Bearing Witness

Week 9 in Gaza > Airstrikes > Products > Inspection > Endorsements

Well this will be my last update for a couple of weeks, as I am off to Europe for some well-earned R&R > even if I do say so myself. It has been an eventful couple of weeks since my last entry, I have met many wonderful new producers, secured a rather significant endorsement, participated in the final inspection of the possible ark and survived my first Israeli airstrike.

On Tuesday night Israel launched its first airstrike on Gaza since the November ceasefire and my arrival. I became aware of the strike via twitter when I started reading unconfirmed reports of several Israeli attacks in the North and East of the Gaza Strip. The information coming through was confused and suggested that their where F-16 and drones thick in sky over the port area, where I live, so I ventured outside to see for myself. However I struggled to hear anything over hum of the night here in Gaza, aka the generators that power most of the buildings in the Almenia area where I live. I then returned home to check for media updates and found that Haaretz had confirmation of the attacks, which it stated where in response to Palestinian rocket fire.

Interesting how Israeli attacks are almost always reported as responses, when reported at all, but Palestinian attacks are never framed in the same way ??? Take the November ceasefire for example prior to the Tuesday nights events there have been over 100 Israeli violations of the agreement, that have left four Palestinians dead and scores injured, yet in all the articles I read in the western media on the topic nowhere did I read “the Palestinian rocket fire was in response to over 100 Israeli violations of the ceasefire agreement”.  It seems Israel’s and the west’s idea of a ceasefire between the Palestinians and the Israel, is that Palestinian resistance stops, while Israeli oppression is allowed to continue unabated.

On a more positive note I now have 14 new producers on board with the Gaza Ark project, excuse the pun, whose products will be available in our second release of products coming soon > http://www.gazaark.org/products/ . The project now has a good variety of products to choose from agricultural goods, arts and crafts, carpets, furniture, Jewelery, pottery and even organic cleaning products. However unfortunately, but as expected, they all had stories of difficulties they now face due to the illegal blockade. Confirming the importance and the need for the Gaza’s Ark project. Weather its difficulties getting the raw material need for manufacturing or the stories of unemployment caused by the lack of access to exports markets.

The story of Mahmoud Attallah and his two son’s who have a pottery factory in the Old City in Gaza has stay with me all week. Mahmoud has had to lay off his entire workforce due to the blockade, as his factory prior to the blockade used to export the majority of their pottery to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. He and son’s now struggle to keep the business going on their own and to make enough to even support their own family. His is a factory that used to support over ten families and now barely supports one.  This story is common in Gaza and shows clearly the indiscriminate nature of the blockade and the collective punishment that it enforces in violation of international law.

This week also saw the final inspection of the possible Ark, all that remains now is for the Steering Committee to approve the inspection report and for the Gaza’s Ark financial officers to sign on the doted line. On the endorsement front, I secured a rather significant endorsement of Gaza’s Ark this week. However due to the media teams decision to embargoed this and all future endorsements I can not tell who the endorsement is from, but lets just say I am rather chuffed about it. The decision about placing an embargo on the endorsements is so the project can make the most impact with them, through carefully timed media releases.

In addition to this I have been working closely with the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions [PGFTU] on a letter writing campaign between the PGFTU and their international comrades in support of Gaza’s Ark. Here is the link to the first general letter from the PGFTU to their international brothers and sisters > http://www.gazaark.org/2013/04/02/letter-of-support-from-unions-in-gaza/ . However going forward  there will be specific letters from the PGFTU to specific unions internationally to increase awareness of the situation here in Gaza and the importance of the Gaza’s Ark project.

As my first tour of duty draws to a close the main reflection I have of my first two and a bit months in Gaza is that I hear the word “only” way to often here. “Only’ one person was injured in last nights airstrikes, I “only” spent two years in-goal in Israel, I have “only” lost one family member to the occupation forces > what the Palestinians of Gaza have had to put up with and become accustomed to is completely unacceptable, when will the rest of the world see this ???

Mahmoud Attallah and his two son's in their pottery factory in the Old City of Gaza

Mahmoud Attallah and his two son’s in their pottery factory in the Old City of Gaza

April 5, 2013 Posted by | Gaza's Ark | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Week 6 in Gaza > Fundraising > IAW > BDS > Tunnels > Products

My 6th week in Gaza started with a Skype hook up to a Free Gaza Australia [FGA] fundraising dinner in support of Gaza’s Ark [GA], the fundraiser was held at Plunge No.46 in Summer Hill in Sydney. From all accounts it was a huge success with over 50 supporters in attendance and raising over $2500 for the Gaza Ark project. Thanks to everyone who attended for showing their support, the FGA crew for putting it all together and the peeps at Plunge No.46 for their generosity and hospitality. However there is one person who deserves a special mention and that is James Godfrey, the driving force behind FGA, his commitment, focus and attention to detail are second to none > so a big thank you to James, not just for all the effort he put into the fundraising dinner, but for everything he does for FGA and GA. Thank you my friend : ]

While my Arabic is improving its definitely not up to the level needed to translate the GA leaflet, so this week I had the pleasure of meeting a wonderful young activist from Gaza, who has volunteered to undertake this task. Mahmoud Hammad is an English graduate from al-Aqsa University in Gaza that works closely with Dr. Haidar Eid, associate professor of English at Gaza’s al-Aqsa University, founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and is also on the GA Advisory Committee. They were both involved in putting on Israeli Apartheid Week [IAW] in Gaza, which I attended where my GA commitments would permit. I attended the opening session which featured a welcoming speech by the Boycott National Committee member Mr. Mohsen Abu Ramadan, a Skype interview with Jeremy Karodia from South African Artists Against Apartheid, a few short films and some traditional Palestinian music. The only other session I made it too was another Skype hook up with another South African activist Muhammed Desai on BDS.

The campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions was featured heavily during IAW in Gaza, and while the movement is growing here, it is not as widely know as I would have thought. However in saying that, Gaza is not the easiest place to maintain the boycott. Due to the blockade of the Gaza Strip, Gaza is heavily reliant on Israeli imports and this has only been made worse with the recent clamp down on the tunnel trade by Egypt. I have read that in the last month since the tunnels were flooded by the Egyptian military there has been a concerted campaign by the Egyptians to close as many tunnels as possible, with 60% now inoperable – however I have heard from local sources that figure is more like 80%. Cairo’s decision to flood and close the tunnels has cut a lifeline to around 1.7 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip – around 30 percent of all goods that reach the enclave come through the tunnels, according to estimates.

Finally this week I had a wonderful afternoon with the ladies from the Palestinian Women’s Union, looking at their amazing Falahi embroidered tablecloths and serving trays – which will be available soon through the Gaza Ark project. However for those that can’t wait GA’s first release of products that will be exported aboard the Ark are now online. There are eight products in our first release and they are from two Gaza based producers: Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children, and Al-Ahlyia Association for the Development of Palms and Dates. Atfaluna offers some amazing traditional Palestinian arts and craft products, while Al-Ahlyia provides Palestinian Ajwa (pressed dried dates) and Makhtom (delicious date and nut preserves). Check the link > http://www.gazaark.org/products/ with your help the hope of Palestinians in Gaza for an independent economy and an end to Israel’s inhumane siege can seem just that bit closer.

My Skype hook up with the Sydney fundraiser at Plunge No.46 > Photo by Kate Ausburn

My Skype hook up with the Sydney fundraiser at Plunge No.46 > Photo by Kate Ausburn

March 14, 2013 Posted by | Gaza's Ark | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Week Four in Gaza > Mavi > Prisoners > Arabic > Al Mezan > Editing

To start the week I attended a presentation by Kevin Neish a fellow Tahririan and Mavi survivor, Kevin presentation was on the brutal Israeli Occupation Force [IOF] raid on the Mavi Marmara, the Mavi was a Turkish aid ship that was part of the first Freedom Flotilla to Gaza. The IOF raid in international waters killed 9 human rights activist and left 54 severely wounded, with five of the dead shot execution style at point-blank range.

The main section of the presentation was a 16 minute film that Kevin has narrated about his experiences on that bloody night in the mediterranean.  If you want more than just the Israeli hasbara of what happened that night follow this link and get the real story > http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6oub0oaPnr8 Here are some photo’s I took of the Kevin’s presentation > http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.448112025258748.99792.158095294260424&type=1

Three days ago I attended a protest rally called for after Arafat Jaradat allegedly died of a heart attack in Megiddo prison, these claims of a heart attack by the Israeli prison service seem to contradict the evidence at hand. Jaradat had told his Lawyer that “he had serious pains in his back and other parts of his body because he was being beaten up and hanged for many long hours while he was being investigated” for the incredibly serious crime of rock throwing. The Ministry of Detainee Affairs confirmed that “Israeli interrogators routinely used hanging techniques and sleep deprivation to torture Palestinian prisoners”. In addition to this Jaradat’s family, who have viewed his body, said there were traces of blood on the body and they rejected Israeli claims that he died of a heart attack.

The protest in Gaza and others throughout occupied Palestine called for a international probe into Jaradat’s death. The protest was also a show of solidarity with Hunger striker Samer Issawi who has been without food now for over 215 days, lets just hope the world wakes up to the draconian Israeli prison system before Samer Issawi joins Arafat Jaradat in an Israeli body bag : / Here are some photo’s of the protest rally, which is the first one I have been to since arriving in Gaza where all the factions came together in a show of Palestinian unity > http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.448112025258748.99792.158095294260424&type=1

This week I also had my first Arabic lesson since arriving in Gaza, Sundus Ghalayini – Mona El Farra’s daughter, has taken on the rather large challenge of teaching me Arabic. I hope that by learning Arabic I will be able to communicate with all levels of Palestinian society, as my shaway – aka little – Arabic means I am not getting the whole story of life in Gaza. Improving my Arabic will also make me more effective in sourcing products and civil society endorsement for the Gaza’s Ark Project. It might also mean that next time I go to get a hair cut here in Gaza and request a little off the length, I don’t walk out with a crew cut ; ]

In addition to this I visited Al Mezan Center for Human Rights to meet its director Issam Younis, who is a member of the Gaza Ark Advisory Committee here in Gaza. We not only discussed all things Ark related, but Issam also talked me through the great work Al Mezan does in capacity building in Gaza and the never-ending process of documenting Israeli violation of international law.  Finally this week I finished editing the Gaza’s Ark fundraising video that me and some of the Gaza Ark Youth Committee filmed last week. However I should give most of the credit for the video to Sami Dawoud a  great local producer and Ibrahim Faraj a man who is so good with a camera he could even make me look OK.  If you’re in Sydney get down to Plunge on the 6th of March for Free Gaza Australia’s fundraiser in support of Gaza’s Ark, where the video will be premiered. Here is a link the FB event page > http://www.facebook.com/events/131257413706111/

Look what else I got this week > my foreigners residence card for the Gaza Strip : ]

Look what else I got this week > my foreigners residence card for the Gaza Strip : ]

February 25, 2013 Posted by | Gaza's Ark | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Week Three in Gaza > Youth > Products > Celebrations > Fundraising

This week I have been feeling a little off colour and actually fainted several days ago, so I have not been as busy as I was in the first couple of weeks. I think I over did it trying to do too much at once when I first arrived and that plus the stress of adjusting to a new environment was just too much for me. However I am feeling better now and I have started to pace myself, as I am here for the long haul.

