co-edited by Greta Berlin
and Bill Dienst, M.D.
with a brief intro by Michael R. Burch,
and publisher of Holocaust and Nakba poetry
"Never underestimate the power of pissed off women ... Women are a powerful
force for justice and always have been."—Greta
I am tickled pink and pleased as punch to announce the release of FREEDOM
SAILORS, a book co-edited by my friend and fellow peace activist, Greta
Berlin. Greta is the co-founder of the Free Gaza Movement, along with Mary
Hughes Thompson, Renee Bowyer, Sharyn Lock and Paul Larudee. She is also a "pissed off" grandmother who faced down a military superpower
and its spooks on the high
seas, in an attempt to bring hope and humanitarian aid to the suffering
children of Gaza and their beleaguered mothers and families. Why is Greta pissed off? Because the governments of Israel and
the U.S. refuse to recognize the human rights and equality of Palestinians.
was shot in the leg by a rubber-coated steel bullet while protesting
Israel's apartheid walls, which tower twice as high as the Berlin Wall. She had
tear gas and sound bombs hurled at her in Bil’in. She was stoned while escorting
Palestinian children to school in Hebron. But she refuses to allow Israel to
intimidate her, or divert her from the cause of equal rights, justice and
freedom for Palestinians. Greta and her co-editor Bill Dienst are going to donate all
royalties from the book to good causes, such as Gaza's Ark (a project to buy a
boat to sail from Gaza to Europe) and the Gaza Mental Health Clinic run by Eyad Siraj.
To buy the book, please click
HERE or on the link at the bottom of this page,
if you prefer to read reviews and excerpts first.
FREEDOM SAILORS has been endorsed by peace activists knowledgeable about Gaza, including
Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire, Alice Walker, author
of The Color Purple, and world-renowned Jewish linguist and
intellectual Noam Chomsky:
“You cannot read this story and not be moved to tears
at the tremendous ongoing suffering, under Israeli occupation, of the
Palestinian people of Gaza …But at the same time, your spirits will be uplifted
and you will be deeply inspired by this story of the vision, courage, and
sacrifice …Out of such a spirit of nonviolent love in action arises not only
the hope for Palestinian freedom, but for humanity itself.”—Mairead
Maguire, Nobel Peace Laureate and co-founder of Peace People, Northern Ireland
“FREEDOM SAILORS is a powerful record of the political and humanitarian
activity of some of the best humans we are ever likely to meet, or learn about.
These women and men leave us with the most wonderful of questions: Is human
courage and sacrifice the same as love? And is it this love for ourselves
collectively, as humans, that has a chance of saving us and our planet? To read
this book is to see what we can be like, in the face of imminent danger …
Reading like a fast-paced action movie, it moves us to tears, to smiles, to
sadness, to consciousness …hopefully to action. We are
Humanity's keeper, whether in sadistically brutalized Gaza, the largest prison
in the world, or in any of a thousand places on our beleaguered earth. Most of
all it demonstrates how we humans, with all our limitations, our frailties and
fears and bouts of irrational joy and craziness are still capable of standing up
for what is right, of seeing each other as worthy of the profoundest caring; of
being the ones who, no matter what, do not turn away.”—Alice Walker,
author of The Color Purple
“FREEDOM SAILORS is a story of sheer courage and fortitude …This is not just
the story of how two tiny boats challenged the illegal Israeli siege on Gaza,
but a vivid description of how a small group of people forever changed the rules
of the game …A riveting account. A must read.”—Ramzi Baroud, born and
Gaza and author of My Father Was a Freedom Fighter
“The unmissable story of the first sea journey to break the siege of Gaza, which
was to launch an international trend. Reads like a super thriller, but with a
noble and enduring morality at its core.”—Ghada Karmi, Palestinian
Doctor of Medicine, Author and Academic
“Those who took up this challenge and sailed to Gaza offer a vivid example of
how and why we should stand up to injustice and corrupt power.”—John
Pilger, journalist and filmmaker
"A riveting account of one of the great moments in the history of
non-violent resistance: breaking the criminal and sadistic siege of Gaza, and
letting the prisoners know that at least some in the outside world care about
them and their grim fate. The Free Gaza flotillas are truly an inspiration."—Noam Chomsky,
Ph.D., MIT Professor
“When something is profoundly wrong, and governments won’t take action, then
people of conscience lead the way.”—The Right Honorable Clare Short, Former UK
MP and Minister for International Development
“This story of energy, enterprise and a refusal to give up ranks with many
of the great adventure stories of history …This book MUST be read by people who
care about freedom and justice.”—Baroness Jenny Tonge, House of Lords, UK
Editor's Personal Comments
Here are comments made to me by Greta as we discussed the release of this
"We had donations from around the world, as little as $1.50 and as much as
$100,000 from one man who believed in us. People on social security sent us
their social security checks. USS Liberty survivors sent us their survivor
pensions. It was breathtaking to see."
