Sailing to Gaza to Break the Siege

14 July, 2021
Freedom Sailors Greta Berlin and Mary Hughes Thompson, center, on the Free Gaza, one of two boats that broke the siege of Gaza.

Free­dom Sailors Gre­ta Berlin and Mary Hugh­es Thomp­son, cen­ter, on the Free Gaza, one of two boats that broke the siege of Gaza.

Dur­ing the sum­mer of 2008, Gre­ta Berlin, Mary Hugh­es Thomp­son and oth­er activists from Cal­i­for­nia and around the world sailed for Gaza to break Israel’s siege. What fol­lows is excerpt­ed from the book, Free­dom Sailors, an account of how the Free Gaza Move­ment, which began with a small group of ordi­nary peo­ple, con­ceived and exe­cut­ed what seemed like a grandiose and auda­cious plan to break Israel’s ille­gal mil­i­tary block­ade of the Gaza Strip. In a lit­tle over two years, they raised the mon­ey to pur­chase two dilap­i­dat­ed fish­ing boats stored in secret ports in Greece, col­lect­ed 44 pas­sen­gers, crew and jour­nal­ists, aged 22 to 81, and chose Cyprus as their embarka­tion point. The first voy­age achieved exact­ly what they hoped it would, open­ing the door just a bit, prov­ing it could be done. 

Greta Berlin

They said we would nev­er make it.

The sun was shin­ing in Cyprus when Free Gaza and Lib­er­ty final­ly pulled out to sea at 9:00 am, and 44 pas­sen­gers, jour­nal­ists and crew had this over­whelm­ing feel­ing of joy. We were final­ly sail­ing to Gaza. Crowds lined the dock and cheered us on as Free Gaza cast off her lines and head­ed out of the port, only to find that Lib­er­ty had engine trou­ble again. We had to wait for two hours as the engi­neer climbed down into the engine room and fixed the fan belt. Final­ly, the Cypri­ot Coast Guard escort­ed us to the 12-mile lim­it before sound­ing their horns and turn­ing back. We were on our way, three weeks late, but final­ly leav­ing, sail­ing 240 miles across the Mediter­ranean to the impris­oned peo­ple of Gaza. 

The Israeli gov­ern­ment had been threat­en­ing us for weeks, demand­ing that we abort the mis­sion, telling us they could not be respon­si­ble for our safe­ty (as though we were some­how sail­ing to Israel and not to Gaza, a ter­ri­to­ry that Israel had been telling the world was no longer occu­pied.) We had found Israel’s Achilles’ heel, and we were exploit­ing it in the media. 

Freedom Sailors  is a terrific read. Get it  here .

Free­dom Sailors is a ter­rif­ic read. Get it here.

Israel had said it no longer occu­pied Gaza and had not occu­pied since the gov­ern­ment pulled out its ille­gal set­tlers in 2005. There­fore, by Israel’s own admis­sion, Gaza was free to invite any­one who want­ed to come and vis­it, to sail into its port and be wel­comed. We were not ask­ing for Israel’s per­mis­sion. We did­n’t need to. Gaza was free, and we were coming. 

Our two boats could only trav­el at 7 knots an hour, so we were in for a long and treach­er­ous voy­age, 33 hours until we would arrive, the threats from the Israeli gov­ern­ment and its sup­port­ers of sink­ing us, then let­ting us drown, ring­ing in our ears. The day before we left, my phone rang.

“Do you know how to swim?” said the muf­fled voice. “What?” “Do you know how to swim?” he repeat­ed. “What?” Shout­ing into the phone. “DO YOU KNOW HOW TO SWIM?” 

Off the top of my head, I said, “I’m sor­ry. I can’t hear you. You sound as though you’re under water.” At the time, I thought my answer was pret­ty funny. 

Our high-pro­file pas­sen­gers like Lau­ren Booth, sis­ter-in-law of Tony Blair, had been threat­ened con­stant­ly, one caller say­ing he knew where she lived in France, and she had bet­ter go home and watch over her children.

Those of us work­ing with the media had our phone num­bers post­ed on the web­site as con­tacts. We often got ‘anony­mous phone calls’ in the mid­dle of the night. “There is a bomb on board.” “You will nev­er make it.” “We know how easy it is to sink you.”

