Mohamad Shmaysani – Al-Manar Exclusive
Under the coordination of the Free Gaza Movement, on May 24, 2010, the Freedom Flotilla sets sail for Gaza determined to, once again, challenge Israel’s blockade of 1.5 million Palestinians trapped in an open-air prison.
As the whole world has shifted to the “World Cup mode”, with flags of every participating country seen on balconies, cars, stores, and practically everything in most countries including Arab states, a European young woman has decided to give momentum to the struggle for the rights of the Palestinians in occupied territories and in diaspora.
On May 24, 2010, the Freedom Flotilla sets sail for Gaza determined to, once again, challenge Israel’s blockade of 1.5 million Palestinians trapped in an open-air prison. Under the coordination of the Free Gaza Movement, numerous human rights organizations, including the Turkish Relief Foundation (IHH), the Perdana Global Peace Organization from Malaysia, the European Campaign to End the Siege of Gaza, and the Swedish and Greek Boat to Gaza initiatives will send three cargo ships loaded with reconstruction, medical and educational supplies. At least five passenger boats with over 600 people on board will accompany the cargo ships.
Al-Manar.com.lb interviewed Caoimhe Butterly, the celebrated Irish human rights activist who worked on human rights observation projects and with NGOs in Zimbabwe, Chiapas, Guatemala, Iraq and Palestine. Caoimhe lived in the Jenin refugee camp for a year in 2002 before being shot by Israeli soldiers, then deported.
Ms. Butterly, we’ve been hearing that you and your colleagues have been lobbying in Europe and the Arab world to break the siege of Gaza, again, and deliver a 10,000-ton cargo of supplies to the Gazans, what are you up to?
Butterly: We’re in the process of organizing a flotilla of ships, so basically a sea convoy. We’ve got between eight to ten ships organized by various organizations in Turkey, Greece, Ireland and Sweden that would be participating in this sea flotilla and what we are planning on doing up is meeting in international waters in less than a month with over 10,000 tons of cargo of reconstruction materials, medical supplies, and over 700 participants from around the world including parliamentarians, doctors, human rights activists and media people trying to basically challenge the siege, trying to break through the siege to reach Gaza with both the materials and also the witnesses.
Do you believe your chances are strong to achieve your goal?
Butterly: What we are planning on trying to increase our chances of getting in and what we have been doing for the past few months is doing a lot of political lobbying through meeting with governments that are sympathetic in South Africa, Venezuela, Pakistan, Norway, Ireland, Greece, Sweden, and other countries, the Turkish obviously as well, and trying to get formal positions from them to support us in case of attack or in case we’re stopped and to say that this is a legitimate, humane and legal initiative; that what we are doing is trying to uphold international law and trying to confront the illegal policies of Israel in collectively punishing over 1.5 million people who are imprisoned in the Gaza Strip. So what we are hoping is that there would be a political response and also a response on the level of civil society of trade unions, etc… if we are stopped or attacked. We are hopeful that this would happen; that we have generated hopefully enough media coverage, enough interest and understanding of the necessity of this convoy and that we will have a lot more support than we had in previous missions.
You have been arrested, shot at, and interrogated by the Israeli occupation forces on several occasions, aren’t you afraid of getting arrested again?
Butterly: I think everybody who’s participating in this convoy is aware of the possibility of attack or arrest. We’ve done a lot of training with the participants so that they would be able to know, for instance the process, and their rights if they are arrested, but I think it is a risk that everybody is willing to take. In the face of the sacrifice and daily suffering of the Palestinian people, it is imperative that we act, that we respond in a way that goes beyond demonstrations and speeches but as something practical that is direct and that is part of a sustained campaign, really trying to create a political will, whether or not our governments wanted, but from the grassroots up, further to meet change and that means the implementation of the international law which is not a policy issue, this is something that our governments have to understand, that the hypocrisy and double standards of the implementation of the international law is wrong and that we really have to resist this.
Can we compare between how Israeli security forces treated you as a European during interrogation and how they usually treat Palestinians in similar circumstances?
Butterly: I’ve been arrested before by Israeli security forces, twice by the Shin Bet, when I lived in the West Bank, I was deported both times, I changed my name after the first deportation, went back in and then I was arrested and deported again. It was intimidating, I think, being under interrogation, but I knew that my passport served in some protection and that whatever I experienced was nothing compared to what Palestinian men and women experience when they are arrested and often tortured, so it was okay.
