In July a flotilla of boats set sail from Sicily with the aim of delivering supplies to Gaza. They were apprehended in international water. Richard Sudan, who was on board, tells their story

The last few weeks and months have seen Israel ramp up its settler colonial aggression towards the Palestinian people with the full support and backing of the US and UK and diplomatic immunity from the wider world.

First Jerusalem Al Quds was declared by president Donald Trump as the capital of Israel.  The move inflamed tensions in the Holy Land, emboldening Israeli state and settler violence against indigenous Palestinians, who were marching and protesting the right of return, while killing any hope of a future Palestinian state with Al Quds as its capital. In recent days funding from UNWA to Gaza has been slashed, cutting funds for jobs in Gaza, about half of which are dependent on the funds.

Emboldened by Trump’s brazen Al Quds move, the Israeli Knesset passed the ‘nation state law’, stipulating that only Palestine’s Jewish community have a right to self-determination and not the Palestinians: “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it” it says.

Hebrew is now recognised as the main language of Israel, whereas Arabic has been downgraded to an ambiguous ‘special status’.

This is the timing of, and context in which, a group of activists from around the world made the decision in late July to sail from Palermo, Sicily, across the Mediterranean, as part of the Freedom Flotilla to try and reach the Gaza strip, Palestine. The aim was to deliver medical aid and to donate the boats themselves to the Palestinian community in Gaza.

Ellen Hansson, one of the key coordinators of ‘Ship to Gaza’ based in Sweden explained the motivation behind her decision to take part.

“I took part in the Freedom Flotilla 2018 because I think it’s all of our responsibility to stand up for – and show solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Gaza.The oppression of Palestinians has been going on for so long that we need to do all that we possibly can to raise opposition, awareness and inspire people to act. According to UN the Gaza strip will become inhabitable by 2020 so there is really no time to waste. The people living there have to fight for survival every day – therefore we need to talk about the issue and act in any way we can – large or small – every single day.”

Indeed, Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, and home to more than 2 million Palestinians, who cannot leave or enter without the say so of illegal Israeli occupation forces. The lack of freedom of movement, in both Gaza and within the West Bank is in part the reason why many make a comparison between Palestine, and the conditions in apartheid South Africa. It’s the reason why the late Nelson Mandela once said “We know all too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”.  And it’s the reason why those with the privilege of having ‘First world’ passports, like me from Britain, need to use that privilege to speak up for those who need a voice, like those living in besieged Gaza.

How the Israeli forces might see fit to deal with a group of activists trying to reach Gaza is simply nothing compared to how the Israeli occupation forces actually treat Palestinians, living in Gaza.

With its third boat needing to drop out, the Flotilla was down to two boats.  The ‘Al Awda’ which means ‘The Return’ in Arabic was a couple of days ahead of the boat I was on, the ‘Freedom’.

Image: Freedom Flotilla Coalition Facebook

Both boats had been steadily winding their way through various European ports, drumming up as much publicity as possible in the hope that by gaining international support, the Flotilla would strengthen its objective of reaching Gaza, or gain as much coverage as possible before the eventual capture of the boats.  Activists aboard were made up of many backgrounds and nationalities. Everyone had been trained in nonviolent resistance, but all were mindful of the fate of the ‘Mavi Marmara’ in 2010, a boat on a similar humanitarian mission to us, in which nine Turkish activists had been killed with a tenth later dying of injuries sustained during Israel’s violent capture of the boat.

Not far from Palestine, and as we drew nearer, we learned that the ‘Al Awda’ had been seized violently, around 40 nautical miles from the coast of Gaza, inside international water. Crew members had been beaten and tasered with the captain sustaining serious injury. We continued.

At around 9pm on 3rd of August, around 49 nautical miles, at night and in darkness on our vessel, the Israeli navy made radio contact with our captain. While still inside international water, we were told we were approaching a ‘restricted military zone’ and told to turn around. We informed the Israeli Navy that we were in international water and continued. Again we were asked to turn around. This back and forth continued until eventually we were given a ‘final warning’. We didn’t heed the warning, and continued to drift, engine broken, toward Palestine.

Eventually people spotted lights on the distant ocean horizon, blinking, and disappearing, but always coming back, and gradually getting nearer.  There were many of them and all around us, circling and doing zig zags from in front of us and behind.

Accompanying the lights, were the unmistakable hum and purr of engines, all gradually getting closer, cutting a stark contrast with our own 40 year-old vessel, engineless and powered by the wind, holding nothing more but 12 people, a small amount of medical aid, and lots of goodwill for the Palestinian people.

The military vessels drew nearer, eventually coming close enough for us to see them, 15 or so medium to large sized boats exercising a display of military muscle disproportionate when considering the size of our boat the ‘Freedom’, but fitting for a Navy which receives billions of dollars in backing from the US, and which has the one of the most sophisticated militaries in the world.  The Palestinians of course have no army, and yet every single man woman and child in the Gaza strip is regarded by Israel as a terrorist.

