Countering Bias and Misinformation mainly about the Arab-Israel conflict

An open letter to veteran journalist Paul McGeough about the Gaza flotilla

DEIR YASSIN - startling evidence
About Maurice Ostroff


An open letter to veteran Middle-East journalist Paul McGeough

From Maurice Ostroff

December 15, 2010


Dear Mr. McGeough 
You may recall that we corresponded during last March about the Mabhouh brouhaha in Dubai during which we discussed media accuracy.
I now write to congratulate you on the excellence of your "Project Gaza" article in the November 6 issue of Good Weekend. Though I believe their dedication is based on misinformation, as an Israeli citizen, the word and graphic picture you drew evoked my genuine empathy with the dedicated humanitarian activists you described,.
As sincere peaceniks, had they been better informed perhaps the flotilla activists would possibly have diverted some of their energetic efforts to simultaneously press Hamas to accept Israel's existence, cease their threats to destroy Israel and their ongoing incitement to violence and adhere to past agreements as demanded by the US, the EU, Russia and the UN since 2006.
Reverting to the concept of media accuracy, I'm sure you will agree that words can misinform not only by what is written or said, but by relevant information that is omitted. In your entire article of  4,800 words sympathizing with the activists' anger at Israel for blockading Gaza you omitted the very relevant and highly significant detail that the blockade is not only an Israeli operation. It is a joint Israel-Egyptian effort. If Egypt opened its border with Gaza the blockade would be ineffective and it is no more than fair to question the single-minded attacks on Israel alone.
While I don't doubt the sincerity of the activists you described so sympathetically, a more than superficial evaluation of the circumstances points to the influence of the psychological concept of "confirmation bias" whereby, even well-meaning people have a tendency to favor information that confirms their preconceptions, regardless of whether information is factual. This phenomenon is particularly prevalent where people are exposed to what Norman Mailer called factoids, namely dubious information that people accept as facts only because of frequent repetition  in the media. Like an anthropoid that resembles a human, a factoid is information that resembles, but is not, a fact.
The effectiveness of factoids as a propaganda tool is emphasized by the statement by more than one of the activists that they were influenced by the story of Al Dura, the Palestinian boy who was allegedly shot by Israeli soldiers, despite the fact that in 2010 a  French court upheld Phillipe Karsenty's right to claim that the film of the shooting was a fabrication and that Al Dura was not killed.
Another common factoid is that the Gaza blockade is imposed willy-nilly without any provocation or purpose.
Paul, I believe you agree with me that if a report is to be given some credence by intelligent readers it must place the events it describes in their context. In a Columbia Journalism Q and A on Feb 11, 2009, when Katya Batchko  asked whether in your reading you noticed any mistakes or shortcuts that reporters or publications have taken that you feel are steering the story in a wrong direction, you replied with great insight ".. my stance that I try to convey to you is that I don't see it as a deliberate thing, I see it as one of the pitfalls of the cut and thrust of the daily story. You simply see that things are not being as fully explained as they might be. [the emphasis is mine]  And some people fall into the black-and-white delineation without trying to grapple with the extensive grey in the whole crisis".
Following this train of thought, I remind you that when Israel disengaged from the Gaza strip there was no thought of a blockade. More than 3,000 greenhouses that together with other projects could provide income for over 4,500 families were transferred to the PA in the hope that they would contribute towards Palestinian prosperity and peaceful coexistence. Unfortunately Gazan gunmen wantonly destroyed them and Israel was rewarded with intensive rocket fire from civilian areas in Gaza into civilian populations in Israel.
It is more than tragic that their leaders have deprived Palestinians of opportunities to prosper, like the abandonment due to terror, of the successful industrial zone at Erez, which employed about 5,000 workers in some 200 businesses half of which were Palestinian-owned. This was part of a larger Gaza Industrial Estate (GIE), slated to provide up to 50,000 jobs. In addition a joint industrial zone was planned south of Tulkarm intended to provide jobs for more than 5,000 Palestinians. Additional areas were planned for Jenin and the Kerem Shalom area near Rafah in Gaza.
Before the uprising, about 100,000 Palestinians worked in Israel. Palestinian trucks moved freely on Israel's roads moving thousands of tons of agricultural products from Gaza to Jordan and beyond. Even during times of violence about 5,000 Palestinians continued to work in Israel, many in the settlements that have since been evacuated.
Seriously missing from your otherwise excellent article is some in-depth information about the organization that is misusing these sincere highly motivated volunteers whom you describe so well. I know that you are intimately familiar with Hamas but because you do not speak fluent Arabic, perhaps some vital nuances escape you.  On the other hand Dr. Walid Phares, an American scholar who was born in Beirut, knows the language and  studied the situation in depth paints a different picture from yours. His research leads to the conclusion that the actual goal of what appears to be a humanitarian effort is to relieve Hamas. He explains logically, that if aid and comfort was the sole objective of the operation, the material would have been calmly handed to the United Nations' agencies.
Behind the glossy picture that you saw and described so well, Phares describes the organizers of the flotilla as  "a vast coalition supporting the Jihadist organization based in Gaza, aimed clearly at a geopolitical gain: open a maritime path for Hamas to receive strategic support from the outside and solidify its grip over the enclave. Spokespersons for the "flotilla" would obviously deny the long term goal and focus on the humanitarian stated agenda..
This is not new: It is a modified repeat of previous manipulated incidents: ..obstructing the peace process by using militants wearing peace jackets. But the more ominous development this flotilla is camouflaging a real land fleet bringing missiles and advanced weapons to Hezbollah from Syria to the Bekaa Valley.
Over the past weeks reports have abounded about Iranian long-range missiles shipped via Syria to Hezbollah and satellite images have shown terror bases in the vicinity of Damascus growing under Baathist protection. As soon as the attention of the international community began to focus on the flow of strategic weapons to Hezbollah, the "brotherhood of regimes" unleashed the Gaza flotilla across the Mediterranean. Seasoned geopolitical experts would rationally link the move to create an incident off the coasts of Gaza with the move to equipping Hezbollah with lethal missiles.
In the end we're looking at two flotillas, the maritime one in the south being only a decoy for the land fleet to achieve its goal of war preparations in the north".

