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      The Israeli Navy Arrested Me for Trying to Sail to Gaza

      November 19, 2012

      By Matthaios Tsimitakis

      The "freedom flotilla" – a small fleet of ships full of activists from all over the world – has been sailing towards Gaza since 2008, protesting against the illegal Israeli blockade that, unless your primary news sources have been the Israeli government or FOX News, you'll know as the device that forces Gazans to effectively live in one big, poor, open prison that the Israelis can launch missiles and drones into whenever they like.

      In May 2010, a flotilla of six ships tried to break the blockade and carry humanitarian aid to the port of Gaza, but was intercepted by the Israeli Navy. During the occupation of one of the activist boats – the Turkish “Mavi Marmara” – one American and eight Turks were killed in a clash with Israeli commandos. In 2011, two boats left Greece to travel to Gaza, but were forced back by the coastguard authority.

      A month ago, just before the Israelis commenced their most recent bombardment of Gaza, the “Estelle” – a boat carrying 30 activists, five of whom were European MPs and one a Canadian ex-MP – travelled all the way from Finland to the Mediterranean Sea, only to be stopped by the Israeli Navy in international waters, 50 miles off the coast of Gaza. All communications with the ship were lost, the activists arrested, then deported back to their home countries a couple of days later.

      Loucas Stamelos, a Greek software engineer, was onboard taking care of Estelle's communications and regularly uploading videos and audio of the voyage to YouTube. I called him up to find out what went on between his and the other activists' arrest and their eventual deportation.

      VICE: According to the Israeli Defence Forces, you were arrested by unarmed soldiers who did everything to keep it as peaceful as possible. Is that true?
      Loucas Stamelos: No, not at all. The Estelle was invaded by masked soldiers carrying machine guns. They were violent and had a book full of personal details and recent photos of all of us. I got the impression that storming boats is the only thing they know how to do really well, even if it's completely inappropriate, like when you're dealing with peaceful activists. They apparently perceived us as a threat to Israel.

      What? I like how they can justify all their actions by just saying they felt threatened. 
      Yeah, you should see the charges being pressed against the Israeli activists who were onboard with us. They're being accused of “attempting to penetrate a part of Israel that doesn't belong to the state of Israel”.

      That's insane. Okay, so back to the start, how long had you been on the Estelle?
      The two Greek MPs and I were picked up by the Estelle when it passed by Crete on its way from Finland. It couldn't enter Greek waters because the Greek authorities would arrest the ship, and we had Israeli intelligence agents tracking us and trying to stop us from boarding, but after three days with the help of other people distracting them, we managed to get on the inflatable boats and sailed out to international waters so we could board the Estelle. 

      What were you doing for the day before you were stopped by the Israeli navy?
      Mostly planning passive resistance methods. We made sure absolutely nothing could be perceived as “hostile” by the soldiers.

      What happened once the soldiers invaded your ship?
      We all knew what had happened with the Mavi Marmara and figured that any attempt to resist would be complete madness, so we just showed them they weren't welcome. We refused to answer any questions and demanded that every member of the crew was escorted by another one. The four MPS and the ship's doctor kept asking what was happening to every one of the 30 activists. Funnily, because Estelle is a sailboat, it carried on travelling towards Gaza for the next couple of hours because of the tailwind, so we started making fun of the soldiers, saying we'd end breaking the siege after all. We got to Ashdod in Israel after about 11 hours and were all detained there.

      How was your journey with the soldiers?
      Oh, we did everything we could to piss them off. Dror, one of the Israeli activists, figured out that one of the soldiers was of Russian descent, so was like, "Israel's full of nice ports, why do they always take us to Ashdod, where it's full of Russian and Georgian immigrants?" That annoyed the soldier. He started pointing the gun at us and asking what our problem was with Russia. Also, I figured out that one of the soldiers understood Greek, but was pretending not to, so I started cursing in Greek and watched him try to stay calm.

      I think they'd actually been ordered to stay calm, so we were quite lucky, but they still asked all those bullshit questions, like "Who's your leader? Who are your contacts in Israel? Where do you keep your explosives?" – all that. 

      They'd been violent before, though, right?
      Yeah, we were all sitting down when they first came onboard and they used tasers and batons to force us to move. The whole thing took about 40 minutes, so we had plenty of time to video what was going on. The soldiers confiscated everything and put us through several interrogations, then we got to Ashdod and they took the Israeli activists off in handcuffs and put the rest of us in a tent, where we interrogated again, one by one. 

      Were there any friendly moments at all?
      Yeah, there was one, actually. At the third round of interrogations at a police department near Tel Aviv, the interrogater assured me that there's no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. I asked him what he thought of the UN report that says life in Gaza will be unsustainable by 2020 if the siege continues, but he ignored me and kept asking whether I was anti-semitic.

      I told him I was strongly anti-racist and have close, Jewish friends, but said that the State of Israel isn't necessarily representative of Judaism as a whole. He said I should visit the country as a tourist and offered to take me for a drink if I did. I told him I couldn't until people there stopped descriminating against others for their religion and nationality. And, to my surprise, he agreed. 

      That almost sounds like a happy ending.
      It really wasn't. After that, they took us to a detention centre for illegal immigrants – a dirty vault of human souls, where people – mostly from Asia and Africa – are packed in terrible conditions. I was exhausted, so I passed out. When I woke up, I saw a slogan written on the wall that said: “Israelis, our origin may be Ethiopian, but we're humans too.”

      Ah, OK. Thanks, Loucas.

      Follow Matthaios on Twitter: @tsimitakis

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      Topics: Estelle, Gaza, freedom flotilla, Greece, israel, Palestine

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