The Tahrir was part of the July 2011 flotilla that attempted to sail from Athens to Gaza with medical supplies. Then the Greek government moved to stop it.
Waiting. But not very patiently! Waiting, we got to know each other: 30 Canadians plus Danes, Belgians, Australians, a German, two Turks, and many journalists. We were waiting to head out to Gaza with our cargo of medical aid. Our Greek captain needed permission from port authorities and we were expecting it, any day. Finally, on July 1, we had completed all the paperwork and were ready to leave.
But that afternoon, while Canadians were celebrating their national holiday, we were all suddenly summoned to the boat. As we arrived we encountered a port agent attempting to remove the Tahrir’s papers from the boat. The nonviolence training of the last several days kicked in as we blocked the agent’s departure. However, it was a short-term success. Shortly afterward we heard that the Greek foreign minister was banning all boats from leaving Greek ports for Gaza.
We had been staying under cover in Agios Nicolaos while we quietly served on shifts to patrol the boat and protect it from sabotage—but on hearing this news, we hoisted the banners, put on our boat t-shirts, and marched through town, with Sandra Ruch wrapped in a Canadian flag. We chanted, “Let us go to Gaza, we want to go to Gaza,” “Free Gaza!” and “Free the Flotilla,” as startled tourists and shopkeepers watched us pass by. But our efforts to persuade port authorities to let us leave were fruitless, and over the next days we strategized. Our boat was constantly watched by the Greek coast guard and leaving was not going to be easy.
The moment of exhilaration came July 4. I was in the kitchen when I heard the engines start up. I ran upstairs to see two yellow kayaks zigzagging in the water in front of the coast guard boat, as we zoomed by and out to the open sea. For a moment, it seemed we would escape and be on our way. We had several skilled delegates who had taken the roles necessary to get us out of port. However, we did not want them to suffer if we were stopped, so our plan was to say, “We are all the captain.”
After eight nautical miles we were drenched with water cannons and boarded by reluctant and fully armed Greek officers. Creative resistance slowed down the takeover, but eventually we were towed back to port, where we were held in “boat arrest” overnight. In the end no “captain” was charged, but the kayakers and Sandra Ruch, nominal “owner” of the boat were charged.
Local supporters stood by us and joined us in court two days later when the prosecutor and judge, both women, heard the cases. It was such a long, hot day! In the end the sentences were minor and suspended, so all were free to go.
We then thought we might be able to leave port for another destination, but it seemed permission would not be granted. Most “Tahririans” left for home. However, two of our number joined the French boat, the Dignité, which sailed a few days later, but was intercepted by the Israeli navy, and later deported. Two Australians from our boat joined the “Flytilla” on July 8. This was a separate initiative that sought to put pressure on Israel to allow free access to visit Palestinians in the West Bank. Hundreds of visitors arrived in Tel Aviv, and most were later deported.
It was frustrating to be held in port and not allowed to sail to Gaza as a flotilla of ten boats, with 1000 aboard, as we had planned. However, we got an enormous amount of media attention, due in part to the horrific attacks on the Mavi Marmara during the first Freedom Flotilla in May 2010—and due to continued threats by Israel against our flotilla. Coverage was widespread—from Iran’s Press TV, to Pravda, to Haaretz in Israel, to the Toronto Star, and to CBC radio and TV.
The significance of this form of nonviolent action is immense. First, we were able to shed light on the continuing blockade of Gaza, which began in 1991 with restrictions on mobility and continued through the increasing blockade of more recent years. It has left residents without safe drinking water and unable to rebuild from the 2008/2009 “Operation Cast Lead” attack on Gaza.
Second, we were able to highlight the work of nonviolent resistance led by Palestinians in the Free Gaza movement. We created a dilemma for the Israeli government, which had to either accept our legitimacy as a nonviolent humanitarian initiative and thus create a precedent for opening Gaza’s harbor, or stop us by force. Exporting the blockade to another country, Greece, showed the lengths it was willing to go to in order to stop us.
While we may not have reached Gaza on this voyage, we did achieve our goal of raising international awareness of the blockade and its political and humanitarian dimensions. We still have the medical supplies to be delivered and the boat to deliver them. The Free Gaza initiative continues, and at the website http://www.tahrir.ca, donations continue to be gratefully accepted.
Lyn Adamson, a Quaker peace activist in Toronto, was a nonviolence trainer and delegate on the Tahrir, representing Canadian Voice of Women for Peace.
Water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets, live bullets, tasers, and possibly even nerve gas. How do you prepare people to handle such situations? How would I handle it myself?
I was responsible for nonviolence training for forty-plus members of the delegation and, together with Lee McKenna, was meeting with other Flotilla trainers in Athens. We considered how to prepare for the weapons and tactics Israeli special forces might use when boarding our boats.
In addition to the weapons listed above, the military had also threatened to use dogs to attack the boats. We were warned that the Israeli soldiers might be expected to be brutal while boarding but to offer us water and food later, and that they would record their kindness but take our cameras and photo cards away. They know what they want their image to be.
I was feeling nauseated at the end of that session and yet aware of the importance of effective training. We role-played the intense encounters to be expected if the boat was boarded, when we’d be taken onto land and held in jail.
This training was building a sense of community and preparing for the emotional experience we would undergo together. We made plans for practical necessities such as food, and learned about the skills each of us brought to the mission.
Delays in gaining permission to sail enabled us to offer four shorter days instead of two long days of training. This worked much better for people straining to follow in a second language and allowed for intense debriefing and discussion, which brought us together as a true community.
— Lyn Adamson