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: Travelogue, The Women's flotilla to Gaza

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Social TV's reporter Yudit Ilany joined the Women's Boat to Gaza flotilla which is sailing to Gaza with women from all over the world to challenge the illegal blockade imposed by Israel on the Gaza Strip for the last decade. We share with you Yudit's travelogue where you will be able to follow the activists' journey to Gaza:


Yudit Ilani on the "Zaytouna", Filming for Israel Social TV. Screenshot from the Women's Boat To Gaza Twitter. Photo by Anadolu Agency

Day 1, Barcelona

It's hot and humid, the sun is scorching but it's easy to forget, as Barcelona is amazing. Not because it is a gorgeous city (well, that too) but first and foremost because of the city's inspiring group of activists. People who give you hope not only by their words, but by their acts and their dedication. And their friendliness.

The festival surrounding the launching of the flotilla, with its artists, musicians and performers, is a happy noisy mix of art, ideology and knowing how to live. The public is a fantastic mixture of locals of all kinds and creeds as well as random tourists, many of them visiting the city during the Eid El-Adha holiday.

And then there are the others, living in Barcelona after having travelled a less easy route: Muhammad, a young refugee, born in Yarmoukh Camp in Syria, whose grandparents were born in Yaffa and lived in Manshiye, and his girlfriend from Aleppo, whose roots go back to Nazareth. Or Dr. Muhammad, a medical specialist working at a local hospital whose parents also came from Manshiye (Yaffa).

There is a fairly substantial Palestinian community in Barcelona that extends its hands to the refugees, in cooperation with many other groups of activists; One group specializes in finding good squats for refugees. They know where to look, how to go about it and are successful at what they are doing. Problem solved. They volunteer. The festival has been organized by volunteers, with incredible care, dedication and professionalism.

I live in Yaffa and love my city. You can get me out of Yaffa for a while, but you cannot get Yaffa out of me. Talking to Syrian refugees who never visited, but love the city in a way I perhaps never can, makes me incredibly sad, then angry. They tell me about Manshiye where their grandparents lived and played on streets which no longer exist. The smell of orange blossoms replaced by the stench of diesel operated busses.

There is so much injustice.

The sailing vessel Amal (Hope) arrived in Barcelona yesterday. Today the small boat on which my friends and I will be travelling, the Zaytouna (Olive), will arrive today. Olives are down to earth and deeply rooted.

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Day 2, Non-violence and Catalonian politics

The Israeli press reported yesterday that the Israeli government has appealed to the Spanish government to stop us from leaving the Barcelona harbor today. Catalonian politicians see things differently.

Yesterday, a representation of the Women's Flotilla to Gaza took part in a committee meeting in the Catalonian parliament. In my address to the committee, I described the dire situation in Gaza: 95% of the water is undrinkable,12 hours of electricity a day, the sewage flowing untreated into the sea, 700,000 children attending 700 schools (in shifts, as there are not enough classrooms), 100,000 people still homeless as Israel does not allow building materials to be imported into Gaza, the lack of medicine and more. A long list of dry facts, that cannot come close to describe the catastrophe. 1,8 million people living in an impossible situation.

And Israel is responsible for that disastrous situation, which is worsening day by day.

The parliamentary committee (or work group, as they called it), in which all parties are represented, listened to our input and made the decision to present to the parliament a proposal to demand from Israel to stop its 11-year blockade of Gaza.

There is warm support for the flotilla in Barcelona. The send-of festival, organized by volunteers from many different groups, is amazing. The Israeli press, from what I have seen, talks about "anti-Israel propaganda"… By that standard, everything pro human rights and pro non-violence is "anti Israel" I guess.

There are circus performances, concerts as well as workshops, lectures and panels. The atmosphere is warm and inviting. People come and go. And it is wonderful and inspiring: Yesterday's workshop on non-violence by people who refused to serve in the army under Franco was amazing. From the first refusal through the establishment of community service in 1978 (when more young men refused to do obligatory army service than there were soldiers) and the abolishment of obligatory military service in 2001. We discussed forms of non-violent and democratic practice and tactics.

The last few days have been very hot and humid in Barcelona. Overnight, the temperature dropped and it rained. Today we sail and I hope for a calm sea.

