Bearing Witness

The Importance of Gaza’s Ark

I have just returned to Australia after four months in the Gaza Strip working on the Gaza Ark Project (www.gazaark.org). During this time, I saw for myself and experienced some of the daily hardships that Palestinian people suffer, including increasing irregular power cuts of up to 12 a day [since my departure sources in Gaza have relayed to me that the power cuts can now last up to 20 hours a day] , salty and unclean drinking water and a sea where you cannot safely swim due to pollution caused by the sewerage systems that has been destroyed by the Israeli military. I also sailed out with fishers and visited farmers who are harassed constantly by the Israeli Occupation Forces and saw for myself the conditions in which they struggle to maintain their livelihoods.

While in the Gaza Strip I participated in the purchase of a 24 metre long fishing boat and the public launch of the Project in Gaza. I also met with potential suppliers of goods and produce, which we are now selling and which will be transported on Gaza’s Ark. I helped establish a local youth committee to support Gaza’s Ark and met with many organisations and individuals who have agreed to endorse Gaza’s Ark.

My time in Gaza increased my belief in the importance of the project. The high rate of unemployment in Gaza is a direct effect of Israel’s illegal blockade and no amount of aid will change the despair of those currently unemployed. By attempting to establish a trade route between Gaza and the rest of the world, Gaza’s Ark provides a ray of hope to the Palestinians of Gaza for an economy independent of their occupying power. This is a vital step towards self-determination, a step the Olso process of the 1990s – which was supposed to lead to a final peace in the region – has failed to deliver.

However Gaza’s Ark to me, and the Palestinians of Gaza, is much more than a trade mission. It is an act of solidarity which raises awareness of the situation the residents of Gaza currently face. Whilst the people of Gaza have a lack of export opportunities – just 2% of pre-blockade levels – the living conditions of the vast majority of the population are summed up by the UNRWA in its recent comprehensive report on the Palestinian enclave, which concluded that: “Gaza will no longer be ‘liveable’ by 2020 unless urgent action is taken to improve water supply, power, health and schooling”.

With governments around the world ignoring Israel’s regular violations of international law, I feel it is important to show the Palestinian people through direct actions, that our governments do not speak for us on the issue of their human rights. History has shown us that on issues of social justice, people lead and governments follow. To get the people to lead, though, they need to know the facts and not the myths.

Gaza’s Ark can only continue and progress with your support. You can help fund the refurbishment process, or you can purchase Palestinian products that will be exported aboard the Ark. And let’s be honest, how often in this modern world do you get a chance to purchase a share in hope !

This photo to me symbolises the situation of the Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip, trapped in a net of collective punishment.

This photo to me symbolises the situation of the Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip, trapped in a net of collective punishment.

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September 25, 2013 Posted by | Gaza's Ark | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Week 13 in Gaza > Refurbishment > Endorsement > Documentary > Rafah

Well this week has been another productive week, though after the excitement of last week with the boat purchase and the second product release it almost seems mundane. Even though this week saw the start of the refurbishment process, we received another significant endorsement and we finalised the arrangements for a full length documentary to be filmed about the project.

The week started with the winch being removed from our fishing vessel, the first step in our vessel being transformed from a fishing trawler into a cargo vessel. This was an exciting day, as it was the start of turning what has for the last 12 months been a wonderful idea into a reality : ] We now have a work plan approved by the steering committee that should see most of the major tasks of the refurbishment being completed by the start of Ramadan, when things in Gaza will slow down dramatically > meaning we should be in a position to challenge the illegal blockade of Gaza by the end of the year.

However this will only be achieved with your support, Gaza’s Ark is reliant on grass-roots donations to achieve our goals, so please consider supporting our project by buying a symbolic share in the Ark or raising awareness of the project to your friends and family and together we can help build the hope that Palestinians have for an independent economy.