"To watch 40,000 Palestinians greet us that day [when the freedom sailors
first landed in Gaza] is something I will never forget. Only having my children
beat that moment."
"We promised them we would come back. We did ... four more times and Israel
ignored us. So why did they suddenly decide to attack us? We had already
established a precedent that we were not going to ask Israel for permission."
"The Swedish/Norwegian ship [the Estelle] is on its way [to Gaza] now. A new
initiative called Gaza's Ark will be leaving from Gaza to Europe. What are the
Israelis going to say? That they are carrying munitions out of Gaza and have to
be stopped? They are the most inane thugs we have ever run into."
Here are articles by and about the freedom sailors ...
On Board the Free Gaza
by Musheir El Farra
As Gaza started to appear on the horizon, I felt ecstatic; I just could not
believe it. I never expected it. After all the threats, I thought we would end
up in an Israeli prison. I could not stop my tears. At last, I will be able to
visit my mother, Laila’s grave. Laila always said to people around her, even
when she was in good health, "If I die, please tell Musheir that the last words
on my lips were his name." Yet I couldn’t be at her bedside when she was dying
at the hospital where I was born, because of this inhuman and illegitimate
siege. My tears continued. Greta was standing next to me. She hugged me, and, in
a very emotional voice said, "Musheir, these moments can never be taken away
As we neared the coast, Derek, one of our colleagues, came to me asking to
contact the Gaza Port authorities to seek permission to enter Gaza’s territorial
waters. No international ships had docked in Gaza Port since 1967, so the port
authorities did not know how to guide us. By then I could see Gaza clearly.
I erupted: "No need, there is the Beach Camp, there is Omar Al Mukhtar Street.
I can see Al Shohada Street. The port is there, right in front of us."
We continued towards the port until our dream came true. We had reached
Gaza against all the odds.
The View from Gaza
by Gamaal Al-Attar
The sun was shining on August 23, 2008, and everyone in Gaza was waking up in
order to get ready for the D-Day. It is the day everyone in Gaza has been
waiting for a long time; a day we will feel like there are some people in the
world who care for our suffering. A day we will feel that we belong to the human
race, and that our brothers and sisters in humanity care for our daily
struggles. Scouts from different scout groups had signed up to be in the
welcoming committee on the fishing boats. So, we headed directly to the main
port of Gaza at 08:00, and together with policemen who are there to secure the
crowds, we boarded the boats and started the trip to the open sea.
Hours of waiting in the boats made everyone seasick, and by noon, most of our
hope flew away with the wind. It looked like the two boats were not coming. We
were screwed. All the dreams and feelings that there was someone who cared for
us got smaller and smaller as time went on. Jamal El Khoudari (the coordinator
for the campaign) spoke at a press conference that the boats had gotten lost and
made some excuse. I and the other scouts in Gaza did not want to listen to
excuses. The people of Gaza wanted them here now. The smiles that were on every
single face by the morning, the joyful people in the port waiting at sunrise,
and the hope of seeing someone who would care for us changed into a huge
disappointment. By noon, nearly everyone had left the port and gone back home.
On the way back home, I saw Gaza looking darker than ever, and a small tear
escaped from my eye. ''It looks like there is no one who cares for us,'' a boy
scout told me. I opened my mouth to tell him that this wasn’t true, but I could
not find a word to say.
Just like all the scouts, I went home, took a shower, and tried to rest after a
long day under heavy sun. All of us were seasick and sick in our hearts as well.
I lay on my bed to sleep and forget about humankind. I set my head on my pillow
and thought. "We are on our own, and nobody cares."
Then my mum came to my room with a smile on her face, ''Jamal, the boats are
visible on TV.'' So I jumped from my bed and asked her, ''When?'' She
said, "It is just breaking news." I can't remember how, when, or why I found
myself on a bus going back to the port with the scouts. I can't remember how we
managed to be together again going to the Port of Gaza. We all jumped on board
different fishing boats and sailed to the open sea again. There, on the horizon,
I saw three elements: A beautiful sunset, the SS Liberty, and the SS Free Gaza.
On the east side of the Port, more and more people from Gaza were gathering.
This time, the disappointed faces were not there. We could hear the people
laughing high and delighted as they strained to catch sight of the boats.
