On Tuesday a small group of Dutch activists is expected to set sail from Greece to the Gaza Strip. They are part of a flotilla hoping to bring humanitarian aid to the impoverished Palestinian territory, which has been under an Israeli blockade since 2006.
RNW's Eric Beauchemin spent the past week observing the preparations for the journey.
I had been planning for the past three months to sail with the activists and report on their journey. But over the past week that I spent in Greece, I lost all faith in the Dutch Gaza Foundation which is responsible for the Dutch boat.
Things started going wrong from the very beginning. During our first meeting on the Greek island of Corfu, we received the usual latest updates, and then one of the organisers informed us that one of the Dutch journalists had leaked secret information to the most popular Dutch daily about the mission. She was furious: No one is as open as the Free Gaza Foundation, she proclaimed indignantly.
But I have worked as a journalist for the past 25 years, and never have I experienced such a closed organisation.
After this welcoming message, she explained the ground rules to us. There were many, many non-negotiables. "If you don't accept this, you can't come along." I wanted to make a video report, filming the two days of obligatory training sessions to convey a sense of how the activists were preparing for the mission. But the organisation declared numerous sessions off-limits. I and the other Dutch journalists present explained that we needed this footage to do our work. But she wouldn't have it. "I have worked with CNN, Al Jazeera, BBC, and no one has been as demanding as you Dutch reporters."
Eventually there was a hand count and the activists voted us out of those sessions. We journalists all felt that a schism had been created for no reason. We also began to lose faith and trust in the organisation, both essential ingredients when undertaking such a risky trip. During the last Freedom Flotilla last year, nine Turks were killed when the Israeli navy boarded their vessel and fighting broke out.
I expressed an interest in joining the mission earlier this year when I heard that the Dutch were going to send their own vessel to Gaza for the first time. There would be over 30 participants, including prominent members of Dutch society. An Italian delegation with 20 people would also take part.
I then attended meeting after meeting in various cities in Holland. I had to be screened because - I was told - there were so many people wanting to travel to Gaza. When the organisers called to say I had passed the screening and been chosen as one of the select group of people who would set sail, I felt obliged to express my joy.
Now, back in the Netherlands, over three months later, I feel deceived. There never was a "select group". There were no prominent Dutch figures interested in joining Freedom Flotilla 2. Instead of 32 people from the Netherlands, the organisation managed to assemble just eight activists and four journalists. Yesterday [Monday], two more journalists decided to jump ship before the boat even left the port of Corfu.
Since day one, journalists, including myself, asked questions about the Dutch organisation and the boat, for example about the funding. Even simple questions about the ship's power supply for me to hook up my satellite transmitter. The answer was consistently: "I'll get back to you about that" or "we don't know". I'm still waiting for answers.
I have been to Gaza on two occasions and have seen with my own eyes why it's called an open air prison. No one in, no one out, literally. One afternoon, I went to the beach there with a Palestinian whose tailoring business had been destroyed by the blockade. He told me he went there every day. And I asked him if that was because the sea represented freedom. He laughed at me and pointed to the Israeli navy vessels on the horizon.
In the past week, the activists' idealism has surprised and amazed me. In this day and age, I find it remarkable that Dutch people are willing to lay their lives on the line for a cause. Whether this is the proper way to achieve their goal is another matter. But even more disturbing is their naiveté.
Yesterday morning I had a final meeting with the participants. I told the activists that given everything that had happened, they shouldn’t trust the organisation leading this mission. But all of them insisted the cause is too important to abandon. "We are going to break the siege and help the people of Gaza."
Good luck and bon voyage.
• One week later: Flotilla to nowhere?