Dr Phares complete article, reproduced below deserves to be read by all who take a genuine unbiased interest in developments in the Middle East.
This letter is being publicized as will the reply I hope to receive from you

Note to readers. Mr. Mcgeough has extensive experience of the Middle East and  is a senior foreign correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald. He was awarded the 2003 Walkley Award for Journalism Leadership in recognition of acts of courage and bravery in the practice of journalism. He was aboard one of the flotilla ships and was detained by Israeli forces who boarded the vessel on May 31,2010.

Counterterrorism Blog
The Gaza Flotilla Decoy for Iranian Missiles to Hezbollah?
By Walid Phares
"De-Blockading" Hamas?

At first glance, the takeover by the Israeli Navy of the "humanitarian flotilla" heading towards Gaza is just one more of the disputed crises between Israel and its foes. As in all previous incidents, the spiral of accusations will eventually reach bottom. While media attention will highlight the tactical events, seizure of the ships, rules of engagement, who fired first, the legal location of the incident and the other dramatic details; the rapidly expanding debate will soon reach the strategic intent of the "flotilla." After all the governments involved issue their condemnations and warnings in all directions, after the UN issues a statement and international forums mobilize to indict their predictably targeted foe-in this case Israel-the question unavoidably will be: why is there a flotilla heading towards a military zone, and what is the ultimate goal of the operation?

According to the organizers of the "Free Gaza" network which enjoys the support of Hamas and its backers in Damascus and Tehran but also of governments considered in the West as "mainstream" such as the AKP of Turkey and the oil rich Qatar, this vast coalition of regimes and organizations assert that the aim of the 700 militants and activists was to pierce the encirclement of Gaza and lift the naval blockade of the enclave. Hence the actual goal of the humanitarian effort is to relieve Hamas, not just to ensure aid to the civilians trapped in the strip. For if aid and comfort was the sole objective of the operation, the material would have been calmly handed to the United Nations' agencies which would have forwarded it to the network of humanitarian associations and NGOs inside the afflicted zone. Either Egypt or Israel would have checked it and would have, under international obligation, sent it across the cease fire lines.

But the organizers of the flotilla, a vast coalition supporting the Jihadist organization based in Gaza, aimed clearly at a geopolitical gain: open a maritime path for Hamas to receive strategic support from the outside and solidify its grip over the enclave. Spokespersons for the "flotilla" would obviously deny the long term goal and focus on the humanitarian stated agenda. But had the architects of the initiative added a global plan to solve the crisis in Gaza, one would have given credit to the humanitarian version of the story. From Ankara to Doha, from Damascus to Tehran, policy planners are aiming at reaching "their piece" of Palestine, ironically at the expense of the Palestinian national authority.