In a couple of minutes, those of us on the fishing boats came closer to the Free
Gaza, and I saw the peace flag hanging up, and Maria Del Mar Fernandez waving a
Palestinian flag and shouting. Suddenly, I saw many kids taking off their
t-shirts and jumping into the sea, swimming to the Free Gaza. My small boat got
me closer to the boats, and as my feet touched the deck, it gave me a shock. My
mind was blown away as I forgot every single suffering I had in my life under
Israel’s blockade. I moved over to someone who was so calm and a bit away from
all the media.
''Hey, welcome to Gaza.'' I said with a smile.
I kept repeating these words and getting happier with every handshake. By the
side of the cabin, I saw a muscled guy with Tattoos on his arms and a nice cap.
"Is he the captain?’’ I wondered. After shaking his hand, I kept speaking to
him, and within moments, we became friends. He was this nice Italian guy who had
left Italy searching for justice and truth whose name was Vittorio Utopia
Arrigoni. I shared the Palestinian flag with him, and we started waving to the
media and the tens of thousands of people who came to see the boats in our small
For a short period, the boats orbited inside the marina; then it was time to
evacuate the boats and to greet our guests on land in Gaza. We scouts stood in a
line and saluted the new Palestinians who had come from across the globe with
one message, ''Stay Human".
I will never forget all the small and big hands that came out from the crowds to
shake hands with the activists. I can't forget how tanned the people were after
that very long waiting day in the port, but also I can't forget the spirit in
the crowd after those heroes landed on the shore. I remember I went home that
day with a charged battery for life and hope. The two boats weren’t necessarily
bringing supplies to the people of Gaza, but they brought what is more
important. They brought enough hope for over 1.5 million people who live under
the blockade that someday we would be free.
The Genesis of the Free Gaza Movement
by co-founder Mary Hughes Thompson
When we sent out a plea for donations, thousands of people contributed; some
big, but mostly, they were small donations; $1.30 coming from Indonesia, for
example. These donors were strangers; they believed in what we were trying to do
enough to help us. I wrote and thanked every one of them, and many wrote back to
say they were honored to contribute, that we were actually doing something
brave. Many donated more than once; people wrote to say they were on a fixed
income and wished it could be more. One woman sent us her social security
check … twice. We had USS Liberty survivors donating every month from their Navy
pensions. Looking back over what most would have considered overwhelming
odds against us, I'm still humbled at the faith so many people had in our
efforts from the beginning, when it seemed we had an insurmountable mountain to
climb to raise the money.
The Free Gaza Movement was on the cusp of the Internet/Social network phenomena.
When we organized the first trip in 2006, Twitter wasn’t even around and didn’t
really start until mid-2007; Facebook was only two years old, not yet a public
phenomenon and YouTube was only a year old. The remainder of the social networks
didn’t exist at all.
Therefore, we organized everything through Google groups, just trusting each
other that our goal of sailing to Gaza would overcome our personal
peculiarities. For the most part, that held through the entire planning stage.
Social media got its tryout with Free Gaza, and we succeeded in making the
project work without ever having met most of the organizers. We did have one
thing in common. All of us had been volunteers with the International Solidarity
Movement, so we trusted each other.
As social media becomes the major tool to organize and plan events from the Arab
Spring to the Occupy Wall Street movement, we can be proud that Free Gaza was a
pioneer in its use. The world will never be the same again. All of the
initiatives since our first trip, from Viva Palestina to the convoys to Gaza,
were a result of our success with Internet organizing.
by Greta Berlin
"You Need a Proper Boat ... "
originally published by Counterpunch; reprinted with the permission of the
author; "Gaza Fever" appears in FREEDOM SAILORS in a revised version
We’ve all caught the fever, every one of us who works to send boats to Gaza.
From August 2006, when a handful of us started the Free Gaza Movement, every one
who has joined us has been stricken with a bad case of the disease. It is
chronic. It sometimes causes afflicted patients to insist that if just one more
voyage can be planned to this small slice of the Mediterranean, we’ll all be in
remission. There is no real cure in sight … yet.
Gaza Fever has now attacked thousands of us who have a passionate sense of
The disease began shortly after Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006, as a group of
us were in despair that the Palestinians, once again, were the forgotten symptom
of Israel’s grand designs. As the world watched the defeat of Israel by a small
band of guerrilla fighters in Lebanon, Israel decided it would take its wrath
out on the Palestinians, specifically the Palestinians of Gaza. We watched as
Israel, in January 2009, deliberately bombed 1.5 million Palestinians into
abject poverty, a man-made catastrophe bordering on genocide.
