Freedom Flotilla III has come and gone. The siege on Gaza remains.
We did not end Israel’s criminal blockade on Gaza. We did focus world attention on this illegal siege. We did highlight the fact that Israel still occupies Gaza. We did show international solidarity with the people of Palestine. We did demonstrate the power of global citizen action. And, we did bring humanitarian aid for Gaza, even though it did not reach them.
Freedom Flotilla III comprised almost 60 sailors from more than 20 nations. I was the only South African, one of a just a few academics, and the only Christian theologian.
Five boats made up the flotilla. Boat 1 – the “Marianne of Gothenburg” – was a converted fishing trawler, which had been sailing for more than a month already. It was the lead boat which would attempt to ‘break’ the siege. Boats 3, 4 and 5 – “Rachel,” “Vittorio” and “Juliano II” – were supporting sailing boats that would ‘challenge’ the siege, and thus eventually turn around if confronted by Israeli naval forces. I was assigned to boat 2, a small fishing trawler which, along with the Marianne, would attempt to break the siege.
When Ismail Moola of the Palestine Solidarity Alliance contacted me about my intention to participate in FF3, he emphasised the dangers, risks and harsh realities of the initiative. “Have you discussed this with your daughter?” he asked. “Not yet,” I responded, not quite sure how I would go about talking to Amy about this project.
How does one explain to a 13-year-old child that you will embark on a high-risk project, which involves inevitable confrontation with a most brutal, violent regime that carries out the most horrendous crimes against humanity with flagrant disregard of international law and with utter impunity?
For Amy, however, it was not too difficult. As young as she may be, she knows and understands why I do what I do. She knows about apartheid South Africa and apartheid Israel. She knows oppression and injustice are wrong, wherever it exists. She knows about the harsh realities on the ground of a people under Israeli occupation – the apartheid wall, the illegal settlements, the humiliating checkpoints, the home demolitions, the separate roads, and the war crimes against the people of Gaza.
When I told her about the mission, Amy understood the language of solidarity. Deep down inside, she later conceded, was a concern about my safety. She did have a few “What if…?” questions as she thought more about the trip. But, she had no doubt it was a noble endeavour, and she supported me. She said it was fine for me to go. I suppose I was more anxious about the trip. When I said goodbye to her at Cape Town International Airport, she interrupted me at one point, with a smirk on her face and a raised eyebrow, saying, “Daddy, why are you speaking like someone who’s not coming back?” I smiled, and promptly changed my tone.
Along the way to Athens, the meeting point, I received a letter from Amy. I had asked her to consider writing a note that I would hand to the first 13-year-old Palestinian I met, on reaching Gaza. While I did not make it to Gaza, I subsequently shared it via social media (see https://twitter.com/clintlebruyns/status/616718504704655365).
There has been an amazing outpouring of appreciation for the letter from around the world. Most importantly, a number of Palestinian parents in Gaza have ‘received’ this letter and read it out to their children. Some of these children will be writing back to Amy.
International solidarity will be more potent a force as we nurture relationships among children.
Boat 2 consisted of a small crew: TV reporters from England and the Netherlands, a photojournalist from Greece, an MP from Spain, a captain and anthropologist from the Netherlands, a U.S. military hero who survived the 1967 attack by Israel on board the ‘Liberty,’ sailors from Greece, and myself, a South African theologian.
Given the strategic importance of boat 2 to join the Marianne in breaking the maritime siege, we faced several challenges as a crew. These included allegations of sabotage of the vessel, opposition from the Greek port authorities as Israel exerted pressure, delays because of technical problems, delays due to unfavourable weather conditions, and delays in the light of trying to elude Israeli agents ‘tailing’ our team in their attempt to locate our port of departure and the specific vessel.
Activists of boat 2 managed to sail from Athens to Crete on an independent ship. On the island of Crete we were in standby mode, ready to join the other four vessels at the appropriate time. We were on high alert as Mossad laboured in the background, desperately ensuring that no boats of the Freedom Flotilla III left port. The intelligence of the activists exceeded their attempts to thwart the mission, as boats 3, 4 and 5 made it to sea.
These boats could no longer wait for boat 2. Boat 1 ventured forth, eventually resulting in their capture in international waters. The sailing vessels reached their furthest point, and then had to retreat. Boat 2 needed to sail. The overall strategy for the five-boat formation was being compromised for boat 2. The final delay revolved around administrative issues from the Greek port authorities. Our boat was at this time near Athens. We were in Crete. To save on time, we made a last-minute dash by flight back to Athens.
The next day, we were granted clearance. However, new consultations took place because of the time that had been forfeited, the knowledge that boat 1 had been boarded, and the technological blackout at sea by the Israeli forces that prevented contact with any of the other vessels. In the end, the disappointing decision was taken that boat 2 would not sail at this point. It would still sail, but as part of a new strategic mission within the next couple of months. These details will remain undisclosed until the relevant time of the actual sail.
Freedom Flotilla III accomplished much. But the siege remains.
We will sail again.
Palestine will be free.
A luta continua.