A year after the Freedom Flotilla to the Gaza Strip ended in violence, with nine Turkish citizens dead after a confrontation with Israeli forces, a new flotilla is preparing to set sail. Hundreds of activists are set to board 10 Gaza-bound ships, including two cargo vessels carrying aid. This time, a Canadian vessel will be joining them.
The Tahrir - Arabic for "liberation" - is currently docked at a secret port in the Mediterranean. In the coming days, 32 Canadians, 20 international activists and a handful of journalists will attempt break the four-year Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. Israel argues the blockade is necessary to prevent weapons from filtering into the hands of Hamas militants inside the Palestinian territory. The United Nations and activists view the blockade as a human-rights violation, choking Gaza's struggling economy.
After last year's bloody confrontation on the high seas, Israel eased restrictions of cargo crossing into Gaza by land, and this month Egypt reopened its crossing to Gaza through Rafa. Still, the activists on the flotilla say those measures are not enough. Some say they are willing to die in an effort to challenge the blockade.
......................................................................................................................................................................................................... Canadian activist aims to break the blockade of Gaza - non-violently
Kevin Neish is a 54-year-old retired vocational instructor from Victoria, B.C. Last year he was on board the MV Mavi Marmara when Israeli soldiers boarded the ship. He was arrested and spent three days in an Israeli jail. Speaking from Greece, he explains his reasons for joining the flotilla again.
Is your primary objective political or humanitarian?
Political. We couldn't possibly bring enough aid to help Gaza. The aid is symbolic. The goal is to break the blockade.
How is this different from previous flotillas to Gaza?
It's bigger. I understand there are up to a thousand people taking part and the ships are from everywhere.
Is there any other difference in the objective?
The objective is the same, breaking the illegal Israeli blockade of Gaza. There are two freighters in the flotilla packed with aid. We're carrying about $20,000 of specifically requested medicines that the Gaza hospital wants, but really it's a drop in the bucket.
Who are the people on the Canadian vessel?
There's a Quaker, doctors, a child psychology nurse. Harmeet Sooden who was kidnapped for 118 days in Iraq.
You said you've undergone training in case the Israelis attack you. What kind of training have you undergone?
The emphasis is non-violence. We have a red line - a list of things we commit to. We won't do anything to endanger anyone's life or hurt anybody, either Israelis or whoever. And we're not to raise our hands. We just stand with our arms at our sides. We will do our best to keep the Israelis from getting on the ship by physically getting in their way but there will be nothing violent about it. If the Israelis want to push me to the ground and kick us to get us out of the way we will simply take the beating. That's what the plan is. … I mean, the plan is to get to Gaza.
You say that, but it sounds like you are preparing for the Israelis to board the ship as they did last time. Do you have weapons on the ship?
For heaven's sake, no. On the previous ship they had chains and broom handles and sticks. They didn't have any weapons per se. On this ship, there will be nothing. We agreed that we would have nothing in our hands that could be perceived as a weapon. We will be standing there with the clothes on our back and our hands at our sides and nothing else. And the media will be standing on the upper deck behind us filming everything.
Do you have flak jackets?
God no. I am going to wear a heavy nylon coat. We're expecting to be tasered and I am hoping this nylon coat will offer me a little bit of protection from being tasered but we have nothing but the clothes on our back.
There were some questions last time around about the actual aid on board. The Israelis said the flotilla was carrying expired medicine and outdated medical equipment. What kind of aid do you have on the boat?
That was what the Israelis said. It was all lies. We are carrying $20,000 of medicine that the Palestinian health authority has specifically asked for. They asked us to bring children's hearing aids, which we thought was kind of strange, but it turns out the Israelis are breaking the sound barrier over Gaza with their jets and it's damaging the hearing of young children. There will be school supplies and cement for rebuilding hospitals and schools. I haven't seen my ship yet. Everything is very secretive. If I told you where I was and you printed it I would be kicked off the ship immediately.
Gaza does not have a port to really unload this stuff that you're carrying. How do you plan to get it off?
I understand the Gazans have been manually deepening the port. What they will do is send fishing boats out to us and then they'll just ferry things back and forth. My understanding is that it's deep enough for us to sneak in and pull up right at the dock.
The last flotilla, Israel actually offered to have the supplies offloaded in Israel and brought by land into Gaza. Has a similar offer been made this time around?
I'd imagine it has, but it's irrelevant. The International Red Cross has declared Gaza a humanitarian crisis. Why the hell doesn't Israel open up and deliver more aid? If they want to solve the crisis in Gaza they can let aid in. So this is just a publicity stunt to distract people. The Gazans don't want to live on aid. They want to have an economy. If they had proper jobs, rather than receiving handouts, then there would be no reason for them to attack Israel. There would be no more rockets.
Some say that what you are doing is nothing but a publicity stunt.
I almost got cut to pieces by Israeli machine gun fire last time. I had people lying around at my feet dead and dying. At the very end I walked down the stairs and there was a man at the end lying there with a hole in his chest I could put my fist into, and I had had a cup of tea with him the day before. Publicity stunt? If I wanted to do a publicity stunt I would pick a little less dangerous routine. This is trying to save lives. I'm not some rich kid from Victoria doing this for a thrill. If I wanted a thrill I wouldn't have an Israeli soldier threaten to beat me and put guns to my head and watch other people get shot and murdered around me. I can think of a lot of less dangerous ways of getting my name in the paper.
What happens if Israeli soldiers board the ship and start shooting at you? What's your response?
I'll probably be dead. The folks we've picked to be on the boat are very non-violent. Very few of these people are willing to get in the way of the Israelis. They want to stand aside and witness what the Israelis do. It's a very peaceful group.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
......................................................................................................................................................................................................... After the violence, a more considered response
The 2010 Gaza Flotilla Raid
On May 31, 2010, a team of Israeli naval commandos boarded six ships that comprised the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, an effort by the Free Gaza Movement and a Turkish human-rights organization to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza with the delivery of aid. Clashes broke out on the MV Mavi Marmara, one of the passenger ships, after activists resisted with makeshift weapons. Israel says the activists fired guns. Israeli commandos fired their weapons, resulting in the deaths of nine activists. Dozens of other activists and seven Israeli commandos were wounded. The incident drew international condemnation and led Israel to ease its land blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli response
Israel says it is rethinking an earlier threat to ban foreign journalists from entering the country for 10 years if they board the new Freedom Flotilla. Israel's government press office had said that sailing on the flotilla - even as a journalist - would amount to "an intentional violation" of Israeli law. Meanwhile, a statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said: "Israel is determined to prevent the flotilla from reaching Gaza with as little friction as possible with its passengers."