This week I had the pleasure of meeting the Gaza Ark Youth Committee, a group of inspiring and highly motivated young people who are asset to the Gaza Ark project. Up until our first meeting I had mainly been working the Youth Committees Products Sub-Committee, who had been assisting me in finding producers and helping with translation at meetings, as I only have shawy aka little Arabic at this point.

Hanging with the Gaza Ark Youth Committee

One of the producers that they have put me in contact with is the Palestinian Association  for Development and Heritage Protection and this week I spent an amazing day with their very talented staff, looking at there wonderful embroidered products and incredible selection of heritage items. I am sure you will see some their products in the second release of products available through the Gaza Ark project. On that note keep an eye on the website this week for the announcement of the first release of products available through the Gaza Ark project, we have chosen eight products to start with that will be available for sale through our website and exported aboard the Ark > http://www.gazaark.org

One of the very talented women from the Palestinian Association  for Development and Heritage Protection modeling a hand embroidered shawl

One of the very talented women from the Palestinian Association for Development and Heritage Protection modeling a hand embroidered shawl

This week I also got to celebrate the 31st anniversary of the  Palestinian Peoples Party at a celebration out at Rafah, this was great day to be with the comrades. Shamikh badra, the co-ordinator of their youth wing and who I meet on his trip to Australia last year, has been very welcoming and supportive since my arrival in the Gaza Strip. Which has been very appreciated, as to a certain extent I am flying solo here, unlike my time in Nablus where I volunteered with Project Hope and had a ready-made support network to fall back on. See the photo’s of the celebration here > http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.446680098735274.99569.158095294260424&type=1

Finally this week I shot a fundraising video for Gaza’s Ark, this video will be premiered at Free Gaza Australia’s “Gaza’s Ark fundraiser at Plunge” in Summer Hill in Sydney  on the 6th of March > if you’re in Sydney get your self there to enjoy some amazing Middle Eastern food and to show your support for ending the blockade of the Gaza Strip. Here is the link to Facebook event page > http://www.facebook.com/events/131257413706111/ and here a link to some photo’s of our day filming at the port in Gaza > http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.446982592038358.99628.158095294260424&type=1

Speak next week > my Salaam.

February 22, 2013 Posted by | Gaza's Ark | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Kayaktivist Rides Again

Well I’m back in the Middle East and I have to say it almost feels like coming home. The first morning in Cairo I woke to the sound of the call to prayer and from that moment on I have felt welcomed and supported. I am in Cairo to sort my entry into the Gaza Strip to assist with the Gaza’s Ark <www.gazaark.org> project.

WHY ?

That is a question I have been asked time and time again and if I am honest I have asked myself on several occasions, especially over the last couple months as I have traveled through the Americas. Leaving idyllic places and amazing people to travel to a part of the world that is under such violent oppression by the Israeli state, so much so that William Madisha (a South African trade union leader) has stated: “As someone who lived in apartheid South Africa and who has visited Palestine I say with confidence that Israel is an apartheid state. In fact, I believe that some of Israel’s actions make the actions of South Africa’s apartheid regime appear pale by comparison.”

I guess I personally have several motivating factors. Firstly, the sense of social justice that was instilled in me by my wonderful parents. Secondly, the fact that I have witnessed first hand the brutality of the Israeli state, while I volunteered with Project Hope <http://projecthope.ps/nablus/> in Nablus. After the joy of experiencing a new culture and meeting incredible Palestinian people, whose lust for life under such oppressive circumstance is truly remarkable, I realised that what I was witnessing in the West Bank was a systematic and methodical ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Palestine… there is no other way to describe it. Thirdly, that this oppression of the Palestinian people, more often than not, goes unreported in the western media and is unfortunately even supported by my very own Government. Lastly, but definitely not least, my time in Palestine ended with Operation Cast Lead where I saw the very worst effects of the Israeli Military Doctrine of “Disproportionate Force”, which killed over 1400 Palestinians – most of whom where civilians.

Since then I have become a member of Free Gaza Australia <http://freegazaoz.org/> . FGA is an organisation that stands in solidarity with the Palestinians of Gaza by directly changing the illegal blockade of Gaza, that has been in place (officially) since 2007. However, the restriction on the movement of Palestinians in Gaza dates back to 1991, when Gaza was first cut off from the West Bank and Israel. This blockade is clearly an act of collective punishment, which is outlawed under the Fourth Geneva Convention and has resulted in what was once the economic centre of Palestine becoming home to a population of aid dependant civilians. With at least 70% of the population of Gaza now reliant on aid to provide the basic essentials of life – food, shelter and medical care. I have been honoured to be a part of both recent Australian delegations that have attempted to break the blockade, firstly with Freedom Flotilla Two <https://occupiedterritories.wordpress.com/2011/07/23/stay-human-the-story-of-freedom-flotilla-2-from-the-kayaktivists-perspective/> and then Freedom Waves <https://occupiedterritories.wordpress.com/2011/12/01/freedom-waves-1413831/>. Lets hope it is third time lucky in FGA’s attempts to break this brutal blockade.