Once the boats had surrounded us, full of armed soldiers, and with our crew on deck with our hands in the air, the Israel Navy proceeded to board our boat which is the same as attacking it, and illegally seized control of it, stealing it. We were under the illegal control of a force with no jurisdiction and had been kidnapped. The Israeli soldiers searched us and searched our boat. Satisfied we posed no threat to them, they proceeded to tow our boat to the military port of Ashdod, keeping us under armed guard.

The whole process took several hours, but eventually we could see the coastline appear. Israel’s military port of Ashdod was well lit in the night, but cast your eye south, and the light would abruptly stop, except for a few lights scattered here and there. That’s because you were looking at the Gaza coastline, which is only permitted light for a few hours each day by Israel.

What was also striking upon being towed to Ashdod, were the 3 oil refineries we passed burning off the Palestinian coast; the fires were burning bright but the oil was being syphoned away to Israel for the benefit of Israelis. Some of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves are found off the Palestinian coast, but the Palestinians are denied any benefit from the resources which belong to them and which are indigenous to their lands.

At what must have been around 7am, we were towed into the port itself, which was now lit by daylight.  First we were towed past dozens of stolen and abandoned Palestinian fishing boats, impounded by the Navy.

Next we were intentionally pulled, past the ‘Al Awda’ which had been taken by the Navy before us, and a boat which had been literally full of promise, days before. Now it was moored by itself and empty, the flags once hoisted high, taken down. It was clear that taking us past the ‘Al Awda’ was meant to demoralise us and psychologically break us down, a kind of sick psychological game, which is one of the cornerstones of any colonial occupation.

Also designed to break us down was what happened next; what felt like dozens or hundreds of Israeli Navy personnel, soldiers, police and various bureaucrats adorned the sides of the port watching us, shouting, and generally trying to intimidate us, as we arrived at the port, kidnapped without our boat.

The next few hours were a predictable process of the Israeli authorities trying to anger and humiliate everyone involved in the Flotilla before being taken to an Israeli jail-maybe a small percentage of what Palestinians deal with every day.

We were screened, searched, belongings x-rayed and taken away, some items to not be seen again.

Personnel of some sort or another would be at your side continually barking at you or playing the good cop bad cop routine with some depressing individual or another. Everyone was following orders. Everyone was ‘just doing their job’ when told we were were kidnapped in international water. None of us made their facade of circus easy for them. I refused point blank everything they asked of me and was vocal enough against all officials that they eventually decided I was ‘crazy’ and my voice was hoarse the next day.

We spent several days in prison in Givon, a prison for deportees, before we were eventually deported from a country we had not chosen to enter and which regarded us as illegal immigrants.

I heard enough blatant racism towards Palestinians muttered by Israeli occupation forces at all levels including from the prison guards, to show me that in spite of Israel’s status as a colonising occupying force, I was unprepared for just how deeply the hyper-nationalism Israel is maintained by had been internalised. Just like other colonies, it was many of the black and brown Israelis working in the police and prison service, who seemed the most bigoted and who had internalised Israel’s pathologization of the Palestinian people the most.

Equally, it was often those Israelis with a darker skin, who often became uncomfortable when I talked of Israel’s colonisation of Palestinians and compared it to the the colonisation of parts of Africa. Some of them knew the truth, and would look away from my eyes when I broached the subject, when I told them about my own background, and family name-as if making any human link with me, on the basis of a shared experience and understanding, even if only for a second, might remind them of some uncomfortable truth.  I’ve seen this look in the eyes of many people from former colonies who know they have sold out to colonialism. Prison in Israel for me, was over in a few days. The Palestinians are forced to live under conditions which are unimaginable for most of us.

Our Flotilla did not succeed in reaching Gaza. We experienced a tiny part of what Palestinians deal with. Any serious change which will affect the situation in Palestine from the outside will be people led, just like in South Africa. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is horrific, but it is only allowed to take place because of the silent support and inaction of our own governments.

That’s why it’s important to raise international support and pressure when highlighting issues like the blockade of Gaza. The situation in Palestine cannot continue. Palestinians must secure their own freedom but it’s up to us on the outside to offer them as many ways as we can to support them. There is a link between the Palestinians and all colonised people around the world, and sons and daughters of those communities still living under the shadow and the yolk of the effects of colonialism and racism. All people have the right to freedom and determination within their own lands. The Palestinians are silenced every day and it’s up to us to speak up with them.

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Richard Sudan is a London based writer, political activist, and performance poet. His writing has been published by the Independent, the Guardian, the Huffington Post and Washington Spectator, in addition to other newspapers, magazines, and blogs. Richard has taught writing poetry for performance at Brunel University and maintains the power of the spoken and written word can massively effect change in today’s world.

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