One man in Australia suggested we sail a boat from New York to Gaza in
protest of the closures there. That small idea has grown into a flotilla that
leaves at the end of May with 700 people on board nine ships.
We, who have traveled by boat to Gaza, come back changed, blisters of outrage
forever marking us. Those who have supported us through donations, letters,
outraged picketing in front of Israeli Embassies demanding Israel stop its war
crimes against a civilian population are also changed, as they watched our small
boats sail into Gaza five times, cheering us on our way. Then, when our last
three missions were violently stopped by Israel, thousands stepped up and
donated to help us buy new boats.
In July 2009, Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, former Prime Minister of Malaysia,
and his wife, Tun Dr. Siti Hasmah bin Mohamad visited the Free Gaza Movement in
Cyprus. They had heard about the voyages to Gaza and what Israel had done to the
last three, ramming the Dignity, turning one back under threat of fire and
hijacking the Spirit of Humanity, kidnapping the 21 human rights observers and
throwing them into detention for a week.
He wanted to come and see for himself the small fishing boat that had been,
in August 2008, Free Gaza’s first vessel to enter the port of Gaza in 41 years.
When he and his wife stepped on this small vessel, he was shocked. "You went all
the way to Gaza on this small boat? You braved the sea in a boat that was barely
When we replied that, indeed, we had crossed the sea in not only this small
boat, but one even smaller, 44 of us challenging Israel’s blockade on the 1.5
million Palestinians of Gaza, he caught Gaza Fever.
"You need a proper boat," he said. "I’m going back to my people in Malaysia
and see how we can help you raise money to send more boats back to Gaza."
And that’s exactly what he and his wife did.
They went back to their citizens and, through the Perdana Global Peace
Organization, helped to raise over €300,000 for the Free Gaza to purchase a
cargo ship and two passenger boats. These are the boats we are sailing to Gaza
And when the Irish cargo boat sailed out of Dundalk, it was because of the
passion for justice that Tun Dr. Mahathir and his wife, Tun Dr. Siti Hasmah have
for the occupied Palestinians and the determination of the members of the Free
Malaysia and Ireland and the people who represent this mission embody civil
society at its best.
Now our four boats will rendezvous in the Mediterranean with boats from the
European Campaign to End the Siege of Gaza (ECESG), Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH),
Ship to Gaza Greece, Ship to Gaza Sweden, and the International Committee to
Lift the Siege on Gaza.
We’re named the Freedom Flotilla and we sail to deliver reconstruction
supplies, paper, medical equipment and toys for the children. The fever has
spread to other organizations and other countries.
Will there be a cure?…only if their fishermen can fish without being shot and
murdered, only if their farmers can harvest their crops without Israeli military
vehicles burning down their wheat, only if Gaza has the same rights as every
country on the Mediterranean … the right to free and open trade with the rest of
Then and only then will our severe case of Gaza Fever be cured.
On Board the Liberty
There was a moment on the 23rd August 2008, sometime after 3 pm, when I suddenly
realized I was going to reach Gaza.
Up until that moment the idea had been a dream—never far from my consciousness
but still very much a dream. For two years I and my crazy sea-faring friends had
done all sorts of things to try and make this journey happen; had held secret
meetings in the bombed-out streets of Dahiya, in Southern Lebanon, and put
letters under stage doors of famous people acting in London’s West End in the
hope that they might want to come along; we had spent the years trying to
convince people that we really would save enough pennies to buy a boat and sail
But I had said it so many times in so many strange and coded ways. (I remember
after talking to Riad on the phone. Sometimes I used to wonder if I was not
really involved in some project for assessing the likelihood of acquiring
double-decker buses to be used in areas of Beirut, rather than buying a boat.)
It had become almost like something that was going to happen but only in the
The frustrating, agonizing and brilliantly entertaining three weeks we spent in
Cyprus, inventing ways to keep ourselves occupied (like hand-sewing banners),
and our thoughts away from the possibility that the boats weren’t actually
coming, suggested to me that the moment might never be realized—the moment of
knowing we would see Gaza from atop a rolling wave.
But then that moment came. We got the ‘all clear’ from the radio and everyone on
board the boat started repeating to everyone else that the Israelis were not
going to come; they were not going to stop us.
The only thing that was between us and Gaza was the clear rolling sea. I
remember staring toward the shore waiting for the first sight of the land while
Gaza was still hidden by the horizon haze. But even in the midst of that joy,
images of Gaza were haunting me. What would we find when we reached there? How
scarred would the war-weary people be? Would they really care to see two fishing
boats filled with very seasick passengers coming into port? People who had so
many horror stories to tell ...
