Activists prepare to set sail for Gaza

Waiting on a Greek island, activists get briefings on what to do if Israeli commandos storm their ship.

    Participants hope to bring aid to Gaza while raising awarness about the Israeli blockade [David Poort/Al Jazeera]

    Corfu, Greece – Activists planning on participating in an aid flotilla to the Gaza Strip are receiving lengthy briefings on non-violent resistance and their legal rights in case of arrest by Israeli security forces.

    Around 200 activists are currently scrambling across Turkey and Greece with the aim of breaking the Israeli siege on the Gaza strip, the second attempt to reach the coastal enclave by sea in as many years.

    The largest group, some 65 activists who will be sailing on the Italian-Dutch ship Stefano Chiarim, is assembling in a small port town on the Greek island of Corfu, as the organisers are getting the final paper work sorted with the Greek coast guard.

    The date of departure has been postponed a number of times, and after spending six days attending briefings and hanging around their beach-side hotel, most activists are eager to get the flotilla underway.

    'Mandatory training'

    The activists on the 'Freedom Flotilla II' are undergoing "mandatory training" in non-violent resistance to underscore the humanitarian intent of the mission.

    On Thursday, some 30 newcomers assembled in the hotel restaurant for a crash course in international and maritime law.

    "A 'siege' is actually not the correct terminology to use for Gaza," Anne de Jong, a Dutch veteran of the first flotilla tutored the attendees. "A siege is a military term, which does not hold up legally. Calling it a blockade would be more appropriate."

    She continued by explaining what, according to the organisers, are the legal rights and duties of the passengers onboard the flotilla.

    "The most likely scenario is that we will not reach Gaza. However, if by any chance Israel shows a humane side and we do end up in Gaza, then there will be a set programme waiting for us. We will be shown around and we will meet many people there. Please keep in mind to abide by local customs and cultural sensitivities…

    "Since we will not have an entry stamp in our passports, the only legal way for us to return would be to go back the way we came; by sea. Leaving via Rafah [Egypt] may be possible but you might have to pay a bribe at the border," De Jong said.

    The briefing continued with a session on possible Israeli responses to the challenge of the blockade of Gaza.
    "If they attack the flotilla in international waters, then there will be nothing legal about that. We will, however, not at any moment enter Israeli territorial waters," De Jong said.

    In last year's attempt to reach Gaza, the Israeli Navy made initial contact in international waters, about 190km northwest of Gaza and 130km off the coast of southern Lebanon.

    Israeli commandos boarded the flotilla's main vessel, the Mavi Marmara from Turkey, killing nine activists and wounding many others. The other ships in the flotilla were ordered to follow the navy fleet to the Israeli port of Ashdod just north of Gaza, or otherwise be boarded.

    The UN and other international bodies consider Israel to be the occupying power of the Gaza Strip as Israel controls Gaza's airspace, territorial waters and most of its land borders, and only allows for a very limited movement of goods into or out of Gaza.

    Israel states that Gaza is no longer occupied, as Israel does not exercise effective control or authority over any land or institutions in the coast enclave.

    'Go limp'

    After last year's flotilla was diverted to Ashdod, the passengers were taken off the boats by security forces and paraded before the Israeli and international press.

    "It is actually illegal under the rules of the Geneva Convention to parade captives in public, but they do it anyway. They don't care…" De Jong said, as she continued her briefing. "If you do not want to be taken off the boat, we advise you to 'go limp'. They can carry you off the boat."

    According to De Jong, the only legal obligation passengers have in case of arrest is to identify themselves. "We advise people not to answer other questions when there is no lawyer present," she said.

    "You are entitled to make one brief phone call which has to be conducted in English. Please tell your home front to say something more informative than only: 'I love you, I love you'" since it might be the only contact with the outside world that you are likely to have in those couple of days."

    "Also know that the Israelis will take everything from you. Even your cigarettes, although there were some exceptions," the veteran activist said.

    The activists expect to be deported shortly after being arrested, either to their country of origin or – like some of them last year – to Turkey. 

    "We are a nuisance for the Israelis and they would want to get rid of us as soon as possible, especially since we are a group of internationals," De Jong said.

    'Not a pleasure cruise'

    Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, said on Wednesday that while it was not known what the ships in the new flotilla might be carrying, security forces were readying for all scenarios.
    "I am sure they (security forces) are better prepared than in the past. This is not a pleasure cruise and in any event we must be ready for all scenarios... The working assumption for the forces is that they could meet very violent resistance," Barak told Israel's Channel 2.

    The violence during last year's flotilla has not stopped Khaled Tuhraani, a Palestinian American coordinator on the Stefano Chiarim, to once again take on a leading role in this year’s edition.

    Tuhraani said that if there will be violence, it will certainly not come from the passengers on his boat. "When the Israelis boarded our ship last year we protected our captain by creating a human chain around him and by going limp. I was hit by rubber coated steel bullets in my back and in the back of my head."

    Tuhraani said he is not scared of another confrontation with the Israeli security forces on high seas. "My desire to help is much larger than my desire to be safe," he said.
    "I don't think that there will be bloodshed this year. We announced that we will be peaceful and I will have our boat thoroughly inspected before we leave so that there won't be any weapons on board." 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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