“We are determined to stop this by direct action” where international governments “have sadly failed,” says one of the organizers of the Freedom Flotilla, the Palestinian American human rights attorney Huwaida Arraf.

By Amy Goodman and Huwaida Arraf, Democracy Now!

Hundreds of activists aboard the Gaza Freedom Flotilla were blocked in Turkey on Saturday as they attempted to set sail for the besieged Palestinian territory with 5,500 tons of aid. Organizers say Guinea-Bissau withdrew its flagged ships under pressure from Israel and the United States. The Gaza Freedom Flotilla brings together a “cross-section of humanity” in hundreds of community leaders from all walks of life to raise awareness of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and rally support for its end. “We are determined to stop this by direct action” where international governments “have sadly failed,” says one of the organizers of the Freedom Flotilla, the Palestinian American human rights attorney Huwaida Arraf. “This is not the end. We are pursuing this legally and politically,” she says about this latest “minor setback.” Arraf was part of the previous iteration of the 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla, in which 10 participants were killed in an attack from the Israeli Navy when it raided the ships in international waters.

AMY GOODMAN: As the official death toll in Gaza nears 35,000, ceasefire talks are continuing this week with Hamas officials in Cairo, Egypt, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Saudi Arabia before he heads to Jordan and Israel. Meanwhile, Israel’s military’s chief of staff has approved the continuation of war, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to call off the expected ground invasion of Rafah.

This comes as the International Criminal Court could reportedly issue arrest warrants for senior Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, over the war on Gaza and for Israel’s blocking of humanitarian aid. Israel has also targeted humanitarian workers in deadly attacks. Hundreds of aid workers have been killed by Israel since October 7th, including seven members of the international organization World Central Kitchen, which is resuming food distribution in Gaza today, nearly four weeks after its convoy came under attack.

Amidst the mounting humanitarian disaster in Gaza, hundreds of activists aboard the Freedom Flotilla were blocked in Turkey Saturday as they attempted to set sail for the besieged Palestinian territory. Organizers say Guinea-Bissau withdrew its flagged ships under pressure from Israel, but vowed to overcome this latest challenge.

A group of U.N. experts called for safe passage of the vessels, writing, quote, “The Flotilla is a material manifestation of international support for the ongoing Palestinian struggle for freedom and self-determination, and the internationally recognized right to receive humanitarian aid without interference or hindrance. Support for the Palestinian people’s human rights is acute under the current conditions of genocide, domicide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity,” they said.

For more, we’re joined in Istanbul by Huwaida Arraf, Palestinian American human rights attorney, organizer with the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. She was also part of the 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla, which Israel attacked, killing 10 activists on the Mavi Marmara.

Welcome to Democracy Now! again, Huwaida. If you can talk about what this Freedom Flotilla is and the obstacles it has faced leaving Turkey?

HUWAIDA ARRAF: Thank you. It’s good to be with you, Amy.

The Freedom Flotilla is a continuation of the effort of the Freedom Flotilla Coalition to confront and challenge and, indeed, break Israel’s unlawful siege on Gaza. It has been in place since 2007. It is a form of collective punishment, which is not only unlawful, it is a war crime, and yet our governments have not been doing anything about it. And, in fact, the very fact that for decades our governments have been allowing Israel impunity is what has brought us to this point where Israel for seven months can commit live-streamed genocide and the world doesn’t — the “world” meaning our governments; of course, people are mobilizing, but we’re not stopping it, because Israel is so used to this impunity.

We have come together, the Freedom Flotilla Coalition, and announced that we are going to sail an emergency flotilla in light of the dire situation in Gaza, which includes mass starvation and now famine that has set in — again, war crimes, but our governments aren’t doing anything about it. What do they do? Pay lip service to Palestinian human rights, airdrop food or talk about a maritime corridor which leaves Israel in control of what, if any, aid at all gets to a people trying to survive a genocide. It’s absolutely obnoxious. And one of the things that the U.N. special rapporteurs, that you mentioned, in their statement said, that our Freedom Flotilla is legitimately challenging Israel’s control over the entry of aid, which no government is doing. And that’s what needs to be done. How can we be in the state where a country that has been found to be plausibly committing a genocide by the World Court is allowed to control what, if any, aid gets to a people trying to survive a genocide? It is unconscionable.

And so we have come together. We are now, and have been, in Istanbul, Turkey, Türkiye. We have ships ready to go. We have one cargo ship loaded with over 5,000 tons of humanitarian aid, largely food, clean water, medicines, baby formula, nutrition for children, diapers. That was all ready to go. Hundreds of activists from 40 countries were here, knowing that Israel has killed activists before in such a mission, and yet still willing to risk it to do what no government has done. And yet, instead of our governments supporting our efforts, they have conspired to actually block us.

And so, what happened on Friday is we received a surprise communiqué from the Guinea-Bissau International Ship Registry saying that they have withdrawn their flag from two of our ships — the cargo ship and the main passenger vessel. Now, we cannot sail without a flag. It was clear to us that the withdrawal of this flag was under pressure, likely from the United States and Israel, because the way that they communicated to us was highly unusual, if not unprecedented. In their communication to us, they specifically referenced our trip to Gaza, and they had demanded from us a number of things, which were impossible to meet in the two-hour timeframe that they gave us, which some of those things included a complete manifesto of our cargo, all of the ports we were going to sail in, a letter from the receiving port where we were going to arrive saying that our arrival and carry of humanitarian aid is welcome. They gave us a two-hour window. This is never done. It’s like when you go to register your car at the DMV, they don’t ask you everywhere you’re going and who is going to be in your car. I don’t know of a situation where this has been done before. And yet, because we did not meet these and were not able to submit all of this information within a two-hour window, they informed us that our flag has been withdrawn. This is not the end.