... Of the little girl kneeling in anguish amongst the shattered bodies of her
family, shelled while picnicking on the Gaza beach.
... Of an alleyway in Beit Hanoun running a stream of blood from the massacres of
... Of the crumpled body of a woman lying beneath the lamppost, killed while
protesting the besieging of the Beit Hanoun mosque where the men were trapped
... Of a little boy begging his father to shield him, and the father sitting
helpless, as his protecting arms failed to stop the bullet that murdered him.
... And of a young American woman [peace activist Rachel Corrie] shouting at the driver of a bulldozer to stop,
but he didn’t, crushing her with his blade which he dropped back over her
crumpled body to crush her again.
Somewhere there behind the haze was Gaza. A place filled with as many stories of
tragedy and suffering as any place in the world was.
And then the horizon haze lifted and we were staring at the skyline of Gaza city
itself. An involuntary cry went up from everyone on board the boat, and I can’t
remember whether it was with tears or laughter—both probably. Some of us were
jumping up and down; some embracing, some sitting quietly. I am not sure that
anyone was prepared for this or for what happened next.
We had prepared ourselves for capture, to be shelled, for our boats to sink; we
had prepared ourselves for lengthy stints in Israeli prisons and the
possibilities of injury. But I am not sure that we had dared prepare ourselves
for the sort of greeting we were to have when we reached the people of Gaza. We
hadn’t really thought much about what we would do if we actually reached the
I remember some time that morning, while on the boat and when there was still a
whole sea between us and Gaza, that someone on board had said there were
thousands of people at Gaza port waiting for our arrival—but hours and hours
had passed since then. By now it was almost sunset and it had never been
clear to the people of Gaza that we were going to make it; surely they had gone
home ... but when we got close enough to the shore we saw there were not just
thousands of people still there, but tens of thousands. Old fishing boats
spilling over with people were sailing towards us with so many happy faces
onboard; there were drums beating and kids in the water, unafraid of the boats
that were tossing to and fro on the swell around them.
As our boats were escorted into the port, and we were fully aware of the extent
of the welcome, I don’t think there was a dry eye on board either of our boats.
Who were we to deserve this? What had we done or endured on the scale of what
the people around us had done and endured to be given this honour?
In an era where this sort of turnout in the West only happens for film stars or
sporting heroes (and in Australia, sometimes for the Queen), it came as a shock
to see how different it was here. This greeting and celebration was not for an
individual or for individuals, not for sporting prowess or Hollywood good looks;
it was for what we represented by making that journey. I am not sure that I know
exactly what we did represent to the people who came to greet us; but it had to
do with civil resistance, with challenging injustice and with upholding the
human right to break barriers when they were set there to imprison.
Is there any other port in the world where this could possibly happen? Where
before any formalities or passport checks, customs or officials, we could be
embraced as lost relatives might be by whoever was near enough to embrace us?
Where we could fish sparkling-eyed laughing children out of the water before we
had even thrown a rope ashore? I doubt it; it was exhilarating!
On the 23rd of August 2008 we were witness to a massive celebration of civil
resistance. The Palestinian people showed the world that day that they were
still capable of the most wholesome and forgiving of human gestures: joy; which
is in itself, the supreme act of resistance. Yes, we were not just witnesses but
also a part of those celebrations because, in some small way, our long journey
there had allowed them to happen.
For that I will be forever humbled and grateful.
Chapter 1: You Will Never Make It
The sun was shining in Cyprus when Free Gaza and Liberty finally pulled out to
sea at 9:00 am, and 44 passengers, journalists and crew had this overwhelming
feeling of joy. We were finally sailing to Gaza. Crowds lined the dock and
cheered us on as Free Gaza cast off her lines and headed out of the port, only
to find that Liberty had engine trouble again. We had to wait for two hours as
the engineer climbed down into the engine room and fixed the fan belt. Finally,
the Cypriot Coast Guard escorted us to the 12-mile limit before sounding their
horns and turning back. We were on our way, three weeks late, but finally
leaving, sailing 240 miles across the Mediterranean to the imprisoned people of
The Israeli government had been threatening us for weeks, demanding that we
abort the mission, telling us they could not be responsible for our safety (as
though we were somehow sailing to Israel and not to Gaza, a territory that
Israel had been telling the world was no longer occupied.) We had found Israel’s
Achilles’ heel, and we were exploiting it in the media.
