Humanitarians on the High Seas: Freedom Flotilla Sets Sail for Gaza

The Al Awda vessel readies to set sail from Bergen, Norway. It will join up with three other ships in the four-ship Freedom Flotilla, beginning a journey its crew hopes will end in Gaza. Freedom Flotilla Coalition

As the Freedom Flotilla approached the Gaza Strip in 2010, its crew of activists expected to be stopped—and possibly even arrested—by Israeli vessels enforcing the blockade of the Palestinian territory.

What they didn't expect is that several of their number would end up dead, shot by Israeli commandos who descended on to the deck from helicopters. Nine people were killed during the raid, and another died of related injuries years later. Ten soldiers were also injured, and Israel claimed all shots were fired in self-defense.

But despite the danger, a four-ship Freedom Flotilla has once again set sail, beginning a journey its crew hopes will end in Gaza.

The Al Awda—"The Return"—vessel is currently in Gothenburg, Sweden, having set sail a week ago from Bergen, Norway. The Al Awda will link up with the other three other boats in Copenhagen, Denmark, this weekend, before beginning a tour of European ports that will end in the Mediterranean.

The flotilla intends "to give hope to the people of Gaza that they are not forgotten by the international community," Ann Wright, a co-coordinator of the U.S. campaign supporting the 2018 fleet, told Newsweek. Two boats will head from Scandinavia down the western coast of Europe, and the other two will navigate rivers and canals through the European continent. Along the way, the activists plan to hold events to raise awareness of the conditions in the Gaza Strip and their mission.

The name of the Al Awda is a nod to the 70th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, when as many as 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes upon the creation of Israel in 1948. For the past six weeks, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been protesting for their right to return to the ancestral lands their families left behind. Israel does not recognize that right, and claims the return of refugees or their descendants would spell an end to Israel's Jewish majority.

The multinational group is split into 12 national campaigns to raise the money needed to purchase and maintain the flotilla. Volunteers will join the fleet for different legs of the journey, with a select group including a delegate from each national campaign assigned to the final run to Gaza. The U.S. team hopes that 10 to 15 Americans will have been part of the effort by the end of the journey. Organizers have also invited several celebrities to accompany the flotilla on its journey, although they said they could not name them just yet. "There's going to be a dynamic group," Wright said.

"The final push is to send all four boats on to try to break the illegal Israeli naval blockade of Gaza," said Wright, who has participated in several previous flotillas. The very first boats traveled to Gaza in 2008, and four managed to reach their destination—the first international boats to do so in over 40 years, Wright claimed. The enclave was resealed after Israel launched the Operation Cast Lead against Gaza in December 2008. No international boats have reached Gaza since.

An Israeli marine is dropped from a helicopter onto the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara in this screen grab from a video released May 31, 2010, by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The marines killed nine pro-Palestinian activists and detained hundreds more. REUTERS/Handout/IDF

The detailed flotilla schedule is being kept confidential to guard against outside interference. Mysterious mechanical failures have beset previous flotillas, and there have been allegations that Israel may have tampered with ships.

The deaths of nine activists on board the Turkish-operated Mavi Marmara of the 2010 flotilla still loom large for the organizers. On all six ships of that flotilla, people were beaten by Israeli forces, Wright recalled. The boats were stopped in international waters and those aboard taken to an Israeli prison before being deported. According to Wright, over 700 people were arrested, and all ships apart from the Mavi Marmara were confiscated.

The repeat of such bloodshed "is always of great concern to us," Wright said. "The Israelis are violent to the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank every day…the least we can do is be in solidarity."

"We are willing to risk our lives for this," she added.