Indeed, beyond the evaluation on tactical or legal grounds and who should be blamed, the picture on the strategic level is much more ominous. The launching of the "flotilla" timed up with two major developments, one by the moderates in the region backed by the United States and the international community and the other by the radicals in the region led by Iran and Syria. After repeated attempts to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the table of negotiations over the past few months, Washington was close to achieving that goal with the help of moderate Arab governments and the European Union. The Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government were on their way to a sit down�directly or indirectly�to proceed at an advanced stage in the process. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and other players were blessing the move cautiously. But this process was moving outside the control of Iran and Syria and their prote'ge's in Gaza.

Hence sending activists via high seas to break the encirclement of Hamas was part of collapsing US and international efforts to resume the peace talks. Indeed as we all know, once the radicals trigger (and organize) a wave of "Jihadism" in the media and streets, no moderate will show up for discussions. And that's what is happening as of today: a spiraling crumbling of the latest chance for peace talks.

This is not new: It is a modified repeat of previous manipulated incidents: The Hezbollah War in 2006, the Hamas coup of 2007, the Gaza war in 2008 and many similar successful maneuvers in the 1990s: obstructing the peace process by using militants wearing peace jackets. But the more ominous development this flotilla is camouflaging is a real land fleet bringing missiles and advanced weapons to Hezbollah from Syria to the Bekaa Valley.

Over the past weeks reports have abounded about Iranian long-range missiles shipped via Syria to Hezbollah and satellite images have shown terror bases in the vicinity of Damascus growing under Baathist protection. As soon as the attention of the international community began to focus on the flow of strategic weapons to Hezbollah, the "brotherhood of regimes" unleashed the Gaza flotilla across the Mediterranean. Seasoned geopolitical experts would rationally link the move to create an incident off the coasts of Gaza with the move to equipping Hezbollah with lethal missiles.

In the end we're looking at two flotillas, the maritime one in the south being only a decoy for the land fleet to achieve its goal of war preparations in the north.


Dr Walid Phares is a Professor of Global Strategies and the author of The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad

By Walid Phares on June 2, 2010 7:02 AM


Project: GAZA

 Author: Paul McGeough

Date: 06/11/2010

Words: 4790

Source: SMH

Publication: Sydney Morning Herald Section: Good Weekend Magazine

Page: 12


They were a motley crew of cash‐strapped activists, mainly women and some on the wrong side of

65. Together they would secretly cobble together a flotilla that would challenge Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip. By Paul McGeough.


May 31, 2010: in the predawn darkness, three cargo ships and three passenger ships, together called the Freedom Flotilla, motored south from Cyprus across the Mediterranean, their destination

a narrow, 40‐kilometre‐long coastal plain wedged between Israel and Egypt known as the Gaza Strip. Their mission: to break an Israeli‐imposed blockade that effectively makes 1.5 million people prisoners in their own homes.


Some hours earlier, from the deck of Challenger I, a 25‐metre cruiser in the flotilla from which I was observing events, a dozen or more Israeli vessels had revealed themselves, first as mere pinpricks of light, appearing and disappearing as allowed by the ocean swell. The Israelis had announced their presence by the reading of a terse radio message to each of the ships' captains in the flotilla. "Challenger I, you are hereby ordered to change course," the crackle‐trimmed voice had begun. "If you ignore this order and attempt to visit the blockaded area, the Israeli Navy will be forced to take all the necessary measures in order to enforce this blockade."


Huwaida Arraf, the 34‐year‐old US‐born, Ramallahbased lawyer and leader of the Free Gaza Movement (FGM), the humanitarian organisation behind the flotilla, had been cool in her response. "Israeli Navy, this is Challenger I. We are unarmed civilians making our way to the Gaza port. We do not constitute a threat to the state of Israel or to its armed forces. You are not justified in using force against us."


Now, almost six hours later, tensions were running dangerously high as the Israeli vessels began inexorably to move in around the flotilla. Suddenly the noose tightened: 30‐odd Zodiac craft, sleek and black in the water with their bulletshaped hulls, trailing phosphorescent ribbons in their wake, came sneaking up around us. First, they came alongside the Mavi Marmara, a five‐deck ferry travelling just 150 metres to our starboard side carrying about 700 mostly Muslim Turkish activists. Most of them, by this stage, had gathered around the ship's rails, all wearing life vests, some wearing gas masks. As the masked Israeli commandos tried to hook metal ladders to the sides of the ferry for the purpose of boarding the vessel, they felt the full force of its fire hoses and an avalanche of whatever its passengers found on deck or could break from the ship's fittings to throw at them.


