The boats before leaving from Copenhagen (Zaher Birawi’s Facebook page, May 22, 2018)
- According to the plan, on their way to the Gaza Strip, the boats are supposed to anchor in the ports of several European countries, where media-related and solidarity activity of local activists will take place, demanding to end the “siege” on the Gaza Strip. In this context, mention was made of two ports in Germany (the Port of Kiel on the Baltic Sea and the Port of Wilhelmshaven, west of Kiel); the Port of Brighton in Britain, and the Port of Amsterdam in the Netherlands (Freedom Flotilla website, May 19, 2018). According to the organizers, the flotilla is supposed to reach the shores of Gaza on July 27, 2018. The European and Palestinian organizers are already facing difficulties: On May 24, 2018, it was reported that in accordance with the instructions of the German Interior Ministry, the German Coast Guard took control of the Al-Awda (“The Return”), and its personnel collected the passports and personal information of the boat passengers. In the port of Gaza, Israeli Air Force aircraft attacked two vessels of the Hamas naval force, prepared to receive the flotilla.
- The flotilla is intended for propaganda purposes, i.e., to raise once again the case of the Gaza Strip “siege” and defame Israel before the European public. In the ITIC’s assessment, the flotilla is coordinated with Hamas, which in turn strives to gain propaganda impact by the “Great Return Marches.” On the other hand, the flotilla was not intended to provide residents of the Gaza Strip with practical aid, in view of the small size of the boats, the small number of participants, and apparently the lack of supplies and equipment loaded on board the boats. Focusing on propaganda also characterized previous flotillas. It was clearly expressed by Zaher Birawi, one of the main organizers, who gave an interview in September 2017 to Felesteen (the Hamas daily newspaper). In the interview, he said that the flotillas’ main goal was not to “break the siege” but to keep the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the “siege” as “live” topics in international public discourse. According to Birawi, the objectives of the flotillas are to defame Israel and to increase the effect of the political and media campaigns accompanying the flotillas.
Details of the boats and their itinerary
- Following are the boats which set sail:
- Al-Awda (“The Return”): Boat carrying the Norwegian flag. According to Zaher Birawi, head of the International Committee for Breaking the Siege of Gaza (ICBSG), its passengers are “Palestinians from the diaspora” (Shehab, May 19, 2018).
- Heria (i.e., Huriya, “Freedom”): Sailboat carrying the Swedish flag.
- Palestine: A small sailboat carrying the Swedish flag.
- Maird: Boat called after Mairead Maguire, peace activist from Northern Ireland. The boat carries the Swedish flag.
- Prior to the voyage, the flotilla crew participated in a march for “Nakba Day” in Norway, attended by about 700 demonstrators (Freedom Flotilla website, May 19, 2018). From there, the boats set off en route to the Gaza Strip. On May 21, 2018, the four boats arrived in the Port of Copenhagen. After two days, in which they anchored in the port, they set off on May 22, 2018, to their next stop, the Port of Kiel in North Germany.
- Zaher Birawi accompanied the departure of the boats from the Port of Copenhagen (Zaher Birawi’s Facebook page, May 22, 2018). Birawi, who lives in Britain, is a Palestinian activist affiliated with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. One of the founders of the Freedom Flotilla Coalition, he calls himself today the Coordinator of the International Committee for Breaking the Siege on the Gaza Strip. He was also involved in the preparatory committee of the “Great Return Marches” in the Gaza Strip, and also gave expression to the planned activity in the Gaza Strip on Al-Hiwar TV Channel (affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood movement) broadcasting from London, where he is the program manager (Facebook page of Al-Hiwar TV, March 9, 2018).
Right: Zaher Birawi saying goodbye to the participants of the flotilla. Left: The Heria (“Freedom”) (Facebook page of the Malaysian MyCARE aid organization, May 21, 2018)
Difficulties faced by the flotilla organizers
- In the meantime, the organizers of the flotilla in Europe and the Gaza Strip are facing various difficulties:
- On May 24, 2018, it was reported that following the instructions of Germany’s Interior Ministry, the Coast Guard took control of the Al-Awda, and its personnel collected passports of the passengers and their personal information. In addition, they were required to give information on the places where the boat would anchor en route to the Gaza Strip (Freedom Flotilla website, May 24, 2018).
- On May 23, 2018, in response to setting fire to an IDF position in Israeli territory, near the border fence with the Gaza Strip, Israeli Air Force aircraft attacked targets in the Gaza Strip, including two targets of Hamas’s naval force (IDF Spokesperson’s Office, May 23, 2018). According to the flotilla organizers, the IDF attacked two boats in the port of Gaza which were supposed to receive the flotilla (Freedom Flotilla Twitter page, May 24, 2018). In the ITIC’s assessment, Hamas’s naval force prepared the two boats as part of the coordination between the flotilla organizers and Hamas.
The two boats which were attacked in the port of Gaza (Freedom Flotilla Twitter page, May 24, 2018)
The participants of the flotilla
- According to the flotilla organizers, on board the boats are Palestinians from the diaspora and European and international activists (Shehab, May 22, 2018). Mentioned among the names of the participants were several activists who participated in previous flotillas. The following are details about several passengers of the Al-Awda:
- Zohar Chamberlain Regev: Israeli citizen born in the village of Kfar Hahoresh. She has lived in Spain for the past 14 years. Since 2012, she is the owner of the boat Zaytouna, captured by Israel in 2016. The release of the boat is still pending the court’s final judgment (Freedom Flotilla website).
- Yehudit Ilani: Israeli citizen. Israeli leftist activist. She serves as adviser to Knesset Member Haneen Zoabi, who participated in the Mavi Marmara flotilla (Israeli news sites).
- Elizabeth Murray: American citizen. Completed a 27-year career in the US administration as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Near East in the National Intelligence Council. She retired in August 2010. Specializing in Middle East politics and media analysis. Active in various civil rights organizations, including an organization operating against nuclear proliferation (Freedom Flotilla website).
- Mikkel Gruner: Danish citizen. Lived in Norway for over twenty years. 44-year-old politician, one of the Al-Awda crew members.
- Heather Milton-Lightening: Canadian citizen with many years’ experience in organizing campaigns. Has worked for many years with young people and has been a UN advisor on this subject.
- Kamarul Zaman: Malaysian citizen. 56-year-old electronic engineer. Studied in the US and Malaysia. Has worked for 25 years for Motorola in Malaysia. In 2013, he joined Aqsa Syarif, a Malaysian aid organization. He established an office in Gaza, which received the official recognition of Malaysia’s Central Bank. Currently heading Humanitarian Care Malaysia organization. In this context, he has been responsible for several humanitarian missions in Gaza, in Lebanon and in Syria (Freedom Flotilla website).
- Charlie Anderson: Swedish citizen, a crew member of the Al-Awda. Activist of the anti-Israel organization ISM. Active for many years for “lifting the siege” from the Gaza Strip. In 2012, he took part in the flotilla to the Gaza Strip, which was not carried out, on the Estelle. He repeated the attempt in 2015, on the Marianne. Between the two attempts, he has been active in building the boat Gaza Ark. Published a book on his endeavors (Freedom Flotilla website).
 For details, see the ITIC's Information Bulletin from September 19, 2017: “A Hamas-affiliated Palestinian in Britain admitted the flotilla project to the Gaza Strip was not intended to "break the siege" and bring humanitarian aid, but rather to promote the battle for hearts and minds against Israel.” ↑