Greta Berlin on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla III
with Mike Burch
Greta Berlin is an American peace activist who supports the Palestinian people
in their quest to obtain freedom, equal rights and justice. She has been a
spokesperson for the Free Gaza Movement, which she co-founded in 2006. She was
one of the freedom sailors on the first outside vessel to reach Gaza since
Israel established its blockade, and she co-edited the book Freedom Sailors,
which recounts the perilous voyage. This interview was conducted via e-mail, and
the hyperlinks below were furnished by Greta Berlin along with her answers to
Mike Burch's questions.
MB: Greta, let me ask you point blank. You have been accused of being an
anti-Semite. Do you hate and despise Jews, or is there some other reason for
your criticism of Israel?
The mark of someone who is effective at challenging Israel’s genocidal policies
is that we are called anti-Semites. I join a long list, from Stephen Hawking to
Nelson Mandela to Desmond Tutu to Roger Waters to Selma Hayak. I’m in good
company, since all of these celebrities (and many more) stand for justice for
Palestinians. What makes my ongoing criticism sting to those Zionists who are
big supporters of Israeli actions is that (1) I have been supporting justice for
Palestine for 47 years, and the best they could do is find one tweet I posted
about Zionists working in tandem with Nazis, (2) my feet have gone where my
mouth goes, from working in the occupied West Bank to getting on board that
first boat to Gaza, and (3) I am not interested in being politically correct.
don’t like bullies, and I don’t care if that bully is a white kid on the
playground or a Jew in occupied Palestine.
Finally, I was married for 14 years to an Arab and 14 years to a Jew, and if
anyone has the right to be anti-Semitic… I do. They ended up liking each other
better than I liked either one of them. (For those of you with no sense of
humor… you haven’t spent 28 years of your life married to Semites!)
MB: Greta, I do appreciate your irony, and I can certainly sympathize about the
false charges of anti-Semitism, since I'm an editor and publisher of Holocaust
poetry, and yet I get called an anti-Semite for opposing Israel’s treatment of
Palestinians. But let's forge ahead. Why did you and your associates decide to
send boats to Gaza?
Israel was busy massacring the civilians in Lebanon in 2006. Many of us who had
gone to the occupied territories to work with the International Solidarity
Movement (ISM) were emailing each other on a Google group (this was way before
social media exploded) and trying to figure out how to keep the plight of the
Palestinians, especially those in Gaza, on the front page.
One activist in Australia wrote and said, “I have always had this dream of
sailing a boat from New York down the coast of Europe and then on to Gaza.” I
was sitting in my friend Mary Hughes Thompson’s living room, looked at her, and
we said, almost in unison, “Let’s do it.” We wrote to Paul Larudee in San
Francisco about the idea, and he also loved it. The three of us finally became
five co-founders, but the idea was born sitting on a couch in Los Angeles.
MB: What exactly was your mission and were you able to accomplish it?
Israel had withdrawn its illegal squatters from Gaza in 2005, then declared that
Gaza was no longer occupied, that they had their freedom. So we decided to
challenge that, beginning by speaking around the U.S., showing audiences that we
intended to buy a boat and sail from international waters into the waters of
Gaza, having nothing to do with Israel. After all, Israel had told the world
that Gaza was free; and we were now being invited into this small slice of the
Mediterranean by the people there.
Our mission was not to deliver any kind of aid. And it never has been. Our
mission was to break the siege of Gaza. We wanted to raise international
awareness about the prison-like closure of the Gaza Strip and pressure the
international community to review its sanctions policy and end its support for
continued Israeli occupation. We wanted to uphold Palestine's right to welcome
internationals as visitors, human rights observers, humanitarian aid workers and
We would not ask for Israel’s permission. On the mission page of our website, we
clearly said, “It is our intent to overcome this brutal siege through civil
resistance and non-violent direct action, and establish a permanent sea lane
between Cyprus and Gaza.”
Did we accomplish our mission? Only partially, and that is one of the reasons we
continue to sail. After our fifth successful trip, we, as well as many who
followed us, have been violently stopped.
MB: You got in successfully five times. But since December 2009, Israel has
stopped you. Why are you continuing?
When the 44 of us landed that amazing day, August 23, 2008 and held meetings
with many of the NGOs and civilians in Gaza, we made three promises to them.
1. We would return to our countries and write,
speak and advocate for lifting Israel’s illegal siege on Palestinians in Gaza,
the only slice of the Mediterranean whose port is occupied.
2. We would take as many Palestinians out of Gaza
as we could. In our five trips, we took 28 Palestinians who had visas to attend
universities and/or Palestinians who were in need of medical attention. It was a
tiny number, but we have made a difference in the lives of 28 families as many
of them have gone on to finish university and establish lives in Europe and
3. We vowed we would return. We are still keeping
Even though Free Gaza had not been involved in all 15 voyages over the past 7
years with the waves of small boats that have attempted to sail, we are big
supporters of all of their efforts. One of our major hopes was that other
initiatives would carry on our original mission, and that is happening.
