Freedom Sailors is a much-needed account of how a small group of ordinary people conceived and executed what seemed like a grandiose and audacious plan to break Israel’s illegal military blockade of the Gaza Strip, a blockade that keeps more than 1.5 million people in an open-air prison. Knowing what we know now – that Israel Defense Forces would later murder nine people, including an unarmed American citizen, Furkan Dogan, executed at point-blank range during a later Freedom Flotilla – our chutzpah is astonishing.
During the Israeli assault on Lebanon in 2006, a small group of people decided to sail boats across the Mediterranean to break a vicious and illegal blockade on 1.5 million people trapped in Gaza, a small slice of beachfront property squeezed between Israel and Egypt. We were worried that, with the attention of the world on Lebanon, Israel would begin another round of dispossession in Palestine, especially in Gaza. In a little over two years, we raised the money to purchase two dilapidated fishing boats stored in secret ports in Greece, collected 44 passengers, crew and journalists, aged 22 to 81 and chose Cyprus as our embarkation point. Although a small contingent of passengers and crew sailed from Greece with the boats, most of the passengers waited in Cyprus.
We were a small group of idealists who had big ideas but little understanding of what we were doing. Had we really understood the dangers, we might not have gone ahead. Maybe we would have, but we truly were amateurs - most of us had never even been on a boat. Before we sailed, one of our coordinators told us: "If you aren't willing to face attack, injury, imprisonment or death, don't get on the boat."
Everyone got on the boats.
People who weren't there or weren't close to us may not realize just how isolated we were once we finally set sail to Gaza on the late morning of August 22, 2008; over 33 hours on the sea, no internet, and only a couple of satellite phones which were blocked by the Israelis after night set in.
When dawn came and we hadn't yet been attacked, we knew we had survived the dark but were still braced for Israel’s probable attack. After all, they had told us bluntly that we would not be allowed to sail to Gaza. Many hours later, we were elated to see on the dusty horizon, the shores of Gaza. We started to believe we might actually make it all the way.
At about 15:30, we heard through the one functioning satellite phone that the Israeli military had decided not to stop us. At the 20-mile offshore marker, the place where Israel had threatened to board and harm us, our two boats were the only ones in sight. We sounded our horns, gave a rousing cheer to all and headed for shore.
Most memorable for all of us on board were the little boats that suddenly appeared all around us about two miles offshore. These boats were filled with cheering men and boys waving flags; the boys jumping in the water to collect the "Free Palestine" balloons we dropped over the sides, then clambering onto the decks of our boats until we feared we would sink. To see 40,000 Palestinians waiting on the dock to greet us was a sight none of us will forget. They were trying to believe what they were seeing, what they hadn't seen in over four decades. The people of Gaza had been largely ignored for years, and they hoped for a sign the world might begin to recognize their plight.
We represented that sign. That first voyage in 2008 achieved exactly what we hoped it would. We opened the door just a bit, proving it could be done. None of the later actions, by land or by sea, would have been possible or even attempted if we hadn't climbed into two ramshackle boats with nothing but our determination and our naiveté holding us together.
Our story of how we came together, raised the necessary money, and pulled off the successful voyage, despite the prying eyes of Israel’s intelligence service, the Mossad, is often riveting. More to the point, it makes you understand the importance of taking a stand when you see an injustice rather than becoming complicit through your silence.