Freedom Flotilla taking aid to Gaza trains for boarding by Israeli special forces

The elite Shayetet 13 navy unit has been preparing to intercept the humanitarian fleet, which is scheduled to set sail for the Strip on April 26

Freedom Flotilla aid to Gaza
Members of the Freedom Flotilla train at a hotel in Istanbul on Tuesday.Jacobo García
Jacobo García

“On the ground, quick, on the ground! Terrorist, on the ground, terrorist...” The shouting goes on while the crew members of the boat are beaten and have fake cardboard rifles pointed at their heads. Around 30 supporters of the Palestinian cause who are set to embark on the Freedom Flotilla — which aims to take a boat loaded with food to Gaza — receive some basic training in the basement of an Istanbul hotel to try to recreate some of the tense and potentially violent situations the activists might encounter if the ship finally receives authorization from the Turkish authorities to sail to the Strip. The initiative, launched by dozens of humanitarian organizations from around the world in solidarity with Gaza, aims to break the maritime blockade imposed by Israel by bringing more than 5,500 tons of food to the Palestinian enclave. Around 500 people of 40 nationalities are taking part in the trip.

The six-hour training session in Istanbul is being given by Lisa Fithian, an American expert who has imparted this course hundreds of times to teach “peaceful resistance” to groups around the world, including environmental activists and migrant groups. A doctor, a teacher, a cab driver, an engineer, and a housewife who have never before faced the police are given a theoretical and practical primer on what awaits them when, as expected, the Israeli military descends on them.

The course begins with a short overview of the weapons the Israelis will presumably use in a boarding of the three flotilla ships: rifles, tear gas, tasers, stun grenades (which emit light and sound so powerful it paralyzes), dogs, and drones, as well as the situations they will face.

“In case there is an Israeli boarding, the best thing to do is to squat down with your hands up. But if you have to drop to the ground, it’s best to go on your right-hand side to protect your liver from kicks and blows.” Fithian insists again and again that crewmembers avoid any eye contact with the soldiers. “Don’t look them in the face or try to talk to them.” And she also recommends: “It’s better to take off any rings in ears or noses because they can pull them and try to rip them out,” he says, looking at a deputy from the Spanish political party Podemos, who brings her hand in horror to the piece of metal she wears in her nose.

Those attending the course — activists from Brazil, Malaysia, Jordan, or Tunisia, who are more accustomed to praying and demonstrating than taking on one of the most powerful armies in the world — follow the instructions with serious expressions. “When it comes to being handcuffed, it’s an idea to close your fists because then, when the cuffs are tightened, the hands gain a little space to allow circulation,” Fithian says, demonstrating with her fists bunched. “The best thing to do is to wear a fanny pack so that the soldiers can easily find documentation when your hands are cuffed,” she adds. She goes on to explain: “It’s unlikely they will use gas because soldiers can’t move well in that environment, even with masks, but if they do, it’s good to carry an onion,” she recommends. “In operations of this type, the ratio is usually two soldiers for each crew member. In other words, if there are 800 of us, there will be about 1,600 soldiers. Forget about using cell phones and get rid of anything in your hands that might look like a weapon: a cell phone, a cane, an umbrella, a backpack... anything,” she insists.

“In case there are blows, cover your face, just enough to protect your eyes, but not so much that they think you want to hide,” the instructor says while recreating an assault operation. Some members of the flotilla have experienced it on previous occasions, and the likelihood is that Israel will react similarly if the aid ships dare to approach its shores. “It is likely that before the assault they will fly drones overhead that can identify the faces of the passengers, and that also have the ability to shoot,” the activists are warned in English and Arabic during the course.

On Monday, Israeli Channel 12 television, citing the Israel Defense Forces, reported that Shayetet 13, the military’s elite special forces unit, has stepped up its training to board the flotilla ships. Shayetet 13 recently stormed the Al Shifa hospital, killing 400 people, according to Gazan authorities. In 2010, it raided a similar aid flotilla, killing 10 crew members on the MV Mavi Marmara and wounding dozens more. “This is a peaceful resistance movement, but don’t take this to the extreme. Don’t hold on to each other tightly because you will be hit harder,” Fithian explains in English. “As much as you can, stick together as a group.” The news about the Shayetet 13 preparations unsettles a group that dreams of being able to leave its cargo in Gaza and escape largely unscathed in the event of a military assault.

“We want people to be scared”

Before the end of the first part of the course, the most frightening moment for the participants arrives. The lights go out and suddenly a group of hooded men burst in, shouting, hitting, and pointing. The activists are kicked, a fake gun is placed at their heads, the assailants attempt to drag individuals away from the rest of the group and two actresses reproduce the screams that will be heard in such an incident, lending added drama to the scene. They put so much effort into reproducing the violent boarding of the ship that when the rehearsal ends, a strange sensation of tension and anxiety hangs in the air of the hotel basement. Some are short of breath, others are still in shock, while some realize for the first time what they are exposing themselves to.

“We want people to be scared and to be able to anticipate what they are facing, although it’s frightening because it lets you know what’s coming,” Fithian tells EL PAÍS. “The sound of explosions can be terrifying and you can panic, but training and information is power. We train ourselves to prepare for the violence we are going to encounter.”

The final hour of the course is focused on explaining the legal consequences to which all “terrorists,” as Israel calls the Turkish organization IHH, which organized the flotilla, and its participants are exposed. “The first is a ban on returning to Israel for the next 10 years. Besides that, don’t say anything without consular assistance and even less sign anything that is not in your language,” Fithian repeats over and over again.

The flotilla, with 5,500 kilos of food, is composed of a cargo ship and two passenger boats with more than 500 crewmembers. Among these are the veteran American activist Ann Wright, the former mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, the number two of Spanish political party Sumar in the European elections, Jaume Asens, and a grandson of Nelson Mandela. The departure of the boats was initially scheduled for April 22. However, international pressure postponed the date until April 26. This is the eighth flotilla to leave for Gaza since 2010, when Israeli forces stormed the passenger ship MV Mavi Marmara, which was carrying about 750 people with 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid.

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