After months of preparation and training the Freedom Flotilla is ready to depart for Gaza today.
The converted fishing trawler I am travelling on, the Al Awda, along with three sailing yachts are under constant guard as previous flotillas have been sabotaged in foreign ports by the Israeli secret services trying to stop the attempts to break the blockade.
I have met up with my fellow Kiwi of Palestinian descent, Youssef Sammour, a sailor and yacht engineer currently working in Dubai, who leaves Palermo after 45 days at sea. He has been sailing on the flotilla yacht ‘Freedom’ since Amsterdam. If the boats are intercepted and the crew arrested they will all be subjected to a ten-year ban on re-entering Israel. As a third generation refugee, Youssef does not want to rule out the possibility in the future of visiting his homeland.
Youssef considers himself a Kiwi as he has spent half his life in New Zealand at school and university. His father Khalil got work in New Zealand as a surgeon at Greymouth Hospital on the West Coast of the South Island. My mum Joan grew up in Blackball, a small mining town just outside of Greymouth, and went to school in Greymouth. My Granddad, Walter Kirk, was a miner and a unionist, and part of the “red” Federation of Labour, the first national union federation formed in 1920 which had its national headquarters in Blackball. Famous figures of the New Zealand Labour movement – Paddy Webb, Bob Semple, Walter Nash, Harry Holland – were household names, friends or colleagues. Granddad was also one of the first, if not the first, Kiwi to play Rugby League professionally in Australia for at least one season in the early 1900s. For mum Blackball was home, and it was where she wanted her ashes spread when she died which we were able to do five years ago. The only problem is she wanted them spread at the top of a steep mountain range behind Blackball known as the creases. I was back on May Day this year to commemorate the fifth anniversary of her death.
Youssef’s dad didn’t actually want to go to Greymouth – too small, isolated, and cold. He left his wife and son in Auckland and visited when he could. Yet 3 years later, by the time he had finished his contract in Greymouth, Youssef says his father left in tears as he had come to love the place his colleagues, patients, and the wonderful people of Greymouth.
Youssef’s family’s story is both typical and special. Youssef’s dad was born on May 15, 1948 – the day known in Palestinian history as the Nakba – the day of catastrophe. The Jewish settlers proclaimed the state of Israel and presided over the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians. Youssef’s grandmother went into labour whilst on the road from Palestine to Lebanon. She gave birth to Khalil and was so traumatised by the events that she could not breast feed her child. They were forced to crush almonds for the milk to feed him along the way.
His parents were childhood friends, growing up in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Dad went to Cairo to become a surgeon and Samira, Youssef’s mum stayed in Beirut to study Chemistry. They ended up meeting again a few years later as they found themselves working in the same hospital in the UAE. They are still happily married today, Khalil is in his last year of work as chief of the surgical department in a private hospital in the Emirates. They are looking to move back to NZ and finally get some well earned R&R. For a Palestinian family, home can be Beirut, Auckland, Greymouth, but often never Haifa, the home of their birth, even to scatter their ashes as I was able to do for my mum.
My own place on the Al Awda (Return), I am taking over from another young Palestinian scholar, Awni Farhat who grew up and Gaza and completed a masters degree in human rights conflict studies in the Netherlands, but can’t return like a normal person to visit his family.
Such are the many small, but cruel, ironies of life in occupied Palestine.
Al Awda was a Norwegian fishing trawler. Scandinavians have been strong supporters of the decade-long campaign to breach the blockade from sea. Like New Zealand, these countries have strong fishing industries. One aspect of the inhumanity of the blockade is stopping the fishing people in Gaza from plying their trade – even within the 12-mile maritime boundaries. A reign of terror is maintained. Boats are fired on several times a day, dozens of fishers are wounded and a few killed each year. Just this last few weeks a limit of 3 nautical miles has been imposed. Several boats in Gaza that were planning to meet our small armada were singled out to be bombed in port.
Swedish sailors and campaign supporters were instrumental supplying the three yachts – Freedom, Mairead and Falestine – that have been part of the flotilla from the beginning of the journey in May. A Danish Socialist MP, Mikkel Gruner, is on the Al Awda. We have a professional chef from a leading restaurant as our personal cook.
Torstein Dahle, a city council member in the port city of Bergen and leader of the Red Party in Norway has spearheaded getting a fishing boat ready that can be donated to the fishers of Gaza and be able to carry the crew and volunteers to break the blockade. This work to transform the ship began in January this year. A volunteer team of engineers, mechanics, carpenters and electricians have laboured for hundreds of hours to complete the work in time for the sailing part of the journey to begin.
In many ways this is a project of direct solidarity from workers and fishers in Scandinavia to the fishers of Gaza. They have generously allowed some others to join them because we have our own positions in our own societies and can amplify their message across the globe.
Other workers have intervened to ensure the boats can reach their goal. The port authorities near Lisbon, Portugal, tried to prevent the ships entry until the port workers union ‘Sindicato Dos Estivadores E Da Actividade Logistica’ told them they would have a serious problem if they tried.
