Israel yesterday intercepted a Norwegian ship sailing with the Freedom Flotilla en route to the besieged Gaza Strip.
The ship, called Al-Awda or Return, was attempting to break the naval blockade of Gaza, which has been imposed on the enclave by Israel and Egypt since 2007. The Israeli navy intercepted the ship some 60 nautical miles from the coast in international waters, after issuing warnings that the ship was in violation of the blockade. The vessel is now being towed to Ashdod, an Israeli port town north of the Gaza Strip.
On board Al-Awda were over 20 international activists and politicians, two of whom are believed to be Israeli citizens. The ship was also carrying humanitarian aid and €13,000 ($15,000) worth of medical supplies destined for Gaza's some two million inhabitants.
A spokesperson for the Ship to Gaza Norway, Torstein Dahle, said that "the Freedom Flotilla Coalition calls on the Norwegian Government […] and relevant international organisations to act immediately," the Jerusalem Post reported.
The international community must assume its responsibilities and demand that Israeli authorities ensure the safety of those on board, the speedy delivery of our gifts to the Palestinian people in Gaza, and an end to the illegal blockade of Gaza.
In a statement Israel said the ship was being detained according to international law and that "the activity ended without exceptional events." It added that those on board the ship were told "any humanitarian equipment can be transferred to Gaza through Ashdod Port," Ynet reported.
Al-Awda was one of several ships participating in the Freedom Flotilla, which set sail in May in an attempt to break the blockade of Gaza. The flotilla has since stopped in the UK and Spain, and left the Italian port of Palermo, Sicily, last week for the final leg of its journey. The other ship, Freedom, has yet to be intercepted.
One of the activists on board the Freedom ship, Ellen Huttu Hansson, told MEMO that since leaving Palermo the journey has been "adventurous and eventful in many ways," with severe storms, heatwaves and seasickness afflicting those on board. She explains: "The sea has taken its toll on all of us, as it's quite an extreme environment and not everyone is experienced in sailing or being on a boat at open sea for this long."
The Freedom ship hopes to reach Gaza in the next three days, but those on board expect to be intercepted by Israeli forces before they reach their destination. Ellen explains that:
It is completely impossible to calculate when and where we will be intercepted, as it has been at different distances from Gaza every time the flotilla has sailed. We have a plan on when to start getting ready for any possible diversion, but our goal is to reach Gaza until the opposite is forced upon us.
Hansson also explains that, over and above intercepting the flotilla, Israel has systematically criticised and worked against their efforts. She says "one of their strategies in the event of interception is to prevent the media from covering what is happening. They also try to convince the world that we are terrorists," likely referring to claims made by some Israeli media outlets that the flotilla activists are affiliated with Hamas, which currently governs the Gaza Strip.
Despite the challenges, Ellen explains that organisation and morale on board ship is high. She says "everyone has designated responsibilities and we have a water tank filled with drinking water to sustain us that was filled in Palermo." As for morale, she believes that "the fact that we are carrying out this mission and that the Palestinians know we are trying to reach them boosts my morale, as this is the purpose of the mission."
We know that the world will be watching this story and discussing Palestine and that the chance to highlight the plight of Palestinians is a privilege.
Asked what message she would give to people following the flotilla, Ellen says: "I want to say to them to spread this message of love and solidarity." She adds that "we want to take advantage of the fact that we are 15 different nationalities and therefore this should translate into more international pressure on the state of Israel."
A diary entry from Ellen's time on board the Freedom ship can be seen below:
Friday 20 July
On board Freedom, outside Palermo, Sicily.
Another day of this nearly three-month sail is coming to an end, and I write from the mess of the Swedish sailing boat Freedom. I feel like turning the saying around and claiming that we are in a state of "storm before the calm", as things on board are lying around all over the place! A group of participants, ground crew and local activists sit in the cockpit discussing logistical issues that need to be solved. Others are waiting for this evening's dinner on the dock, and some are dealing with other preparations.
It's the fourth day since the four boats of the flotilla joined outside the Port of Palermo in Sicily, Italy, and we could actually wave to each other for the first time on the journey. It was a great feeling of unity and happiness seeing the boats together, with Palestinian flags, banners, and paintings hoisted high on the boats as the songs of Fairuz, a Lebanese singer wildly popular with Palestinians, blare from the speaker.
We have spent two days undertaking intense nonviolence training, in which we went through different ways of preparing ourselves for prospective scenarios. Learning from the previous flotillas, there have been many interceptions by Israeli occupation forces and there's always an unpredictable aspect. The training really emphasised the importance of safety and unity among the participants, and for me this was the moment I actually felt the seriousness of what we are about to do.
Our schedule in Palermo has been packed with events and practical preparations, as well as doing what we can to spread the campaign through the media. This has become increasingly difficult since there are many conflicting issues going on in the world, so we need to do what we can to keep the flotilla in the news – the media noise is a thick wall to break through.
Yet somewhere in all of this lays our cause. Images of bombings in Gaza flood our Facebook feeds and the Gaza Strip is highly present in all that we do. We know the people of Gaza are waiting for us, they feel our support and gain hope, even if it's only a little.
After long consideration, our departure for the last and most critical part of our journey is set for tomorrow morning, Sunday 22 July 2018. We're part of something big, of solidarity with our human race, of the good in the world, of peace, love and justice for all.