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Day 3 – The Ugly Shadow of Militarism

So Israel has closed a 10-year arms deal with the US which will of course boost the American arms business immensely, as such a deal will be followed by request from Egypt and then Saudi Arabia, all standing in line to buy more and more US made arms, adding more lethal tools to the already dangerous "game" being played out in the Middle East. Millions are being made and this is presented as a great success. The price to be paid not by "them", but by us, all of us, as the result of the bloody conflict which is already spiraling out of control. But who cares? They are making money and that is the point, the only point.

The dreadful arms-deal overshadows the wonderful send-off of the Women's flotilla to Gaza from the Barcelona harbor. The Barcelona community with its many NGO's and activists as well as the city's mayor, feminist Ada Colau of "Podemos", national politicians, singers and bands.

Sailing out of the harbor to the sound of "Solo le pido a Dios" with tens of thousands of people along the long cay applauding us when passing by, was encouraging and empowering, providing hope and reasons for optimism.

On the flotilla are women from 17 countries aged between 26-76. The atmosphere on the boats is good, although conditions are cramped. I spent my first night watch with Fauzia, our doctor, who is from Malaysia. The night was cold but time passed by quickly, the biggest disturbance being two cats passing by lazily on the cays to which we were mored.

I'm on the smaller sailing vessel, the "Zaytouna", the Oliva, named for the Internationals' Oliva, a boat that was launched in 2011 to observe and monitor the attacks by the Israeli navy on Palestinian fishermen and their vessels, who were often shot at, arrested and having their vessels impounded or severely damaged.

Israel has unilaterally limited the Gaza fishing area to a mere 3 nautical miles. This has led to over-fishing and reduced the quantity of fish that can be caught. Fish is an important source of food in impoverished Gaza.

Due to the electricity problems (at best 12 hours a day) and the partial destruction of the sewage treatment plant, which cannot function properly, the sewage of 1,8 million people flows freely and untreated into the sea, exactly in that area where the fisherman can still fish…

The same electricity problems have also severely affected the water purification plants and 95% of the water produced in Gaza is official non-potable. But people drink it, as they have no choice.

The agricultural fields close to the border with Israel are sprayed with an unknown defoliant, Vietnam style, affecting crops and health. The question is for how many generations?

Health is a basic human right. By not allowing in building materials to repair the water purification and sewage treatment plants as well as the power stations to provide enough electricity for them Israel is committing a crime against humanity. The 11 year old blockade keeps 1,8 million people imprisoned under inhumane, dangerous conditions.

I believe in non-violent action and am proud of being on the Zaytouna, raising our voice against the blockade and in favor of peace, because there is no other way.

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Day 5 & 6:

In about 10 hours the Zaytouna will reach Ajaccio, Corsica.

The Spanish authorities raised a lot of burocratic trouble (one suspects the Israeli authorities who reportedly appealed to the Spanish government) so we had to literally sneak out of the Barcelona Harbor, being followed by a "Guardia Civil" patrol boat until we reached Primera. Had we not done so, we would have been stuck for the whole weekend in Barcelona may be much longer. And of course on Monday morning, they would have invented yet another reason for not allowing us to leave. It had become obvious that these were just pretexts for trying to stop the flotilla from taking off. Our sister-ship, the Amal (Hope) had left the day before but was forced to return after serious engine trouble.

In Primera, where we docked for a few hours, seeing the sun go down and the spectacular full moon rise. After a few hours a last piece of official paper arrived (thank you Spanish activists for the fantastic logistics support) allowing us to formally leave Spain for a night's sailing on a quiet sea. By the time I got up for my night watch shift at 4 a.m. we were well into the international waters on our way to France. Just as the sun rose, a huge shiny white passenger ship passed by. Excellent espresso (thank you Emma) helped me to stay awake.

Grey clouds and a strong wind turned into a full blown gale of high white topped waves crashing into the Zaytouna, who withstood them well. Our very experienced skipper (Tasmanian Madeleine, who was the skipper on many refugee rescue missions in the Mediterranean with "Medecins sans frontiers" safely took us through the gale. For almost all of us however, it meant seasickness. Having to care for each other, created strong bonds.

Heavy rain, strong winds and high waves are fun to watch when you're dry on the shore. It's somewhat different aboard a 15 mr. sailing vessel. But "In Gaza things are worse", so who are we to complain? Expert care by our medic, Dr. Fauzia (a gentle and patient MD from Malaysia) who herself didn't feel too well, helped us through this difficult day. In spite of the occasional bouts of nausea, I enjoyed the drama of the waves crashing over the cabin roof window as well as watching the large white main sail.

