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: Why did you and your associates decide to send boats to Gaza?
GB: 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?
GB: Israel had withdrawn its illegal squatters from Gaza in 2005, then declared that Gaza was no longer occupied, that they had their freedom.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 journalists.
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.” http://www.freegaza.org/about-us/our-mission.html
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?
GB: 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.
- 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.
- 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 Turkey.
- We vowed we would return. We are still keeping that commitment.
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?
GB: 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. http://archive.freegaza.org/en/boat-trips/invites-to-gaza.html
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 about?
GB: 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. http://warisacrime.org/node/38578 and http://edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/meast/12/30/gaza.aid.boat/index.html
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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65UW1E_ebQM
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. http://archive.freegaza.org/boat-trips/survivor-testimonies.html
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 play Mary?
GB: 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?
GB: 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 https://twitter.com/freegazaorg or 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 Freedom4Sailors@gmail.com
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!