Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Language games, mind games

Some time after our internet connection and satellite  phones were blocked on the afternoon of November 4, we received our first radio hail from the Israeli navy:

Vessel Tahrir, this is the Israeli navy, please identify your course, over. 

We do not respond initially: we were not in a hurry to move through this process. When we eventually responded:
Tahrir here, over.

They demanded to know our course. Ehab and I had a discussed prepared our answer for this question: 
Our course is the conscience of humanity.

This did not satisfy them of course:
What is your final destination?

Ever-poetic, Ehab had a reply for this too: 
Our final destination in the betterment of mankind

(Under other circumstances,  I might’ve insisted on “humankind”, but whatever – I was not on the bridge at that point and our attention was on more pressing issues).

The Israeli navy informed us that they would board and search our vessel—initially they said we would be free to continue after inspection, but of course they did not keep to their word on that. We replied that we would not consent to being boarded nor would resist actively. Some back-and-forth with them ensued, as we tried to clarify their intentions after the search. 

We made it clear we would not negotiate with an illegitimate authority because we did not recognize their jurisdiction in international waters, but we were willing to keep talking to facilitate everyone’s safety. More back-and-forth by radio and with the Irish on the Saoirse by radio.

Suddenly, change of voice: 
Ehab Lotayef, Ehab Lotayef, hal tasma3ani?

A hail in Arabic, directed at just one of us, asking Ehab by name:  could  he hear them?. Obviously intended to destabilize us and also perhaps divide us. Narrowing communications to just Arabic would have excluded most of the rest of us on the Tahrir as well as those on the Saoirse who were on the same radio channel. We obviously could not accept a reduction of the multi-sided conversation to just two people speaking. We paused to consider our next move, then I took the radio:

Navire israélien, ici le Tahrir. Vous pouvez communiquer avec nous en français si vous le désirez. Fini.

No response. We waited a few minutes, then I continued: 

Buque israelí, aquí el Tahrir. Puede comunicarse con nosotros en español si desea. Fuera.

Another wait, still no reply for a while. The next hail returns to English.  Of course, we don’t really want them to communicate in French or Spanish or any language that excludes any of us, but they seem to have gotten the point. Future hails continue in English.

We were ultimately unsuccessful in establishing their intentions after boarding—despite their initial offer to let us continue our course after the inspection, once they boarded and took control, they of course directed the Tahrir towards the Israeli port of Ashdod. This much was at least consistent: virtually every interaction we had with anyone representing the Israeli state involved them offering information which was either false or misleading.


  1. WOW, first time i hear this story. Quite interesting! Very clever response from the delegates to throw off the IDF. I still wonder how they knew Ehab's name.....?

  2. This sounds too scary! I'm just glad you're back safe. You guys are all heroes!

  3. Thanks lizmea. We are glad to be back, but the real heros are of course the Palestinians: http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/palestinians-are-heroes-braving-israeli-dictatorship-1.402660