Israel had said it no longer occupied Gaza and had not occupied since the
government pulled out its illegal settlers in 2005. Therefore, by Israel’s own
admission, Gaza was free to invite anyone who wanted to come and visit, to sail
into its port and be welcomed. We were not asking for Israel’s permission. We
didn’t need to. Gaza was free, and we were coming.
Our two boats could only travel at 7 knots, so we were in for a long and
treacherous voyage, 33 hours until we would arrive, the threats from the Israeli
government and its supporters of sinking us, then letting us drown, ringing in
our ears. The day before we left, my phone rang.
"Do you know how to swim?" said the muffled voice. "What?" "Do you know how to
swim?" he repeated. "What?" Shouting into the phone. "DO YOU KNOW HOW TO SWIM?"
Off the top of my head, I said, "I’m sorry. I can’t hear you. You sound as
though you’re under water." At the time, I thought my answer was pretty funny.
Our high-profile passengers like Lauren Booth, sister-in-law of Tony Blair, had
been threatened constantly, one caller saying he knew where she lived in France,
and she had better go home and watch over her children.
Those of us working with the media had our phone numbers posted on the website
as contacts. We often got "anonymous phone calls" in the middle of the night.
"There is a bomb on board." "You will never make it." "We know how easy it is to
We had scuba divers checking the undersides of the boats four times a day,
looking for sabotage. Even the Cypriot Coast Guard went under the boats while
they were docked in Larnaca. They didn’t trust the Israelis either after the
bomb attack in Limassol in 1988, and many in the port authority had talked to us
privately, telling us that Israeli agents had been down to the port asking
questions. This afternoon, they had given us a thumbs-up and said we were ready
We knew the Israeli government was watching us. We knew they wanted to stop us.
We also knew the story of the Ship of Return, due to set sail in February 1988
from Cyprus. It was carrying Palestinians and supporters who were sailing back
to Haifa to return to their homeland. Israeli frogmen blew up the engine with a
mine stuck under the vessel. It was attached to a time fuse, according to port
officials in Limassol.
The blast came less than 24 hours after a car bomb on the waterfront killed
three senior Palestinian organizers who were involved in plans for the voyage.
There was only one possibility who killed them, and that was Israel. So we took
their warnings seriously.
No boat full of internationals had docked in the port of Gaza for 41 years, as
Israel tightened the screws of their 20 year illegal blockade ever tighter since
2000, a blockade they said was all about security, and we knew was about
stealing the natural gas of Gaza. They just didn’t realize their threats made
passengers more determined than ever to sail. We had come on this journey from
17 countries, from Palestine to Pakistan, from the U.S. to Europe. Most of us
were activists and had worked in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, some for
decades. Threatening us was completely counter-productive.
So far, everything was working, as the boats sneezed and snorted their way
across the waves, their diesel engines complaining. The two captains, John Klusmire from the U.S. and the Greek captain, Giorgos Klontzas, were talking to
each other on Channel 16, used for transmissions by ships of the world. Their
readings said we might be in for some rough weather but no rain, just choppy
We watched Larnaca twinkle into the distance as a cheer went up from both boats,
"We are coming." The journalists from Al Jazeera and Ramattan got on their
satellite phones and called ahead to Gaza, "We Are Coming." It was to be
the last set of phone calls made.
Within two hours, beam seas started rolling the two boats around like pieces of
debris. Those of us on Free Gaza were doubly pitched from side to side, because
the boat had a useless mast that tipped dangerously close to the water as
Captain John tried to wrestle it upright. Almost all of us were sick, and the
misery was made worse by the spray coming up and over the boat, drenching us and
making the deck a slippery mess. We held onto the rails, some even crawled along
the outside of the deck, as we tried to navigate to narrow benches set into the
sides of the boat and lie down. The seasickness pills and patches were of little
use, as our own fear of what might happen added to our sickness.
After ten hours at sea, the sun began to set, a filmy disk slipping into the
water’s edge. We had long lost sight of land and saw no boats. Sharyn Lock, a
major organizer from Australia, announced that we were 70 miles away from
Cyprus, and we all groaned. It was going to be a long night.
Thirty minutes after the pitch black descended on the two boats, our radio,
mobile and satellite phones went dead. The Israeli navy had blocked all
communications. We had made plans to keep one satellite phone off at all times,
so they couldn’t pick up the number, and we didn’t dare turn that one on until
there was an absolute emergency. Captain John said the Israeli communications
system would pick up the number almost at once. The only means of communicating
with each other was over the low-tech equipment we had brought on board;
walkie-talkies. Jeff Halper, chairman of the Israeli Committee Against House
Demolitions was on board our boat and told us we wouldn't see or hear the
Israelis coming if they decided to attack.
