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Report from Gaza-Bound Flotilla Attempting to Break Israeli Blockade


AMY GOODMAN: A Canadian and an Irish boat quietly left a Turkish port on Wednesday, bound for Gaza. Democracy Now! first broke the news on our live broadcast on Wednesday. This flotilla marks the latest attempt by international activists to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. Earlier this year, Greece blocked the departure of several ships from another flotilla heading to the region. In 2010, Israeli forces killed nine Turkish activists, including a U.S. citizen, on an aid boat called the Mavi Marmara, which was part of the first such international flotilla.

Well, this latest flotilla, with the two boats, is called "Freedom Waves to Gaza." The Canadian boat is called Tahrir, Arabic for liberation, and the Irish boat is called Saoirse, Irish for freedom. Before they set sail, David Heap, one of the Canadian activists on board the Tahrir, explained the name of the flotilla.

DAVID HEAP: Coming out of the second freedom flotilla, we’re calling what—the current departure "Freedom Waves to Gaza," because rather than thinking of it as separate, countable waves that you can call one, two and three, we’re really thinking of it more as continuous waves of human solidarity, continuous waves of people intent on challenging the blockade in different ways, coming from different countries, from different ports, different groups of boats, whenever they’re ready to go, to challenge the blockade in a way which is less predictable than an annual flotilla, but also more creative.

AMY GOODMAN: We go right now to a video report. The boats are now sailing through international waters. Democracy Now!correspondent Jihan Hafiz is on board.

JIHAN HAFIZ: It’s an emotional moment for activists who spent weeks planning a secret mission to Gaza. After numerous setbacks and complications, an international delegation prepared to set off from a coastal town in southwestern Turkey in hopes of challenging Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip. The activists on board the Irish and Canadian boats dubbed "Freedom Waves to Gaza" organized under unusual circumstances compared to previous convoys to Gaza. Activists concealed all information about the flotilla from the public. A media embargo was in place for journalists invited to cover the event. Video journalists were not allowed to take out their cameras until the boats’ departure. David Heap, a member of the steering committee on the Canadian boat, the Tahrir, explains.

DAVID HEAP: The cameras are just coming out now, because we were keeping it very quiet and discrete before our departure, because we didn’t want to attract attention to it. We didn’t want to put the Turkish authorities in a difficult position. So our departure was just as a private pleasure vessel. There was a discrepancy between what our ships’ papers say, in terms of the International Naval Survey Board and what we’re allowed to carry. We’re certified to carry up to 50 people. They have a regulation that a private pleasure vessel can only take up to 12 people, including the captain. So, very reluctantly, we reduced our delegation, our carefully chosen international delegation, and left 24 of our friends behind. But they’re all with us, supporting the fact that we’re departing. It’s not about us. It’s about the Palestinians in Gaza.

JIHAN HAFIZ: Karen DeVito, a member of the Canadian delegation, attempted to reach Gaza from Greece this past summer, before Greek authorities, under pressure from the Israeli and U.S. governments, intercepted the boats before they could reach international waters.

KAREN DEVITO: It almost seemed like a replay of what happened this summer, when we were unable to sail. That was a manifestation that the blockade has been outsourced, and that was very, very disappointing. This time, we had to leave some people behind. That’s heartbreaking, to leave our colleagues behind. It’s a bittersweet moment. But we really want to bring attention to the fact that ordinary people everywhere should be able to live in peace and in the presence of justice, and without fear in their everyday lives and without fear, overall, that they’re going to be invaded, occupied.

JIHAN HAFIZ: These boxes were labeled as food, but they are actually filled with medical supplies. The Canadian vessel is taking $30,000 worth of medical supplies to Gaza, along with personal letters from Canadian citizens addressed to the residents of the besieged territory.

Although the Turkish coast guard followed closely behind the Canadian and Irish vessels, both boats made it out to international waters safely and began the long journey to Gaza. The main obstacle now that could prevent both boats from reaching their final destination is the Israeli response. In May of last year, Israeli commandos killed nine activists when the first flotilla tried to sail to Gaza.

Activists say they have trained in nonviolent resistance in the event the Israelis board the vessels. Kit Kittredge is the only American delegate. She says those on board are trained in nonviolent resistance and are prepared for the possibility the Israelis intercept the boat.

KIT KITTREDGE: We just reached international waters, so I’m ecstatic. And I also anticipate that the Israeli army, probably, the navy, is probably considering boarding us at some point on our way to Gaza and the siege. And I’m not feeling fearful. I’m feeling actually pretty peaceful. And that’s what we are: we are a peaceful boat and a peaceful flotilla going to end the siege.

JIHAN HAFIZ: As news of the flotilla continued to circulate throughout the night, Israeli forces announced their navy is prepared to block the boats from reaching Gaza’s shores. To prevent a possible assault by Israeli forces in the evening, organizers are planning for both boats to reach Gaza’s territorial borders during daylight hours. In the meantime, both vessels sail freely into open waters. Jihan Hafiz for Democracy Now! on the Tahrir en route to Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: And we are joined right now by Jihan Hafiz, who is on board the Tahrir. That’s the Canadian boat, part of the two-boat flotilla headed to Gaza right now in international waters. We’ll see if we can hear her clearly.

Jihan, are you there? Jihan, are you there? Jihan, can you hear me?

