A four-ship Freedom Flotilla has already set sail for the Gaza Strip to challenge Israel’s decade-old blockade of the besieged territory.
The vessel, the Al-Awda (Arabic for The Return) has set sail three weeks ago from Norway and linked up with three other boats in Copenhagen, Denmark, before beginning a tour of European ports which – it is hoped – will end in the Gaza Strip in about two months. The other two boats trailing the Al Awda are Hurriya (Freedom) and Falestine (Palestine)/
The flotilla has been planned by the Freedom Flotilla Coalition, an umbrella of organizations aiming to end the blockade.
A statement said: “In response to the brutal Israeli blockade, for seven years, the Freedom Flotilla Coalition has carried out non-violent direct actions aimed at raising international awareness and putting pressure on the international community to end it. We will continue to put pressure on our governments and protest their complicity with Israel’s crimes against humanity.”
The Al-Awda was named to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, or Catastrophe, in which more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forcibly expelled from their homes during the establishment of the Israeli state.
A spokesperson of the flotilla told Al Araby Al Jadeed that the participants want to send a message that: “The Palestinian cause is not alone or isolated; many freemen around the world are advocates for this just cause”
This year’s freedom flotilla comes just weeks after Israeli forces opened fire on demonstrators in Gaza protesting for the right of return, killing almost 100.
“The blockade of Gaza is in its 11th year. It is such a gross violation of international law that it can be characterized as a crime against humanity,” participant Mikkel Grüner, a Danish national who is city councilor in Bergen, Norway, said.
Volunteers will join the multinational fleet for different legs of the journey, with a select group assigned to participate in the final run to Gaza.
Among those on board will be Prof. Ismail Nazari, chairman of Malaysia’s boycott Israel campaign; Charlie Andreason of Sweden, who spent time in Israeli detention for his role on the Marianne, a Swedish-flagged trawler leading a flotilla of boats in June 2015; Spanish Jewish activist Zohar Shamir Chamberlain; and Heather Milton-Lightening, an activist for indigenous Canadians.
Critics point to worsening humanitarian conditions in Gaza and say the blockade amounts to collective punishment of the two million Palestinians living there. There have been many reports that the coastal strip is “on the verge of collapsing,” and could plunge into a new round of fighting with Israel if conditions do not improve.
Egypt, too, has kept its Gaza border crossing largely closed during several years of sour relations with the Islamist group ruling Gaza.
Many attempts have been made to draw attention to the Palestinian cause using blockade-busting flotillas.
Two years ago, 13 women, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire of Northern Ireland, were detained and then deported after their sailboat, “Women’s Boat to Gaza,” was stopped around 35 nautical miles off the coast of Gaza on its way to break the blockade.
The Israel Navy said at the time that it had stopped the boat to prevent a “breach of the lawful maritime blockade” of the Palestinian enclave and after advising it “numerous times to change course prior to the action.”
The most notable flotilla sailed in 2010 and involved the Turkish flag-bearing Mavi Marmara, the biggest ship in a six-vessel convoy.
IDF commandos violently attacked those on board. Nine Turkish citizens, including one with American citizenship, were killed in the ensuing melee, and a tenth died of his wounds years later.
The flotilla schedule will be kept confidential to guard against interference. In the past, mechanical failures have affected previous flotilla attempts, with allegations Israel may have tampered with the ships.