One of the journalists was clutching his camera to his chest and lying on the
deck of the boat, determined that, if anyone attacked us, he was going to get
footage. My friend, Mary, was propped up in the Zodiac, the little rubber boat
used for emergencies. She was throwing up in rubber gloves, tying them neatly at
the top, and handing them to me to throw overboard. We had laughed at Kathy
Sheetz, the emergency room nurse from California who was on board. She had
insisted we buy biodegradable rubber gloves, never thinking they would be used
"Here," Mary whispered, "Throw this one overboard and give me a new one."
The glove bobbed off into the waves. "If the Israelis board, they’ll have to
lift me up or shoot me right here in the Zodiac, because I don’t have the
strength or will to follow their orders." I hoped that was not going to happen.
Even though it was August, it was cold on the water, and we had not prepared
ourselves for the damp. The water had drenched everything and everyone. We had
two options; stay above on the deck and be cold and wet, or go down below to the
six cabins and inhale the diesel fuel. The cabins were dry, but the diesel fuel
made even the experienced sailors gag. Most passengers chose to stay above.
At 22:00, a fire started in the engine room of the Free Gaza, and Derek was down
in the hold covered in ash and soot, trying, with two volunteers, to put out the
fire and keep the engine running.
I closed my eyes and thought of the two years it had taken us to buy and board
these boats and head out to Gaza. People thought we were insane, and, at the
moment, I was beginning to believe they were right. The entire journey had been
organized through the Internet, and every passenger coming with us had been
recommended by at least two other people. Our original passenger list of 88 had
dwindled down to 44 as the voyage was postponed, then postponed again, then
postponed again. Everything from the suicide of one of the organizers to running
out of money had delayed the trip.
Many of us were veterans, working in the occupied territories, but some, like
Musheir El Farra, an engineer from the U.K., just wanted to go home to see his
family. The Israeli government had refused to allow him to attend his mother’s
funeral, and he wanted to say his ‘good-byes’ to her. Coming with us was his
opportunity to enter Gaza without the humiliating searches from Israeli soldiers
that all Palestinians trying to enter or leave Gaza endured.
Since 2006, when we decided we would sail to Gaza, the five of us who had
organized this voyage had split our responsibilities; Paul Larudee was in charge
of the boats, I was in charge of the passengers, Mary Hughes Thompson was in
charge of finances, and Renee Bowyer and Sharyn Lock were in charge of
logistics. We had managed to grow from five dedicated people to over two hundred
in two years, working together via Internet with the overriding goal of sailing
to Gaza. I crawled into the other end of the Zodiac to try to get some sleep and
decided to calm my own queasy stomach by making lists in my head. I ran over the
checklists one more time.
Were all 44 passengers checked in and on board? Yes. The oldest was Sister Anne
Montgomery, an 81-year-old nun from the U.S. who had worked in Palestine for the
Christian Peacemaker Teams and had also worked in Iraq. The youngest, Adam Qvist,
was a 22-year-old Danish activist from the International Solidarity Movement
whom I had met in 2007 as he was walking Palestinian children to school in
Hebron under the malevolent gaze of the illegal settlers.
Did everyone know how to swim? As far as we knew, they did and had signed the
waiver saying they knew how (we found out later that several of our passengers
could barely dog paddle in the children’s end of the pool.)
Had everyone made out a will? Yes. We had no idea what was going to happen, and
Ramzi Kysia, head of our land team in Cyprus, had insisted everyone write a
will, then send or give one copy to family or friends and leave a copy with him.
Some of the passengers thought we were being overly dramatic. It turned out, two
years later when the Israelis murdered nine people on our Freedom Flotilla, that
it was a good idea to have a will. We also had to leave a contact number, our
passport numbers and country of issue and our wishes for getting rid of our
Almost everyone agreed to be buried at sea, although some wanted to be
refrigerated and sent to Gaza, a lofty goal considering the refrigerator on
board could only hold soft drinks.
Had we all signed a waiver absolving the Free Gaza (FG) movement of any
liability? Yes. We would not have taken them otherwise. We had no money and no
liability insurance. Every
cent that we had raised went into the boats, more than $700,000 by the time we
finally boarded them. These donations had come from all over the world, from
people as outraged as we were that 1.5 million Palestinians were boarded up in
an outdoor prison.
Did we all have life jackets and had we been at the safety session run by our
irrepressible Irish first mate, Derek Graham? As far as I could tell in the
pitch darkness, everyone on board the Free Gaza had on a life jacket.