JIHAN HAFIZ: Yes, I’m here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Ah, very good.

JIHAN HAFIZ: Yes, I am here.

AMY GOODMAN: If you—if you could just tell us the—

JIHAN HAFIZ: Yes, I can hear you. Can you hear me? Yes, I can hear you.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, we can hear you fine. Can you tell us the latest report from where you are in international waters? You’re on theTahrir, the Canadian boat. The other boat that is alongside of you, the Irish boat—have you made contact yet? And what are your plans, the group’s plans, on the two boats at this point?

JIHAN HAFIZ: Yes, for the first time today, actually since this trip was planned, the delegations from the Canadian boat were able to make physical contact with the Irish boat. As we’ve been sailing, it’s been—the seas—the waters have been very rough here. So they haven’t been able to board the boat, and we haven’t been able to board their vessel. However, the plan is to continue the voyage, to continue this voyage to Gaza, regardless of the threats coming from the Israeli government. And in fact, both teams met today to hold meetings with the journalists and delegates on board to discuss a strategy for when the Israelis do intercept the boat, if they intercept the boat, and what will take place from there.

We’re about 120—excuse me, 150 to 170 kilometers off the coast of Gaza. It will take us about another day and a half to get there. As I mentioned in the report, the activists and the organizers of both flotillas do not want to reach Gaza’s borders, at least the territorial region, until daylight. They do not want to have a similar situation to what happened to the Mavi Marmara. That boat was attacked in the evening. And they want to avoid any kind of misperception about violence, if violence is committed. As mentioned in the report, as well, there’s also a commitment to nonviolent resistance. There was training for that today on the boats to make sure that if we do come in contact with the Israelis, there will be no confrontation from those on either boats. Aside from that, the spirits have been very high.

AMY GOODMAN: Jihan, is there a boat that is following you?

JIHAN HAFIZ: At the moment, there is not. There was—last night, up until 4:00 in the morning, on our side, there was an unidentified boat that was following us. The only other boat that followed us out of international waters was the Turkish coast guard. So, from the boat, we all presumed it was the Turkish coast guard, but there’s no longer anyone following us. It’s only the Irish boat and the Canadian in open waters.

AMY GOODMAN: Jihan, we—you took us on a tour of the boat you are on, the Tahrir, and we met some of the activists on board—Canadian, Australian, there’s a U.S. citizen on board, as well. Who’s on the Irish boat?

JIHAN HAFIZ: These are solely Irish delegates. Some of them are former members of parliament. We haven’t been able to sit down and speak with them, but we do know that there are three to five on board who are former members of parliament. Also, they’re a group that has been making—that has continuously made efforts, through different initiatives, to reach Gaza. And we haven’t been able to speak with them, but they have been to Gaza a number of times before, some of the delegates. And they planned this on their own, in close coordination with the steering committee here. However, we have not been in touch with them at all. They’ve sort of been on their own in this journey, mainly because of the waters, but also because of the secrecy of the planning of this. So they’re mainly—it’s mainly an Irish delegation.

I also want to mention that the Canadian boat was restricted to 12 people. Of the 36 who were meant to come along on the Tahrir, the Canadian boat, only 12 were allowed on, whereas the Irish boat, they only allowed them to have 12 on, but they snuck some people on their boat. And so, the entire Irish delegation that came to Turkey to take this—to make this voyage to Gaza is present, and they’re heading in that direction now. We have—supporters from this boat are still in Turkey. Some returned home, and they’re working on—they’re working on logistical work, as well as media work, to communicate with people on the boat. The internet hasn’t been—hasn’t been precise at times. It goes out every now and then. But there is a lot of international support from the organizations represented on this boat, as well as the Irish one, including a number of committees around the world that are supporting what these Freedom Waves to Gaza are: essentially, an extension of the Free Gaza movement, which is a movement to break the siege by any means, at any costs.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there fear on board your boat, the Tahrir, the Canadian boat that you’re covering? There are 12 people on board the boat, is that right? The captain, six activists and five journalists?

JIHAN HAFIZ: Yes. There is concern. I wouldn’t say "fear." I think people here are defiant, in that they believe in what they’re doing, and they believe that what they’re doing is peaceful and that they will—even if there is any kind of—if the Israelis do board the boat or intercept the boat, there will not be any resistance, any violent confrontation from any of the activists here. So the concern is mainly losing—losing a lot of their equipment. Some people came here with their cell phones, their laptops. I have camera equipment here. So there’s a lot of concern about, if we do get detained on international waters, what will become of our personal items.

But as well, what will happen when we’re in detention? How long will we stay there? And there are some Arabs on this boat, and they expressed deep concern that they could be detained by Arabs, and possibly their legal rights will not be respected the way the international delegates will be. And so, there are legal teams now working on the ground in the United States and in Canada to ensure that those who have either visa issues or who are concerned about being detained by the Israelis will have full legal rights in the event that something—that the Israelis do board the boat.

AMY GOODMAN: Jihan Hafiz, I want to thank you for being with us, reporting for Democracy Now! on board the Tahrir. That’s the Canadian boat, one of two boats in what they’re calling the Freedom Waves to Gaza flotilla that set sail yesterday from Turkey, bound for Gaza. She’s speaking to us from the high seas. We will follow this journey through the day, through tweets and reports, at our website, democracynow.org. 

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