“Direct action is empowering in the sense that it counters the discourse that people cannot do anything”

Interview with Zohar Chamberlain Regev, one of the organisers of the Freedom Flotilla


The Freedom Flotilla Coalition was ready to send several ships to Gaza on April 26, 2024 when Guinea Bissau withdrew its flag from two of the flotilla ships. This has meant that some of the vessels are no longer able to sail. We had the privilege of speaking with Zohar, one of the organizers of the Freedom Flotilla about these developments. Below is the transcript of our conversation.

Hi Zohar. It’s been a couple of weeks since The Left Berlin talked to you about the Freedom Flotilla. What has happened since then?

The sail date for the flotilla has been delayed due to problems with the flag state. There was a lot of pressure on Guinea Bissau;  two of our boats were sailing under the flag of Guinea Bissau. People were gathered in Istanbul ready to board the ship, and we’ve had to send them back home. We are now regrouping and getting organized. But this will take some time. 

At the same time, the Freedom Flotilla Coalition has another mission. Our work is to challenge the blockade by direct action. As we speak, our boat Handala is on its way to Gaza. It left Oslo on the first of May, and it is now in Sweden.

Handala is going to pass through a lot of ports, stopping on the way, and there will be events to raise awareness and to denounce the complicity of our governments. We want to gather support and to have different people participate on different legs. Eventually, the boat will reach Gaza with mostly a message of solidarity.

What legal arguments were used to stop the other boats?

There were no legal arguments. It’s all political. Israel wants to avoid the embarrassment or a diplomatic incident that could be a result of stopping us violently in international waters, which it has done since we started sailing with these boats to Gaza. 

In 2010, Israeli commandos actually murdered 9 peace activists on the Mavi Marmara, injured more than 50 (one martyr died after 4 years in coma bringing their number to 10), and kidnapped international activists. They were all on six different boats in international waters. Israel took them against their will. Since then, every boat that we’ve sent has been attacked in international waters. There have been no lethal attacks since 2010, but these were are all still acts of piracy by Israel on the high seas. 

They are trying to avoid a similar incident. Israel has put a lot of pressure through its proxies like the US and Germany on both the Turkish government and the government of Guinea Bissau to do whatever they can so that we will not be able to sail.

Is it the governments who are stopping you from sailing?

It was a government agency in charge of flagging boats which wrote a letter to us saying that we needed to say where we were going and get confirmation from the port of destination in Gaza. This port no longer exists because it was destroyed by the Israelis. Then they told us to say which other ports we plan to visit on the way. 

Huwaida Arraf, who was speaking at the press conference in Istanbul, compared this to a person trying to register a car and being asked, “Where are you going to drive this car?” 

It’s absolutely unheard of that a flag state requires to know where you’re going to take the ship that is being flagged. They are usually concerned with safety on board and certain regulations, but that’s all flag states generally care about. They should not ask where the boat is going. It’s absolutely none of their business.

Do you think that similar tactics can be used to stop the Handala sailing?

Handala is flagged with a Norwegian flag. There is no need for it to go through any inspections. It’s a perfectly seaworthy boat. As I said, it’s already on its way and will be stopping in many ports. People are welcome to come and see it to make sure for themselves that this is a peaceful mission. There is no reason for it to be stopped.

Of course, we expect pressure from Israel because they do not want to have to deal with us. But  this exactly why we do this;  justice and international law require that Gaza has contact with the outside world and that these things are not mediated by the same people who are trying to eliminate all life there.

On the Mavi Marmara, there were politicians from Germany and elsewhere who offered some protection because of their prominence. Who is travelling on Handala?

Right now, I don’t have the crew list with me. Some of the crew are Scandinavians, and I know that there are two people from Canada. Along the way, there will be different people joining. We are open for  more participants. We’ve had a lot of interest for Break the Siege mission. Of course, the Handala is a much smaller boat, but we do welcome participation, especially of prominent people, which will shed light on this urgent need to reach Gaza.

Which ports is Handala going to be visiting?

It is currently sailing from a port whose name I can’t pronounce in Sweden to Gothenburg, and then it will go from Gothenburg to two other Swedish ports: Halmstad and Helsingborg. Then it will go to Malmö where the European song contest is going to be celebrated, and there’s a lot of interest because many artists have been calling to ban Israel from participating due to the genocide.

From Malmö, it will go to Copenhagen and then to Bremenhafen in Germany. Following that, it will be stopping in ports in the UK, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Portugal, and so forth. 

The German government has been very strong in its support for Israel. Do you think there might be problems entering Bremerhafen?

I don’t think we should have any problem at all. The boat meets all the standards. It is an international mission. I cannot see why Germany should do anything against it. 