Then ... chaos. Sound bombs and tear‐gas canisters began to explode on the ferry's main aft deck. Those passengers who'd been issued with asbestos gloves now attempted to grab the devices as they lay on the deck and to hurl them back into the Israeli Zodiacs hopefully before they erupted. Having failed to secure their grappling irons, the Israelis abandoned their plan to board from the water and opted for Plan B: to drop in from above. As the helicopters moved in, activists on the upper decks rushed to the top level of the ship. By sunrise, nine activists were dead and 50 injured.

Seven hundred more were under arrest, and being hauled to prison in Israel.


Over the coming days, newspapers around the world would print stories of heroism and tragedy, of geopolitical overreach and of military and diplomatic brinkmanship. Lost in the media maelstrom, however, was the story of a small but very determined band of women who had dictated the course of these events thus far.


Back in 2006, membership of an entirely different group was almost a rite of passage for those who would be drawn to the FGM. This was a period that came to be known as the Second Intifada ‐ more than four years of intense Palestinian‐Israeli conflict that began in September 2000. As violence raged across the Occupied Territories, the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), the edgy brainchild of the young Huwaida Arraf, was born. She figured that the presence of foreign and Israeli Jewish protesters might act as a break on Israeli military and settler violence against Palestinian civilians.


Her original idea was that the internationals or "ISMers" ‐ would act as human shields for Palestinian families attempting to get their children to school or for villagers harvesting their olive crops. But as the Intifada violence ratcheted up, the young internationals took to jumping into ambulances and riding into the crossfire to collect the dead and the desperate: women in the early stages of childbirth; a kidney patient needing dialysis; wounded Palestinian fighters. It was dangerous work. By positioning themselves between Israeli troops and Palestinian protesters, a good number of the ISMers came to serious harm. In 2003, Rachel Corrie, a 23‐year‐old American, was crushed to death under an Israeli military bulldozer as she protested against the demolition of a Palestinian home in Gaza.


Arraf's fearlessness in the face of Israeli weapons and her lawyerly ability to crunch each crisis into manageable bits are legendary in the activist movement along with a sense that she is untouchable. There is a hint of this in the Emiliano Zapata quote at the foot of the emails she sends: "It's better to die on your feet than to live on your knees."


"I am stronger than some soldier turning his tank barrel at me," says Arraf of the protests that ignited the West Bank. "When I stand in front of him, unarmed and at peace as I walk around [Jerusalem or Ramallah], I know that he's the weak one. Non‐violence is much more threatening to the occupation because it shows we are morally strong."


Within the FGM, Arraf stands shoulder to shoulder with a number of women of equally powerful conviction. They include two of the movement's founding members, Mary Hughes‐Thompson, the

76‐year‐old British‐born TV producer and longtime resident of Los Angeles, and her close friend, American Greta Berlin, 69. After the start of the Second Intifada, Hughes‐Thompson started paying regular visits to the West Bank. As one of Arraf's ISMers, she was badly injured when she was set upon by a group of illegal Jewish settlers in the village of Yanoun in 2002 as she helped Palestinian farmers harvest their olives. "It was October," she tells me. "I discovered I could never really leave Palestine ‐ I needed to keep going back to witness the situation first‐hand."


for Greta Berlin, the connection to Palestine was more visceral. She is the mother of two Palestinian‐ American children whose father was born and raised in Safad and who became a refugee in 1948. She has been an outspoken advocate for the rights of Palestinians since the '60s.


Then there is the 35‐year‐old Australian Renee Jaouadi, better known to her former pupils at the Newcastle Waldorf School by her maiden name, Renee Bowyer. She made a first brief foray into relief work in the wilds of Pakistan's border country where she worked with refugees in the aftermath of the US‐led invasion of Afghanistan in the weeks after the September 11, 2001, attacks. When next she ventured abroad, it was to the West Bank, teaching at a school in Ramallah and, at the same time, doing volunteer work in villages and refugee camps. She was there for almost a year when she was refused entry to Israel after spending time away with friends late in 2006.


As a history teacher, Bowyer thought she had a grasp of the neverending crisis in the region, but working in village communities during an initial three‐month stint in 2003 horrified her. "I was shocked by the extent of daily violence in Palestinian lives," she begins, remembering how, one day in Ramallah, a group of fully kitted Israeli soldiers raced past her. Then she heard gunfire and soon came upon a family‐friendly icecream parlour where two Palestinians lay dead. As mothers shielded their children, the shooters made their getaway.


