- The second flotilla is coordinated by Muhammad Sawalha, a senior UK-based Muslim Brotherhood figure connected to Hamas. Many of the participating organizations can be directly linked with the Union of Good (UoG), a coalition of European charities affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which in 2008 was designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. Treasury for transferring funds to Hamas. The UoG was initiated by Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood on a global scale, shortly after the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000.
- For the Brotherhood, two chief centers of organization can be clearly seen. On the European and global scene, the centrality of its UK-based activists is once again demonstrated, while in the Middle East, its Jordanian branch is noticeable.
- Other main organizers include the anti-Israel International Solidarity Movement (ISM), as well as far-left socialists from Europe and the United States. Many of the flotilla’s main organizers have stated that its prime aim is to create provocations and harm Israel’s image.
- Following Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, which ended in January 2009, a series of international conferences was held in Turkey to restructure the struggle against Israel. A conference in February 2009 featured 200 radical Islamist scholars who came to meet with senior Hamas officials to plot a new, “third jihadi front” (in addition to Pakistan and Iraq ) centered on Gaza. The conference gave birth to the infamous, pro-Hamas Istanbul Declaration, which also provided justification for attacking foreign navies which might try to prevent arms smuggling to Gaza.
- In general, the same organizers stand behind the second flotilla, with several changes. The most important may be the IHH decision not to send the Mavi Marmara, the ship which brought the first flotilla its publicity following violent clashes between IHH activists and the IDF in which nine Turks were killed. Rather than take a leading role, it appears that the IHH will settle this time for sending activists to sail on other ships.
- Thus, the flotilla is far from being a peaceful, humanitarian effort to support the Palestinians in Gaza. It should instead be seen as a major, pro-Hamas effort to delegitimize Israel by a “red-green alliance” of leftists and Islamists.
The Second “Freedom Flotilla” is a joint and coordinated effort of several groups working to delegitimize Israel on a global scale. The claim of the organizers that they are seeking to relieve the siege of Gaza and to provide urgently needed humanitarian aid rings completely hollow, given the vast economic improvements the territory has been witnessing. Indeed, the New York Times reported on June 25, 2011, that “two luxury hotels are opening in Gaza this month.” The report from Gaza continues with a description of a “second shopping mall” about to open and “hundreds of homes” under construction.1 The motivation behind the flotilla is thus clearly political. All the groups involved have separately sent ships and land convoys aimed to “break the siege” of Gaza in order to hurt Israel’s image.
The latest campaign is coordinated by Muhammad Sawalha, a senior UK-based Muslim Brotherhood figure who, according to Israeli sources, helped establish Hamas’ operational infrastructure in the West Bank in the late 1980s. He found asylum in Britain in 1990 and is one of the central leaders of Islamist, anti-Israel, and pro-Hamas activities in Britain. Many of the participating organizations can be directly linked with the Union of Good (UoG), a coalition of European charities affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which in 2008 was designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. Treasury for transferring funds to Hamas. Other main organizers include the anti-Israel International Solidarity Movement (ISM), as well as far-left socialists from Europe and the United States. Many of the flotilla’s main organizers have stated that its prime aim is to create provocations and harm Israel’s image.
Origins of the Flotilla Campaign
The first group to send ships to Gaza may have been the ISM, which in August 2008 sent two small Greek-registered fishing boats from Cyprus to Gaza with 44 people on board, calling itself the Free Gaza Movement (FGM).2 The ISM was founded in 2001 by a Jewish American, Adam Shapiro, and his American wife of Palestinian origin, Huwaida Arraf,3 after the outbreak of the Second Intifada. Together with its Palestinian partners, ISM sponsored protests in the West Bank and Gaza, where it was known for welcoming any violence that occurred during its protests and for encouraging its volunteers to compare Israel with the Nazis. In March 2003, a senior member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) was found hiding in an ISM compound. By 2004, ISM’s own publicity material had shown its willingness to work with the National and Islamic Forces, a coalition of Palestinian factions that included Hamas and the PIJ. In more recent times, Huwaida Arraf went on to serve on the advisory board of Kinder USA, a charity that an FBI analyst believed was involved with raising funds for Hamas.4
FGM members would later join the first flotilla in May 2010 on the Rachel Corrie, sponsored by the Perdana for Global Peace Foundation (previously the Perdana for Global Peace Movement),5 an organization established by the anti-Semitic/anti-American former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.6 The ISM/FGM had received a large donation of 300,000 euros for the voyage.7 The Rachel Corrie, however, fell behind the original fleet due to mechanical problems.