AMY GOODMAN: What made you believe that Israel put —

HUWAIDA ARRAF: We are pursuing this legally and politically —

AMY GOODMAN: What made you believe that Israel had put pressure on Guinea-Bissau to remove its flags?

HUWAIDA ARRAF: Again, because the demands that they made of us specifically referencing our planned trip to confront Israel’s siege and our intent to arrive in Gaza, and giving us a two-hour window to submit all of this documentation about our journey, and knowing that Israel has done this before. It has tried all kinds of methods in order to sabotage our missions. It has sabotaged our boats before. It has attempted to get various — and succeeded, in getting various countries to block us from leaving port. And it was being reported that the United States specifically was putting pressure on Türkiye, the government here, to block us from leaving. But we were sure we were going to be able to leave from Türkiye, because the support here is so great.

So, Israel has tried all of these efforts. It actually boasts about these efforts. But if Israel thinks that this is the end of our effort to break the unlawful siege of Gaza, they are sadly mistaken. A lot of the activists who were here are fired up. They are determined. They are going back home at this point, until we can reflag our ships, which will hopefully be in the coming weeks, and coming back with even more people and more determination. So this is a minor setback, but it’s certainly not the end. And we will not —

AMY GOODMAN: Huwaida Arraf —

HUWAIDA ARRAF: We will not stop in our efforts —

AMY GOODMAN: Huwaida —

HUWAIDA ARRAF: — to break the siege —

AMY GOODMAN: If you can tell us —

HUWAIDA ARRAF: — and get to the people of Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: — who the activists are, the doctors, the nurses, the lawyers, who are on board this ship?

HUWAIDA ARRAF: I would love to. They are amazing people from all over the world, who have left their families, who have left their jobs, who have left the comforts of their own home to undertake a mission where we could not guarantee their safety. So, we had doctors coming from as far as New Zealand. We’ve had activists from South Africa. We had truck drivers from Ireland. We have mental health and social workers from the United States, students, professors, retired U.S. military, retired U.S. active combat, former FBI agents. We had parliamentarians, the former mayor of Barcelona, European parliamentarians, Algerian and Jordanian parliamentarians — really, a cross-section of humanity that is sick and tired of our governments allowing the ongoing persecution and now genocide of the Palestinian people.

And we are determined to stop this by direct action, which is — of course, goes along with all of the other efforts that have been taking place all around the world. And we also want to send our respect, admiration and solidarity with the student movement across the United States and now spreading across the world. This is what’s needed. We are going to bring about the change our governments have sadly failed. They only pay lip service to democracy, freedom and human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Among the high-profile activists —

HUWAIDA ARRAF: The people are going to force this to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: — that are part of the Freedom Flotilla is Nkosi “Mandla” Mandela, South African member of Parliament and the grandson of Nelson Mandela. He spoke to Al Jazeera last week.

NKOSI ZWELIVELILE ”MANDLA” MANDELA: I am a living example of the efforts of the International Solidarity Movement. I am free. South Africa is free. We were able to defeat apartheid South Africa because of the support that we had from the international community. And therefore we want to thank them for taking this stand and for ensuring that they will not be complicit, they will no longer be silent, they will be the voice for the Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, in the summer of 2010, the Israeli military attacked a Gaza Freedom Flotilla, killing 10 people, including an American citizen. It was the Mavi Marmara that they attacked, the ship. The Vice President Joe Biden defended the raid in an interview on PBS shortly afterward.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: You can argue whether Israel should have dropped people onto that ship or not and the rest, but the truth of the matter is, Israel has a right to know. They’re at war with Hamas, has a right to know whether or not arms are being smuggled in. And up to now, Charlie, what’s happened? They’ve said, “Here we go. You’re in the Mediterranean. This ship, if you divert — divert slightly north, you can unload it, and we’ll get the stuff into Gaza.” So, what’s the big deal here? What’s the big deal of insisting it go straight to Gaza?

AMY GOODMAN: [Vice] President Joe Biden in 2010. Huwaida Arraf, this shows the stakes. Ten people were killed. Yet you’re willing to go on this ship to try to challenge the Gaza blockade. As we wrap up, you have 30 seconds. Talk about that risk.

HUWAIDA ARRAF: Yeah. First of all, I need to say that Joe Biden is absolutely mistaken. Israel has no right — had no right to intercept and attack our ships, because it has no right to place the Palestinian people under collective punishment. Again, it is a war crime, and a U.N. panel, an independent investigation, found the very same thing.

Amy, it’s a sad thing that people — it has to be a life-or-death situation to deliver food to people who are being deliberately starved. But that is what we have here, because our governments have continued to allow Israel to do this. I left my two kids at home, and I promised them that I would come back. I know they need their mother. And I hoped to be able to fulfill my promise to come back, but I didn’t know. I don’t know. But what I do know is that I can’t leave to them a world where this can happen, where people can be slaughtered for months on end, oppressed for years, and the world does nothing. So, my action here, and a lot of the activists that have joined us, and the many, many more who want to join us now, do it with the same conviction that we have to act to change the world that we went to live in and that we want to pass on to generations to come, and we are willing to risk our lives to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Huwaida Arraf, Palestinian American human rights attorney, one of the organizers of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, speaking to us from Istanbul, Turkey.

Next up, we speak with two women, an Israeli American author, Ayelet Waldman, and the U.S. Rabbi Alissa Wise. They were among seven arrested by Israeli police Friday as they attempted to get aid over the Gaza border, accusing Israel of using starvation as a weapon of war. Stay with us.