We had scu­ba divers check­ing the under­sides of the boats four times a day, look­ing for sab­o­tage. Even the Cypri­ot Coast Guard went under the boats while they were docked in Lar­naca. They did­n’t trust the Israelis either after the bomb attack in Limas­sol in 1988, and many in the port author­i­ty had talked to us pri­vate­ly, telling us that Israeli agents had been down to the port ask­ing questions. 

This after­noon, they had giv­en us a thumbs-up and said we were ready to sail. 

We knew the Israeli gov­ern­ment was watch­ing us. We knew they want­ed to stop us. We also knew the sto­ry of the Ship of Return, due to set sail in Feb­ru­ary 1988 from Cyprus. It was car­ry­ing Pales­tini­ans and sup­port­ers who were sail­ing back to Haifa to return to their home­land. Israeli frog­men blew up the engine with a mine stuck under the ves­sel. It was attached to a time fuse, accord­ing to port offi­cials in Limassol.1

The blast came less than 24 hours after a car bomb on the water­front killed three senior Pales­tin­ian orga­niz­ers who were involved in plans for the voy­age. There was only one pos­si­bil­i­ty who killed them, and that was Israel. So we took their warn­ings seriously. 

map of boats sailing.jpg

No boat full of inter­na­tion­als had docked in the port of Gaza for 41 years, as Israel tight­ened the screws of their 20 year ille­gal block­ade ever tighter since 2000, a block­ade they said was all about secu­ri­ty, and we knew was about steal­ing the nat­ur­al gas of Gaza. They just did­n’t real­ize their threats made pas­sen­gers more deter­mined than ever to sail. We had come on this jour­ney from 17 coun­tries, from Pales­tine to Pak­istan, from the U.S. to Europe. Most of us were activists and had worked in the occu­pied West Bank and Gaza, some for decades. Threat­en­ing us was com­plete­ly counter-productive. 

So far, every­thing was work­ing, as the boats sneezed and snort­ed their way across the waves, their diesel engines com­plain­ing.  The two cap­tains, John Klus­mire from the U.S. and the Greek cap­tain, Gior­gios Klontsas, were talk­ing to each oth­er on Chan­nel 16, used for trans­mis­sions for by ships of the world. Their read­ings said we might be in for some rough weath­er but no rain, just chop­py con­stant waves.

We watched Lar­naca twin­kle into the dis­tance as a cheer went up from both boats, “We are com­ing.” The jour­nal­ists from Al Jazeera and Ramat­tan got on their satel­lite phones and called ahead to Gaza, “We Are Com­ing.”  It was to be the last set of phone calls made. 

With­in two hours, beam seas start­ed rolling the two boats around like pieces of debris. Those of us on Free Gaza were dou­bly pitched from side to side, because the boat had a use­less mast that tipped dan­ger­ous­ly close to the water as Cap­tain John tried to wres­tle it upright. Almost all of us were sick, and the mis­ery was made worse by the spray com­ing up and over the boat, drench­ing us and mak­ing the deck a slip­pery mess. We held onto the rails, some even crawled along the out­side of the deck, as we tried to nav­i­gate to nar­row bench­es set into the sides of the boat and lie down. The Dra­mamine pills and patch­es were of lit­tle use, as our own fear of what might hap­pen added to our sickness. 

After ten hours at sea, the sun began to set, a filmy disk slip­ping into the water’s edge. We had long lost sight of land and saw no boats. Sharyn Lock, a major orga­niz­er from Aus­tralia, announced that we were 70 miles away from Cyprus, and we all groaned. It was going to be a long night. 

Thir­ty min­utes after the pitch black descend­ed on the two boats, our radio, mobile and satel­lite phones went dead. The Israeli navy had blocked all com­mu­ni­ca­tions. We had made plans to keep one satel­lite phone off at all times, so they could­n’t pick up the num­ber, and we did­n’t dare turn that one on until there was an absolute emer­gency. Cap­tain John said the Israeli com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tem would pick up the num­ber almost at once. The only means of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with each oth­er over was the low-tech equip­ment we had brought on board; walkie-talkies. Jeff Halper, chair­man of the Israeli Com­mit­tee Against Home Demo­li­tions was on board our boat and told us we would­n’t see or hear the Israelis com­ing if they decid­ed to attack.

