Gaza ‘freedom flotilla’ blocked, activists vow to press ahead

lans of the International Freedom Flotilla Coalition hit a snag when Guinea-Bissau decided to withdraw its flag from ships that would deliver humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. The flotilla was expected to set sail on Friday before the unexpected decision of the West African country.

At a protest in Sultanahmet Square of Istanbul, a group chanting slogans against Israel displayed banners that read: “Stop the Fire on Civilians” and “Free Palestine.” Protesters also referenced a ban on the Palestinian flag in 1967, symbolically marching with watermelon slices, an icon at that time.

Speaking on behalf of the group, Marry Ann Wright said the flag of Guinea-Bissau, the flag country of two of the Freedom Flotilla’s four ships, had been withdrawn from the ships. Highlighting that one of the flagged ships was loaded with more than 5,000 tons of aid, Wright alleged that Guinea-Bissau’s decision assisted Israel in its illegal blockade and genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. Despite the potential repercussions, Wright emphasized their determination to reach the people of Gaza, asserting that Israel’s refusal to provide the aid necessary for Palestinians to survive demonstrated how far it would go.

U.N. experts on Friday demanded safe passage for the Freedom Flotilla Coalition, whose ships departing Türkiye will be carrying 5,500 tons of humanitarian aid and hundreds of international humanitarian observers to Gaza.

“The Freedom Flotilla has the right of free passage in international waters and Israel must not interfere with its freedom of navigation, long recognized under international law,” the experts said in a statement.

“As the Freedom Flotilla approaches Palestinian territorial waters off Gaza, it is essential for Israel to adhere to international law, including recent orders from the International Court of Justice to ensure unimpeded access for humanitarian aid,” it added.

Stressing that Israel’s “genocidal violence” and “starvation campaign” since Oct. 7 now met with famine, they said that Israel is not only “failing to comply with its humanitarian obligations” as the occupying power, but also “restricting humanitarian aid, intentionally bombarding humanitarian convoys, and targeting both aid workers and civilians seeking aid.”

They underscored that the Freedom Flotilla Coalition’s demands include an immediate, unconditional and permanent cease-fire, unrestricted access to humanitarian aid, and an end to the illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip.

“The convoy is scheduled for imminent departure,” they added.

The Freedom Flotilla Coalition was formed after the 2010 Freedom Flotilla mission, in which Israeli forces killed 10 Turkish civilians and injured 30 others while raiding the flotilla ships in international waters. The coalition brings together organizations working to end the Israeli blockade of Gaza from countries around the world, including Türkiye, Canada, the U.S. and South Africa.

Israel has waged a brutal offensive on the Gaza Strip since Oct. 7. More than 34,300 Palestinians have since been killed, mostly women and children, and nearly 77,300 injured amid mass destruction and severe shortages of necessities. Israel is accused of genocide at the International Court of Justice. An interim ruling in January ordered Tel Aviv to ensure its forces do not commit acts of genocide and guarantee that humanitarian assistance is provided to civilians in Gaza.

“The Guinea-Bissau International Ships Registry (GBISR), in a blatantly political move, informed the Freedom Flotilla Coalition that it had withdrawn the Guinea Bissau flag from two of the Freedom Flotilla’s ships, one of which is our cargo ship,” the activists said. GBISR was not immediately available for comment.

The Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) is the primary organizer of the civilian Freedom Flotilla Coalition, which is comprised of human rights activists, including lawyers, doctors and nurses who came together to deliver aid directly to Gaza.

“Without a flag, we cannot sail. But, this is not the end. Israel cannot and will not crush our resolve to break its illegal siege and reach the people of Gaza,” the activists said.

The organizers blamed Israel for applying pressure to prevent the flotilla. “It is obvious, and I think it is publicly known, that there has been close contact between Israel and the president of Guinea-Bissau,” organizer and steering committee member Torstein Dahle told The Associated Press (AP), without elaborating.

He said that hundreds of Turkish and international participants were disappointed by the cancellation. “It is very hard for us because it takes time to procure a flag. It’s a procedure that can’t be done in a few days. … But we’re not giving up.”

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