers wrote wills for the occasion; two activists left instructions saying that, if they died en route, their bodies should be refrigerated so that they could eventually be buried in Gaza.

Thirty-three hours later, contrary to most of the passengers’ expectations, the ship reached the shores of Gaza, the first international vessel to dock there in 41 years.

Berlin is the co-founder of the US-based pro-Palestinian human rights group, the Free Gaza Movement which organized the sea voyage and has been involved in nine others since. On Oct 1, she recounted her experience aboard the organization’s first naval mission to the port of Gaza.

Talia, a law major at McGill and, surprisingly, one of the only students in a room of about 20 people, said the turnout was encouraging.

“The flotilla is something everybody should know about,” she said. “In Winnipeg, where I’m from, events like this don’t attract many people; they’re always pulling people to get involved. Coming to a talk like this makes me feel like I can breathe again.”

The talk, hosted by the Montreal branch of Alternatives International on Parc Ave., was the fourth stop in a Canadian tour to promote her new book, Freedom Sailors, about Free Gaza’s attempts to undermine the Israeli blockade.

Israel imposed a naval blockade on Gaza as part of an offensive against Hamas, which has controlled the area since 2007. The Israeli government argues that the blockade is justified to prevent the delivery of weapons to Palestinian militants; however, pro-Palestinian groups and activists such as Berlin say that the blockade is illegal under international law and that Israel is trying to plunder Gaza’s resources, including offshore oil reserves.

Berlin and other activists began piecing together a plan to smuggle aid into Gaza by sea in 2006. Initially, the idea was to travel from New York to Gaza, via Europe–a hopelessly naïve goal, Berlin sees now.

“It would’ve been impossible, but the idea that we would break the blockade by sea was so intriguing, it was so different,” she said.

Over the next two years, Berlin and a few of her colleagues in the International Solidarity Movement, another organization that supports Palestine, raised $700, 000–most of the money from private donations–to pay for the voyage, which was now set to begin in Cyprus.

In the weeks before the ships’ departure, Berlin said she received a stream of anonymous threats.

“’You’re never going to make it, there’s a bomb on board, we know where your boats are,’” said Berlin, recounting some of the messages she claims to have received. “It got worse as we got closer [to leaving.]”

Forty-four activists from 17 countries eventually joined on the journey to Gaza in two run-down boats christened the Free Gaza and Liberty.

According to Berlin, the atmosphere on the ships was far from harmonious.

“You put two activists in a room and you get 12 opinions; you put 44 activists in a boat and you get a war,” remarked Berlin.

Bad weather and bouts of seasickness, which afflicted almost everyone on board including a young journalist for Al Jazeera, made the journey even more trying.

“You put two activists in a room and you get 12 opinions; you put 44 activists in a boat and you get a war.” – Greta Berlin

In the afternoon of August 23, Berlin received word that the Israeli navy would let the aid ships through the blockade. On the horizon, she saw the coast of Gaza and a welcoming crew of tens of thousands of Palestinians.

Free Gaza has attempted nine more sea crossings into Gaza since, four of which–in 2008–were successful. The ships delivered small cargoes of building supplies and medical equipment including hearing aids for children, an MRI, and a CT scan machine.

However, the Israeli navy has blocked more recent attempts to travel to Gaza by sea.

In 2010, Israeli commandos raided the Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara, which was part of a flotilla headed to Gaza co-organized by Free Gaza and a Turkish NGO. Nine passengers, most of them Turkish, were killed, while several Israelis were wounded.

To this day, the Israeli navy’s handling of the Mavi Marmara remains a source of serious tension between Turkey and Israel, and both sides have published reports supporting their own version of events.

Despite the efforts of Free Gaza and other pro-Palestinian humanitarian groups, Berlin believes Palestinians in Gaza are worse off now than they were only a few years ago.

“I don’t think it has resolved anything,” said Berlin. “I do think there would have been no Gaza Freedom March, no Viva Palestina, and no March on Jerusalem—all these initiatives were done by civil society.

“We were the first ones to stand up and say civil society must do what governments will not do–and if you ask the Palestinians, would you prefer us to raise money, or would you prefer us to keep sailing, they all say keep sailing.”