Figuring she could be more effective as an activist if she lived permanently in the West Bank, Bowyer returned to Australia and set about shutting down her life in Newcastle. "I was surprised by the different response by Israeli forces when internationals were present," she says.


As foreigners such as Bowyer built their activist profiles in the region, they were soon targeted for deportation by the Israeli authorities. Israel was clamping down on Palestinian protests and, at the same time, building the wall or barrier that would separate the West Bank from Israel. Both made it increasingly difficult for internationals to move into and out of the Occupied Territories. It followed that to continue their activism, the deportees would be drawn to the search for a new kind of

protest that would be driven from beyond Israel and the Occupied Territories.


In November 2006, Berlin sent a circular email to a handful of deportees and others who felt that their days as activists in the West Bank were numbered, informing them of a possible new venture. The idea was for 20 or more international activists, arriving at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport over a few days, to refuse to recognise Israel's right to rule on their entry.


The group's email traffic some of which was read by Good Weekend ‐ reveals initial enthusiasm for this proposed airport sit‐in. But then 36year‐old Michael Shaik weighed in from Canberra, where he worked fulltime as a Palestinian activist. In late November, Shaik outlined a "pipe dream" he'd been nurturing since being detained in an Israeli prison in 2003, pending deportation because of his ISM activities in the West Bank. "I'm just going to say an idea I've had for some time and I don't mind if anyone says it's ridiculous," his email began tentatively. "But the way I see it is that the focus of any such action should be Gaza. What I've always thought might be a goer would be to charter a ship [to] break the siege of Gaza. My view is we could even get some very high‐profile people to support it as a non‐violent humanitarian intervention and put Israel in a lose/lose situation."


On the same day Israel thwarted her attempt to return to the West Bank, Bowyer received an email from Shaik filling her in on the boat idea and offering to introduce her to the Berlin group. "I jumped at it," she tells me. "It was a brilliant idea."


The women of the nascent FGM went underground to plan the venture and, in a bid to avoid Israeli surveillance, they gave their group email list the name of a nonexistent troupe, the Lieder Krantz Singers.


But they were soon confronted by the towering reality of their ambition. In hurling themselves into patriarchal Middle Eastern politics, they had given little thought to the fact that boats had to be bought and registered; they needed to be fuelled and provisioned; they had to be kept seaworthy and needed professional crews. In the eyes of many whom they approached for funding, they were a bunch of hippies, wading into the notorious shallows of the Palestinian donor pool, with their hands out for $US350,000. "We were never sent packing from a big man's office," Bowyer recalls. "But that was only because we could never get past the secretaries."


As about 40 activists around the world signed on to the Lieder Krantz Singers email list, Greta Berlin used the system of circular emails to introduce a 36year‐old Australian community worker, Sharyn Lock, to the plan. Now based in the UK, where she is studying midwifery, Lock admits that she was hooked instantly by the "big‐picture vision" of the plan. "I knew none of [the other women], but we were all the kind of people who aren't put off by the blokey dimensions of life."


Just four days after arriving in the West Bank in 2002 to join the ISM, Lock had been hit by a fragmenting bullet, metal shards from which remain encased in scar tissue on her stomach. "I've just got a big scar to startle people with, and a tiny glimpse of what it's like to be a Palestinian" is her bush philosopher's way of explaining the wound she suffered as Israeli forces opened fire while she was attempting to deliver medicine and food to Palestinians whose homes, near Bethlehem in the West Bank, had been occupied by Israeli forces during the Second Intifada.


As the FGM gathered momentum, big humanitarian names began to pledge support, among them South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Irish Nobel peace laureate Mairead Corrigan‐Maguire. But by the spring of 2008, the project was in dire need of cash. So the women began to empty their own pockets. When they set up a website, Berlin bought the FGM internet domain. Hughes‐ Thompson found herself in charge of the PayPal account through which funds raised were received. "I was the only one who knew how to operate it," she says, recalling, with affection, a donation for

#139 that came in from a cake stall in the UK. "It was heart‐warming, grassroots stuff," adds Arraf.


In June 2008, against the odds, the women managed to locate two decrepit boats in Greece and secretly set about making them seaworthy. These were simple 20‐metrelong fishing boats, little more than open‐decked hulks adorned with one small wheelhouse. More money was needed, but there was nothing in the kitty. Many in the group emptied their bank accounts to fund them, Arraf tells me.