In the past, when I sailed on the Al Awda, we were boarded by customs or immigration. Somebody came on board and asked to see all the passports and to speak to the captain. But this was a routine inspection and then we were let go. There is no way that they can stop a perfectly legal voyage.

I’d like to hope so, but you can’t really trust German politicians.

You should trust international law. And if we are met with challenges, we will of course meet them. We have legal advice of our own. There is nothing wrong with what we are doing when we sail between European ports. There is also nothing wrong with us sailing to Gaza. The International Court of Justice says that Israel is not allowed to hinder the delivery of aid to Gaza.

What do you think will happen when you get to Gaza? You said that there was a brutal attack by Israeli forces on the Mavi Marmara. Are you anticipating something similar this time?

We are always preparing our participants, and especially at these dark times when Israel is really out of control and doing whatever it wants with no accountability. So they go through non-violence training for whatever they may encounter. 

But of course, we are doing something that is legal, moral, necessary, and right.

We do not come with any intention to confront anyone. We have said that we are sailing to Gaza. But there is nothing within our power to stop them from doing whatever they want. We know how we will react, which is with non-violent resistance. We will never do anything to attack anybody, and whatever they do is on them.

A lot of what you can do depends on international support and how much people know about what you’re doing. What are you doing to publicize the boats on top of the local actions in different cities?

The Break the Siege mission is something much larger than anything we’ve done before. Even the Mavi Marmara had hundreds of participants, but nothing close to the capacity  we have now. We have generated a lot of interest;  in some countries, the media coverage was significantly higher than in Germany 

I understand that in Germany, there was nothing said about this. But in Spain, the flotilla was a news item every day when we were in Istanbul. There is still interest; we are still getting requests for interviews. 

We have also generated interest in countries where haven’t campaigned yet, like Brazil, for example. We’ve had participants from many, many countries, and we hope to get more. We hope to get more prominent people to join us or at least show support. 

And of course, we do most of our work on social media and on alternative media, because mainstream media is controlled by the people who want to maintain the narrative that Israel is fighting terrorism, when in fact, Israel is the terrorist. 

What’s the coverage in the mainstream media been like? Have they been supportive, or are they attacking you?

We have some of the media coverage on our website. There was a very good article in the Washington Post, for example. And it’s not just about what we do. It’s a conversion of all sorts of struggles which we see all over the world now. Students at universities are demanding a stand for ceasefire for end of the genocide. This is all part of one great movement. 

I think the people around the world are all for an end to this terrible violence perpetrated by Israel on the Palestinians, not just in Gaza, but in the West Bank. And not just since the seventh of October. This month, we will be commemorating 76 years since the Nakba. People are waking up to the need to stop this terrible, racist project.

I think you’re right about the change of mood. We see this on American campuses, and even German students have started to demonstrate. Having said this, if people are waking up, they’re not always sure what they can do. How can people help what you are doing?

We ask people who want to help to, first of all, inform themselves about the situation in Palestine, but also about our work and other similar direct actions. Direct action is empowering in the sense that it counters the discourse that people cannot do anything.

It is an illusion to ask things of our governments. Governments do not listen to their people. It is us, the people, who need to act. And we need to act sometimes in defiance of unjust laws. But we can also act within the law to demand that the spirit of the law will be enforced. We see this with Palestine Action, for example, and their actions against the Elbit factories that produce weapons that are used in genocide. This has implications in other places. 

So we ask people to inform themselves, we ask people to follow us on social media and on our website. We ask people to get in touch with a local campaign if they have one. In countries where there is no campaign yet, they should get together with other people and form a campaign.

The Freedom Flotilla Coalition is an international coalition with members in countries as far apart as Malaysia. Turkey, Norway, Sweden, the US, Canada, Spain, Italy, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. All of these countries are pulling together resources in order to make these direct actions possible. 

But we can do so much more. For example, if people have boats, they can join us spontaneously. There doesn’t need to be a lot of organization involved in this. All it needs is for people to take the initiative and to say that we will sail to Gaza.

You said that it will soon be the anniversary of the Nakba. Is the flotilla going to be doing anything special to acknowledge this day?

On the 15th of May, the Handala will still be in Bremenhafen. Bremenhafen is not a very big city, as far as I could tell. So we are joining with an organisation in Hamburg that is organising a big Nakba demo. Our crew will join the demonstration and hopefully be able to speak to the people there.

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers?

Here in Germany, we really need to change the discourse. A lot of people are upset about what they see and don’t agree with the government policy. It’s time that people really came out with whatever they feel. It’s time that people lose this fear of being labelled an antisemite when they stand up against genocide. This is a complete contradiction and a false understanding of the lessons from the Holocaust. And I say this as an Israeli Jew.

For more information about the Freedom Flotilla, consult their linktree page