When I came to Gaza my instruction on the civil society endorsement front, was to achieve a board spectrum of civil society support. This week  I went a long way to achieving this. I now have civil society endorsements from Islamic, secular and leftist civil society institutions and organisation of the Gaza’s Ark project. Keep an eye on the Gaza’s Ark website in the next couple of week for a major announcement of the all civil society organisations and institutions that have signed on to support the Gaza’s Ark project > http://www.gazaark.org/\

The other piece of major news out of this week is that when have found a journalist in Gaza who is willing to undertake the task of documenting the Gaza Ark project for a full length documentary. Yousef Al-Helou who works for The Real News Network [TRNN] has got on board with the project, excuse the pun, which we all very excited about. Yousef is a great journalist and has a long history covering the Gaza Strip, first for Press TV, before moving to the TRNN. Personally, apartment from the fact that this unique project is going to be documented for posterity, the best thing about having the documentary made is that post the sailing of the Ark if I am asked to do presentations on the project I won’t have to bore the peeps in Sydney with my limited public speaking skills. I can now show the documentary and then conduct a Q and A session with the audience > I can hear the Sydney solidarity communities sighs of relief from here.

This week also saw the closure of the Rafah Crossing with Egypt, the only route out of Gaza for the vast majority of Palestinians living in Gaza. The crossing was closed after militants in the Sinai kidnapped 7 Egyptian military personnel who worked at the crossing, even though there was never any link from the militants to the Gaza Strip. You could feel the tension building here in Gaza as the closure dragged on, almost like the pressure release valve had been turned off.

Finally this week saw the release of an interview I recently did about the Gaza’s Ark project on New Zealand radio station Plans FM > forgive the lack of clarity, I conducted the interview after spending the whole night out doing accompaniment work with fishermen off the coast of Gaza > http://plainsfm.org.nz/on-demand/earthwise20may13/ Note to self > do not do interviews the morning after spending the whole night out doing accompaniment work with fishermen !

Our nautical brains trust devising the refurbishment plan.

Our nautical brains trust devising the refurbishment plan.

May 23, 2013 Posted by | Gaza's Ark | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Week 12 in Gaza > Boat > Products > Fishing > Jabalia

This has been a productive week for Gaza’s Ark, we were excited to announce  that we have finally purchased the fishing vessel that we will now converted into Gaza’s Ark, plus we had our second release of Palestinian products that will be exported aboard the Ark. While on the personal front I spent a night on the water doing some accompaniment work with Palestinian fishermen off the coast of Gaza and also spent some time in the Jabalia Refugee Camp.

The moment we have been working towards for the last 12 months finally arrived this week and we are now the proud owners of a 24 meter fishing trawler that we will covert into a cargo vessel to export Palestinian products from the only port in the Mediterranean currently closed to shipping. Even though the size of our cargo vessel will only allow us to attempt to export a symbolic amount of products from Gaza. Our main aim is to raise awareness of Israel’s strangulation of the Gazan economy, that prior to the blockade was an export based economy. Exports are currently at just 2% of pre blockade levels, this has resulted in a youth unemployment rate of around 50% and this figure does not take into account the levels of under employment which are rampant in the Gaza Strip. You can find the official purchase announcement here >  http://www.gazaark.org/2013/05/14/breaking-we-have-purchased-gazas-ark/

This week also the second release of products that will be available for sale through the Gaza Ark project. The second release focused on Palestinian agricultural products and includes > Honey, Debes – which is a date molasses, Maftoul – Palestinian couscous, Za’atar and Dugga – which are herb mixes. For more details on the these products check out the products page on the Gaza Ark website > http://www.gazaark.org/products/

Tuesday night I finally got to do some accompaniment work with Palestinian fishermen in Gaza, fishermen in Gaza are on the front line of the blockade. As Israel has unilaterally, in violation of the Oslo accords, limited their fishing zone to three nautical miles from the coast of Gaza. This means that they are unable to access to majority of their fish stocks that inhabit the rocky bottom nine nautical miles from shore. In addition to this fishermen are often attacked by the Israeli Navy within the this three-mile limit, these attack have resulted in injury and even the deaths of Palestinian fishermen in Gaza. The reduced profitability caused by the three-mile limit and the risk of attack by the Israeli Navy have resulted in the number of fishermen in Gaza falling from over 10000 to just over 3500 who fish the waters off Gaza currently. After 12 hours work by 14 crew, they only had 15 barely half full creates of fish to show for their nights work and no fish over 10cm in length. Check out my photo’s from the night here > http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.478190475584236.1073741836.158095294260424&type=1

