The Israeli navy illegally boarded the 2018 Freedom Flotilla sailing to Gaza to break the blockade imposed on the territory since 2007.
The flotilla was made up of two boats: Al-Awda and Freedom. The Norwegian fishing boat, named Al-Awda (Arabic for Return), was carrying 22 activists from various countries across the world. The boat had been donated and fitted with an engine to become suitable for the journey to Gaza, but it was violently boarded by the Israeli navy on 29 July. The captain of Al-Awda was severely beaten and all the activists on board were detained and held in Israeli prison before they were deported back to their countries.
The second boat, Freedom, was a smaller Swedish boat carrying 12 international activists. It was boarded on the morning of 4 August and the crew members were also detained. MEMO spoke with two crew members who were onboard Al-Awda boat when it was stormed, and a journalist who was onboard Freedom, about the Israeli takeover of the boats and their experiences in Israeli jails.
Swedish activist and singer Divina Levrini was on board Al-Awda when it was boarded by Israeli naval forces. Divina had sailed some of the Flotilla's journey on board Freedom, from Kiel in Germany to Palermo on the Italian island of Sicily, its last stop en route to Gaza before changing to Al-Awda.
Divina says that one of her worst moments on board the Flotilla was when "they [Israeli naval forces] had hijacked us and drove the boat to Ashdod." She explains: "We could see the glittering light in Israel and complete darkness over Gaza. We knew that Israel had cut off the electricity again. I told a young soldier: 'Over there, children full of hope are waiting for us, for a boat full of medicines which will never come.'
Then we saw fishing boats, stolen from the Palestinians of Gaza in the harbour – it fills my heart with sadness just how cruel humans can be.
Once docked in Ashdod, Divina was detained in Givron prison alongside her fellow activists and denied access to her medication. She says Israeli prison guards "didn't let us sleep. Every hour a guard would come and force us to stand up before subjecting us to psychological abuse."
"I wasn't allowed access to medication after having been struck in the head when they seized the ship."
Speaking to MEMO, Divina explains that after being deported she spent a few days in Stockholm resting at a friend's house. "Since I was denied access to my medication, I have had to readjust to them since arriving back in Sweden. Our State Department had sent a doctor to meet me at the airport, but unfortunately I couldn't find him," she explained.
Divina says she has received strong support from her government, with the Swedish foreign minister saying in an open letter that she supports the Freedom Flotilla and Ship to Gaza. However, Divina explains:
Support is not enough – it's time for states to boycott Israel until Palestine is free. The South African apartheid system was put to an end using such methods, so I want our governments to send Israeli diplomats home to show that there will be no further political relations unless Israel ends the illegal blockade and stops killing innocent people.
Asked what she thinks the Freedom Flotilla has achieved, Divina says that "we have made a change, even though it is too little and too late. For example, the parliament in Oviedo, Spain, has since vowed to urge their government to put pressure on Israel to end the illegal blockade." She adds that "most of all, I think that we have given the Palestinians some hope and made sure that they know we won't stop. These ships will continue to sail until Gaza is free."
As for the future, Divina hopes the momentum generated by the flotilla will form the basis of further action. She says that "we intend to begin a legal process against Israel. As you may have heard, we won a case when they stole the ship Estelle," referring to the ship which sailed to Gaza in 2012 in an earlier attempt to break the siege.
The following year, Israel filed a petition to confiscate the vessel, but in 2016 the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the ship must be released. The court also awarded the ship's owners legal costs of 40,000 shekels ($10,500) after ruling that it had been impounded illegally. Divina quipped that "in this way, Israel actually paid for a large part of our trip, so once we have begun legal proceedings this time, it's time to plan the next Freedom Flotilla."
Dr. Swee Chai Ang
Orthopedic surgeon and founding trustee of Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) Dr Swee Ang was also on board the Al-Awda boat when occupation forces commandeered the vessel.
When she received the invitation to join the flotilla in an attempt to break the Gaza blockade, Ang told MEMO she did not think twice, saying it was the least she could do to help the Palestinian people.
"This is the 70th year of the Palestinian diaspora, the Nakba," she explained. "750,000 Palestinians, which is half of Palestine, has been evicted during 1948. That population has now become 6.5 million living in refugee camps all over the Middle East. The other half has remained under occupation, so they have suffered so much."
Growing up a Zionist in Singapore, Ang did not know much about the Palestinian people until she went to work in Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon in 1982, before the massacre took place. Since then, Ang has been a staunch supporter of Palestinian rights.