I looked around the boat, seeing small orange humps on the deck and people
leaning over the rails retching, attached to the ‘throw-up lines.’ We could see
across to the Liberty, where three of their passengers, wearing orange, were
also attached. Derek had reminded us that, under no circumstances were we to
throw up without being connected to the line.
"I’m not coming to fetch ye," he yelled in an Irish accent. "If you’re fucking
stupid enough to throw up over the side and go over, you can fend fer yerself."
Later, he told us that would never have happened, but he knew we were unaware of
how dangerous the waves really were, and if he had to scare the crap out of us,
that was fine. Except for the ten members of the crew, five on each boat, none
of us had any sailing experience, except on a lake.
I drifted off to a fitful sleep, counting rubber gloves, only to be shaken awake
an hour later.
"We need volunteers in two-hour shifts. People who aren’t sick, four to a shift,
front and back." Derek demanded, and several of us on board volunteered to stand
watch in two-hour shifts, not to look for Israeli gunboats, but to make sure our
boats didn’t collide with each other. The only way the crews on board could talk
was via walkie-talkie, and they had to be pretty close, almost impossible in the
Seventy-nine year old David Schermerhorn, a film producer from the state of
Washington with years of experience on boats, volunteered for the 1:00-3:00 am
shift, along with me, Sharyn, and Vittorio Arrigoni, a veteran of the sea and a
long-time activist and journalist from Italy. I went back to sleep for two
hours, rocking in the Zodiac that was attached to the deck. At 1:00 am, David
woke me up.
"Time for us to stand watch. It’s pretty quiet right now, most are asleep, but
you’ll have to be careful at the stern of the boat. One person back there is
pretty sick." I wandered back to the stern and looked out to see if there was
anything that could be seen. The stars were out, but, other than the light on
the stern of Liberty, there was nothing on the sea. How did the captains even
know what was out there? We didn’t have a single electronic device to even tell
us if a ship was approaching.
Suddenly, at 1:30 am, Captain John and Derek both got violently ill, incapable
of piloting Free Gaza. John and Derek were experienced sailors; John had piloted
all of his life on big research ships. Derek had spent a good deal of his time
on the sea. Had someone poisoned them? Was someone on board working for the
Israelis? That had always been one of our fears; that no matter how much
screening of passengers, one could be bought off or blackmailed into doing the
bidding of Israel. Was I getting completely paranoid? I held on to the
stern, looking at the back lights of Liberty and wondered if Giorgos was sick.
John handed over the boat to David and Vik after some wrangling with one of the
other crewmembers that he, and only he, could pilot the boat. The two boats did
their best to stay together, Giorgos, who apparently was fine, stayed on the
walkie-talkie. I stood watch along with Sharyn.
As long as we could see the lights of the Liberty, we felt a bit safer. In a
couple of hours, John and Derek were fine. We never knew why they got so sick.
During the dark, cold, wet, miserable and frightening night, huddled together,
those of us awake tried to stay upbeat. The three toilets down below deck had
stopped working. Derek had yelled at us not to put toilet paper down them, but
no one remembered.
The fan belt on the engine on the Liberty continued to split, and we could hear
the boat coughing as it chugged along. They were, after all, old fishing boats
equipped to carry 11 passengers each, and we had 25 on one boat, 19 on the
other. We didn’t want to face the possibility we might have two boats with no
engines, one with no captain. The worst possible scenario would be drifting at
sea, and have the Israeli navy finally rescue us, laughing at our stupidity.
As one of the organizers of this ship of fools, I began to despair. What had we
done? Had we put 44 people's lives in danger for some stupid idea of sailing to
Gaza? Was our two years of organizing, the death of one of our primary
supporters and the massive debt we had incurred trying to get the boats ready…
was all of that going to go into the drink?
A little after 3:00 am, David woke up Ayash Darraji, the Al Jazeera journalist.
"Does your sat phone work?" David asked. "I know we said we wouldn’t take the
risk, but we have a really ill passenger on board, our equipment is dead and
someone needs to know where we are."
Ayash turned on his phone, actually got a tone and called his office. Although
we couldn’t have known it out there in the dark, Al Jazeera released the story
of our lost boats, the Greeks demanded to know where their MP was, and Israel,
backing off, stopped jamming our electronics. But it took two hours until the
two satellite phones were working, and daylight before the navigating equipment
was back online.
My shift was more than over, and I was exhausted. It was 4:00 am. That night was
one of the longest nights in all our lives. As the dark slowly faded, we could
see boat lights in the distance behind us and wondered if they were Israeli
I curled up next to Mary in the Zodiac and thought about how it had all started
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