‘Forging Justice When Our Leaders Fail Us’: Helen O’Sullivan Sets Sail on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla

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Gaza flotilla

University of Queensland educator Helen O’Sullivan is currently over in Türkiye about to set sail on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, which comprises of three ships attempting to deliver much-needed food and aid to the 2.3 million Palestinians of the Gaza Strip.

O’Sullivan is joined by fellow Australians NSW citizens Surya McEwen and Daniel Coward. And the trio are part of the 1,000-odd activists volunteering from across the globe to make up the Freedom Flotilla Coalition (FFC), which is attempting to deliver 5,500 tonnes of aid to Gaza.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, however, issued a statement last Sunday, condemning that missions suggesting that if they want to see aid reach Gaza this ought to be facilitated via established channels.

Although this is coming from the same government that cut funding to UNRWA, the main aid channel into Gaza, for almost two months, whilst the population of the Strip had been purposefully starved by Israel for months on end. 

And despite its launch date previously being secret, and questions surrounding whether it would ever depart from Erdoğan’s Türkiye, as the Biden administration has placing heavy diplomatic pressure upon the nation, it has now been announced the flotilla will set sail on Friday 26 April.

Fraught with danger

The 2024 Gaza Freedom Flotilla is not the first such mission. A number have been set sail in the past, with the first launching in 2010, and despite it carrying a crew of foreign nationals, Israeli troops boarded the vessel to kill nine participants then, with another dying as a result two years later.

Right now, the flotilla is heading toward Gaza with three shiploads of aid as Israel has been perpetrating a large-scale militarised genocide upon the Palestinians of Gaza, which is being compounded by their forced starvation, with aid channels, for the most part, cut six months ago.

The reason past blockades were heading to the Gaza Strip was Israel placed the region under an economic blockade in 2006, and it continues to this day. The siege applies to goods and persons. And at times, Israel has ensured that food aid entering is kept at bare minimum levels. 

Where leaders fear to tread

Indeed, the thousand or so volunteers in the Freedom Flotilla Coalition are in Türkiye, willingly risking any resulting Israeli response to their mission, due to the fact that the leaders of their nations have simply nodded along as Israel perpetrates the greatest crime since the Second World War.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Gaza Freedom Flotilla Australia volunteer Helen O’Sullivan about why she’s taken it upon herself to travel across the globe to deliver aid to those being persecuted and her thoughts on how the Australian government is responding to the flotilla and the genocide.


Gaza Freedom Flotilla Australia volunteer Helen O’Sullivan sets sail to Gaza on Friday
Gaza Freedom Flotilla Australia volunteer Helen O’Sullivan sets sail to Gaza on Friday

Helen, you’re now in Türkiye awaiting to set sail as part of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, which will see three ships attempt to deliver 5,500 tonnes of humanitarian aid to the 2.3 million Palestinians of Gaza, who have been purposefully starved by Israel for six months now.

What are your reasons for taking part in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla?

People I know are either overwhelmed with the daily reports of devastation in Palestine and they avoid the news, or they become desensitised and accept there is nothing they can do.

As a mother, a grandmother, I feel compelled to do something.

There are, of course, a number of powerful people who are committing or supporting genocide.

The death toll in Palestine in the past six months is over 35,000 people. Almost half of the 2.3 million Palestinians are children.

Almost half the deaths in Palestine are children and over 19,000 are now orphans.

The departure date for the flotilla is imminent. And as your Australian co-volunteer Surya told the ABC, “This type of operation has never been done in an active war zone”.

And further, in 2010, another flotilla heading to Gaza was attacked by Israel and ten people were killed, and we’re all familiar with the recent killing of Australian aid worker Zomi Frankcom and the rest of her World Central Kitchen team.

How do you consider the dangers involved in the mission?

We are under no illusions about the risks. Israel’s attack on the 2010 flotilla, Mavi Marmara, killed nine people then, with another person dying 2 years later after being in a coma, and many more were wounded.

So, this is a reminder of what the Israeli Occupation Force is capable of.

The world has witnessed the worst kind of atrocities committed against innocent civilians, women and children in Palestine by Israel.

We are at far less risk than the Palestinians. 

All the Freedom Flotilla Coalition volunteers are committed to and have been trained in nonviolent action.

We are prepared for the worst and will, of course, pray and hope for the best.

The Gaza Freedom Flotilla is unsanctioned. And last Sunday saw the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade recommend against you, Surya and Daniel participating in it.

How are you feeling about the reaction from Australian authorities?

I implore the Australian government to show greater moral courage and leadership in speaking out against genocide: wherever it occurs and no matter who the perpetrator.

I also ask our government to stop supplying Israel with the parts to build their weapons.

The Australian government should be more concerned about their own sanctioned exports of weapons to Israel than the food and medical supplies unarmed international humanitarians hope to provide starving children in Palestine.

Your reaction to the genocide in Gaza has seen you travel to the other side of the earth to directly assist in and try to alleviate the suffering involved in the catastrophe.

How would you describe the Gaza genocide or express your feelings about it?

Asking someone how they feel about genocide is a difficult question to answer. Horrified would be a common reaction, I hope.

There are times when I lose all hope in humanity. I often question how the world can remain silent.

Their silence is their complicity. Neutrality is not an option when genocide is happening before our very eyes.

Joining the Freedom Flotilla Coalition has helped me to witness the power of humanity when it is driven by compassion not fear.

I am in total awe of the people leading the coalition including Ann Wright, a retired US Colonel and Dr Salah Abdel Ati from Gaza, chair of the Gaza-based International Commission to Support Palestinian Rights.

I have heard these people and many more like them speak intelligently and with humanity. For now, at least, they have given me hope that we humans can and must be better than this.

And lastly, Helen, whilst the main aim of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla is to directly deliver aid to the starving people of Gaza, other less apparent outcomes will be produced by the mission.

So, what other sort of other impacts beyond the provision of aid do you consider will be achieved, in terms of 1,000 volunteers from around the globe undertaking great personal sacrifice and taking on great responsibility, whilst the official channels that DFAT prefers are taken are broken?

The Freedom Flotilla Coalition is determined to sail into Palestinian waters with desperately needed aid at the request of the traditional owners of the land.

The International Court of Justice has demanded that Israel allow the necessary aid to reach Palestinians.

The Israeli Occupation Force may have greater weapons and powerful friends, but they have no legal or indeed, moral authority to prevent this mission.

If they stop this flotilla, and even if they do so with violence, we have already achieved something very important.

We have encouraged likeminded humanitarians across the world to stubbornly and loudly demand justice when our leaders fail us.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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