One of the jour­nal­ists was clutch­ing his cam­era to his chest and lying on the deck of the boat, deter­mined that, if any­one attacked us, he was going to get footage. My friend, Mary, was propped up in the Zodi­ac, the lit­tle rub­ber boat used for emer­gen­cies. She was throw­ing up in rub­ber gloves, tying them neat­ly at the top, and hand­ing them to me to throw over­board. We had laughed at Kathy Sheetz, the emer­gency room nurse from Cal­i­for­nia who was on board. She had insist­ed we buy biodegrad­able rub­ber gloves, nev­er think­ing they would be used for vomit.

“Here,” Mary whis­pered, “Throw this one over­board and give me a new one.”  The glove bobbed off into the waves. “If the Israelis board, they’ll have to lift me up or shoot me right here in the Zodi­ac, because I don’t have the strength or will to fol­low their orders.” I hoped that was not going to happen.

Even though it was August, it was cold on the water, and we had not pre­pared our­selves for the damp. The water had drenched every­thing and every­one. We had two options; stay above on the deck and be cold and wet, or go down below to the six cab­ins and inhale the diesel fuel. The cab­ins were dry, but the diesel fuel made even the expe­ri­enced sailors gag. Most pas­sen­gers chose to stay above. 

At 22:00, a fire start­ed in the engine room of the Free Gaza, and Derek was down in the hold cov­ered in ash and soot, try­ing, with two vol­un­teers, to put out the fire and keep the engine running. 

Boats and swimmers welcome the Liberty to the port of Gaza.

Boats and swim­mers wel­come the Lib­er­ty to the port of Gaza.

I closed my eyes and thought of the two years it had tak­en us to buy and board these boats and head out to Gaza. Peo­ple thought we were insane, and, at the moment, I was begin­ning to believe they were right. The entire jour­ney had been orga­nized through the Inter­net, and every pas­sen­ger com­ing with us had been rec­om­mend­ed by at least two oth­er peo­ple. Our orig­i­nal pas­sen­ger list of 88 had dwin­dled down to 44 as the voy­age was post­poned, then post­poned again, then post­poned again. Every­thing from the sui­cide of one of the orga­niz­ers to run­ning out of mon­ey had delayed the trip. 

Many of us were vet­er­ans, work­ing in the occu­pied ter­ri­to­ries, but some, like Mushi­er Al Far­ra, an engi­neer from the U.K., just want­ed to go home to see his fam­i­ly. The Israeli gov­ern­ment had refused to allow him to attend his moth­er’s funer­al, and he want­ed to say his ‘good-byes’ to her. Com­ing with us was his oppor­tu­ni­ty to enter Gaza with­out the humil­i­at­ing search­es from Israeli sol­diers that all Pales­tini­ans try­ing to enter or leave Gaza endured. 

Since 2006, when we decid­ed we would sail to Gaza, the five of us who had orga­nized this voy­age had split our respon­si­bil­i­ties; Paul Larudee was in charge of the boats, I was in charge of the pas­sen­gers, Mary Hugh­es-Thomp­son was in charge of finances, and Renee Bowyer and Sharyn Lock were in charge of logis­tics. We had man­aged to grow from five ded­i­cat­ed peo­ple to over two hun­dred in two years, work­ing togeth­er via Inter­net with the over­rid­ing goal of sail­ing to Gaza. 

I crawled into the oth­er end of the Zodi­ac to try to get some sleep and decid­ed to calm my own queasy stom­ach by mak­ing lists in my head. I ran over the check­lists one more time.

Were all 44 pas­sen­gers checked in and on board? Yes. The old­est was Sis­ter Ann Mont­gomery, an 81-year-old nun from the U.S. who had worked in Pales­tine for the Chris­t­ian Peace­mak­er Teams and had also worked in Iraq. The youngest, Adam Qvist, was a 22-year-old Dan­ish activist from the Inter­na­tion­al Sol­i­dar­i­ty Move­ment whom I had met in 2007 as he was walk­ing Pales­tin­ian chil­dren to school in Hebron under the malev­o­lent gaze of the ille­gal settlers. 

