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Golden oldies prepare for aid flotilla mission to Gaza

April 28, 2024 at 1:31 pm

People, holding banners and Palestinian flags, gather at the Sultanahmet Square to protest Guinea-Bissau for removing its flag from ships carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza on April 27, 2024 in Istanbul, Turkiye. [Erol Değirmenci – Anadolu Agency]

The training sessions have become more realistic, that’s for sure, even if the guns are cardboard. Virtually everything else is the same as before, though, as peace activists come together in Istanbul to embark on the latest Freedom Flotilla aiming to take humanitarian aid to the besieged and embattled Gaza Strip.

There are some familiar faces from earlier aid efforts: Irish truck driver John Hurson; the heroic Codepink women, including Retired US Colonel Ann Wright and Medea Benjamin; plus formidable lawyer Huwaida Arraf, a Palestinian American activist who co-founded the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a Palestinian-led organisation which uses non-violent protests and international pressure to support Palestinians. And yours truly, of course.

The laughter is loud and raucous; Hurson’s jokes have actually got funnier with age. He is a veteran of many campaigns to promote awareness of the injustices heaped against the people of occupied Palestine, including the legendary Viva Palestina road convoys launched by George Galloway MP fifteen years ago.

I was on board one of the two Free Gaza Movement boats that broke the siege for the first time in August 2008.

In truth, I still don’t know how we did it, and I’m still not sure why the Israeli navy sailed their gun boats around us before clearing off to give us a free run into the tiny port on the edge of Gaza City.

When we landed, we discovered exactly why 100,000 Palestinians turned up to greet us. Our two humble fishing boats were the first that had entered the port from the outside world in more than 40 years. We were given an amazing reception, as you can no doubt imagine.

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Several other sea convoys followed and then the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla massacre happened. Israeli commandos attacked and hijacked the flotilla in international waters. Ten Turkish peace activists were shot and killed — nine on the fateful night in question; the other later from his wounds — and that tragedy is never far from our minds as we come together in this latest effort to take much-needed aid to the people of Gaza.

Hence the training being undertaken designed to prevent a repeat of Israel’s deadly piracy on the high seas. There’s a video of what we might face — from tear gas to ear-splitting sound grenades — and we have been told that Israeli commandos will use live ammunition. It’s when we split up into small groups to discuss how best to react non-violently to such an attack that the questions arise: Do we sit, stand or lie down? Do we link arms? Do we put our hands up in the air to show we are unarmed?

L-R Hassan Ghani, John Hurson and Yvonne Ridley reunion, Istanbul, April 2024

L-R Hassan Ghani, John Hurson and Yvonne Ridley reunion, Istanbul, April 2024

You might scoff, but Israeli military personnel are often confounded when confronted by peace activists. Like most bullies, they cannot handle people who refuse to fight back. It was such Gandhian tactics which brought the British Empire to its knees in India. Nevertheless, we all know that if the Israeli occupation forces have murderous intent, it will manifest itself almost immediately, just as it did in their attack on the Mavi Marmara.

A former colleague of mine, Hassan Ghani, of whom I’m extremely proud, was broadcasting live from the flotilla flagship when the Israelis attacked almost exactly fourteen years ago. He remained calm under fire and continued broadcasting until furious soldiers pulled the plug. Despite the deafening gunfire and sound bombs, and masked soldiers screaming as they dragged peace activists across the deck, Ghani continued to deliver his commentary calmly even as events unfolded. His mindset and professionalism was reminiscent of the legendary orchestra that played as the RMS Titanic sank on 15 April 1912 during its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York.

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Such simple acts of bravery deserve recognition, although none of us on board this flotilla see ourselves as particularly brave or heroic, despite the local media in Turkiye viewing us as such. The real heroes are the people who are spurring us back into action: the Palestinians. It’s from them that we get our strength and resilience, and it’s for them that we are going through our non-violence training.

We certainly aren’t aggressive, and nobody wants any sort of physical encounter with Israeli soldiers.

We’ve all watched the TikTok army on social media; they’re a nasty bunch with no red lines in terms of morals and ethics.

John Hurson Viva Palestina 1 (with George Galloway MP, 2nd left)

John Hurson Viva Palestina 1 (with George Galloway MP, 2nd left)

We are more Saga over-50s than Club 18-30; golden oldies, or “old white ladies” as well-known aid worker Tox called us in an attempt to shame some of Britain’s best known “Brother influencers”. Trust me, Tox, as a veteran of the Mavi Marmara, you should know that the last thing we need on board are muscle-bound, testosterone-fuelled meat heads. Such influencers — is anyone really influenced by them? — are the empty vessels that Plato talked about in despair. And they would probably be as much use as an Arab leader in a cage fight.

Will our mission succeed? Will we be able to deliver the aid that’s needed so much by the Palestinians in Gaza? We are certainly going with that firm intention. I have given some thought to every possible outcome — which has taken me to some dark places — but failure is not an option for us. We remain optimistic, because the aid could be a matter of life or death for some Palestinians. If it doesn’t get through, though, rest assured that it will not be for the want of trying.

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