My belief in the Gaza’s Ark <www.gazaark.org> project is also a motivating factor for me. While the Ark will challenge the blockade physically in the tradition of previous flotillas, our focus has shifted from sailing aid in, to sailing trade out. There has been a debate in recent times in Palestine and throughout the international solidarity movement about the effectiveness or otherwise of aid delivery to the Palestine people. Has aid merely maintained an unacceptable status quo? This is a question which is above my pay grade, however it is clear that if the Palestinians of Gaza were allowed to trade their products with the rest of the world, their reliance on aid would greatly diminish. The other benefit of this approach is that as the Ark is being built in Gaza, the process of construction is as important as the action of challenging the blockade – as we can show the difficulties of everyday life in Gaza under the blockade.

How ?

The movable feast that is the process of gaining legal entry into the Gaza Strip has been a difficult one to navigate. When I left Australia three months ago the process had to be undertaken in Cairo, however since leaving that changed to people wanting to enter Gaza needing to inform the Egyptian Embassy in their home country when applying for their visa. At this point there are three main options, firstly through getting an invitation from an NGO in Gaza and then working with your embassy and the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Cairo to get approval to enter through the Rafah Crossing. The second option is to be an accredited journalist and apply through the Press Office in Cairo and finally the third option is to attach yourself to a delegation that already has approval. I have been trying all three. Two weeks in I feel I am getting nowhere, if nothing else it has been a lesson in patience. I naively thought that while the Muslim Brotherhood’s election victory has no doubt been a blow to the hope of Egyptians for a secular democracy, that it would make entry into Gaza through the Rafah Crossing easier. However it appears that Morsi – like most politicians – has mastered the art of talking the talk, but has failed learn how to walk the walk.

However the delay in my entry into the Gaza Strip has meant that I have had the chance to meet some incredible Egyptian activists and that I will be around to stand in solidarity with them on the second anniversary of the start of the Egyptian revolution in Tahrir Square. Their passion and courage has truly inspired me, while their stories have helped put my concerns over living in Gaza into perspective. To me the Egyptian revolution is proof that the Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”, is as true today as it ever was.

What ?

While our strategy has changed focus from aid to trade our main goals are still the same as the Free Gaza Movement’s first attempt to break this illegal and brutal blockade: solidarity and awareness. I hope to show the Palestinian people that my Government does not speak for me on the issue of Palestinian human rights and to generate awareness in Australia and throughout the western world about the plight of the Palestinian people. It is my hope that people in the west will understand that this is not an Israeli/Palestinian conflict, rather it is the oppression of Palestinians by Israel.

You help make this happen by buying a symbolic share in Gaza’s Ark and the hope it will build <http://www.gazaark.org/2013/01/15/buy-a-symbolic-share-of-gazas-ark-a-share-in-hope/>

Image

The Kayaktivists in action

January 26, 2013 Posted by | Gaza's Ark | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Freedom Waves #1413831

 

After a comprehensive review and evaluation of Freedom Flotilla 2 Stay Human, the Freedom Waves strategy was developed. Freedom Waves is the dawn of what we hope will become a new strategy in the international movement to break the blockade ofGaza. Freedom Waves to Gaza seeks to move away from large flotillas which are inherently cumbersome and difficult to keep quiet, towards more agile actions by smaller numbers of boats, leaving from different ports at different, less predictable times, thus keeping the blockaders guessing and making the pressure on them more continuous.

News came through in September that the first wave would consist of two boats, the Tahrir and the Saoirse, and would leave in early November. Time was of the essence, it was quickly resolved inSydneythat Free GazaAustraliawould support this new strategy and Australian delegation would sail with the Tahrir. The preparations then began in earnest– funding was secured, a media strategy developed, a home team organized and delegates selected. All these preparations where done with great secrecy and information was only shared on a need to know basis. I was privileged to be selected as the Australian delegate. After taking part in Freedom Flotilla II earlier in the year, I was excited to be back. With the Freedom Flotilla II mission being stopped by Greek authorities before being able to proceed to international waters and onward toGaza, the changes in strategy this time around offered renewed optimism about the opportunity to challenge the actual blockade ofGazaand not just its extension to European waters.

On the 25th of October I slipped out of the country, under the guise of a trip toCanada for a speaking/fundraising tour. Instead I flew toInchon inKorea, then on toIstanbul inTurkey – where I played the role of tourist while I waited for further instructions. None of the flotilla delegates knew which port we would depart from prior to our arrival inTurkey. After two nights inIstanbul word came through I was to meet my fellow Tahririans in Daliman, hoping this would be my last flight I boarded the plane with a sense of anxiousness and excitement. Once in Daliman I meet up Ehab one the members of the Canadian steering committee. It was great to finally meet Ehab in person; he is warm man, a wonderful organiser and has a wealth of knowledge. We spent the day securing supplies to upgrade our satellite communications aboard the Tahrir – with the help of Google translate.

Over the next 24 hours the Canadian delegates began arriving in Daliman, most of them had been with us in Argos Nicolas in Create in June for the Freedom Flotilla II. It was like getting the band back together – David, Bob, Santargo, Irene, Kate, Jase and of course my prison bitch the gorgeous Sandra Ruch.  A new addition to crew was Majed, a Palestinian from Haifa, I was very excited to have Majed aboard and we formed an instant friendship over several Efes’. The press contingent was all new, apart from Hassan from Press TV; we had Al Jazeeera English and Arabic, Democracy Now, and Lina Attalah a freelance journalist from Cairo all on board. After two days of securing supplies, catch up with old friends and making new ones – word came through that we where to catch up with the American and Danish delegation in Gocek. We weren’t suppose to all come together before getting on the boat – so we were left wondering what was going on?

