An account of our voyage from the English Chanel to Gaza.
This is the story you all wanted to read: “What’s it like to be captured by the Israeli Navy?” I’ll tell you, but you have to promise me this: remember that it’s irrelevant.
One problem with sailing a boat through the Israeli Navy’s blockade of Gaza is that, while it may eventually achieve some success in legal and political proceedings, it also plasters the movie poster of our story right on top of the movie poster of The Story of Palestine. You’ve taken the trouble to open this page, so I’m going to tell you the story, but stay with me until — as the British Navy used to say — the last dog is hung. That’s Part VII.
How We Were Kidnapped by Israeli Pirates
As we neared the Gaza coast on the third of August we assumed this was going to be our last day at sea. Instead of passing slowly in hushed anticipation of kidnap — as I thought it would — Friday just zipped by. We were busy, maybe a little frantic, struggling with a software and electronics problem. Tobbe “wan Kenobi” and I were trying to summon the force. We needed about 19 volts and we should have had 24, but could find only 3. Forty-two-year-old boats the size of our Freedom acquire an archaeology of electrical systems and Tobbe, who knows his electrons, was shaking his head at each newly exposed layer of ancient wiring.
Nineteen volts would have wakened the computer and the computer would have wakened the cameras and the cameras would be ready at the right moment to record SHOCKING NEW VIDEO of the Israeli Defense Force’s arrogance and brutality. We were expecting the performance within hours.
First Mate Caneles was in charge on deck while my head was in the bilge looking for wires. Though he speaks no English, he’s a masterful sailor and teacher. In Spanish, French and nautical sign language he had trained Freedon’s deck crew. He and Pascal, our third watch-captain, had stayed extra hours on deck while we dodged through an Egyptian gas field. They were both tired and quiet. Standing at the helm, Anna was doing what she seemed to love best — steering the Freedom like a six-foot Pippi Longstocking.
Our Swedish ship’s medic, “My”, was worried. A few days earlier we learned, via satellite phone, that the crew of the Al-Awda, our Flotilla companion, had been brutally captured. A tasering and a beating for the younger men, a beating for the frail older folks. A few months previously, My had been accused of “eco-terrorism”. We all knew that the Israelis do their research and might have used the “terrorist” label as an excuse for an extra beating.
But I figured that the most vulnerable might be our only brown guy, Richard the journalist, or Ferry our unstoppable Swedish mechanic, who was born in Iran. Our other journalist, Ian, was also in a tight spot. He had been promised that in order to protect the expensive camera equipment from capture, he would be put ashore. We tried to land him in Greece then Egypt but Israel has alliances in both countries that are enforced, if reluctantly, by their coast guards. Ian used the last hour of light to write the words to his protest song on the bulkhead so we could all sing along as we were forced into Israel by the IDF.
Ellen had finally given up the struggle with the camera computer and was now struggling to keep the satellite phones charged. Our diesel engine had also given up, taking its generator with it. We were on emergency power and there was precious little of that. Karin and Collan sweated in the galley. Facing capture or not, the crew had to eat.
It would be dark in an hour. Our speed was down to four knots. I took another reading on our likely position at dawn: pretty close to the beach at Gaza. My bet was the naval commander would favor daylight because it would be safer for their boat crews. I lost that bet. As night settled in the VHF radio cackled and hissed.
Ships often call each other as they pass, but only harbor masters, coast guard captains and naval radio operators start with nosy questions. On the contact channel, 16, “The vessel proceeding at 110 degrees in the vicinity of the Gaza coast identify yourself.”
I picked up the mic and said, “This is the captain of the sailing yacht Freedom. Go to 72.” You don’t normally tell an authority, especially a naval operator, what channel to use for further communication. It’s like taking the head seat at the conference room table even though it’s not your meeting. Not subtle. But I figured, what the hell, and waited for their response on 72.
Damn. There he was.