Finally this week I was taken on a guided tour of the Jabalia Refugee Camp in Gaza yesterday, at last count in 2002 the camp had a registered population of 103,646 inhabitants. The camp only covers an area of 1.4 km² making it one of the most densely populated places on earth. The camps proximity to the Israel boarder means in has been the scene of much Israeli violence, but despite all this, what struck me most on my tour was the joy that the children of the camp found in their impoverished surroundings. It was a real lesson in appreciating what you have and not concerning yourself with what you can’t attain > Thank you for this lesson in perspective Jabalia : ] Check out my photo’s from the tour here > http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.478705638866053.1073741839.158095294260424&type=1

The sun setting over the three mile buoy off the coast of Gaza.

The sun setting over the three-mile buoy off the coast of Gaza.

The kids of Jabalia Refugee Camp.

The kids of Jabalia Refugee Camp.

May 17, 2013 Posted by | Gaza's Ark | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a 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 Two in Gaza > Endorsements > Products > Solidarity

Well my second week in Gaza has come to an end and it’s official, I now have my permit to stay > got to love Palestine, it’s the only place on earth where my criminal record and deportation in regards to my solidarity actions are appreciated on a visa application.
This week has mainly been spent meeting with civil society organisations to seek support for the Gaza’s Ark [GA] http://www.gazaark.org/ project. I have met with the Palestinian Non Government Organisation [PNGO] http://www.pngo.net/, which is an umbrella group for over 60 NGO’s working through out Gaza and the West Bank and the Palestinian  Agricultural Relief Committee [PARC] http://www.pal-arc.org/index.html, whose main goals are to protect Palestinian land from confiscation by the Israeli occupation and to improve the Palestinian agricultural sector. I am honoured to say they now both now endorse the GA project. Although most of the credit for the ease in which these endorsements have been granted must go to the committed and visionary GA Steering Committee, with a special mention to David “the conscience of humanity” Heap – whose visit to Gaza at the end of last year laid an incredibly strong foundation to be built on.
In addition to this I have been chasing up information from several producers whose products are going to be sold through GA. We now have three producers on board, excuse the pun. Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children http://www.atfaluna.net/, Al-Ahlyia Association for the Development of Palms & Dates, as well as a Women’s Group from Gaza who make some amazing cross stitched and embroidered products. Watch the GA website for the first announcement of products to be sold through the project and exported from Gaza aboard the Ark.
I also took my first trip to the buffer zone, The buffer zone is a 300 meter area between Israel and the Gaza Strip, it is a military no-go zone that extends along the entire northern and eastern perimeter of the Gaza Strip adjacent to Israel, but inside Palestinian territory. Its enforcement by the Israeli Occupation Force has resulted in loss of Palestinian lives and land, and to add insult to injury is some of the most fertile land in the Gaza Strip. For more information on the buffer zone check out the Diakonia analysis http://www.diakonia.se/sa/node.asp?node=4090. Saturday was a day of international action in support of Palestinian Farmers and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees [UAWC] in Gaza organised a march into the buffer zone to plant olive trees in an act of defiance to the IOF, see how it went down here > http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=442402179163066&set=a.442402012496416.98962.158095294260424&type=1&theater
This week I also attended and spoke at a protest organised by the Palestinian Peoples Party [PPP] Youth Wing. The protest was in solidarity with the thousands of Palestinians in Israeli jails, many of whom have never been charged with any offence > let alone convicted ! See my photos from the protest here >http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=442879619115322&set=a.442879529115331.99038.158095294260424&type=1&theater
Speak next week, my salaam.

My turn on the mic at the Palestinian Peoples Party Prisoners Protest

My turn on the mic at the Palestinian Peoples Party Prisoners Protest

February 13, 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

WHY ?