Today, Saturday, the waves are still quite high but less "crazy", sailing is fast and as I'm writing this, it looks like we will be reaching Ajaccio in the early morning hours of Monday. We can already see the first weak outline of the Corsican cost.

Over the few days together we have become a close community, assisting each other, sharing things, talking politics, feminism as well as personal matters deep into the night. Yes, we are on a political mission, a demonstration like no other.

Wishing to point out to the world the situation in Gaza is impossible, not "close to disastrous" but beyond the horrific. And more than that, pointing out is Israel's responsibility to lift the blockade. In Gaza 1.8 million people are kept imprisoned, there is no freedom of movement neither into nor out of Gaza. The Rafah border crossing with Egypt opens up occasionally for a few hours and the thousands waiting to cross are usually turned back, for yet another wait and no one knows for how long. The crossings into Israel are closed to almost everyone. Export is less than 15% of what it was before the blockade, production is down and unemployment is up to unsurpassed levels, especially amongst Gaza's young generation, with staggering degrees with poverty as a result. More than 100,000 people are still homeless, as Israel does not allow building materials to be imported into the Gaza strip, claiming they will be used for building tunnels. Needless to say most of the tunnels are foremost needed to keep up Gaza's staggering economy. Gaza's 700.000 pupils have to share 700 schools in shifts, as many schools were destroyed during the wars. And again cannot be rebuilt due to the lack of building materials.

After 11 years of blockade and three wars Gaza's young generation do not know anything else. This situation cannot continue, may not continue.

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Day 7 – Ajaccio, Corsica

The view is stunning; high mountains surrounding a blue bay. An ancient port town with pastel-coloured houses along the quay side, the proverbial palm trees and many small boats in its marina, among them our Zaytouna. And two humongous cruise ships moored not far from us. A small group of local activists were waiting for us at 2 a.m. (thank you guys for the warm welcome). After a good night's sleep we were interviewed by the local and national media. After a few days on a boat the terra firma of the earth appears to shake and roll: A weird sensation.

Time for a walk about town in search of decent wi-fi to upload my video files with very little luck so far. A storm last night wreaked havoc on the island's communication system. A large seagull is shitting on the Napoleon statue's head in the central market square, delicious food and gaudy souvenirs, the usual mixture one finds in many tourist towns.

Through my phone I learn of the arrests of several Balad activists, yet another stage in Israel's fight against political activists and the delegitimization of anyone holding a view different from the colonialist Zionist mainstream view. I also learn justice minister Ayalet Shaked is vilifying BDS activists. Comparing a non-violent tactic such as boycotting with terror is not only logic-defying but may well endanger the BDS activists. It's only a matter of time and all that. And perhaps that is precisely what she is looking for: Another attempt at scaring us into silence.

Some women are leaving the flotilla today and others will be boarding later today, we come from so many countries. Many people from Gaza are following the flotilla and keep sending us messages of welcome. Thank you guys! I hope they will let us through.

A lot of work needs to be done on the Zaytouna, it's amazing how many small things can falter when the weather gets bad: Water seeping in through tiny holes in the cabin roof windows after yet another wave crashes on top of it. Our wind-electricity generator's cord broken, lines and ropes managing the big sail need to be changed, we need to get bleach or some such for the toilets: I promised to clean all four of them (each cabin has its own) as the smell is somewhat… No need to share that particular fact in more detail. Gloves and bleach is all I wish for.

I'm watching the grey clouds coming in over the mountain range. When you will be going out to sea, that sort of thing occupies you.

Time to go back to the Zaytouna.


Days 8-10, Solidarity among Sisters

The wide open sea sky on a cloudless night is difficult to imagine, the Milky Way gorgeous beyond comparison, as there is no light pollution when you are far away from the coast. Passing by lava spewing Stromboli, eerily lighting up the sky in a reddish cast every now and then, greenly sparkling fluorescent starry shaped algae formations in the water close to the boat, a group of dolphins accompanying our "Zaytouna" on her way to Gaza for a while: so many experiences to be thankful for.

And now sitting in my hotel room in sunny Messina, traffic passing by. After the sleepy silent melody of the waves and the occasional sound of the sails, nearby traffic sounds harsh and out of place in a way, as I want to hang on for a little longer to the peacefulness at sea. The earth keeps moving even when sitting down. From my experience in Ajaccio I know it will take about a day to get used to terra firma, so I walk like a sea-woman: legs wide for balance, ready to grip on to something when necessary, as if still on board.