"My life is divided into two parts, before I met Palestinians and after," she said.
Before I met Palestinians, I exist. After I met Palestinians, I resist, and the resistance is not violent resistance. It's a resistance inspired by the steadfastness of the Palestinians.
Ang described the takeover of Al-Awda as being "violent" and "horrible". "Forty-two nautical miles off the coast of Gaza, while still in international waters," she said, "at least three Israeli warships and five other smaller boats showed up with about 100 soldiers and stormed our boat."
"They beat the captain…and forced us to be driven to Israel," she continued. "In Ashdod, they took us to a closed military zone and put us in Israeli prison, and if not for the fact that we are from so many different countries, I think we would have still been in prison."
Ang said a violent takeover of the boat by the Israeli army was not unexpected, but she did not expect "petty theft". She said she was subjected to racism, disrespect and mistreatment in prison and theft of her belongings, including her phone, her camera, her clothes, her books and her Bible which were never returned to her.
She also said a fellow Moroccan crew member who worked as a senior journalist for Al Jazeera had everything taken away from him including his wallet which had his credit cards and $1,800 in cash. "When he was deported he got nothing but his passport," she said. "We had to…give him what little money we had so that when he reaches Morocco he can take a taxi home."
"That is something which probably the Palestinians have been trying to tell us and we refuse to believe it," she continued.
"My Palestinian friends have always been telling me they steal our things. I say come on, the Israeli armies don't steal. They might be brutal but they don't steal," she added. "Well, I've got to eat up all my words."
Ang also criticised the lack of action by her MP in the UK. "Friends have asked my MP to speak up for me when I was in prison. She did not. She just did not."
I think it's more prudent to allow some of us to rot in prison than to raise our case in parliament and upset the Israeli lobby. This is the state of our country.
"We were captured," she added, "but [the flotilla] is a declaration of hope, of solidarity, of love with the Palestinian people, and that's what it's all about."
Journalist Ian Diez was one of 12 international activists on board the Swedish boat "Freedom", the second boat to be boarded by the Israeli navy in international waters as they approached Gaza. Diez was the first of the Freedom crew members to be deported. He arrived in London 24 hours after being held in Israeli prisons and signing a voluntary deportation form.
As their boat approached 49 nautical miles off the coast of Gaza around 3am on 4 August, radio communications with the Israeli navy were coming in and out telling them they were entering an illegal zone protected by a blockade, Diez told MEMO.
"My captain was reminding them that under international law we had the right to be able to freely travel into Gaza and that what the Israelis were offering to do was considered as piracy and it was punished under international law, however the Israelis took no notice of these communications."
Diez said the Israeli takeover of Freedom was very quick. "They came without any warning," he said, adding that it was clear how well prepared the soldiers were.
Just like with Al-Awad, the Israeli soldiers sailed Freedom to the port of Ashdod. "There was something that really caught my attention when we were arriving to the shore," he continued. "You could see all the lights in the shore that represented the Israeli territory, and then this strip of darkness that was Gaza; no electricity and no lights."
"That was Gaza," he said. "It was such a clear image. It was so symbolic and it was so deep that it's probably something I will never forget in my life."
They reached the port of Ashdod at dawn, he said. "First thing we saw as we got inside were the remainings of the Al-Awda." Diez had previously stayed onboard Al-Awda to film part of the journey in Copenhagen, Brighton and Palermo.
"It was like watching a skeleton of something that had previously been alive, floating dead in the middle of the water. It was very sad…They were the main ship. They were the pride of this organisation, and to see it reduced to something so insignificant, just lying dead on the water, was devastating."
"We didn't really have much time to feel sad about it because three minutes later we were already getting off board our ship and the circus began." The Freedom crew members were met with over 200 officers upon their arrival to Ashdod, including military personnel, immigration officials and police officers. They were then given numbered bracelets, searched for over two hours, and questioned before being taken to their prison cells.
The entire process was designed to break you down.
"Because I was a journalist and had over seven hours worth of footage that I did want to keep, and I had a camera and laptop, my collaboration with the Israeli authorities went beyond the collaboration of the rest of my peers," he continued. "I have to say it kind of worked and I did manage to have quite a lot of my footage on my laptop without being deleted or erased, but they did take away my phone and they did break my camera."
"Maybe they just were not aware of the amount of the footage I actually did have on my laptop," he said. Ian is planning to use the footage he filmed onboard the 2018 Freedom Flotilla to make a documentary about the journey to Gaza.