With security still paramount, the FGM split into three groups, none of which was informed of the location or make‐up of the other two. The boats were repaired at separate, undisclosed locations in Greece. The third group underwent training in the techniques of non‐violent resistance in Cyprus. The vessels were given false names, lest Israeli agents attempt to track them through official

channels: in all FGM publicity, the Demitris Kapa was referred to as Free Gaza and the Agios Nikolaos

became Liberty. The Liberty alone cost $US45,000 to buy; almost twice as much again went on repairs, maintenance, fuel and crew.


Berlin describes the days before their departure from Cyprus as scary: "We started getting anonymous calls on our cell phones: 'There's a bomb on board'; 'Do you know how to swim?' " An especially disturbing series of messages was left on the unlisted home number in France of Lauren Booth who, as sister‐in‐law to then‐British PM Tony Blair, was very much a celebrity activist. She tells me via email, "The caller told my husband I was in danger ... and there was a chilling threat that included the words, 'We know where you and your children live.' "


Forty‐four people aged 21 to 81 and representing 17 countries were aboard the first‐ever FGM protest flotilla, which set sail from Larnaca, Cyprus, on August 22, 2008. As they embarked on what would be a 600‐kilometre voyage, carrying a symbolic cargo of 200 hearing aids and 5000 balloons

for the children of Gaza, Israel issued an ominous warning for all shipping to stay clear of Gaza waters due to an unspecified "security situation". Foreign Ministry spokesman Aviv Shiron described the protest as a "provocation", warning that "all options" were being considered to prevent the two boats from reaching Gaza. Seasoned Jerusalem correspondents predicted a stand‐off at sea. Lock, who'd been blacklisted by the Israeli authorities in 2005, helped train all who sailed on the inaugural voyage in techniques of non‐violent resistance.


Hughes‐Thompson had little hope the flotilla would reach its destination as she boarded Free Gaza: "We planned to stay at sea for as long as we had food and water, hoping that, in that time, the international community would pressure Israel to let us through. But we figured the Israelis would block us." She remembers a "scary voyage" and "a long dark night". All on board scanned the seas for signs of an Israeli interception as Israeli activist Jeff Halper warned them of the likelihood of Israeli frogmen emerging from the water to come over the sides of each boat. "We said to ourselves we'd stand on deck and simply refuse to move if they boarded but the truth is we all were seasick!"

Hughes‐Thompson says. "Then we saw land my God, it was Gaza! We got closer and closer and we started to believe for the first time that Israel was letting us in."


After 33 hours at sea, Liberty and Free Gaza became the first non‐Israeli vessels to sail into Gaza in

41 years. They received a raucous welcome from tens of thousands of cheering, flag‐waving locals

who eagerly and prematurely, as it turned out ‐ declared the siege had been broken. "We were ecstatic," Bowyer recalls. "I mean, there we were in Gaza. It was utterly unbelievable ‐ everyone on the boats was in tears, even before we saw the local reception. Two years of grinding work had disappeared and suddenly every second had been worth it."


Despite the "all options" threat from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, it seemed that wiser heads had prevailed in Jerusalem as the boats neared Gaza. The ministry spokesman, Aviv Shiron, said now, "They wanted provocation at sea, but they won't get it. We know who the passengers are and what they are bringing with them, and so we have no problem letting them through."


The fgm immediately set about planning its next voyages. First it had to sell the two boats to clear its debts. Then, using a donated 20‐metre yacht named Dignity, it would make another four successful voyages. But on December 30, 2008, as it tried to land doctors and medical supplies during

Operation Cast Lead, a massive Israeli incursion into Gaza over the 2008‐09 New Year period, Dignity

not only found its passage blocked by the Israeli Navy, it was rammed by warships and forced to limp to Lebanon for repairs.


The women retreated into a series of workshops to discuss how best to mount effective missions in the face of Israel's new‐found determination to block the boats. Finally, they decided to up the ante, opting to apply a forcemultiplier to Michael Shaik's original idea: instead of dozens of activists, they would send hundreds; instead of a solo FGM venture, they would pull together a global coalition of Palestinian support groups and sympathetic NGOs. "More boats would mean more media, so we fixed on a minimum of one cargo ship and two passenger boats," says Arraf. "And this time, the cargo would have to be real."