Lots of messages from all over the world, in support for the Women's flotilla. From Israel also a few unpleasant threats (thank you trolls, get a life). And the news of the arrest of Sami Ali, the Balad spokesperson. Trying to scare us into being quiet and obedient. I am not an obedient woman, none of us are.

On the 2nd leg of the flotilla, from Ajaccio (Corsica) to Messina (Sicilia) new women joined, from Algeria, Qatar, the USA, Malaysia and Egypt, Arabic, French, English and Malay flowing freely in conversations deep into the night on a large range of subjects. We come from very different backgrounds, professions and surroundings: leading politicians, human rights lawyers, media, social work, theatre and movies. The sea at night creates a trust and the pace when at sea, when there is nothing you MUST do right now and the absence of an internet connection to distract you, allow for conversation, true conversation. I realize I should leave my phone off much more often.

The Zaytouna is small so we share the beds, sleep in shifts and occasionally sleep on couches. Great vegetarian  food is prepared together and preparing food on a rocking boat, even when the sea is calm, takes more of an effort, especially in the beginning. You need to learn how to balance your body, always being ready to grip onto something, also whilst cutting a salad with a very sharp kitchen knife, or carrying a hot coffee (never fill the cup more than half, is what I quickly learned). During the last day our sweet water pump gave up. We had more than enough water, but needed to use bottles from the containers as none came out of the tap. Washing dishes (my turn) was a bit more of an effort. But as in Gaza there is no clean drinking water most of the time, who are we to complain? Ninety five percent of the water in Gaza is undrinkable. Aboard the Zaytouna we have 2 very common expressions: "In Gaza it's far worse" and "what goes on on the boat, stays on the boat", so no details. But I honestly haven't had so many good laughs for many years. Felt so close to so many women in such a short time and shared so many experiences, thoughts and feelings. I truly feel privileged to travel with you, my sisters.

The other part are the heartwarming phone-calls and messages we receive from our sisters and friends in Gaza. My heart goes out to you. How much I'd like to share my early morning coffee with you, sitting on the Gaza  beach, watching the waves and just talk about this and that, not needing to worry about the lack of clean water and electricity, being not able to travel around freely, the poverty and the lack of security, the homelessness of so many people whose homes were destroyed by Israel, the lack of school-buildings and above all, the safety of the children and so many other troubles no one should have to worry about, if only "things were normal". Aboard during our night watch we sang many songs and crew members Emma and Sinna are in the process of writing and composing the Zaytouna song, as we go along. Captain Madeleine taught us the Ingrid Bergman/Stromboli song, to be sung when passing Stromboli. (It's on youtube for those who wish to know). Sisters, like I said.

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Days 11-13, Messina, Italy – What is in a flotilla?

Since 2008 there have been several flotillas with many tens of boats, even the organizers do not agree on the exact number: Boats from all over the world, as far as Canada and as nearby as Cyprus. The first flotilla boats actually did breach the blockade imposed by Israel and when they reached the Gaza harbour, which still existed at that time tens of thousands of people waited in the harbor, young boys jumping in its water in order to swim towards the boats, everyone participating in the festive reception.

Especially in Israel the murder of 10 activists aboard the "Mavi Marmara", a huge boat carrying hundreds of activists that sailed out of Turkey, overshadows the memory of that happy and very successful first flotilla: its participants took place in a meeting in a church in Gaza, in which representatives from more than 100 Gaza organizations, Hamas among them, spoke about their wish for peace. The day after the boats took off, operation "Cast Lead" (aka the first Gaza war) started and Gaza was pounded for several days by heavy bombing, killing more than one thousand people and wounding over 5,000, among them many children.

Several flotillas have taken place since, all of them stopped one way or another, by hook or by crook: Israel reportedly paid Greece a lot of money in order to stop the boats from leaving Greek harbours. One boat that managed to get out was stopped by the Greek coast guard some 3 miles out of port, whilst still in Greek waters. Another boat was sabotaged, its motor destroyed. And in case of our vessel the Zaytouna, the Spanish coast guard did everything they bureaucratically could to prevent us from leaving Barcelona. And the Amal's engine broke down, which forced her to return to port. The preparations are extensive and will take up much time. Therefore another, but much smaller sailing vessel was found, the "Amal 2", which arrived in Messina today and will sail together with the Zaytouna to Gaza. I admire the stamina and logistical capabilities of the international organizational team. Finding a suitable boat within a few days isn't simple, especially when the means are limited.

