From campus to a Gaza flotilla: the experiences of an activist academic

It’s a long way from the classroom to a boat in the Mediterranean Sea. Lina Attalah, Almasy Alyoum, Cairo

Canadian academic David Heap last year took part in an activist mission to challenge the Israeli military blockade of the Palestinian enclave of Gaza.

The Israeli government claims the blockade is necessary to maintain security for its citizens and prevent terrorism. Palestinians, their supporters and human rights experts say the policy amounts to collective punishment that is damaging the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

After a previous aid flotilla to Gaza was raided by Israeli special forces in 2010, leaving nine activists dead, more attempts to send boats carrying supplies to Gaza were launched, including the Canadian Boat to Gaza, carrying Heap.

Here Heap explains why he risked his own safety to stand up for an issue he passionately supports.

Last year, at the University of Western Ontario campus where I work, a student group called Solidarity with Palestinian Human Rights joined with other community groups in London, Ontario to help raise tens of thousands of dollars in support of the Canadian Boat to Gaza, a civil society campaign to challenge the blockade of Gaza.

The illegal blockade of course affects students and university staff along with everyone else in what has aptly been called the world’s largest open-air prison.

The security justification

Despite marginal improvements following the pressure arising from the 2010 Freedom Flotilla, aid deliveries to Gaza still supply a fraction of what the population needed before the current blockade was imposed in 2007.

As the Israeli NGO Gisha documents extensively, the Palestinians of Gaza have been deliberately “put on a diet” by the continuing military blockade which allows in only a calculated minimum of restricted supplies: a form of collective punishment. The situation in Gaza is recognised as dire by international humanitarian NGOs, and the blockade has been characterised as a serious violation of international law by experts at the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCR) as recently as September 2011.

As my colleague, Dr. Ziad Medoukh (head of French and coordinator of the Peace Studies Centre at Al-Aqsa University in Gaza) notes: schools supplies, computer equipment and books are still among the goods that are severely restricted and only sporadically available in blockaded Gaza.

The hopes and aspirations of a whole generation in Gaza are being needlessly stunted due to senseless restrictions which have nothing to do with anyone’s “security”.

Complete blockade

Those who finish their studies and earn scholarships abroad are often caught by restrictions on human movement (a freedom which should be enjoyed by everyone under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) which cruelly curtail travel for academic, medical, commercial or family purposes.

While the occasional partial opening of the Rafah border with Egypt for some people (though few goods) is a positive development, Palestinians also have the right to free shipping traffic through the port of Gaza — the only Mediterranean port closed to shipping — and to the peaceful use of their own territorial waters, which they are currently denied.

They cannot depend on the whims of a neighbouring country to keep goods and people flowing in and out of Gaza.

The Canadian Boat to Gaza

These are some of the reasons why I was aboard the Tahrir, the Canadian Boat to Gaza which was part of the Freedom Flotilla II in July 2011, when we attempted to sail from Greece but were prevented by Greek authorities under international pressure.

A Google Maps screenshot showing the Tahrir was in international waters when confronted by Israeli naval forces. Lina Attalah, Almasy Alyoum, Cairo

The Israeli blockade of Gaza had been effectively outsourced to Greek ports, but our campaign continued undaunted. When the Tahrir, together with the Irish boat to Gaza (MV Saoirse), sailed from the southern Turkish port of Fethiye on November 2, 2011, I was again on board.

Though fewer in numbers than in July, the volunteers on the Tahrir were united in our determination to challenge the blockade of Gaza peacefully, through non-violent direct action. Apart from our Greek captain and five international journalists, our numbers included three Canadians, a U.S. citizen, Michael Coleman of Free Gaza Australia, and Palestinian student Majd Kayyal who has never been able to travel to Gaza directly, a mere 135 kilometres from his home in Haifa.

After about 50 hours at sea with almost continuous media coverage, our satellite communications were cut by the Israeli navy shortly after noon on Friday November 4, in stark contrast to the Greek authorities, who never interfered with communications or with media professionals when they stopped the Tahrir last July. Our last recorded GPS position was some 45 nautical miles from the port of Gaza, in international waters with a course set towards Palestinian territorial waters off Gaza. At no time did we set a course for Israel or Israeli waters.

Israel’s overwhelming use of force

In July, Greek authorities managed to take control of the Tahrir and more than 40 people on board, using only one small cutter and two Zodiacs carrying a total of six coastguard officers; in contrast, the Israeli navy deployed overwhelming force against our two small vessels.

The Tahrir, now with just 12 people on board, and the Saoirse, with 15, faced hundreds of heavily armed Israeli troops on at least three warships and between 15 and 20 assault boats equipped with water cannons and mechanical lifts.

Despite recognising that we were unarmed and would present no active resistance, the Israeli navy sent about two dozen heavily armed commandos to storm our vessel. I was tasered during the assault, and later bruised while being forcibly removed from the Tahrir.

Detention in Israel

Ironically, after being illegally kidnapped on the high seas, we were told we had illegally entered a country we never had any intention of visiting. Our six-day detention was marked throughout by manipulation and misinformation on the part of the Israeli authorities.

For example, we were told that if we signed a document waiving our right to appeal before a judge we would be deported home within 24 hours: Ehab Lotayef of Montreal signed such a waiver twice within the first 48 hours, and was nonetheless detained for six days, just like those of us who signed nothing.

Although cut short, the voyage of the Tahrir served to draw attention to the injustice of the blockade of Gaza, as well as to educate and mobilise Canadians and others against the blockade.

An ongoing campaign

Pulitzer Prize winner and civil rights activist Alice Walker from the US Boat to Gaza says challenges to the blockade of Gaza are the Freedom Rides of our time – and like the 1960s civil rights movement in the U.S. South, we must keep up the struggle despite attempts to intimidate us.

As my colleague Ziad notes, the Palestinians of Gaza are left with “a hope in international civil society solidarity which is organising throughout the world in order to try, through peaceful actions, to break this blockade.” (author’s translation)

He observes that though we did not reach the shores of Gaza this time, our message of solidarity was received throughout Palestine.

That is why we have to keep on challenging this blockade.