Piracy and Death on the Seas

By Susan Schwartz, MMNS

On May 31st of this year the civilized world was outraged at the actions of Israel when that nation brutally boarded six ships in international waters in defiance of international law. This flotilla was attempting to break the illegal blockade of Gaza, Palestine and to bring needed supplies to that beleaguered nation.

While Israel’s actions on the Mavi Marmara received the most publicity with the martyrdom of nine Turkish men aboard, the general public may not realize that the five ships preceding the Mavi Marmara were also boarded and the travellers brutalized. A number of the Turkish wounded are still in a hospital with serious injuries that may result in their death or in a permanent disability. One of the dead on the Mavi Marmara was a Turkish-American student who was an aspiring medical doctor.

No Israeli soldier was killed or even seriously wounded during this act of piracy. Whatever wounds were incurred by the Israelis were nominal and were treated by the Turkish doctors on board the ship. The piracy of the Mavi Marmara began when an Israeli commando killed a journalist with a shot to the forehead as the latter was trying to communicate to the outside world the nature and extent of the nightmare that had begun.

Two activists familiar to readers of The Muslim Observer, Greta Berlin and Mary Hughes Thompson, have agreed to be interviewed about their participation in the peace flotilla. Both women are co founders of the Free Gaza Movement (FGM) and, in addition, are active in the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and Women in Black (WIB).  The Free Gaza Movement is the international name for the organization that first broke the blockade in August 2008 and sponsored this flotilla along with five other organizations. In addition, between these two events, FGM has organized other boat trips to aid the citizens of Gaza, Palestine and has entered Gaza five times total before being brutally stopped by Israel since Operation Cast Lead. There are national divisions such as Free Gaza USA, Free Gaza Ireland, and Free Gaza India to name but a few.

All the ships of the flotilla had agreed to turn on full lights to illuminate the midnight sky.

Ms Berlin describes the communications equipment in Cyprus as “pretty rudimentary”, consisting as it did of four cell phones and several computers. There were four volunteers in the Cyprus office, all four women over 65. They faced an array of Israeli talking heads with state of the art electronics.

Ms Berlin was responsible for the media contacts which included finished press releases, uploading to the web site, keeping the TWITTER account up to date and working with passengers who were in Cyprus.

The government of Cyprus, under pressure from Israel, denied any member ship of the flotilla the right to leave from a Cypriot port. This was enforced by Cypriot police and security services. The members of the flotilla left from nearby ports for a rendezvous as they approached Gaza. This act by the government of Cyprus complicated the departure and placement of the flotilla members.

One of the passengers in the flotilla, David Schermerhorn, had a spot beacon and at periodic intervals sent a signal to the FGM office. A blue signal meant that no problem existed, and a red (pink) signal meant that trouble — in the form of Israelis — was in progress. There was live feed from the Mavi Marmora as well, sometimes in Arabic, sometimes in Turkish, and sometimes in English.

“I knew the flotilla was probably in trouble, because David told us over and over to watch for the signal to turn from blue to pink, but I never, not ever, thought that the Israeli Navy would murder anyone, much less nine of our passengers.” said Ms Berlin.

The assumption had been that if the Israelis struck it would be at dawn. When communication ceased, the Cyprus office at first knew nothing of the murders. All the people in the office had watched, in real time,  the commandos rappel down from the helicopters, drop to the deck, then aim and shoot their guns. Then the live feed went dead. Soon telephone calls reached them from journalists and others eager for information.

Eventually the almost unimaginable truth began to emerge. Nine Turkish nationals aboard the Mavi Marmara were killed by the Israeli forces in an act of piracy on such a grand scale that only Israel, comfortable in the arrogance of its power, would dare to carry it out. (Two Turkish men are still in the hospital with grave wounds and will probably not recover.)

The women at the FGM office actually got the news of the Mavi massacre from the Israeli press who in turn got the news from the Israeli Navy. Since the Israelis had cut off all forms of communication from the flotilla, the women were dependent on press reports from Israel.

“ I think of all the people in Gaza, waiting to greet the flotilla with the warmth and welcome they showed us when our first two little boats landed nearly two years ago.  And of how disappointed they must have felt, and appalled, and disbelieving to learn how many good people sacrificed their lives in the cause of breaking the draconian siege which has strangled the people of Gaza for years now.   I feel a greater sense of hope than ever now, as groups from around the world are rallying to support Gaza with boats from many countries, undeterred by Israeli threats.   Israel just doesn’t get it.  We will not be intimidated.”

Ms Thompson told The Muslim Observer the Israelis beat many aboard all six ships. Former Ambassador Edward Peck was the first to be released. The travellers had taken an oath of solidarity pledging that if they were imprisoned, whether on their ship or in an Israeli prison, they would refuse to leave until all Palestinians were released. Huwaida Arraf, who has Israeli citizenship, was forcibly removed when she refused to leave. She was quite literally thrown into an automobile with a covering over her head and left on a street in Israel.

The Israeli government with the media playing their role as a Greek chorus offered the time worn explanation that the Mavi Marmara, sponsored by the Turkish non-governmental organization (NGO), IHH, was truly a Hamas front. Immediately people familiar with IHH pointed out its legitimate charity work in Bosnia and Haiti, to give but two examples.

IHH  is the acronym in Turkish for The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief. Established in 1992, IHH is actually active in 100 countries in areas devastated by war, famine and natural disasters.

Ms Berlin and Ms Thompson were invited to visit the IHH office in Istanbul. A previous commitment prevented Ms Thompson from making the trip. Ms Berlin praised IHH, its office, and its work.  She emphasized that they are part of a UN response team, a claim that can be made by only a small number of charities. IHH holds special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council which status it has held since 2004.

“I say they are very similar to Catholic Charities, a religious organization that does good work around the world, and they have every right to be a religious charity.” said Ms Berlin.

Immediately after this act of piracy and kidnapping took place numerous civil rights group went on the offensive. One of these groups, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) located in the US, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) aimed at determining the complicity of the US in the flotilla attack. This complicity would consist of foreknowledge and subsequent cooperation with Israel in the attack’s aftermath.

The Free Gaza Movement has legal teams from Turkey and the UK. A meeting to be held shortly will determine the specifics of action to be taken.

Despite the actions of Israel, other groups have announced plans to sail to Gaza. Indeed another flotilla is being planned for some time between September and October. At present, FGM is looking for funds to sponsor the ships of passengers who will confront Israel in defense of the Palestinians in Gaza, Palestine.

“We hope to have as many high profile people on board as possible, including Americans” said Ms Thompson. “Unfortunately it seems that while high profile Americans- politicians, celebrities, Hollywood personalities – often speak out against human rights violations here and abroad, few are willing to go on public record as supporting Palestinians or criticizing Israel’s policies.”

While this flotilla had several large donors, and many donations were made through the web site, more than $100,000 was given by small donors, a truly grass roots response.

For further information including sending donations, please access FGM at their web site: www.freegaza.org


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