Arraf panhandled in 12 countries in late 2009, striking gold far away in Muslim Kuala Lumpur. Former prime minister Mahathir bin Mohammad became an enthusiastic supporter, releasing a cascade of Malaysian money that was enough for the FGM to buy Arraf's bottom‐line requirement of three boats: two 25‐metre ocean cruisers, Challenger I and Challenger II, and a clapped‐out, 1200‐ tonne freighter that would be renamed the Rachel Corrie as a tribute to the group's young ISM colleague who'd died beneath an Israeli bulldozer.

Meanwhile, Renee Bowyer's new Tunisian husband, Fathi Jaouadi ‐ the pair had met during the FGM's first triumphant voyage ‐ had been dispatched to find other groups that might form a coalition with the FGM. His first success, after more than 12 months of negotiation, was to bring on board the Turkish humanitarian group IHH, which at that time was having difficulty getting supplies for its aid projects in Gaza through the Israeli blockade. Bowyer outlines the snowball effect of the Turks' decision. "Suddenly we were believable to other groups in the Middle East and in Europe," she says. Gradually, support grew in Britain and Ireland, Greece and Sweden. NGOs in Algeria and Kuwait put up the funds for some of the relief cargo that would be transported to Gaza.


Bowyer hoped a flotilla might overwhelm the Israeli system, overstretch the capacity of its navy and, in the event of mass arrests, the capacity of its prisons. As the plan finally came together, it had an impressive $US3.6million price tag. Apart from 10,000 tonnes of building, medical, educational and other supplies, on board would be dozens of parliamentarians from around the world and professionals planning to offer their services in Gaza. All up there would be about 700 protesters,

the bulk of whom would be Turkish Muslims on board the big passenger ferry Mavi Marmara.


Again, there was a sense of being watched. An email Bowyer received might have been nothing out of the ordinary: "I'm on my way to Victoria Station. Will you meet me there at such‐and‐such a time?" is how she paraphrased it. It came from her husband's email address and its Arabic terms of endearment were his but Fathi Jaouadi had not sent it.


On May 28 this year, challenger i and challenger ii eased away from Crete bound for an undisclosed point south of Cyprus, where the flotilla was to assemble before setting a southerly course for Gaza. With the exception of Bowyer, who was now six months pregnant with her second child, all five of the women working in the Cyprus office of the FGM as the flotilla began the last leg of its journey were 65‐plus. There were the diehards, Berlin and Hughes‐Thompson, and 65‐year‐old Audrey Bomse, who does most of FGM's legal work. The group had also enlisted the help of 86‐year‐old Jewish activist Hedy Epstein.


Using their own satellite phones and the bigger boats' communications systems, they chatted regularly with their FGM colleagues aboard the flotilla and relied on email and internet telephony to stay in touch with colleagues and supporters around the world. "We were chatting about the Israelis shadowing the boats, but not harassing them," recalls Hughes‐Thompson, who was on the office's phones shortly after 4am on May 31. "The contact person on each boat reported the presence of the navy ships, choppers and what seemed to be a drone overhead."


During the next hour, the women learnt that the Israeli commandos who'd rappelled down from the helicopters above the Mavi Marmara had killed nine Turkish activists on board the ferry and wounded more than 50, before arresting almost 700 on all six boats in the flotilla. As the news trickled into the FGM office in Cyprus ‐ most of it sourced to Israeli outlets, but at times relayed by Shaik in Australia and by others in the US the women were devastated. "The reports were horrifying," says Hughes‐Thompson. Adds Berlin, "We had expected violence like we had had in [past encounters with Israeli forces], but nine dead and 50 wounded just hadn't crossed our minds." Arraf was incredulous: "[Something as] violent as this? We didn't expect it. After the success of the early voyages, we became confident in what we were doing and in how we were doing it. We tried as much as we could to make it too costly for Israel to open fire. If they behaved aggressively, it would be horrible PR for Israel. I just didn't think they would do it."


It needs to be stated here that precisely what happened on the Mavi Marmara is highly contested. There is footage of metal bars being cut by activists and seemingly wielded as weapons, of chairs

and other objects being hurled over the sides at Israeli Zodiacs and of fire hoses being used as crude water cannons. But there is no visual evidence to support Israeli claims that the activists on the Mavi Marmara had their own guns or that they captured Israeli weapons and used them against the boarding parties. All such Israeli charges are flatly denied by flotilla organisers and by activists who were close to the action.


There is, on the other hand, footage of what appears to be Israeli commandos shooting an activist at near point‐blank range and, later, autopsy accounts of head and other high‐on‐thebody woundings

the result of a resort to live ammunition that Israel justified on the grounds there was a genuine threat to the lives of its commandos.