In addition there was an attempt to construct a cargo vessel in Gaza and breach the blockade from within. A fire almost destroyed the boat, which was then rebuilt, only to be blown to smithereens by the Israelis during yet another Gaza war.

Whilst the boats are being prepared, participants as well as members of the all-women crew undergo extensive non-violence training, which includes not only theory and exercises, but also simulations, facilitated by experts in the field, volunteering their services. Local community activists make us feel at home in a spirit of solidarity, from being hosted by the local Islamic center to being invited to a local pizza parlour for drinks and food "on the house", the harbor master and his crew assisting us way beyond the call of duty.

For the last leg of our journey more women are joining the flotilla, amongst them Mairead Maguire Corrigan, Nobel peace prize laureate from Ireland and athlete and teacher Leigh-Ann Naidoo from South Africa, Jeanette Escanilla, substitute MP from Sweden as well as Taekwondo expert and teacher Cigdem Topcuoglu, who together with her husband took part in the Mavi Marmara flotilla. Her husband was murdered by IDF soldiers. Cigdem like all of us, believes in non-violence. There is serenity about her, as well as sadness, but also hope and determination.

Mairead lost her sister as well as her sister's three young children as a direct result of the violence of "The Troubles", when she herself was in her late teens. It made her understand that violence is never the solution. Having dedicated her life to making peace and assisting other people reach peaceful solutions, she is one of the most inspiring women I have met. She participated in previous flotillas and spend a few weeks in Israeli detention.

There is a strange legal warp in the Israeli set up: the strictly civilian boats that do not carry any arms, are intercepted in the international waters, between 70-100 nautical miles away from the Israeli / Gaza shore by a military force. When this happens off the Somali coast it's called piracy.

The boats and the people are then taken against their will into an Israeli harbor. Israeli law does not apply in the international waters. One might call it "kidnapping". No crime has been committed; there is no reason for arrest.

Having been taken into detention, Israel then goes on and accuses the crew as well as the activists of having "illegally entered Israel", conveniently "forgetting" they were taken against their will to Israel, in fact never intending to visit the country.

Although large ships such as the Mavi Marmara carried a humanitarian cargo of medicine, food and emergency materials, many of the small boats carry mostly activists. The Israeli media have gone out of their way to present the flotilla participants as dangerous people intent on Israel's destruction. And in the case of this flotilla it appears not to be different. Popular newspapers are using old images of larger motorized ships (including the Mavi Marmara) although the current flotilla consist of no more than 2 small sailing vessels with an all-female crew and activist group aboard: for the last leg there will be 13 activists and 3 crew on the Zaytuna and 5 activists and 3 crew on the Amal 2, the small sailing boat recently acquired after the motor of the original Amal ship became dysfunctional. Accurate images have been made available to Israeli media, so it is a matter of editorial choice to use other and misleading materials.

The same could be said for the portrayal of the the activities surrounding the ships' arrival and departures: happy festivals, great dinners and non-violence workshops for the general public as well as the participants. But the Israeli general media insist on describing these events as "rabid anti-Israel" and worse. If so, when a call for human rights and peaceful solutions is considered "anti-Israel", what does that really imply?

In each location large groups of international and local volunteers take care of the intricate logistics. In each location I have felt so privileged and inspired by people from all ages, religions, political views. I have learned so much and received so much.

Next to the marina where our vessels are moored is a big professional harbor: Side by side I can see a tall cruise ship and the "Sentinel", a large orange colored vessel with one purpose: saving refugees. Through holes in the fence I can see the ambulances, the Red Cross teams,

the municipality crews with bags of materials and food. No one wants to be a refugee. People should not have to become refugees.

Today school children will be visiting the boats with their history teachers. They will be told the story of the Palestinian refugees living in the Gaza strip. Many of them come originally from where I live today: Jaffa. They are languishing in Jabaliya refugee camp, in an open prison quickly becoming uninhabitable.

The distance between Jaffa and Gaza is about 1 hour by car.

And I am in Messina, with a small flotilla, trying to break the illegal blockade. Not much more then a symbolic act, a maritime demonstration aimed at attracting the world's attention: the blockade MUST stop. Now.

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