That has been the pattern through the journey. Usually national governments and the police try to make life hard, while local governments and the people’s organisations welcome the boats. One yacht was rammed and damaged by French police boats in Paris. In Palermo where we are at the moment, the Mayor, Leoluca Orlando, who comes from people’s campaigns against corruption and Mafia control of the Church and the State in Sicily has announced that port will be renamed in remembrance to the historic Palestinian national leader Yasser Arafat who died, or more likely murdered by Israel, in 2004. He is also fighting to preserve the city as a place of safe haven for refugees and beat back attempts by the right-wing and fascist forces in Italy to blame refugees for the social problems created by the capitalist Europe project which has resulted in nothing but austerity, welfare cuts and growing unemployment for working people across Europe.
The Freedom Flotilla participants were also warmly welcomed by thousands of Italian and Spanish supporters of refugee rights and open borders in a joint march through the fantastically beautiful city at night. Everything is on Mediterranean time here. The place comes alive from 7pm when many central city streets are closed to cars, and families (including young children which made my Anglo-Kiwi mind a bit uncomfortable) enjoy meals on street tables until late at night.
Palermo is the capital city of Sicily and has a history going back 2700 years. It has been governed and settled by Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans. It is a historical and cultural centre for the meeting points between west and east in Europe. The architecture is spectacular and the churches numerous and extraordinarily beautiful.
The Ambassador from Palestine to Italy Dr Mai Alkaila came to visit July 18 during our training session to express solidarity and support. There was an unplanned and tearful reunion with Dr Swee Ang, a Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon; author of From Beirut to Jerusalem and the ships doctor. Dr Ang’s journey with Palestine began as a volunteer surgeon in Gaza Hospital in Beirut’s Sabra Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in 1982. About 3 weeks after her arrival, more than three thousand of them were massacred. These events traumatised the young surgeon and Dr Ang describes how the love and generosity of the Palestinian people helped bring her back to a purposeful meaningful life – but now one forever intertwined with the fate of the Palestinian people. (From Beirut to Jerusalem can be downloaded here.). Dr Ang served in Gaza in 1988-89 during the first Intifada and again in 2009 after the Israeli invasion of Gaza in December 2008 that left thousands of casualties.
The ambassador generously offered to bring lunch the next day which she duly delivered and then served it herself – bodyguards discretely in the background. That day she spoke to Youssef and myself to say how she had delivered a special message of thanks to the NZ Embassy in Rome for New Zealand taking up the sponsorship of a UN Security Council resolution in December 2016 critical of the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. This resolution was significant because the US abstained rather than veto it as they usually did anything critical of Israel. This is not a new stance for New Zealand but one of the original sponsors had pulled out and it seems that the NZ Foreign Minister Murray McCully agreed to sponsor it without checking with the Prime Minister. It lead to Israel withdrawing its ambassador to New Zealand and barring the New Zealand ambassador in Israel. Diplomatic relations were restored in June 2017 after then-Prime Minister Bill English wrote a cowardly letter to Israel expressing “regret” over the fallout from the resolution.
The current Foreign Minister and NZ First leader Winston Peters who has a strong personal bias towards Israel, was not happy. The resolution features in the Labour-New Zealand First coalition agreement, which states a commitment to “record a Cabinet minute regarding the lack of process followed prior to the National-led Government’s sponsorship of UNSC2334”.
Ambassador Alkaila also expressed her delight at the decision of NZ artist Lorde to boycott performing in Israel.
A city reception was also held and then the mayor and the ambassador joined and spoke at a support function in the evening of the 19th of July.
We have had intensive training from US professionals in non-violent resistance. Tips have been given from those arrested, abused, or tasered by the Israeli military on previous expeditions on what might be expected.
Only one previous Gaza blockade shift saw casualties. In 2010, a six-boat flotilla led by a Turkish ship the MV Mavi Marmara, with almost 500 passengers was assaulted in the middle of the night and ten were killed and dozens injured. This led to a prolonged diplomatic crisis between Turkey, as a NATO member, is one of the few majority Muslim countries to maintain friendly relations with Israel. Since then Israel has usually just boarded the ships, towed them to port and deported the participants after a few days of questioning.
My fellow passengers on the Al Awda are an extraordinary group. I hope to have a chance to talk to them more during our journey and get to tell their stories over the next few weeks.
Whatever happens on this trip to Gaza, the siege and blockade will end. lsrael is increasingly revealing its racist, authoritarian character. There are 13 million Palestinian people. Seven and a half million are displaced or in exile. Six and a half million Palestinians continue to live in historic Palestine alongside six and a half million people of Jewish descent. A way must, and will be found to destroy the apartheid system that seeks to preserve the ethnic superiority of one group over another and allow that majority of people in the the region who want to live in peace and security to do so.
22 July 2018