The accounts of the U.S. boat to Gaza read like a Bond movie. There are nefarious bureaucratic restrictions from foreign governments, boat chases on the Mediterranean Sea, hunger strikes and Greek jails.
Among 37 U.S. activists were Ken Mayers and Linda Durham from Santa Fe. Mayers co-founded a chapter of Veterans for Peace. Durham is an activist with Another Jewish Voice, a group calling for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Santa Fe “had the highest per-capita representation on the boat,” Mayers says. “We were surprised and delighted.”
Leslie Cagan, a coordinator for the trip, says the vessel was named The Audacity of Hope after President Obama's 2006 book to gain the attention of the administration. Author Alice Walker lent her fame to the cause and was among the activists on board. The cargo was thousands of letters written by Americans demonstrating their solidarity with Palestinians.
“Being hopeful means you have to be a little audacious,” Cagan says from New York City, where she lives. “You have to be in the face of the powers that be in order to articulate the nature of the problem.”
Freedom Flotilla II, a 10-boat protest fleet, was scheduled to depart from Greece in late June. Things did not go as planned.
Israel evacuated about 8,500 Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, but the army remains a presence in the area. Both sides have continued airstrikes, suicide bombings and counterattacks.
The United States has provided $3 billion in grants to Israel annually since 1985, according to a report for Congress by the Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade Division. In addition to this yearly funding, the United States has also given Israel billions of dollars to fund military projects.
In May 2010, six ships attempted to bring medicine, food, building materials and other supplies to the Gaza Strip. The Israeli Defense Forces attacked the flotilla in international waters, and nine people were killed.
Freedom Flotilla II, composed of passengers from 22 countries, was scheduled to depart in late June in memory of last year's events. Cagan says activists took part in more extensive nonviolence training to help them prepare for possible attacks.
Mayers grew up in a largely Jewish community on the South Shore of Long Island. In the wake of the Holocaust, the chorus of support for a Jewish state was strong, he says. Twenty-one members of his mother's family line were killed in concentration camps.
Still, he began to question the actions involved in the formation of Israel. “I grew up with the mythology about the heroism of the exodus generation and the heroism of what were, in fact, terrorists who blew up hotels in what was then Palestine,” he says. “We were sold the line that this was empty land, and that they were planting trees there. What we didn't know was that they were planting trees on the ruins of Arab villages that they had destroyed.”
Mayers has been a peace activist since he resigned from the Marine Corps in 1966 but says he only began focusing on Palestinian liberation over the last two and a half years. In December 2009, he traveled to Egypt to join a peace march that was supposed to make its way to Gaza. But he didn't reach Gaza then. Only 100 of the 1,400 protesters were allowed into the region.
During Mayers' time in Egypt, he heard of the upcoming May 2010 flotilla, and although it was too late to join the fleet, he says activists were already talking about the next one. When the plans were set in motion for another attempt earlier this year, Mayers knew he had to try for Gaza a second time.
Shortly after passengers arrived in Greece last month, a complaint questioning the seaworthiness of The Audacity of Hope delayed its departure. The complaint was later revealed to originate from an Israeli legal advocacy group, according to the New York Times. Mayers says the complaint was unfounded and used as an excuse to prevent the ship from leaving port. After Greek surveyors looked over the boat, they took issue with the construction materials used in the hull and a missing signature on a previous private inspection report, according to an account by Cagan.
The Audacity of Hope set sail anyway on July 1, and the passengers made music as they set out. “It brought tears to my eyes,” Mayers says. They didn't think they would get very far, he adds, but they were thrilled by the attempt. “If we'd gotten 10 meters, or 100 meters, or 200 meters, we all would have just been so excited to have made a break for it.” The Greek coast guard stopped the boat a few miles off shore, asking them to turn back, Mayers says. The ship's captain, John Klusmire, refused.
And then, Mayers recalls, the commandos showed up, automatic weapons in tow, to bring The Audacity of Hope back to port.
“We held up for probably another half an hour or so, shouting back and forth, but it was clear they were trying to board us,” Mayers says. “We stressed the fact that we are unarmed civilians, peaceful civilians. Kaleo Larson, another Vietnam vet, appealed to them as service men, as did I.”
Eventually the captain determined the altercation was putting the crew and passengers at risk, Mayers says, and they followed the coast guard back to port. Klusmire was arrested for disturbing sea traffic. The free-Gaza activists protested for his freedom.
“There was a group of nine or 10 of us that decided we would start a hunger strike the day before Independence Day on July 3. We would strike until the captain was released,” Mayers says. “We set up a little site across the street from the American Embassy.”
Mayers says activists protesting the Greek government at Syntagma Square across from Parliament joined Americans in their demonstration.
“We heard them coming, and we walked down the street to meet them. Here are 500 to 600 Greeks rallying in our support,” Mayers says. “It was so incredible.”
The protest resulted in several detainments over the course of two days. Mayers says he and Durham were twice taken into custody. After spending a few hours at the police headquarters each time, they were let out.
On July 5, after the release of Captain Klusmire, the activists packed up their things to return home and figure out what to do next.
Of the 10 participating boats, only the French Dignite at Karama made it out of Greek waters. Both Mayers and Cagan express mixed feelings about the outcome of the flotilla but say they don’t consider the mission a failure. “It was successful in getting media attention in this country and internationally,” says Cagan. “That, to me, is the definition of success.”
Freedom Flotilla II gained more advance press than the previous effort, in part due to the large size of the delegation. Cagan says more boats from more countries were involved, and they strove to bring the campaign into the public eye as much as possible.
Mayers says the activists are determined to advance the mission. “If the Greeks would let the boat sail from another port from which we could sail to Gaza, at least two-thirds of us said we would fly right back out and get on the boat again.”