'Stay Human' Gaza flotilla confronts inhumane siege

July 8, 2011
US boat Audacity of Hope escorted by Greek coastguard, July 1.

In June, four Australian set sail as part of the second Freedom Flotilla to Gaza with the aim of highlighting the suffering of its people at the hands of Israel’s illegal blockade.

The flotilla, involving a dozen boats with hundreds of activists from more than 50 countries, aims to deliver humanitarian aid to the besieged Palestinian territory.

The convoy coincides with the deep process of revolt occurring across the Arab world — against regimes that often collaborate with Israel.

The impact of these historic events has shown itself in Palestine through greater collaboration between the two main political parties — Fatah and Hamas.

At the same time, awareness regarding the character of Israel is growing internationally.

The massacre of peace activists aboard the first flotilla last year at the hands of Israeli troops presented Israel as a rogue state. It followed the 2008-09 military attack on Gaza that left more than 1400 Palestinian men, women and children dead.

The first flotilla involved six boats with about 700 passengers and set sail for Gaza in June last year.

On June 4, while still in international waters, Israeli military boats surrounded the flotilla after the ship captains refused an Israeli demand to change course.

Israeli commandos raided the boats, shooting nine Turkish activists dead and injuring 30 passengers. Seven hundred people were arrested.

The United States, Canada, the European Union and Australia rushed to Israel’s aid and expressed support for its actions, with the acquiescence of some Arab states.

Despite the fall of Egyptian dictator Mubarak leading to the loosening of controls at the Rafah Crossing, only people not goods are able to pass through.

Israel’s actions include ground and air military incursions aimed at stopping Gaza’s people receiving adequate food and medicine.

The siege represents a form of collective punishment against more than 1.5 million civilians.

Last July, a committed group of Palestine solidarity activists in Sydney began organising an Australian delegation as part of the second flotilla. Seeing the effect that the first flotilla had on public opinion, we understood the importance of the second flotilla in the fight to break the blockade.

Internationally, organisers were hoping that more that 1000 activists would participate. The response exceeded all expectations: Mavi Marmara organisers said they received hundreds of thousands of applications.

The Mavi Marmara had to pull out at the last minute, but around 800 people took to the seas as part of the second flotilla.

To make the participation of four Australians possible, we reached out to supporters to help raise funds.

A number of fundraising activities were also organised, including a dinner where a jersey donated by rugby league player Hassam el Masri and a pair of gloves signed and donated by Anthony Mundine were auctioned.

We also sought support from trade unions, Palestine solidarity collectives, religious groups, community groups, even political parties. But the best response came from individuals.

By the beginning of 2011, we had a breakthrough, with confirmation that we could partner with the Canadian delegation.

We also began to get a clearer picture of what our contribution needed to be towards buying a boat, hiring a crew and other expenses.

Reality also dawned on us: we were very much behind where we needed to be. We were also uncertain as to how any failure on our part to raise the necessary funds could negatively affect the others.

We decided to push on, initiating the selection process for those that would participate in the Australian delegation. We found a valuable friend and willing participant in former Greens NSW parliamentarian Sylvia Hale.

With the expressions of interest we received, a panel was convened to select a list of potential participants. Attention was paid to how best participants could help strengthen solidarity once back home.

Then came the discussion around the decision of the Marrickville Council in Sydney to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, or what I like to call the “Anthony Albanese effect”.

Albanese, the federal member for Grayndler, which covers Marrickville, played a decisive role in the campaign to make local Labor councillors reverse their initial vote in favour of the BDS campaign.

He was backed by foreign minister Kevin Rudd, the national leader of the Greens, Bob Brown, NSW Liberal Premier Barry O’Farrell and the Murdoch press.

The Council's support for BDS was ultimately overturned, but the whole ordeal opened the eyes of many to the role played by right-wing politicians and the media in backing Israel.

Eagerness to financially support our delegation grew exponentially.

At the time of writing, our four courageous participants are involved with running battles with the Greece coastguard. Doing Israel's dirty work, Greek authorities were refusing to let the ships set off to Gaza.

One Australian, Michael Coleman, was arrested and given a suspended sentence.

On July 8, hundreds of Palestinian solidarity activists sought to fly into Israel in order to travel to the occupied West Bank. Israel deported 85 activists who flew in, while about 200 others were stopped by Israeli request from boarding flights from US and European cities.

Whether the second flotilla reaches Gaza is not clear. But it has already contributed to raising greater awareness about the plight of the people of Gaza.

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