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Freedom Flotilla to set sail for Gaza

Defying the potential of another deadly Israeli attack on aid workers, activist ships are once more sailing to Gaza to break the siege and deliver relief to starving Palestinians, writes LINDA PENTZ GUNTER

A FLOTILLA of four ships including one carrying 5,500 tons of what organisers describe as “desperately needed life-saving aid” is about to set sail for the shores of Gaza. Also on board will be hundreds of civilian observers from 30 countries as well as dozens of reporters.

The Freedom Flotilla, established in 2008, has sent ships to Gaza before, most notoriously in 2010 when one of the boats, the Turkish vessel, Mavi Marmara, was raided by Israeli commandos resulting in the deaths of 10 civilian crew members.

But, says Palestinian-US human rights lawyer Huwaida Arraf, one of the founders of the International Solidarity Movement that established the Freedom Flotilla, today the situation is even more dangerous — and more urgent.

“Israel is so much more violent now, unhinged in their brutality,” she told me in a phone call last week from Istanbul where she and other crew members of the flotilla were gathering.

“They have been grotesquely violating international law, human rights, engaging in just barbaric bombing of a civilian population, torture, cruel and inhumane degrading treatment and publicising it to the entire world because they feel like they are immune,” said Arraf, 48, a veteran of several previous Freedom Flotilla voyages.

That sense of immunity makes the current flotilla’s mission more dangerous, Arraf said, “because we operate under the expectation that Israel will want to be seen at least to the international community as respecting international law.” But, absent any punitive consequences from Israel’s allies, most notably the US, “they don’t seem to care any more,” Arraf said.

Consequently, the flotilla organisers have told the civilian participants they cannot guarantee their safety. Instead they plan to have “all eyes on the flotilla” as they endeavour to broadcast their actions to the world.

“If we are harmed it will be because Israel directly decided, purposely intentionally decided to attack us and harm us,” said Arraf. “Therefore it can’t be like after they hit and killed the World Central Kitchen volunteers, with Israel saying it was unintentional.”

The principal purpose of the flotilla is to deliver aid to combat what Arraf describes as Israel’s “deliberate starvation policy, a form of collective punishment which is a war crime.” The aid consists of essential supplies Israel has hitherto forbidden into Gaza, including ambulances.

“Confronting one of the most powerful militaries in the world that has killed our volunteers before, shouldn’t be something that civilians do,” Arraf told me. “But it is because we refuse to sit by while Israel starves two million people, starves them to death and our countries can’t do anything more than symbolic food drops and lip service while they are actively arming Israel.”

Also participating in the flotilla is Zaher Birawi, a human rights activist and journalist who is chairman of the Britain-based International Committee for Breaking the Siege of Gaza.

Birawi, who was a witness to the 2010 attack on the Mavi Marmara, took the Norway-based ship, Hanzala, on a tour of 12 European ports last year in preparation for the current mission.

“The Israeli siege imposed on Gaza amounts to a violation of international laws and is a flagrant violation of the basic rights of the Palestinians,” Birawi said during the European tour.

The flotillas were originally intended purely as a political statement and an effort to break the Israeli-imposed maritime blockade of Gaza. The first ship did not carry aid, but that quickly changed.

In 2010, a small boat, the Irene, carrying nine Jewish passengers and known as the “Jewish boat to Gaza,” attempted to break the blockade and deliver aid to Palestinians. It was intercepted by Israeli warships. Among its nine passengers was Briton Marion Kozak, the mother of the former leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, and former British foreign secretary, David Miliband.

“It’s more than just a naval blockade now, it’s a total siege,” said Arraf when we talked last week. “It’s a method of warfare on the entire population with Israeli leaders very vocally announcing their intent to punish the entire civilian population.”

Fed up with what they see as symbolic gestures by the US, while the arming of Israel continues, the Freedom Flotilla aims not only to deliver much-needed aid but to “campaign for things that our governments just talk about,” Arraf said. “We are taking the actions that need to be taken in directly confronting the policies that are creating all the violence.”

The demonstrations around the world, says Arraf, “are powerful and are applying the pressure that is needed on our governments. But we need to escalate and we need to directly confront Israel’s policies because our governments need to do that and they’re not.”

Instead, Israel’s allies “are trying to gaslight the world, especially [US President] Biden with the elections coming up and knowing that his policy toward Israel is incredibly unpopular,” she said. “This is why he is doing things like the airdrops and building a pier to try to make it seem like he’s doing something. And we need to be pretty clear, he’s not.”

Retired US army colonel Ann Wright, a member of the steering committee of the Freedom Flotilla Coalition and who led a pre-launch press conference in Istanbul last Friday, said: “These ships are not part of the hostilities. They are from unarmed civilians representing the world. As the International Court of Justice has said, the responsibility of citizens and governments is to stop a genocide, so that’s what we are doing.”

Linda Pentz Gunter is a writer based in Takoma Park, Maryland.

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