Had every­one made out a will? Yes. We had no idea what was going to hap­pen, and Ramzi Kysia, head of our land team in Cyprus, had insist­ed every­one write a will, then send or give one copy to fam­i­ly or friends and leave a copy with him. Some of the pas­sen­gers thought we were being over­ly dra­mat­ic. It turned out, two years lat­er when the Israelis mur­dered nine peo­ple on our Free­dom Flotil­la, that it was a good idea to have a will. We also had to leave a con­tact num­ber, our pass­port num­bers and coun­try of issue and our wish­es for get­ting rid of our bodies.

Almost every­one agreed to be buried at sea, although some want­ed to be refrig­er­at­ed and sent to Gaza, a lofty goal con­sid­er­ing the refrig­er­a­tor on board could only hold soft drinks. 

Had we all signed a waiv­er absolv­ing the Free Gaza move­ment of any lia­bil­i­ty? Yes. We would not have tak­en them oth­er­wise. We had no mon­ey and no lia­bil­i­ty insur­ance. Every cent that we had raised went into the boats, more than $400,000 by the time we final­ly board­ed them. These dona­tions had come from all over the world, from peo­ple as out­raged as we were that 1.5 mil­lion Pales­tini­ans were board­ed up in an out­door prison. 

Did we all have life jack­ets and had we been at the safe­ty ses­sion run by our irre­press­ible Irish first mate, Derek Gra­ham? As far as I could tell in the pitch dark­ness, every­one on board the Free Gaza had on a life jacket. 

I looked around the boat, see­ing small orange humps on the deck and peo­ple lean­ing over the rails retch­ing, attached to the ‘throw-up lines.’ We could see across to the Lib­er­ty, where three of their pas­sen­gers, wear­ing orange, were also attached. Derek had remind­ed us that, under no cir­cum­stances were we to throw up with­out being con­nect­ed to the line.

“I’m not com­ing to fetch ye,” he yelled in an Irish accent. “If you’re fuck­ing stu­pid enough to throw up over the side and go over, you can fend fer yerself.” 

Lat­er, he told us that would nev­er have hap­pened, but he knew we were unaware of how dan­ger­ous the waves real­ly were, and if he had to scare the crap out of us, that was fine. Except for the ten mem­bers of the crew, five on each boat, none of us had any sail­ing expe­ri­ence, except on a lake. 

I drift­ed off to a fit­ful sleep, count­ing rub­ber gloves, only to be shak­en awake an hour later.

“We need vol­un­teers in two-hour shifts. Peo­ple who aren’t sick, four to a shift, front and back.” Derek demand­ed, and sev­er­al of us on board vol­un­teered to stand watch in two-hour shifts, not to look for Israeli gun­boats, but to make sure our boats did­n’t col­lide with each oth­er. The only way the crews on board could talk was via walkie-talkie, and they had to be pret­ty close, almost impos­si­ble in the toss­ing sea.

Greta Berlin salutes the enormous crowd of Gazans gathered to welcome the first flotilla to break the siege of Gaza.

Gre­ta Berlin salutes the enor­mous crowd of Gazans gath­ered to wel­come the first flotil­la to break the siege of Gaza.

Sev­en­ty-nine year old, David Scher­mer­horn, a film pro­duc­er from the state of Wash­ing­ton with years of expe­ri­ence on boats, vol­un­teered for the 1:00–3:00 am shift, along with me, Sharyn, and Vit­to­rio Arrigo­ni, a vet­er­an of the sea and a long-time activist and jour­nal­ist from Italy. I went back to sleep for two hours, rock­ing in the Zodi­ac that was attached to the deck. At 1:00 am, David woke me up.

“Time for us to stand watch. It’s pret­ty qui­et right now, most are asleep, but you’ll have to be care­ful at the stern of the boat. One per­son back there is pret­ty sick.” I wan­dered back to the stern and looked out to see if there was any­thing that could be seen. The stars were out, but, oth­er than the light on the stern of Lib­er­ty, there was noth­ing on the sea. How did the cap­tains even know what was out there? We did­n’t have a sin­gle elec­tron­ic device to even tell us if a ship was approaching. 