The conversation began with the questions. I answered the obvious stuff in my best Mike Nelson, Sea Hunt voice with international phonetic code words: vessel name, call sign, MMSI number, port of registry. But then the questions started getting personal so I started asking the questions. I was polite but we both knew that the underlying message was “Fuck you.” What followed was formulaic and boring. The vocabulary was mostly “controlled military zone, risk of capture, confiscation of vessel and cargo, change your course immediately …” The odd thing was that is was a recorded message. Maybe the lawyers don’t take any chances. After a couple of challenging replies to the commands it was clear that our outgoing signals were jammed. Now it was dark and we were about to be kidnapped.
Part of me wished that the wind would freshen suddenly, as it often does on the Med, and that our 29-ton Freedom would sweep along through the darkness in a building sea. That would make the chase scene more like bandits and a stagecoach — and less like cops pulling over a delivery van. My better angel was relieved it did not and that naval boat crews would not slip on a slanted, wet deck, trip on lines, grab at loose backstays, fall overboard in the dark. And blame us. Then kick the shit out of us. Nothing says rage like an embarrassed teenager with a machine gun. I told our crew that it was time to assemble in their planned positions in the cockpit.
Collan, the singing cook, prepared 12 bags of last-hour treats with nuts and chocolate, and labelled each bag with name of the movie-star who would play a role representing each of us in the inevitable Hollywood feature. It was our good-bye hug from Palermo, Sicily, and our comic acknowledgement that the world actually didn’t care. That unless at least two of us were murdered we’d be lucky to get an interview on student radio. But it was nice to be Harrison Ford for a few minutes. We watched the lights gathering around us. We heard the hum of big, slow diesel engines.
When the 40-foot inflatable, troop carriers race in from astern and crush into your beam with the searchlights aimed at you, it’s hard to see who’s doing the talking. But she was kind enough to introduce herself and the crew. In a ring-master’s voice over the bullhorn, she said, “Ladies and gentlemen. My name is Nadia. We are the Israeli Navy. We come in PEACE.”
Then soldiers with machine guns began pouring aboard. The Freedom’s deck is 72 feet long — room for a lot of black boots. The jostling bodies, swinging searchlights and blue diesel smoke made for a kind of nightclub scene — with weapons and camo. But in place of techno-throb there was shouting. Orders given, orders changed, orders refused, orders contradicted. And they were just shouting at each other while we sat silent in the cockpit with our hands in the air.
We had trained for this moment. It’s not that being captured is complicated, it’s that groups under threat must reach agreement about how they’re going to behave. One hostile remark spoken in the wrong tone of voice can turn an orderly police action into a bar brawl, and the guys with the automatic weapons will win it every time. Freedom’s crew decided to resist through non-cooperation. When I was told to “Steer the boat on 080,” I kept my hands in the air and replied that I hadn’t yet joined the navy. I was tempted to add that the boat was dead in the water because they hadn’t yet noticed the foresail was backed, but the young guy with the Tilley hat and a Canadian accent had a confident manner so I left it at that.
“Your engine is dead?” he asked. I said, “I was hoping your guys could have a look.”
It was obvious then that if they didn’t get us under tow we’d be there until September. The navy gunboat shunted into position and got a cable aboard. Within a few minutes the commandos were at the helm and we were sleigh-riding at twice the hull’s design speed — a tremendous load. I wondered how the cable was going to handle that. The Freedom’s stern fell well below the horizon and a massive bow wave threatened to come aboard with each error in steering. I remained silent in the irresponsible hope that they’d sink our 29-ton boat. My crew would get wet, but so would two dozen IDF naval personnel who were guarding us on deck and ransacking the cabin. We were wearing floatation. They were wearing side-arms, machine guns and flak jackets.
The question was resolved when the steel cable snapped and whipped itself back across the foredeck.
There were a lot of loud, Hebrew “Holy Fucks!” as the IDF crewman at the bow realized his head was still attached to his shoulders. And at our end of the boat there were a few self-satisfied smirks and eye-rolls … until we realized that re-attaching a new cable and slowing down would add agonizing hours to this long, dark voyage to an Israeli prison.