I made my way to Gocek with Irene and Kate, my fellow Tahririans, and Jihan and Reed from Democracy Now, who I done an interview with earlier in the day. I was to go from Gocek to the Tahrir in port at Fethiye to do guard duty and await a delivery from IHH of our $30,000 dollars worth of medicine for the besieged Gaza Strip. In Gocek the group grew, it was great seeing John and Karen and the whole Danish crew – who had the same delegation as in June with the exception of my dancing partner who was missing, the vivacious Anna Sita. My excitement of catching up with my fellow Tahririans was tempered by the fact my mind was running wild with possible reasons why we had all been called together early.

We head to the hotel where the US delegation was stationed to find out what the news was. Just as we start the meeting with Ehab informing us that the Port Master in Fethiye has declared that the Tahrir is only allowed to have 12 passengers aboard not 35, news came through that we are a larger meeting than the hotel expected and that the manger was asking us to leave. The owner had seen us coming in on the CCTV and he was not happy – so after some unsuccessful negotiations we decided to leave and head up the road to a clearing in the bush – I’m cold, anxious and we are about to make an important decision about our flotilla delegation on the side of the road in the dark.

To go or not go, that is the question we where was faced with. After almost an hour of debate we where far from a decision about who would constitute the much smaller delegation or if we would go at all, and I had to get to the port for my shift guarding the Tahrir. I left with the final decision to wiser heads and headed of to Fethiye and the Tahrir. The Tahrir stood out like a sore thumb in Fethiye. The marina was full of some the most audacious luxury yachts I have ever seen and then at the end of the dock is this steel hauled, outdated ferry, covered in netting – still from my perspective she was the most beautiful one of them all, hello Tahrir! I spent the night on duty, but my mind never left Gocek – with many questions weighing on my mind: what was happening, had decision been made, where we going or was this déjà vu? Sandra, Ehab and Jase, all Canadian Boat to Gaza steering committee members, returned to the Tahrir around midnight where they inform me that no decision had been made.

Me and my old friend Tahrir in Fethiye.

The next day the steering committee meet again and it was decided that we would try and get 12 passengers approved. Having to cut the Tahrir delegation from 35 down to 12 people caused much angst. I was selected as first mate, our Captain George’s offsider. I spent the day learning how to run the generator, the bilge pump and the spot tracker. I was ecstatic to make the cut, however it was very bitter sweet as many wonderful friends would be left on the dock if the Tahrir made it out of Fethiye – which I was staring to doubt, as news had spread that decisions about our departure where being made in Ankara not the Harbor Masters office in Fethiye – why?

The next day things start to progress: our fuel delivery arrived and we had to sail to the other side of the marina to pick it up – this was my first test as first mate and I soon found out my knot tying skills left a little to be desired. Once we had fueled up the clock was now ticking. We had purchased the fuel duty free which meant we had to leave the port in the next 24 hours to avoid being charged the duty. The last hurdle, hopefully, was having the passenger list check against our passports – a fifteen minute process. Instead 1 hour passed, then 2 hours, 3, 4, 5 – we began to wonder what was going on? David started his own occupy Fethiye Harbor Masters office in protest and I ducked off for a couple of cold bevies, to ease my frustration.

When I returned home after Freedom Flotilla 2 earlier in the year, I had a definite sense of unfinished business. When the Greek authorities stopped our boat from leaving port to travel through international waters to challenge the siege of Gaza I felt like I had been cheated out of doing the most meaningful thing I had ever set my mind to by a dubious ministerial edict that had no basis in law. I was hoping that with our change of strategy things would be different this time. When I noticed David heading from the Harbor Masters office back to the Tahrir at around midnight the feeling of déjà vu I had been trying to suppress for the last few days bubbled to the surface, I wondered if we would be allowed to leave the port after all. As the crew at the bar started to disperse, I was a far from finished – so I gathered my buddy Majed, Reed and Jihan from Democracy Now and Lina and off into night, or early morning to be more precise, we headed. After blowing off a fair bit of steam, possibly too much – we called it a night.

The next morning as I nursed a hangover I heard the news that the passenger list had been approved by the Harbor Master and we would be leaving port for “Rhodes” that afternoon. Leaving port was as expected a bitter sweet moment: on one hand we were on our way to international waters and I was aboard for the first time, on the other the Danish delegation John, Annette and Charlotte where left behind on the dock, as were Irene, John, Jase, Santiago and Sandra – not to mention the Quebec and Belgium delegations that were not with us this time. The Tahrir felt empty with just 12 of us on board, but we where on our way.

The first day on the boat I kept busy getting my head around all my duties as a the first mate, plus doing interviews with the media on board and trying to find time to keep the Free Gaza Australia team at home in Sydney in the loop with photos, statements and updates. Although I did take a few minutes to smell the salt spray once we had made international waters, we were now only a matter of days away from answering the challenge that had been issued to us, the international solidarity movement, by the IOF (Israeli Occupation Force) when they massacred our brother and sisters on the Mavi Marmara during the 2010 Freedom Flotilla. The attack on the Mavi was clearly meant as a deterrent. As governments and international institution have failed to hold Israel accountable, Israel knows that civil society is the only threat to their continued impunity from international law,  the IOF’s actions against the 2010 flotilla were a way of saying “how committed our you?” Our answer has been continued commitment to the people of Palestine.