Sud­den­ly, at 1:30 am, Cap­tain John and Derek both got vio­lent­ly ill, inca­pable of pilot­ing Free Gaza. John and Derek were expe­ri­enced sailors; John had pilot­ed all of his life on big research ships. Derek had spent a good deal of his time on the sea. Had some­one poi­soned them? Was some­one on board work­ing for the Israelis? That had always been one of our fears; that no mat­ter how much screen­ing of pas­sen­gers, one could be bought off or black­mailed into doing the bid­ding of Israel. Was I get­ting com­plete­ly para­noid?  I held on to the stern, look­ing at the back lights of Lib­er­ty and won­dered if Gior­gios was sick. 

John hand­ed over the boat to David and Vik. And the two boats did their best to stay togeth­er, Gior­gios, who appar­ent­ly was fine, stayed on the walkie-talkie. I stood watch along with Sharyn.

As long as we could see the lights of the Lib­er­ty, we felt a bit safer. In a cou­ple of hours, John and Derek were fine. We nev­er knew why they got so sick. 

Dur­ing the dark, cold, wet, mis­er­able and fright­en­ing night, hud­dled togeth­er, those of us awake tried to stay upbeat. The three toi­lets down below deck had stopped work­ing. Derek had yelled at us not to put toi­let paper down them, but no one remembered. 

The fan belt on the engine on the Lib­er­ty con­tin­ued to split, and we could hear the boat cough­ing as it chugged along. They were, after all, old fish­ing boats equipped to car­ry 11 pas­sen­gers each, and we had 24 on one boat, 20 on the oth­er. The anal­o­gy of ‘boat peo­ple’ kept run­ning through my head. We did­n’t want to face the pos­si­bil­i­ty we might have two boats with no engines, one with no cap­tain. The worst pos­si­ble sce­nario would be drift­ing at sea, unable to even send out a dis­tress call, and hav­ing the Israeli navy final­ly res­cue us, laugh­ing at our stupidity. 

As one of the orga­niz­ers of this ship of fools, I began to despair. What had we done? Had we put 44 peo­ples’ lives in dan­ger for some stu­pid idea of sail­ing to Gaza? Was our two years of orga­niz­ing, the death of one of our pri­ma­ry sup­port­ers and the mas­sive debt we had incurred try­ing to get the boats ready… was all of that going to go into the drink?

A lit­tle after 3:00 am, David woke up Ayash Dar­ra­ji, the Al Jazeera journalist. 

“Does your sat phone work?” David asked. “I know we said we would­n’t take the risk, but we have a real­ly ill pas­sen­ger on board, our equip­ment is dead and some­one needs to know where we are. Maybe they haven’t jammed the fre­quen­cy on yours yet.”

Ayash turned on his phone, actu­al­ly got a tone and called his office. Although we could­n’t have known it out there in the dark, Al Jazeera released the sto­ry of our lost boats, the Greeks demand­ed to know where their MP was, and Israel, back­ing off, stopped the jam­ming of our elec­tron­ics. But it took two hours until the two satel­lite phones were work­ing and day­light before the nav­i­gat­ing equip­ment was back online.

My shift was more than over, and I was exhaust­ed. It was 4:00 am. That night was one of the longest nights in all our lives. As the dark slow­ly fad­ed, we could see boat lights in the dis­tance behind us and won­dered if they were Israeli gunboats. 

I curled up next to Mary in the Zodi­ac and thought about how it had all started.

CyprusFreedom FlotillaGazaGreeceInternational Solidarity Movementsiege of Gaza

Greta Berlin has been an advocate for justice for the Palestinians since the early ‘60s. She is one of the founders of the Free Gaza Movement, which seeks to break the siege of Gaza through seaborne nonviolent action. Free Gaza is the only initiative that successfully sailed boats into Gaza five times in 2008. Since retiring from teaching engineers in 2011, she’s continued to work on sailing boats to Gaza and was the US spokesperson for Freedom Flotilla I, the flotilla attacked by Israeli commandoes, killing 10 passengers and wounding over 60 on all six boats. She’s been in the West Bank three times (over five months total) since 2003 working with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM,) a Palestinian-led movement that applies nonviolent principles to resist the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. Greta recently celebrated her 80th birthday and has no plans to curb her enthusiasm. In fact she’s writing a memoir that tells all.