As the British activists aboard the aid flotilla to Gaza return to the UK, it becomes clear that the majority of them are people who have devoted years to campaigning against the Israeli occupation. They have been shot at, imprisoned, deported and threatened over the years and still they go back. What makes somebody prepared to risk their lives to go into the occupied territories? Ewa Jasiewicz, an activist and journalist, had been involved in anti-capitalist and social justice campaigns in Britain when friends returned from the West Bank where they had been volunteers with the newly formed International Solidarity Movement in 2002. "They said it was something that everyone should do, because you could prevent someone getting killed or injured," she says, on the phone from Istanbul, where she had been deported after being arrested along with the other activists on the aid flotilla to Gaza.
She saw Israeli soldiers mount a raid on the Mavi Marmara, killing at least nine activists and wounding many more, before soldiers came after her boat. "Our engines failed and we stopped," she says. "[The Israeli soldiers] were incredibly aggressive. They were saying 'fuck you, fucking bitch, I'll kill you'."
Sarah Colborne, 43, director of campaigns and operations at the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, was on the Mavi Marmara. She says the experience hasn't scared her from going to the occupied territories in the future. "People went because they felt they had to do something to challenge Israel and the blockade of Gaza. We didn't actually think we would be murdered doing that. But Palestinians get killed every day and I hope that what we did does change the situation and force the world to end Israel's violations of international law." She has been involved in campaigning since being at university in the late 80s. "I suppose it came from a deep-rooted sense that my life was not worth anything unless I was challenging injustice."
When Alex Harrison, 31, first went to the West Bank in 2003, she thought it would be a one-off, but it immediately became clear that she wouldn't be able to forget it. "It's one of those rare times in life when you feel you really can make a change and once you have that sense, you can't turn your back on it," she says. She spent two years in the West Bank. The chance that she might be killed isn't something that frightens her, she says. "I'm frightened more about being wounded and being a burden on other people." Her mother, Sandra Law, admits it was always worrying when her daughter was away, "but I'm one of the lucky ones because she has come back safely".
Of all the activists I speak to, none has been scared off by their experiences. Jasiewicz was standing next to Brian Avery, an American activist, when he was shot in the face in 2003; another friend Caoimhe Butterly was shot in the thigh as she stood between an Israel Defence Force (IDF) tank and three young boys the year before. The tight-knit nature of the international group means that many of them met and became friends with fellow activists such as Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall, both fatally wounded by the IDF. In 2002, on her first trip to Gaza, Sharyn Lock, one of the founders of the Free Gaza Movement, was shot in the stomach and would have died had she not been so close to a hospital. "In a way it made me realise what occupation is," she says. "It was also the first time I realised that Israel had a policy of preventing the wounded getting treatment. I was in a hospital that was virtually empty, because every time the ambulances tried to answer calls they would be shot at or turned back by the Israeli army. That wasn't something I could come home and forget." She returned several times, before being banned by Israel, which was when a group of them came up with the idea of getting around this with the aid flotilla. Although she wasn't travelling on this one, she has done several trips in the past. "We knew we were doing something dangerous, but human rights overrides that fear for me."
"We're just like anybody else," insists Lock. "If you were on the street and you saw a car about to knock down a child, I think most of us would step in and try to get that child to safety. What motivates us is the same."
Hedy Epstein, 85, says her activism "came with my genes. My parents [both German Jews] were anti-Zionists so I grew up with that.." Epstein left Germany in 1939 on the kindertransport to England; her parents, and many other relatives, were killed in the Holocaust. She has always been involved in human rights campaigning, she says on the phone from Cyprus, where officials prevented her and other activists boarding one of the boats to Gaza. "In 1982 when I learned about the massacre in two refugee camps in Shabra and Shatila, I needed to find out what that was about. The more I learned, the more deeply troubled I was by the policies and practices of the Israeli government and military. In 2003, I went to the West Bank for the first time time to witness what was really happening there." She has been back five times, and spends the rest of the time in the US giving lectures about what she witnessed. "Each time I've gone back it was worse than the time before." She says she always goes to the West Bank knowing that she might not come back, "but it has never stopped me. If the Palestinians can put up with it, I certainly should be able to. They cannot escape it, I always have the opportunity to leave whenever I want."
For Epstein, the threats don't stop once she is safely home. Last year, she was assaulted in her street and feels she was probably targeted. "The mainstream American Jewish community almost speak in one voice and if you dare to criticise Israel you are called anti-Semitic and if you are Jewish you're called self-hating, a traitor. I get nasty emails. I've been told I should be ashamed of myself and so on."
Fighting for human rights in Palestine might start as principle or ideology, but it quickly becomes an emotional issue, says Jasiewicz. "We have friends who feel like family there and it feels a very personal issue now." For Epstein, it's about taking responsibility. "I don't think I can change the world, but I can maybe contribute one small piece towards that goal of making it possible for the Palestinian people to be free and to live a normal human life," she says. "If you stand by and do nothing, you become part of the problem, you become complicit with what is happening."