In June as part of Freedom Flotilla 2 ‘Stay Human’, we doubled the number of participants, countries represented and boats in the flotilla. While most of the boats in that flotilla were blocked from leaving the Greek ports at which they were docked, it was still an impressive show of solidarity. From there to where we are now, at the start of Freedom Waves Initiative, we continue showing our commitment to answering the challenge and ending the blockade of Gaza and the collective punishment it enforces by changing up our strategy to keep constant pressure on Israel’s illegal blockade.

The second day at sea we rendezvous with the Irish delegation on board the Saoirse, from above deck we shouted words of support back and forth between our boats. As we drifted away from the Saoirse to shouts of “see you inGaza” spirits and hopes were high. We slowed our progress from 15 to 10 knots to ensure that we would enter the region in international waters that the Israeli authorities have dubbed a “closed military zone” in day light and arrive inGaza before night fall. At this point I had not slept for two days and with game time fast approaching I handed over my first mate duties to Majed while I enjoyed a few hours kip, sleeping next to my essentials for the Tahrir being boarded by the Israeli military: goggles, ear plugs, head light, sat phone, camera – I took the time out for a few deep breaths to remind myself, I’ve got this! then of to sleep.

The Saoirse approaching the Tahrir

I was woken from my nap with the news that we were less than 100 nautical miles from the port of Gaza. This was not the news I had expected to woken with. The IOF had not taken their last chance to take us at night and I wondered why not. At this point the words of Miles Howe who took part in the June flotilla rang loud in my mind, “We are going to Gaza”, well maybe this time we were. I made my morning update via sat phone and tried to send our two latest photos back to the team in Sydney. The first photo sent but second would not load, trying and trying again to attach the second, but failing – does anyone else have internet? No. Is this the start of our communications being jammed ? I head off to check if the spot tracker still has a signal, its green which means it is still sending a signal. I head to the wheel house to see if there are any new blips on the Tahrir’s radar and I arrive in time to hear the crackle of the first hail of the IOF stating that we were “headed into a closed military zone”.

I rushed below to get Ehab and David, our nominated spokes team. The three of us arrived back to the wheel house to the IOF asking, “What is your course”, with out missing a beat Ehab grabbed the two way radio and stated “the consciousness of humanity” – “what is your final destination”; the IOF officer enquires again “the betterment of mankind”. Back on the sat phone to call through another update to Sydney. As I make the call news spreads through the Tahrir that there is a frigate our left hand side, here we go. Anxiety levels are definitely on the rise at this point, to say the least. I start to update the home team, “there is a frigate on our left, what side of the boat is that, who knows boat shit?” A reassuring voice comes back down the line, “it’s the port, the port” how does Kate know boat shit? I finished my second update to Kate and the team back in Sydney with Ehab’s quote, that I later found out had been written with David Heap: “What is your course” – “ the consciousness of humanity” – “what is your final destination” – “the betterment of mankind” – pure GOLD!

Suddenly my attention is drawn to what I now know is the starboard side of the boat, there are two Israeli frigates looming up on us. My sat phone is the only one that still has signal so I lend it to Kasey, to do a live phone in for Al Jazeera; I then set about documenting the scene. I photographed and videoed the armada that Israel had assembled to stop 27 unarmed human rights activists on two small boats attempting to deliver medicine – I counted 17 Israeli military vessels that I could see. There where at least five frigates or destroyers (large navel vessels several hundred feet long) – three water canons – mounted on what looked like 30 foot tinies – four boarding boats – 20 foot steel vessels, they looked like landing boats you would see in movies about the D-Day landing at Normandy – and five 20 foot zodiacs – at a quick estimate at least 1500 hundred soldiers just to board us.

At this point I must admit I headed down stairs under the pretense of discarding my laptop, which I had actually done earlier – as we knew the IOF would 1] look at contacts in our address books and life is tough enough in the occupied territories without me bringing more frustration to the lives of my friends in Palestine – and 2] there little chance I’d get it back if it was confiscated by the Israeli military. However I digress, I headed below deck to get my shit together. I knew, as did everyone aboard, the long history of the IOF using violence against peaceful protesters and I must admit it rattled me for several minutes. I quickly put into action my breathing techniques and calmed myself to the point where I could focus on the job at hand: documentation and communication.

I head back up onto the deck and get my sat phone back from Kasey – I try and call Sydney, but it is no use, the sat phone can no longer get a signal. Our communications are gone; the name of the game now is documentation. I shot some more video and took some more photos, before heading to the wheel house to hear how our spokes team was going. The IOF officer was clearly getting frustrated with our replies that “we do consent to your request, but we will not resist”, they sounded and looked like they where about to board – the officers tone was becoming sharper as his voice crackled over the two way radio and by now the heavily armed soldiers had been in position in full kit with their weapons trained at our foreheads for over an hour. As we are circled by IOF vessels I head down below deck to hide my camera chip and get the flip video footage onto a USB stick. I could not get the footage to transfer, but stashed the USB – am I smarter than the search awaiting me in Ashdod ? Fingers crossed.

By the time I got back on deck both boats, the Tahrir and Saoirse, where corralled so tightly together we where only several meters apart. As negotiations turned to demands over the two way the Tahrir and Saoirse collided, BAANNNGGGG – as the Saoirse pulled away from the Tahrir its gang plank nearly ripped off the stern of the vessel (I always knew the stern from the bow). The collision rips a gash down the stern towards the water line. The Saoirse then took off to put some space between the two vessels; as it did so it was chased by two water canons and several zodiacs. We now know that boarding is imminent. We had discussed how we would handle the IOF boarding and formed buddy pairs and nominated where we would be positioned. Majed was my buddy and we where to be on the wheel house doors, I had the port side.