Other groups and activists usually come from the European and American far-left, such as Dr. Paul Larudee, another ISM and FGM co-founder who now heads an American network called the Free Palestine Movement (FPM);8 anarchist ex-Israeli Dror Feiler; or Greek socialist Prof. Vangelis Pissias.9
However, the more important group in organizing the flotilla is the one affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe, and its Palestinian branch, Hamas. Following Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, which ended in January 2009, a series of international conferences was held in Turkey to restructure the struggle against Israel. The relationships between Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas have been widely documented in the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs monograph Turkey, the Global Muslim Brotherhood, and the Gaza Flotilla.10 Since 2006, Turkey has become a new center for the Global Muslim Brotherhood, while the Hamas regime in Gaza acted as the main axis for this activity.11
A conference held in February 2009 featured 200 radical Islamist scholars who came to meet with senior Hamas officials to plot a new, “third jihadi front” (in addition to Pakistan and Iraq) centered on Gaza.12 One of the participants in the conference, the Saudi scholar Mohsen al-Awajy, told a BBC reporter: “Gaza is a gift….Gaza gives us power, it solves our differences. We are all now in a unified front against Zionism.” Thus, Gaza’s status is raised as an Islamist symbol for jihad against Israel. The conference gave birth to the infamous, pro-Hamas Istanbul Declaration, which also provided justification for attacking foreign navies which might try to prevent arms smuggling to Gaza.13
In March 2009, the first of three Gaza Lifeline/Viva Palestina land convoys arrived in Gaza. It was led by former British MP George Galloway, under the auspices of a charity he established named Viva Palestina. He was joined with others who, according to Israeli sources, are affiliated with Hamas, particularly Zaher Birawi.14 Another two land convoys made their way to Gaza in July 2009 and January 2010. While the Hamas government was the recipient of all vehicles, goods, and cash in the first convoy,15 the second exposed a deeper connection to the Union of Good (UoG), a coalition of European Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated charities initiated by Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood on a global scale, shortly after the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. The UoG serves de facto as an important financial arm of Qaradawi’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups around the world, and was designated as a terrorist organization in 2008 by the U.S. Treasury for transferring funds to Hamas.16 The official recipient of the second convoy’s aid was a Gaza-based NGO named Expertise for Consulting and Development, or CODE. On its website, CODE noted that it had previously received funding from the UoG for several projects.17
A much more obvious connection to the Union of Good can be easily made with the largest coalition involved in organizing the Freedom Flotilla – The European Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza (ECESG). The campaign was formulated in late 2007 or the beginning of 2008 during one of the Palestinians in Europe Conferences, an annual gathering which has been taking place since 2003, initiated by the London-based Palestinian Return Centre (PRC), which in December 2010 was deemed “illegal” by the Israeli defense minister as a “European Hamas affiliate.”18 The campaign currently lists an address in Brussels. However, its president, Dr. Arafat Shukri (aka Arafat Madi), is also PRC’s executive director, and until recently, both PRC and the ECESG also shared the same address and contact details.19 Furthermore, the campaign’s website (www.savegaza.eu/) is registered under Shukri’s name and PRC e-mail address. Another founding member of the campaign is Dutch-based activist Amin Abu Rashed, who took part in the first flotilla. Abu Rashed was described in the Dutch media, quoting an intelligence source, as “leader of Hamas in the Netherlands.”20
Out of 33 NGOs participating in the campaign, almost half are known to have strong connections with the UoG and the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe (FIOE), an umbrella of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe. The campaign has also acquired the support of far left European politicians, groups, and individuals.21
The Turkish charity IHH was a very important organizer of the third land convoy, which took place in January 2010. IHH is also a member of the Union of Good. The third convoy, it must be noted, ended with a violent conflict with Egypt, which insisted that the cargo enter Gaza through the Egyptian port of El-Arish in Sinai. The convoy held several demonstrations in Aqaba, Jordan, some held under the flag of the Islamic Action Front, the political wing of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, another key organizer. At one of them, Turkish IHH leader Yildrim spoke, saying: “Up until now the world thought only Israel was a war criminal. But Egypt has proved it is also complicit in this crime. By preventing us, Egypt has proved it is an Israeli-guided state. We will not remain silent against Egypt and will besiege Egyptian embassies and consulates for days if needed….They are proposing the aid convoy to enter Gaza through Israel. In other words, they have sold Gaza to Israel.”22 Five days later, the convoy returned to Syria by land in order to sail to El-Arish.
When the convoy finally arrived in El Arish, the Egyptian authorities said that 59 of its vehicles must enter Gaza via an Israeli crossing rather than through Rafah. Some convoy participants responded to the Egyptian decision by rioting. They broke down the gates of the port and attempted to drive their vehicles out, but were contained by the police. Then they blockaded the port, waving Hamas banners; fought the police with sticks and projectiles; vandalized port property; and took security officers hostage.23 For its part, Hamas called a demonstration in Rafah in support of the convoy and against Egypt. This cost a 21-year-old Egyptian border guard his life.24 Several of the convoy’s participants were arrested, but were released following the intervention of Turkish MPs. Part of the convoy was also allowed into Gaza. However, when Galloway got back to Rafah he was deported and declared persona non grata in Egypt.25
This incident harmed the Gaza Lifeline/Viva Palestina convoys, but also brought a change in strategy for its partners. Soon after, Muhammad Sawalha, one of the main organizers of the convoys, revealed in an interview to Hizbullah ‘s Al-Intiqad magazine their plan to send a sea convoy (the May 2010 flotilla), adding, “this time we want to confront the Zionist enemy directly.”26 And indeed, in many Islamist websites, the flotilla was referred to as Gaza Lifeline No. 4.
