On Tuesday, 15 May, three Swedish boats met in the Danish Straits near Copenhagen, to start a voyage that would take them across channels and seas all the way to the Mediterranean and the coast of Palestine.
This was a flotilla with a mission to defy Israel’s illegal siege on the Gaza Strip.
After over a year’s worth of fundraising and preparation, Ship to Gaza Sweden (SGS) has secured three boats and over 30 crew members, determined to take a stand against Israel’s blockade on the world’s largest open air prison.
“This is a joint effort all over Europe and obviously our aim is to reach Gaza and break the illegal blockade, but also a big part of our mission is to raise opposition against the illegal blockade and also raise support for the population,” SGS spokeswoman Ellen Hansson says.
Of SGS’s three ships, the two smaller boats are scheduled to sail through the channels of Europe, whilst the larger one will join with another international boat organised by the Freedom Flotilla Coalition (FFC) and sail around the continent. Both will be stopping regularly along the way to raise awareness about the people under siege.
“We want to cover as many ports as we possibly could and for example pass by Brussels to try and get some attention there with the [European] Parliament,” Hansson says.
This is not the first time that SGS have boarded a flotilla for the Palestinian territories; the group has organised four naval convoys since 2010, all of which have ended the same way.
During SGS’s third voyage in 2015, activists described how Israeli forces arrested crew members at gunpoint and held them hostage in a van for over a week, during which time they were not allowed access to a phone. Some even reported being threatened with violence towards their family members.
But for the activists, all of whom are working on a voluntary basis, the voyage is about delivering hope to the Palestinians, and a message of resistance against Israel’s piracy.
“We have focused on direct action strategy, and that is basically raising money, buying boats and sailing through to break the illegal blockade. And that is a pretty straightforward, simple action to do.”
For the children
With the UN declaring that Gaza is de-developing at an unprecedented rate, SGS is using its latest voyage as an opportunity to raise awareness for those most vulnerable to Israel’s blockade.
The group also intends to hand the boats over to Gazans as training ships to support the besieged Strip’s flailing fishing industry and provide the next generation of fisherman with a means of employment, where work for young people is increasingly impossible to come by.
But the group is bringing little else, and notably does not intend to bring any aid on board.
“We are planning to bring some symbolic medication on to show what is actually needed to be brought into Gaza, but we are not a cargo ship that can bring in what would be needed. We want to show that these are the little things that these people are not getting as a basic human right,” she says.
The boats’ crew is made up of activists of all ages, many of whom are veteran supporters of the Palestinian cause and have sailed on previous flotillas. With different volunteers accompanying the convoy at various stages of the journey, the boats will host everyone from students and sailors, to politicians and journalists. The group is also relying on nearby activists at the ports they will stop at to help raise funds for their trip, host events on the situation in Gaza and bring the voyage to the attention of local media.
SGS has been fundraising for the past year, but had already secured some of the funds after they won a landmark case in the Supreme Court against the Israeli government. A 2016 verdict ruled in favour of SGS after Israel illegally detained their boats in 2012, awarding the group legal costs of 40,000 shekels ($10,500). In 2017 the litigation was completed and SGS used the money won from the case to fund their new boats. But more is still needed.
“We are raising money now to be able to carry through this sail, there is a lot of money needed there for fuel and food and all these things. We are raising money constantly and obviously after the campaign is finished we have a lot of costs to be covered as well.”
Yet for Hansson, the urgency of the journey supersedes the need to raise money: “We know for a fact that the UN have said that Gaza will be “uninhabitable” by 2020 which is very near. That’s why we think that there is no time to waste, no time to go around in circles.”
‘We are hopeless optimists’
The launch of the flotilla came just a day after at least 65 Palestinians were killed at the Gaza border by Israeli soldiers, as tens of thousands protested as part of the Great March of Return, marking the anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, the “Catastrophe” which led to the founding of Israel and protesting the relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Whilst the killings made headline news, for Hansson, ignorance still exists.
I’m still speaking to people who don’t know anything, they don’t even know where Gaza is. So it’s really important to spread awareness around this and try and spread information and try and make people act.
Whilst the events prompted international condemnation at the UN, with Turkey and South Africa both expelling their Israeli ambassadors, Hansson decries the inaction of the international community after 50 years of occupation.
“It’s an act of frustration. We are watching the leaders of the world, recognising Palestine as a state, Sweden is one of them. We recognised Palestine four years ago but we cannot see anything practically happening around it. I was at the UN in New York in November and I heard everyone was talking and everyone was showing their support; it’s a lot of talking and no action.”
“We know that the politicians around the world are aware, but as a grassroots movement we need to act when they are not acting,” she concludes.
Eight years on from the Mavi Marmara incident, when ten Turks were killed aboard an aid flotilla when it was stormed by Israeli forces, the threat of being hijacked remains and is one SGS have faced in the past. But the crew are prepared for any eventuality with all volunteers taking part in non-violence training.
“We see it as a responsibility; the people of Gaza need us to act. We are determined to succeed in our mission otherwise we wouldn’t do that. So every time we sail, we have to believe that we will succeed this time, otherwise the motivation and the work would just not happen.”
“I guess we are a bunch of hopeless optimists who believe in peace and humanity and solidarity with fellow human beings all around the world.”
~Middle East Monitor/Days of Palestine