MB: Yes, you certainly helped start a trend! But
boats are very expensive.
How do the Palestinians in Gaza feel about your coming, and do they think you’re
wasting time and money?
None of us would sail to Gaza if we didn’t have the support from the people
there. We always ask before coming. Even before we started to raise money for
that first trip, we asked for endorsements, and many of these endorsers are
still supporting the voyages.
It is expensive, our three boats from July 2009 and May 2010 have not been
returned to us. But people who donate already know that is a risk we take, and
they are willing to contribute to that risk. We have had women send us their
social security checks, men send us their military pensions, and kids collect
money from their piggy banks. Certainly the first voyage in particular was a
voyage of the common activist. No one famous was on board. Many of us had lived
and worked in the occupied territories and had witnessed first hand the
brutality of the Israeli soldiers and settlers.
MB: Greta, this is all very fascinating. How did the idea for flotillas come
Free Gaza is the founding member of the Freedom Flotilla movement. When we
sailed into Gaza five times without being stopped, we really thought we would be
able to set up a trade route between Gaza and Cyprus. After all, we had set a
precedent; Israeli occupation forces had turned away from us as we brought in
members of Parliament, journalists and other activists.
Then, Israel attacked Gaza in December 2008/January 2009, in a vicious action
called Operation Cast Lead. Now, they declared a naval blockade on top of their
original illegal siege on 1.6 million people, most of them civilians. During
those attacks, the Israeli occupation navy rammed our boat, the Dignity, in the
middle of the night. It was carrying medical personnel to Gaza. It was only
through the fast actions of our captain that we were able to limp into Lebanon
and avoid sinking. Later, Karl Penhall of CNN who was on board as well as former
congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, testified that the Israeli navy had rammed our
small boat three times.
This violent attack didn’t stop us. We turned around, and, in 14 days, bought
another boat as donations from around the world streamed in. Again, Free Gaza
set out in January 2009 to deliver medical personnel and journalists to the
besieged Gaza strip. The Israeli navy again attacked and tried to overturn the
boat in stormy weather. It was forced to return to port in Cyprus.
Finally in June 2009, we gathered journalists, medical personnel and activists
from around the world, including three women from Bahrain, and set out again.
This time, Israeli commandos illegally boarded the boat in international waters,
arrested our passengers and hijacked them, our contents and the boat, dragging
them into Israel and throwing them into detention.
It was time to do something different.
Those of us on the board of Free Gaza decided the only way to stop the Israeli
aggression against our boats was to design a flotilla. And that’s what we did.
It took a year of organizing as we pulled together six initiatives, including
IHH, the European Campaign against the Siege and three others, then set a date
to sail to Gaza in May 2010. The rest, unfortunately, is the history of what
happened on that fateful morning, May 31, 2010.
MB: Greta, you and some of your shipmates on the first Gaza boat wrote a book
called Freedom Sailors. I read it myself, found it riveting, and highly
recommend it. It’s like a real-world James Bond thriller, with you and your
friend Mary Hughes Thompson as senior-citizen Bond Girls. Will there be a movie?
I certainly hope so! I think Vanessa Redgrave should play you, but who can we get to
It has to be Emma Thompson for Mary’s part. After all, Mary is English, shares a
last name with Emma, and the actress is an outspoken advocate for Palestine. The
idea of senior citizen Bond girls makes me laugh.
We know how effective the book is because, before it was even released on August
23, 2012, we had 30 one-star reviews from Zionists who had never read it, had no
idea what was in it, and whined that we were picking on Israel. Their ridiculous
“reviews” have spurred many others into buying the book. My co-editor, Bill
Dienst, and I have traveled the world speaking about Freedom Sailors and will
continue to do that.
MB: Not everyone can sail to Gaza. For those who cannot, what do you recommend
that they do to support the Palestinians in their quest for freedom, equal
rights and justice?
Advocate; write; speak; join groups that support the rights of Palestinians;
donate to the causes you care about, especially if those causes are in Gaza.
Initiatives such as We Are Not Numbers,
http://wearenotnumbers.org/ and Voice of Gaza,
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Voice-of-Gaza/1568618913413326, are aimed at
getting the stories of young people out to a wide audience.
You can also follow Free Gaza on our Twitter account at
Freedom Flotilla III at
https://twitter.com/GazaFFlotilla. There are no spaces on board the next
flotilla, as there are only three small boats, but if anyone has any powerful or
influential person who might want to go, please contact Free Gaza at
MB: Greta, thanks so much for your time, and for all you have through the years
for Gaza and the Palestinian people. I, for one, will be following your lead!