As I positioned myself on the port side door of the wheel house, the water canon moved in – spraying the bow of the boat, making the deck incredibly slippery. The water canon then started to head towards my position, I stood in the side spray for a while – holding my position, until I took a direct blow from the canon that knocked me off my feet. I then headed around to the starboard side of the wheel house to take cover from the water canon, it was here I found the rest of the Tahrir crew – apart from our spokes team David and Ehab and our Captain George who where still in the wheel house. At this point one of the boarding vessels began to maneuver it self along the port side the Tahrir, this surprised us – as we expected the IOF to board from the stern of the boat. However to avoid our netting, which was set up to block access from the rear of the Tahrir and to protect us from tear gas, the IOF came along side in a 20 foot boarding vessel that had been fitted with a scissor lift to get the boarding party up to height of the Tahrir’s top deck.

The soldiers came aboard and quickly secured the wheel house with the use of tasers and brut force – Ehab, George and David where pushed from the wheel house towards the rest of the crew who where still on the starboard side of the Tahrir. David had blood dripping down his forehead from having bumped his head after being tasered and pushed out of the wheel house by the Israeli soldiers. The sight of a bloodied David being pushed from the wheel house pushed me from fear to defiance. All the IOF had to do to secure the Tahrir was clear three unarmed men from the wheel house and they had now shown they could not even do that without violence. From this point onward I challenged every direction that was made of me and stated at every opportunity, “you have the responsibility as an occupying force to allow free access of humanitarian goods to the occupied territories” and “that Israel has no authority to board a Comoros Islands flagged ship in International waters – this is an act of kidnapping and piracy”.

Once the IOF had control of the Tahrir, they started to search the vessel and the crew. One at a time we where moved from the starboard side to the port side and searched, I was the first to be searched and I refused to cooperate by going limp as they dragged me across the deck to be searched. During the search I had a pistol firmly pressed into my lower back and had several shotgun sights trained on my forehead. This search was focused on getting our documentation of the illegal boarding, we where patted down and had any cameras taken from us. However I realised after the search that I still had the flip video camera in my top pocket, I thought that if they missed that maybe there was a chance they won’t find my memory chip stashed below deck. Before we arrived atAshdodwe were allowed to collect our belongings and in this process I slipped the flip video into Kasey’s bag – as I thought that Kasey with his Israeli press card had the best chance of getting it through the black hole that isAshdod.

Shortly after this the IOF officer in charge told us what we already knew, that there where no weapons found on board the Tahrir. At this point Ehab requested that we be allowed to continue on our course to the “consciousness of humanity” otherwise known asGaza– unsurprisingly this request was denied. Shortly after we where moved below deck for the trip toAshdod, which took several hours. Once we arrived atAshdodwe where asked to leave. Our Captain and the journalists walked off the boat, but the delegates refused to leave stating again that “we had no intention of going toIsrael; we are on aComorosIslandsflagged vessel bound forGaza”. After a brief stand off the IOF handed over the duty of removing us from the Tahrir to the Israeli police – Kit and Karen eventually agree to leave the vessel – while Majed, Ehab, David and I where dragged from the Tahrir. They used pressure points, we where put in stress positions and speaking for myself, I was kicked and had my head bounced off several passing structures.

This forced disembarkation was witnessed and documented by hundreds of smiling Israeli military, police and immigration officers – I now understand the line in the Staple Singers track “I’ll take you there”: Ain’t no Smilin faces – I could never figure out why in this nirvana like place that was being sung about, where there was nobody crying, nobody worried, there were no smilin faces. I now know that they were not friendly smiles being sung about, but rather those of the oppressor smiling at the suffering of the oppressed. Several of the onlooking officers even laughed as we screamed in pain.

After being searched again, this time more thoroughly, expectantly I lost my sat phone, my iPod and disappointingly both my memory chip (I will need to rethink my stash spot for next year). We where then taken to a bus where some of us where shackled for the journey to the next stage of our processing at an Israeli immigration centre – tell me again why where still being treated as a threat ? While waiting for the rest of the flotilla crew to get on the bus we noticed that Majed, the Palestinian delegate, was being pushed into a police car and driven off with several officers. This concerned us all as we knew that Majed being Palestinian could face more brutal treatment than any of us, and now he was on his own. We requested that he be transported with us, but this request was meet with soldiers telling us, “shut up, shut up, you shut up” together with threats of more violence.

We arrived at the immigration centre at around 10pm; six hours after IOF had taken control of the Tahrir. Awaiting our arrival was several hundred Israeli police and immigration officers, while waiting to disembark I hear David call out, “so how Israeli’s does it take to change a light bulb,” the response comes back form one of my Irish brothers, “several hundred, one to change the light blub and the others to do security”. At the immigration centre we where photographed, finger printed and asked to sign documents in Hebrew which apparently stated we came toIsraelillegally. All the delegates refused to sign expect for Ehab, who had signed in the hope of being released so that he could present the real story of the boarding to the world’s press. We were then interviewed by an intelligence officer, who asked many questions – but got one response, “lawyer”. From here we where taken back onto the bus and transport to our final destination of our processing: Givon prison in Ramla.

