Californian-born Free Gaza group to continue aid missions despite deadly Israeli raid

LARNACA, Cyprus (AP) — They were well-to-do, liberal California residents who bonded over the plight of Gaza's Palestinians.

Four years after forming the Free Gaza movement, a handful of American and Australian core members remain bent on breaching Israel's military blockade of the narrow coastal strip, despite the bloody Israeli raid that killed nine activists on an aid flotilla that the group helped organize.

Another Free Gaza-sponsored aid ship set sail Friday from Cyprus with a Nobel Peace laureate among its 11 pro-Palestinian activists and thousands of tons of aid on board.

Spokeswoman and founding member Greta Berlin, 69, said Cyprus-based Free Gaza is assembling another convoy to sail in the early fall. "We can do things that the Palestinians can't. We can stand up to the Israeli soldiers," she told The Associated Press.

Free Gaza organized the latest Gaza mission, carrying 10,000 tons of aid including building materials and medical supplies, in what Berlin described as a "loose coalition" with five other organizations.

Berlin said she does not condone the violence used by activists on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara to try to repel Israeli commandos in the Monday raid that triggered the international crisis.

"I would not have reacted the way they did," Berlin said. "I don't justify their actions, but I completely understand them."

She dismissed as "character assassination" Israeli allegations that the Mavi Marmara's Turkish owners, the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Relief, is linked to terrorism.

Israel outlawed the group, known by its Turkish acronym IHH, in 2008 because of alleged ties to the Islamic militant group Hamas, which rules Gaza.

"This (flotilla) was going to make a difference and Israel freaked because of its size and what we were bringing in," Berlin said.

Israel has ignored pressure to lift the blockade it imposed after Hamas violently seized power in the territory three years ago. Israel says it is necessary to keep out weapons and goods such as cement and steel that could be diverted by Hamas for military use.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev criticized the Free Gaza group of applying double standards when advocating for Palestinians' rights while ignoring those of Israelis.

"The group has been consistently silent on the human rights of Israeli civilians who have been consistently targeted with rockets and missiles by the Hamas regime in Gaza," he said.

"While they appear to use the language of human rights in their propaganda, it appears they have embraced the regime that has no respect for human rights whatsoever."

Regev also criticized the group for refusing Israeli and Egyptian offers to ferry the aid into Gaza through alternative routes "to make an extreme political point."

Berlin denied other accusations that Free Gaza could have been infiltrated by radicals or used by groups pushing a radical agenda.

"Not our organization, we're pretty tight," she said.

Free Gaza chairwoman Huwaida Arraf, a Palestinian-American, said the group held meetings with the IHH to make sure they agreed to the principles of nonviolence. The two groups did discuss using their bodies and water hoses to defend the boats against boarding, but decided against it, Arraf said from Ramallah.

After Monday's raid, which took place in international waters, Berlin said the donations from ordinary sympathizers have been pouring in worldwide. She said the group refuses to take cash from radical groups or states — and has shunned offers from Iran.

"Our donations come from little people," the engineer said in an interview at a hotel near the group's Larnaca office. "I got a euro1,000 (US$1,227) check from a woman in the U.S. who said it was her Social Security check."

Free Gaza emerged in 2006 out of the International Solidarity Movement, dedicated to helping Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The five original core members came together through their common goal of re-entering the Palestinian territories after being kicked out by Israeli authorities.

"Free Gaza started when we were looking for a way back in and we thought about going in to Gaza by boat," said Mary Hughes, a pilot and successful Hollywood scriptwriter for sit-coms such as "All in the Family," now in her 70s. The third of the core group still active is Australian schoolteacher Eliza Ernshire.

Free Gaza's advisory board includes U.S. linguist, philosopher and outspoken political activist Noam Chomsky.

Chairwoman Arraf said the decision to start missions to Gaza seemed "very far-fetched" in retrospect, because they had few funds and knew nothing about boats. But the group managed to scrape together enough money to send 44 activists from Cyprus to Gaza in August 2008 on two boats.

After the first successful trip, the group relocated from California to Cyprus, where they registered a charity to receive donations.

The group used the eastern Mediterranean island about 250 miles (400 kilometers) from Gaza to launch a total eight boat trips from Aug. 2008 to Dec. 2009 — five them successful.

Although U.S.-born, Berlin is a self-professed "internationalist" who doesn't identify herself as an American and no longer lives in the U.S. despite owning a Los Angeles-based engineering company.

Her passion for the Palestinian cause stems from her 14-year marriage to a Palestinian man, a union that produced two sons, now in their early 40s.

"He fought in the 1948 war and the more he told me about his lost land, the more angry I got," Berlin said

But Berlin — who was also married to a Jewish man for 14 years — scoffed at accusations that she's anti-Semitic.

She shares the group's cramped, two-bedroom, apartment-turned-office they have been renting for euro500 a month since last year with Hughes, Ernshire and Ernshire's 10-month old daughter.

"Palestinians live in tents, have no running water...we have no right to complain. We can go home, they can't," said Berlin.


Associated Press writers Frank Jordans and Amy Teibel contributed to this report. Jordans contributed from Geneva and Teibel contributed from Jerusalem.