Author: Paul McGeough
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald Section: Good Weekend Magazine
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 pre‐dawn 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, Ramallah‐based 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 bullet‐shaped 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
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
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
crushed to death under an Israeli military bulldozer as she protested against the demolition of
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 long‐time 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 never‐ending 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 ice‐cream 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
The group's email traffic ‐ some of which was read by Good
Weekend ‐ reveals initial enthusiasm
for this proposed airport sit‐in. But then 36‐year‐old
Michael Shaik weighed in from Canberra, where he worked full‐time 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
"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 non‐existent 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 36‐year‐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‐metre‐long 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
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
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.' "
‐ 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
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
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
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 force‐multiplier 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 $US3.6‐million 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
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‐the‐body 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 pre‐planned 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."
Name: Greta Berlin
Home: Cote d'Azur, France
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."
died at Netzarim Junction, Gaza,
in his father's arms after being shot by the Israel Defence Forces.)
Name: Mary Hughes‐Thompson
Home: Los Angeles, California Nationality: British‐American dual
citizen Work: TV production and
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
I met Huwaida Arraf and was greatly
inspired by her youth and courage."
Name: Sharyn Lock
Home: West Yorkshire, UK Nationality: Australian
Work: Community worker and student midwife
"A Jewish friend first sent me
to Palestine after
she and other mates returned with good reports of volunteering with the
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,
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
Home: Ramallah, West Bank Nationality: American and Palestinian with Israeli citizenship"
First awareness: Life‐long
Became hooked: "It's part of me."
Name: Michael Shaik
Home: Melbourne, Australia
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
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."