Once at Givon we where searched AGAIN and 12 hours after we were first boarded I finally got to my home away from home: wing 5 cell 12 Givon Prison – where I would be known as #1413831. As I got to the cell I was given my first prison meal – stale bread and a capsicum (yuummm). At 9.00am the next morning, after just three hours sleep, I was woken prison style, “up count, up” and “good morning, up count” as the keys jangled and big steel doors slammed shut and creaked open. “Aussie John Michael, come your consulate is waiting,” they said and I was escorted to the see my consulate officer, Sue was one of only two conduits I had to the outside world, she brought me newspaper clippings from Australia, muesli bars, cigarettes, and most importantly got a messages to my family, friends and my home team. I would like to take this opportunity to publicly acknowledge Sue for her support: Sue, your support during the longest week of life was greatly appreciated – thank you. Unfortunately I can not say that I received the same support at a ministerial level.

I returned from seeing Sue and was allowed into the yard where my Irish brothers had already formed a prisoner committee and where making demands on the prison authorities:

1] Free Association on the wing – open cell doors during the day

2] Provision of adequate reading and writing materials

3] Access to the outside – via regular phone calls

4] Knowledge of our sisters being held in another wing of Givon

5] That Democracy Now correspondent Jihan Hafiz be recognized and treated as a recognized journalist.

The next morning in response to these demands the guard only let half the wing into the yard at a time. Once we realized what was happening the call came from our Irish brothers to head back to our cells and lock yourself in – “one in, all in”. After ten minutes all of the cell the doors were opened and we where all allowed into the yard together, but our Prisoner’s Committee did not leave it there – we negotiated a routine that would see us only return to our cells for counts three times and be locked down from 8.00pm at night, as opposed to being locked down all day apart from two one hour trips to the yard. This victory was hugely uplifting; it showed me that we could have some effect on our conditions. Thank you my Irish brothers for prison solidarity 101.

The committee also pressed for our other demands to be met, with varying degrees of success. However we were finally allowed a phone call home later that day. We where escorted one by one into the manager’s office, which was set up with a lady in headphones and with a laptop connected the phone – so much for unmonitored. We were then told, “you get three minutes – nothing political, just say you are fine and have been treated OK” (WTF?) I told them, “I wait 48 hours for a phone call and I get three minutes to lie to my family?” Off I went, “I have been the victim of piracy, I was then kidnapped and forcedly brought to a foreign country against my will and am now being detained illegally – all for the crime taking medicine to sick people, I AM NOT OK !” – “Do you want your call,” they asked, to which I responded, “yes, and you can tell her to unplug the laptop and take off the headphones, we were told our calls would be unmonitored” – “OK call,” they said, “but she listens”. I get through it’s my Dad, he sounds happy but concerned/stress/sleep deprived and after my “negotiations” with the manager I was wound up – which probably did not help ease my Dad’s mind.

I was also concerned with getting a message out; I knewIsraelwould be telling the media about a peaceful boarding process and carefully managing the first 72 hours post-incident of state sanctioned piracy. I told Dad the details of the boarding and our detention and upon using words like “Taser” “Piracy” “Kidnapping” “Assault”, I was cut off and I did not get a chance to tell my folks I love them.

On the third day the misinformation campaign waged against us by the Israeli authorities started in earnest. Up until that point we had been told by everyone, Israeli immigration and prison officials, our consulates and lawyers, that “we could only be held for 72 hours, that’s the law”. Sue delivered the news that the 72 hours had not started atAshdod, i.e. when we arrived. It started when the judge signed the deportation order, oh and then more waiting as flights are arranged. I thought thatIsraelwould have at least respected their own laws, I should have known better. At least another 24 hours, but trying not to be fixated on a date – to avoid devastation.

Then the next day and we are given another story. We are told by an immigration official, “we could be here for up to two months”. I struggled to bring myself back up after this. However I did learn available lesson, “don’t believe a word the bastards say,” cheers for the knowledge Hassan. Cheers my entire wing actually, my Canadian, Irish and English brothers- you keep me positive. Someone was always whistling, “always look on the bright side of life,”  telling a joke or a story, crafting a checkers board from the packaging dinner came in – meals that can best be described by another David Heap quote, “oh great, another alleged meat product,” a heart felt thank you to you all.

After five days in Givon news came through that the longest week of my life was over – What? Who told you that? Is this real? After nervously having the news confirmed by multiple sources, I was well and truly au fait with rule one wing five Givon prison, “don’t believe a word the bastards say” – I belived it, I am going home : ] Three hours later I was on my way to a bus which would take me along with half the Irish and all the Canadian delegation to the airport. On the way I made a point of telling the manager of Givon and any one else that would listen that I’d see them next year – because that’s what Israel must learn, we are not going away and neither are the Palestinians. It reminds me of a quote a friend of mine in Nablus told me while discussing transfer by stealth, the method of making life so unbearable in the occupied territories that the Palestinians leave of ‘their own accord’ – “what they don’t realize Mike is that those who have left have left and those that have stayed, where born here and will die here” – long live Palestine !

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the crew at Free GazaAustralia, which is practically 8 people inSydney- we have and will continue to do amazing things. While I’m giving props, I’d like to thank all of those who sent messages of support while I was on my journey, and of course to our international partners – my Canadian Boat to Gaza peeps, Free Gaza Demark, my friends in Belgium, New Zealand, Germany, America and most of all Palestine – THANK YOU : ]

Freedom Waves delegates aboard the Tahrir the morning of the boarding

* All the photo’s with me in them where courtesy of Lina Atallah, thank you Lina .

December 1, 2011 Posted by | Freedom Waves, My Thoughts | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment