A local woman’s experience aboard the Audacity of Hope
Debra Ellis recently returned to Santa Cruz from Greece. While abroad, she joined 36 passengers, nine journalists, and four crew members on a U.S. flagged ship named The Audacity of Hope, in a nonviolent effort to breach the Israeli blockade of Gaza as part of an international flotilla. The flotilla, entitled “Freedom Flotilla Two—Stay Human,” set out primarily to draw attention to what supporters deem the illegal occupation of the Gaza Strip region by Israeli forces.
Ellis works at UC Santa Cruz and has traveled and lived among refugees in the Middle East in the past. She returned home from this trip on Friday, July 8 with mixed feelings.
The Audacity of Hope left port in Athens, Greece on July 1, was detained by Greek commandos on the same day, and did not successfully reach the shores of Gaza to deliver love letters and aid support as planned. However, Ellis believes the action succeeds in drawing worldwide media attention to what she says is oppression of the Gazan people by Israel’s forces.
“It’s become too public [to ignore], that’s the good news,” says Ellis, who credits members of the press working for media outlets such as CNN, CBS and Democracy Now! aboard the Audacity of Hope, for accurately reporting the events of the peace flotilla effort. “The mission was different than we expected, but it was still very successful.”
Six of the passengers aboard the U.S. flotilla ship call Northern California home, including the ship’s captain, John Klusmire, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Color Purple,” Alice Walker. Ellis says that when Klusmire of Monterey County was detained and imprisoned by Greek authorities, Northern California’s populous—along with action by concerned individuals throughout the U.S.—played a vital role in securing his release.
“We were flooded with support ... the U.S. Embassy in Greece’s phone line was literally jammed with calls in protest,” says Ellis.
All aboard the Audacity of Hope, including Ellis, bore witness as Greek officials arrested Klusmier at gunpoint on July 3.
“We witnessed the captain in direct conversation with the Greek Coast Guard boat. They [had] trailed us for a bit before they blocked our passage and got in front of our boat,” says Ellis.
Following this encounter, a coast guard boat loaded with a commando unit returned and deployed a vessel called a “Zodiac,” which took a firing position on the wheelhouse directly in front of Audacity of Hope passengers.
“When it was clear that we would be boarded or shot if we continued, the captain made the call to return to the port where they directed us,” says Ellis. “It was from port that he was taken to jail.”
After hearing the charges placed against Klusmire, Ellis says she and the other passengers were stunned.
“We felt that our captain was going to be inappropriately detained, penalized and exampled,” she says. “We considered him at that point a prisoner of conscience and became very, very active in our response.”
Several members of the Audacity of Hope participated in a hunger strike outside of the U.S. Embassy in protest of the captain’s detention and the forced anchor of their ship. Ellis was among them and says hundreds of Greek citizens took to the streets in support of the flotilla and hunger strike.
“Everything was nonviolent, very beautiful and peaceful,” says Ellis. “Our group sang songs, and the Greek people sang and cheered in support. Tear gas purchased by the Greek government from France, Israel, and the U.S. was used on protesters throughout the streets of Greece during our time in Athens. However at the fast, the protests were nonviolent, even on the part of the police who refrained from using gas or weapons during these particular actions.”
A number of the U.S. protesters were detained and taken to jail in Athens, and Ellis says it has been confirmed that a U.S.-trained unit working for the U.S. Embassy helped Greek police to arrest the protesters.
“We know that our government was involved, as well as the Israeli government, in pressuring Greece into participating in this interruption and detaining our captain,” says Ellis. “It’s sad because Greece is in a huge crisis right now, so we really feel for the Greek people. We are disappointed in the Greek government but we understand that they are under huge economic and political pressure to respond to the requests, or more likely demands, of both the U.S. and Israeli government.”
Ellis says that the Audacity of Hope members have confirmed that Israel and the U.S. were partially responsible for the detention of their ship. “The anonymous complaint that was originally filed against our boat saying that it wasn’t up to code—which isn’t true, it was up to code—came from an Israeli law firm. … [And] I learned this [first] from our taxi driver going to the airport [to leave Greece] and it has now been confirmed: the dock that the commandos directed our boat into is a U.S. Embassy/Greek Coast Guard dual owned and operated pier.”
Freedom Flotilla Two followed last summer’s similar effort in which Israeli commandos killed nine civilians when they intercepted a Turkish ship attempting to break through the blockade.
This year, the U.S. government promised little protection to civilian passengers of the Audacity of Hope. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton remarked at the State Department on June 23, “We think that it’s not helpful for there to be flotillas that try to provoke actions by entering into Israeli waters and creating a situation in which the Israelis have the right to defend themselves.” (As several passengers of the Audacity of Hope have since pointed out, the ship’s intended course never officially entered Israeli waters, but instead passed straight through international waters into Gaza’s territory.)
Before the Freedom Flotilla Two set out, local Congressman Sam Farr was one of six U.S. Congressmembers to sign a letter at the end of June petitioning Secretary Clinton to help ensure the safety of American citizens aboard the Audacity of Hope.
“Congressman Farr took a stand for international law, human rights, his constituents, and the people of Gaza,” says Ellis.
Supporters of the Israeli sea blockade say that it is a necessary means of protection to keep weapons out of the hands of Hamas, the elected government in Gaza that has a bloody history with Isreal. The European Union and countries like the United States, Canada, Israel and Japan have called Hamas a terrorist organization, while the United Nations and countries like Russia and Switzerland do not use this classification. Opponents of the blockade argue that Israel is in violation of Article 33 of the 4th Geneva Convention and the UN Security Council's Resolution 1860 of January 2009, which calls for a lift of the blockade. Article 33 states that no one may be punished for an offense they did not personally commit, and bars collective penalties and measures of intimidation.
When asked about Israel's claim that the sea blockade is necessary to keep weapons out of the hands of Hamas, Ellis says she is not aware of evidence that weapons are reaching Hamas, but is aware of evidence cited by numerous human rights agencies that the blockade is punishing a civilian population.
“My actions aren’t based on politics, they’re based on my moral spiritual code and looking at patterns of oppression,” she says.
Ellis stresses that she is in support of the well being of the state of Israel, and thinks that in order for Israel to remain secure, their policies must change.
“There cannot be peace without justice,” says Ellis. “What happened to us in this experience is a very small echo of what Gazans experience on a daily basis. They’re the only group of people who don’t have access and freedom to the Mediterranean waters, out of everyone that’s around the Mediterranean. What we experienced just serves as a small echo of that bigger blockade.”
PHOTO: Debra Ellis pictured aboard the Audacity of Hope with another passenger. Photo Courtesy of Debra Ellis.
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