Freedom Flotilla participant says she is determined to break Gaza blockade

June 24, 2024
boat in port with inset photo of two people
The Gaza Freedom Flotilla’s MV 'Handala' visiting Denmark. Photo: Inset: Australian participant Helen O'Sullivan with Gaza Freedom Flotilla organiser Ann Wright. Photo: Helen O'Sullivan/FB

Helen O’Sullivan, a social work field educator, recently returned from Istanbul, Turkey, where the Freedom Flotilla mission to sail to deliver aid to Gaza had to be delayed.

O’Sullivan, who lives on Kombumerri country (Queensland's Gold Coast), spoke to Green Left about why she decided to participate, the setback to the mission and her hope that another attempt will be made soon.

Asked how she got involved, O’Sullivan said it was a “sudden journey”.

“It was not something I pondered over for a long time. I found myself getting really angry, and then just really depressed about the news [from Gaza] … about the massacre of children.

“I’ve always been optimistic about humankind ‒ that’s why I became a social worker. But, I was losing that.”

O’Sullivan shared her frustration with a work colleague and searched the internet for opportunities to volunteer in Palestine, or in refugee camps nearby.

“I’ve worked in [villages in] Sri Lanka … so it wasn’t intimidating for me to do that type of work.”

She contacted the Freedom Flotilla and secured an interview with the organisers.

O’Sullivan told the organisers she had worked in Arnhem Land in her 20s, had grown up in outback Queensland and had “lived in pretty tough places”.

O’Sullivan was approved, but given 24 hours to consider the offer. It gave her a chance to consider what impact it may have on her family and work.

“I’ve got three adult children … six grandchildren and a seventh on the way. I live on my own and I work at the University of Queensland as a part time social work field educator. So, I had lots of things to weigh up.”

However, the next day, she accepted their offer to join the mission.

“If having an international observer there from Australia, lends some weight to this attempt to break the siege, then I was all for it.

“I packed up that week, my bosses let me go, which was great … And so I ended up in Istanbul.”

The Freedom Flotilla had scheduled two missions this year to support the people of Gaza. The first, which O’Sullivan was due to sail with from Istanbul in April, was an emergency humanitarian mission to deliver food, medical supplies, and other urgently needed goods.

It consisted of three ships — one large cargo ship and two passenger ships, with 5500 tonnes of food and medical aid onboard bound for Gaza.

About 150 participants from Algeria, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, the Netherlands, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Türkiye, Britain and the United States joined to observe and assist the delivery and distribution of aid.


“We knew that Israeli occupation forces were not letting aid in; we knew people were starving; and we knew that basic medical supplies were not getting through.”

Israel has stopped humanitarian aid for what it deems “dual use”; that includes disallowing scissors, anesthetics and obstetrical surgery kits into Gaza.

“To me that just felt like cruelty … I couldn’t comprehend it.”

While O’Sullivan recognised that the aid would only be a small fraction of what is needed “the symbolism of breaking the siege that has been choking the people of Palestine for decades, is the hope that all of us had”.

Three Australians travelled to Istanbul to join the flotilla: O’Sullivan, Daniel Coward from Wollongong, New South Wales and Surya McEwan from Byron Bay, NSW.

International participants were put through intense training, including “a simulation of an invasion, similar to what happened to the MV Mavi Marmara in 2010”.

The Mavi Marmara, part of the 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla, was boarded by Israeli commandos in international waters from gunboats and helicopters. Ten flotilla participants were killed and 49 wounded.

“If you weren’t scared after that, nothing would scare you, because it was pretty full on.”

O’Sullivan was expecting to leave for Gaza a few days after arriving in Istanbul, but the departure kept being put off.

“We knew things were happening in the background. We knew that the US and Britain and, I think, Israel sent delegates to Turkey to try and influence the government to not let us leave the port.

“But then they put off leaving for another few days and it was then we got the really tragic news. People were so upset when it was announced that Guinea Bissau wanted to inspect the ships. We knew that the ships were above standard.

“The next move from Guinea Bissau was to say, well, you can keep the flags, but only if you promise not to go to Gaza.”

“There’s no way that we were going to do that.”

Without a flag to sail under, the aid ships could not embark for Gaza.

More than aid

Despite the setback, O’Sullivan has returned to Australia with more resolve.

“Meeting other people from across the world … to have them all in this one spot, with the determination to not give up on humanity … has given me a fire in my belly that I hope will never be extinguished.”

One of the mission’s leaders was retired US Army colonel and State Department official Ann Wright, who resigned from her position in protest after the US invaded Iraq in 2003. Since then she’s worked with the women’s peace movement.

“It was just incredible to see the passion these people had … to do this.

“When I think about the mission, it was bigger than just taking 5500 tonnes of aid. It really was about shining the spotlight on the carnage, on the oppression and on the on the siege of Palestine.”

Since returning, O’Sullivan has continued to agitate for action to help Gaza, including within her profession.

“There are other social workers, like myself, who have been pushing the Australian Association of Social Workers to take a position and to speak out against genocide, given that one of our core values is social justice.

“The Irish Association of Social Workers just recently came out with this strong pro-Palestinian statement.”

Despite the setback in Istanbul, the flotilla is still determined to carry out its mission, she said.

“Most of the [volunteers] have gone back to their countries, but we are all staying connected and engaging in protest against our own governments about what’s happening in Palestine.”

Meanwhile, the Freedom Flotilla’s Handala is making its way through Europe on another effort to break the illegal blockade of Gaza, stopping at Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands.

“It went through to Sweden [during] Eurovision and had thousands of people turn out in support because it raised that issue of Eurovision allowing Israel to perform.

“None of us are under any illusion about how risky this is — even more so now than even when we went [to Istanbul] in April. It has got more dangerous, not less. Still, we are committed to see this through.”

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.