Well I’m in and will be sailing to Gaza with the Freedom Flotilla Two, in an attempt to break Israel ‘s brutal siege of the strip. I must admit I am as anxious as I am exited about undertaking this trip, but I believe it is people who will break the siege of Gaza , not governments or international institutions which have failed to hold Israel accountable to international law. In fact the humble and hardworking program of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla [GFF] has put governments and international institutions to shame.

However I did not make my decision to join the flotilla lightly, knowing the stress and heartache my decision will have on my family and friends who I love dearly – but sometimes you have to put your money where you mouth is and after my time in Nablus, in the occupied West Bank, at the end of 2008 – start of 2009 I came away with a love of the Palestinian people and there vibrant culture, Palestinian hospitality is second to none and there lust for life in the face of such violent oppression is truly remarkable.

This appreciation soon turned to sadness though after the initial excitement of experiencing a new culture wore off, and the realisation hit that what I was witnessing in the West Bank was the systematic and methodical ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Palestine. This sadness combined with a keen sense of injustice has steeled it’s self into non-violent action in an effort to expose the truth about the human rights violations happing on a daily basis in the occupied territories of Palestine.

By intercepting and attacking the 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla in international waters – killing 9 humanitarian activists and injuring 54 – the Israeli Government intended to deter people from attempting to break the siege of Gaza. I took this blatant show of force as personal challenge to the Palestinian solidarity movement, a challenge we have answered and will continue to answer until the siege of Gaza and the collective punishment it enforces ends !

This time around there will 22 countries represented, 14 boats participating and over 1000 activists sailing to Gaza . We in Australia have partnered with organisations in Canadian, Denmark and Belgium to buy a boat we have named ‘Tahrir’ meaning “Liberation’ in Arabic – which is what we hope to help achieve for the population of Gaza.

Remember, as Martin Luther King Jr once said “injustice anywhere is threat to justice everywhere“.

TAHRIR ! TAHRIR ! TAHRIR !

May 22, 2011 Posted by | Freedom Flotilla Two, My Thoughts | , , , , | 2 Comments

ISRAELI PM THREATENS NEXT GAZA FREEDOM FLOTILLA

 

Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu threatened to “act firmly” using “force” against the Freedom Flotilla from 22 countries due to set sail for Gaza next month. It will be joined by an Australian contingent in partnership with Canadians and others.

Organisers are extremely concerned considering Israel’s use of lethal force against civilians on last year’s Freedom Flotilla.

Netanyahu has also asked UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to help stop the Freedom Flotilla. The Secretary General has responded saying that Israel should end the blockade of Gaza.

“Netanyahu’s statement is tantamount to a death threat against participants in the Flotilla. In spite of this, all intending participants from Australia have declared that they will not be deterred. The siege of Gaza must be broken and the Freedom Flotilla will sail ahead as planned.” said Rihab Charida of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla Working Group in Sydney.

In June 2007, Israel and the so-called Quartet, the US, the UN, Russia and the EU, imposed a siege on the people of Gaza after all Palestinians had democratically elected Hamas to form Government. Since then the 1.5 million people of Gaza have been shut off from the outside world, trapped within the world’s largest open-air prison in an act of collective punishment.

Essential food, medical, building and other supplies have been prevented from entering the tiny coastal strip, impoverishing its people and destroying its economy. The easing of the siege in response to the last Freedom Flotilla has been cosmetic only with no materials for manufacture permitted, nor exports, nor free passage of people.
“In the face of the shameful failure of governments to defend international law, the people of the world will break the unlawful siege of Gaza,” said Ms Charida.

The Freedom Flotilla sets sail for Gaza in the second half of May 2011. †It consists of more than 11 boats from over 22 countries including Canada, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Ireland, USA, Britain, Greece, Turkey, Australia and France.

Article by James Godfrey.

For more information on the activities of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla Working Group Sydney check out: http://www.facebook.com/#!/group.php?gid=127042173984253

April 22, 2011 Posted by | Freedom Flotilla Two, Media | , , , | 2 Comments