A Humanitarian Voyage Is Hoping to Break Israel’s Blockade

Today an international group of activists is setting sail for Gaza, hoping to deliver badly needed aid to Palestinians there. The effort follows a similar voyage to breach Israel’s blockade 14 years ago — which the IDF met with deadly force.

Activists hold a press conference inside a ship belonging to the Freedom Flotilla Coalition while it anchors in the Tuzla seaport near Istanbul, Turkey, on April 19, 2024. (Yasin Akgul / AFP via Getty Images)

Today, a thousand activists with the Freedom Flotilla Coalition have planned to set sail from Turkey aboard three ships with over five thousand tons of humanitarian aid, including food, medicine, and even ambulance vehicles. From a port in Istanbul, the flotilla will be heading to the Gaza Strip, where the ongoing Israeli genocide has killed at least 34,262 Palestinians, including 14,500 children and 8,400 women, according to Al Jazeera. Coming amid Israel’s seventeen-year blockade of Gaza, the strip is now mere weeks away from famine, according to the World Food Programme.

Although the Freedom Flotilla Coalition is adamant that its plans are both lawful and peaceful, it is concerned about how the Israeli military will react. This is due in large part of the fact that Israel met the last flotilla with deadly force.

“We have no idea what Israel is going to do,” says Elliott Adams, an activist with the Freedom Flotilla Coalition. “They’ve tried to sink some boats by ramming. They’ve also captured boats, taken all humanitarian observers and crew hostage, put them in jail and stolen the boats. . . . And, as you know, in the case of the MV Mavi Marmara, they killed ten of the people on board and wounded fifty.”

Adams is referring to a 2010 incident in which Israeli forces attacked a Gaza-bound convoy of aid boats, killing and injuring dozens of passengers. Shortly after the raid and ensuing fallout, Israel caved to international pressure, loosening its blockade of the Gaza Strip. Freedom Flotilla Coalition activists hope their current voyage will provide badly needed aid to Palestinians and perhaps similarly increase pressure on Israel to end its brutal siege.

“Similar Disasters Are Likely to Reoccur”

In 2007, the Israeli government began its ongoing blockade of Gaza as a response to Hamas sweeping Palestinian elections and wresting control of the territory from its political rivals. Although Israel maintains that the blockade is meant to keep Palestinian militants from obtaining weapons or manufacturing them from “dual-use” materials, the Israeli human rights organization Gisha has documented the prohibition of all but a very narrow list of items, barring basics such as paper, toys, and chocolate.

Indeed, the blockade was severe enough to drive Hamas to breach the border wall between Gaza and Egypt in early 2008, freeing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to cross and purchase three months’ worth of food in just one week. Later that year, Israel launched what it called “Operation Cast Lead,” the 2008–09 war on Gaza, in which Israeli forces killed 1,417 Palestinians, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.

In May 2010, international activists also attempted to breach the Israeli blockade of Gaza, as chronicled in a report to the United Nations General Assembly by the Human Rights Council. On May 30, six civilian ships that had departed from Turkey rendezvoused in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Lebanon. Sailing together toward Gaza, the ships were contacted by the Israeli Navy, which demanded they change course. When captains explained that all 748 passengers aboard the flotilla were unarmed and that their cargo was entirely humanitarian, the navy jammed their communications. The UN report notes that Israeli forces never requested to inspect the boats’ cargo.

In the predawn hours of May 31, Israeli boats and helicopters raided the flotilla, with the MV Mavi Marmara facing the brunt of the violence. Israeli naval forces fired tear gas and paintballs while lobbing stun and smoke grenades, but were unable to board the ship, which passengers defended with water hoses and other items including chairs.

Following this failure, an Israeli helicopter fired live rounds onto the deck, killing at least four passengers while allowing commandos to rappel down. Passengers attempted to disarm the commandos and defend themselves with tools at hand, such as metal rods, while being targeted with both live and less-lethal fire from Israeli forces, who killed five more.

Among the dead were one Turkish American and nine Turkish citizens, the last of whom was left in a coma and died four years later. The UN report notes that multiple passengers appeared to have been killed at close range, some potentially after attempts to surrender.

The Israeli Navy also commandeered the five other ships in the flotilla, albeit without any deaths, towing all six ships to an Israeli port. All of the remaining passengers were deported, some only after being detained and threatened with prosecution. Although none of the ships made it to Gaza, observers like Gisha credit the flotilla and international condemnation following the raid with Israel’s decision to loosen its blockade of Gaza that July.

The UN Human Rights Council issued its report on the incident in September 2010. The authors concluded that Israeli forces had not only violated international law during their raid on the flotilla, but called for Israel to end its blockade of Gaza: “The attack on the flotilla must be viewed in the context of the ongoing problems between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority and people. . . . Similar disasters are likely to reoccur unless there is a dramatic shift in the existing paradigm.”

“If I Could Stop the Genocide”

Despite the violence unleashed by Israeli forces on the MV Mavi Marmara in 2010, activists with the Freedom Flotilla Coalition are embarking on a similar journey today. According to Adams, a retiree from upstate New York, negotiations with Turkish authorities regarding the flotilla’s departure were prolonged by attempts by the Israeli and US governments to prevent the mission altogether.

Adams says that all of the activists on board have been trained in and are committed to nonviolence, and that their cargo is entirely humanitarian. And though the US military is constructing a floating pier off of the coast of Gaza, the flotilla requires no new infrastructure to deliver aid.

“We have the capacity to directly offload it onto the shore,” says Adams. “We don’t need anything that isn’t there.”

Although Adams is confident the cargo shipped by the flotilla will make a difference in Gaza, which faced a total blockade by Israel following October 7, he acknowledges the hundreds of trucks of aid stuck at the Gaza Strip’s land crossings, which Israel continues to delay with claims of inspection. To that end, there are hopes among the activists that, as in 2010, the flotilla will push Israel to loosen its blockade. And it is possible that, as in 2010, the flotilla will be intercepted by the Israeli Navy.

“My wife said, ‘People have died doing this very work you’re doing. . . . How can you go?’” Adams shares. “And I say — and it would be true of her too — if I could stop the genocide in Gaza by dying right now, it wouldn’t take me five minutes to decide. Of course I’d do that, to save hundreds of thousands of lives. Who wouldn’t? On the other hand, this is a much lower risk.”

The departure of the Freedom Flotilla Coalition follows a litany of US measures arming Israel and shielding it from accountability, most recently including a bipartisan measure to send an additional $26 billion in funding to Israel and the United States casting the sole veto against full Palestinian membership to the United Nations.

“It’s critically important that people recognize the reality of the crisis there and that they do everything that they can,” Adams said. “You have to understand that this could have not been happening were it not for the US government. We have a moral obligation to do what we can to stop it, because we are causing it.”