The Second Flotilla – What Has Changed?
In general, the same organizers stand behind the second flotilla, with several changes. The most important may be the IHH decision not to send the Mavi Marmara, the ship which brought the first flotilla its publicity following violent clashes between IHH activists and the IDF in which nine Turks were killed. Rather than take a leading role, it appears that the IHH will settle this time for sending activists to sail on other ships.27
This decision apparently brought about a reshuffle in the organization of the flotilla structure, bringing the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood even closer into the picture. Its Gaza Lifeline Committee, which operates under Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood-controlled professional associations, recently purchased a ship for 560,000 euros. Wael al-Saqa, head of the committee, said the ship is able to carry up to 200 people, and is planned to carry Arab participants in the flotilla.28
As for the overall organization, Muhammad Sawalha now appears as the flotilla’s coordinator under his title as Vice-Chairman of the International Campaign to Break the Siege on Gaza (ICBSG).29 The ICBCG is a UK-registered group, listing Sawalha as its sole director. The campaign is now also the official coordinator of the Miles of Smiles land convoys, the third of which recently arrived in Gaza.30 Miles of Smiles is another UoG-affiliated operation, mostly identified with Interpal, a major UK-based charity and member of the UoG, which was designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. Treasury in 2003 as well.31 Yet a further connection may be seen in the British coalition involved in the flotilla, Britain2Gaza, which is another UK-registered group which has both Sawalha and Hamas-affiliated Zaher Birawi, a convoy and flotilla spokesman, as its directors.
Sawalha signed the Istanbul Declaration of February 13, 2009, which provides important insights into his motivation to take a leading role in the flotillas. Among other points, the declaration states:
The obligation of the Islamic Nation to open the crossings – all crossings – in and out of Palestine permanently, in order to allow access to all the needs of the Palestinians – money, clothing, food, medicine, weapons and other essentials, so that they are able to live and perform the jihad in the way of Allah Almighty (emphasis added).32
Another prominent figure is German-based Walid Abu al-Shewarib, who was previously hailed for the role he played in helping to organize the first flotilla.33 An official Europol document, said to be based on German information, describes him as “a Hamas member who is a leading member of the association Islamische Gemeinschaft Deutschland (IGD, Islamic Community in Germany), considered to be the headquarters for the Muslim Brotherhood in Germany.” He is also managing director of the Islamisches Kultur und Erziehungszentrum Berlin (Center for Islamic Culture and Education), regarded as the point of contact for Hamas in Berlin.34
In the last few weeks, the ex-Israeli activist Dror Feiler has been constantly speaking with the Israeli media. When it first seemed that the IHH would not take any part in the second flotilla, he told Ynet News: “We must remember that the Turks aren’t participating so Israel won’t be able to claim that this is an Islamist flotilla, so there are benefits.”35 Feiler may be one of the flotilla’s organizers, but he seems to misread the background of his own colleagues. The Islamist, pro-Hamas character of this flotilla is much deeper than the IHH alone.
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1. Ethan Bronner, “Building Boom in Gaza’s Ruins Belies Misery that Remains,” New York Times, June 25, 2011.
2. Huwaida Arraf, “Our Boats to Gaza,” This Week in Palestine, no. 156 (April 2011), p. 30.
4. Steven G. Merley, Turkey, The Global Muslim Brotherhood, and the Gaza Flotilla, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2011, p. 26.
6. Mohamad is known for his 2003 statement that “Jews rule the world by proxy,” see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-PJ9u8h3Gzw and, regarding the 9/11 attacks, that “if they [the U.S.] can make Avatar, they can make anything,” see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZewcnqiZzc
8. Larudee’s profile is available at http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/malam_multimedia/English/eng_n/html/ipc_e182.htm
11. Ibid., p. 8.
19. See, for example, The Register of Members’ Financial Interests: Part 1As at 10th January 2011, Jeremy Corbyn MP, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmregmem/110110/corbyn_jeremy.htm
20. See translation of the article at http://islamineurope.blogspot.com/2010/06/netherlands-dutch-hamas-leader-one-of.html
34. Europol Information Exchange, IE 149755_058, September 10, 2007.
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Ehud Rosen specializes in modern political Islam, focusing on the ideology and history of the Muslim Brotherhood. He lived in London for five years while working toward his PhD at SOAS, University of London. He is currently a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and teaches at Bar-Ilan University.