Above Photo: A member of the crew of the ship Estella waves a banner reading “Ship To Gaza” upon arrival in the port of Naples on October 4, 2012. Mario Laporta / AFP / Getty Images)
Dimitri Lascaris speaks with Joel Opperdoes, who has served as captain for multiple Gaza Freedom Flotilla voyages.
Including in 2012, when his vessel was descended upon and boarded by Israeli naval forces.
The Freedom Flotilla Coalition, a grassroots people-to-people solidarity movement working to end the illegal Israeli blockade of Gaza, has launched numerous Freedom Flotilla voyages since 2008. Joel Opperdoes has served as captain for multiple Flotilla voyages, including in 2012, when his vessel was descended upon and boarded by Israeli naval forces and he and his crew were detained. TRNN contributor, lawyer, and freelance journalist Dimitri Lascaris speaks with Opperdoes aboard The Handala, the flagship vessel of the 2023 Gaza Freedom Flotilla, en route to Oslo, Norway.
Dimitri Lascaris: This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting from the Handala, the flagship vessel of the 2023 Gaza Freedom Flotilla. We are now in Norwegian waters approaching Oslo, Norway. And I’m here today with the ship’s captain, Joel Opperdoes. Thank you very much for speaking to me today.
Joel Opperdoes: Thank you for interviewing me.
Dimitri Lascaris: So Joel, could you tell us a little bit about your background? What do you do when you’re not the ship’s captain for the Freedom Flotilla?
Joel Opperdoes: Well, I’m a ship’s captain on commercial ships. When I’m home, I’m involved with other political activism and I’m also a father and spend time with my kids.
Dimitri Lascaris: And this is not your first time as a captain of a Freedom Flotilla vessel, is that right?
Joel Opperdoes: Yeah, that’s correct. I was on board in 2012 and 2015.
Dimitri Lascaris: And could you tell us about what you experienced in the 2012 voyage, your first voyage, and how that ended for you?
Joel Opperdoes: Yeah. Well, it was a very positive experience because you could really see that there is support for the movement around Europe. We stopped in more than 20 ports. There were thousands of people welcoming us and sending their message of solidarity to the Palestinians in Gaza. So that was a really good experience and it gives force to the mission.
In the end, of course, the Israelis stopped us. They bordered us on international waters. They captured all 27 persons on board. They were quite rough. Nobody died at that time, nobody was murdered but people were tased. They used electrical tasers and physical abuse. And some of us were detained for up to 10 days and then deported from Israel because we entered Israel illegally, even if the Israelis brought us from international waters to Israel.
Dimitri Lascaris: And could you describe the naval force that arrived to greet you in international waters? What did it look like?
Joel Opperdoes: Well, yeah, this was a very surreal day for me because it was a really beautiful morning. I came up to the bridge and took the watch and I started to see some naval ships on the horizon and then there were more and more and more. And in 2012, we used a 90-year-old sailing vessel and I tried to count all the military activity in the area; I counted two attack choppers, more than seven larger naval crafts, and more than 20 small naval crafts, like dinghies with boarding devices and so on. And they also had a submarine present.
So yeah, it was a really, really surreal situation. And then of course they came on board wearing ski masks, heavily armed, and very agitated, very angry.
Dimitri Lascaris: And I understand that you have some expertise in maritime law.
Joel Opperdoes: I wouldn’t say expertise but I’ve done some studies in maritime law.
Dimitri Lascaris: And according to your understanding of maritime law, how would you characterize what the Israelis did in international waters on that day?
Joel Opperdoes: Oh, that’s clear. It’s only one definition. It’s piracy. There can be no other definitions. Apprehending another ship with force and taking it over and capturing the crew, it’s piracy.
Dimitri Lascaris: And you’re a Swedish national, is that correct?
Joel Opperdoes: Yes. Yes, I am. Yeah.
Dimitri Lascaris: And what steps, if any, did the Swedish government take to your knowledge to deal with this act of piracy in 2012?
Joel Opperdoes: They actually didn’t take any at all. They reminded the Israelis of the rules of the high seas. That’s it. Actually, I called my union when I got back because they stole some personal belongings and my union demanded that the government take some actions but nothing happened.
Dimitri Lascaris: That for many people would be a very traumatic experience and yet you did it again. And here you are a third time. Could you explain to us what has motivated you to take these risks and to devote this time and energy to the Palestinian cause?
Joel Opperdoes: For me, it’s a simple thing. When I can do something with my professional license and my professional skills to help others, I don’t hesitate to do that. And it’s also a simple question. If Palestinians are human or not, if we think they’re human, why should they not be treated with human rights and have the human rights we in the West do? And obviously, they don’t have it. So I will continue my struggle together with my Palestinian brothers and sisters until they’re free.
Dimitri Lascaris: Well, thank you very much for speaking to us today, Joel. It’s been a pleasure. And this is Dimitri Lascaris reporting from the Handala on our way to Oslo, Norway.