Smarting from international condemnation as the wounded, dead and hundreds of pro‐Palestinian activists and other prisoners, including myself and Sydney Morning Herald photographer Kate Geraghty, were airlifted from Ben Gurion Airport by an enraged Turkish government, some in the Israeli establishment acknowledged the flotilla as a trap that a wiser regime might have avoided. "Perhaps it was a mistake to storm the ships," deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon told the German magazine Der Spiegel.


How did the women deal with the reality of nine freshly dug graves in Turkey and more than 50 families around the world preparing to receive flotilla


casualties in the days after the drama? "I think ..." Here Arraf pauses uncertainly. "A human life is one of the most precious things ... it is hard to say the loss of any life for any cause is 'worth it'. But so many more people are suffering and dying [in Gaza] and nobody says a thing. We know non‐ violent direct action is not safe. And we knew we were exposing ourselves, but this is a struggle for something bigger, without which there will be more and more death and suffering."


She makes no effort to dodge the uncomfortable point she has made, fully understanding that it raises questions about the FGM's strategic foresight as the flotilla was prepared. "There were a lot of people on that boat," she begins. "FGM took basic responsibility for providing training for all the other boats in Athens and Crete, but we didn't do the Turkish boats. We talked with IHH about the need to train people, but they said they would handle it themselves ... The people on the Marmara did not get direct training like that received by people on the other boats ... but I reject the notion of preplanned violence."


She pauses. "The loss of nine lives is not going to stop us," she says. "What Israel has done has made the flotilla a success. People in the West Bank and elsewhere keep telling me that what we achieved has not been done before in Palestinian history. There are floods of calls from people wanting to send boats and to be on boats and we're still trying to access this new energy as we study our next moves. We'll be back."


FGM movers & shakers


Name: Greta Berlin

Age: 69

Home: Cote d'Azur, France


Nationality: American


Work: Owns a consultancy, teaching scientists how to design and deliver technical presentations. First awareness: "I married a Palestinian and have two Palestinian/American kids."

Became hooked: "When my daughter was refused entry to Gaza in 1997, and the death of

Mohammed Al‐Dura in front of news cameras on September 30, 2000." (The


12‐year‐old boy died at Netzarim Junction, Gaza, in his father's arms after being shot by the Israel Defence Forces.)




Name: Mary Hughes‐Thompson

Age: 76

Home: Los Angeles, California Nationality: British‐American dual citizen Work: TV production and writing  (retired)


First awareness: Researching "Nasser v Ben Gurion", an episode of the 1960s documentary TV


series Men in Crisis.


Became hooked: After the death of Mohammed Al‐Dura, "I decided I should go to Palestine to witness the situation

first‐hand. There I met Huwaida Arraf and was greatly inspired by her youth and courage."




Name: Sharyn Lock

Age: 36

Home: West Yorkshire, UK Nationality: Australian


Work: Community worker and student midwife


First awareness:


"A Jewish friend first sent me to Palestine after she and other mates returned with good reports of volunteering with the ISM."


Became hooked: "When I was shot in the West Bank. Apart from me, the hospital


ICU was virtually empty because after an incursion the Israeli army would not let ambulances collect wounded Palestinians." Name: Renee Bowyer

(now Jaouadi) Age: 35

Home: Hertfordshire, UK Nationality: Australian Work: Teacher

First awareness: "The Arab/Israeli conflict is taught in high schools and universities [and] the Israeli side of the story is in front of you all the time. The Palestinian story was a mystery but, to me, compelling."


Became hooked: "During a week I spent living in a West Bank village in 2004, the house next door was attacked. I witnessed the killing of three men, the escape of one and the demolition of the family home."


FGM movers & shakers





Name: Huwaida Arraf

Age: 34

Home: Ramallah, West Bank Nationality: American and Palestinian with Israeli citizenship"

Work: Lawyer/activist

First awareness: Life‐long

Became hooked: "It's part of me."



Name: Michael Shaik

Age: 41

Home: Melbourne, Australia

Nationality: Australian

Work: Department of Defence public servant turned full‐time advocate for Australians for Palestine. First awareness: "My mother read a lot of Leon Uris and was very pro‐Israel, and I absorbed many of

her views. But then I watched a documentary on ABC TV: it seemed obvious why the Palestinians were fighting back."

Became hooked: "It was gradual. Working  in the West Bank in 2003 as the ISM media co‐ordinator, it began to sink in that real people were being killed and having their houses demolished. The real turning point was the death of Rachel Corrie."



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