What about the campaign in Europe, the fundraising, and the public awareness you’re trying to establish?
Buttelry: The campaign in Europe surrounding this flotilla is definitely gaining momentum. We have hundreds of volunteers working in many different countries, who are helping us to fundraise, to raise awareness and profile of the campaign, to media work, to do public talks and presentations. We’re getting cargo donated from all across Europe; we’re getting 50 tons of paper for printing presses in Gaza donated by people in Norway and another 50 tons of medical relief donated by different mosques and Islamic organizations throughout Europe, and 700 tons of cement for the Irish ship. Altogether we’re hoping to carry over 10,000 tons of humanitarian relief to Gaza. So the response has been very positive, people are definitely aware, they’re active and they’re involved. I think that even if we are blocked or attacked, that in itself, will be a success…having mobilized people, having reminded them of the urgency of the siege and the occupation in general.
In terms of fundraising, what we are trying to do is work on many different levels. One is on the level of business people, of asking businessmen and women to donate large amounts towards the boats and towards the cargo. Another thing that we’re doing on a more popular level is asking families in Ireland to donate a minimum of 5 Euros for bags of cement. So that means that they can sponsor one bag or two bags or ten bags for 50 Euros, or whatever they choose. A hospital can donate a hundred bags to a hospital in Gaza, save a five hundred Euros, or a school can do so likewise. The idea behind this is not only to raise money; it’s also to raise public awareness. So it means that if a family donates five Euros then they feel that they are invested in the flotilla, they watch it on the news, if something happens they’d respond and they’d feel outraged. So it’s a way of politicizing people as well.
Is the Arab world taking the role it should be taking with regards to your campaign?
Butterly: Yes, we’ve got a lot of different volunteers from throughout the Arab World; a lot of our fundraising has been done in the Arab World principally with diaspora Palestinians but also in other countries with people from really across the Arab World. There is also going to be many people from across the Arab World participating in the flotilla in the sea convoy, so there would be people from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, across the Gulf from Algeria, Morocco, etc. So there is definitely a lot of Arab participation and we really hope that this would grow because one of our main objectives is to build a movement which is not relying on foreigners or Westerners that can be something that has a very strong Arab identity as well, and that’s why for instance, Viva Palestina is thinking of the next convoy to be a Viva Palestina Arabiya. We’re hoping that the next sea convoy would have a large numbers of Arab activists. I think this is essential to really highlight the hypocrisy and double standards of Arab regimes by people refusing basically to obey the complicity of their governments in Zionist expansion, and actually struggle against it very directly.
How did you receive the news of gassing four young Palestinians in tunnels last week?
Butterly: The killing of the four young men in the tunnel yesterday, unfortunately, is part of a deliberate policy, not only of the Israeli government but also of the Egyptian government of collectively punishing the people of Gaza for their democratically elected choice of a government. The four young men that were killed yesterday were ones, and unfortunately, of over 160 young men of who have been killed or martyred in the tunnels over the past years of the siege. And I think that these are some of the silent death that go on and there have been over now 400 Palestinian men, women and children who have died of preventable diseases because of the siege, like cancer and kidney failure, because both the Israelis and Egyptians refuse them the right to travel abroad to get medical care or have the operations they need. So, unfortunately, I think this is yet another example of the criminal complicity of the Egyptian government in their participation in the siege, and if Rafah was open there would not be near the level of humanitarian crisis as there is in Gaza at the moment, so I think that really the Egyptian government have blood on their hands, not just the blood of the four young men yesterday but also the blood of people, for instance, during the massacres when the Egyptian government closed Rafah would not let the wounded out, for very long time would not let humanitarian workers and doctors in and it’s shameful and it’s something that should really be exposed.
Ms Butterly, what is the message that you’d like to convey through Al-Manar’s Website to the Gazans who are waiting for you and to the world as well?
Butterly: I think our message for Gazans, before we God willing get there, is that they are not alone. There are millions of people across the world, not only who feel the pain of the occupation, who feel deep grief and outrage when they witness the daily oppression of the Palestinian people but there are also millions of people across the world who deeply respect the endurance and the courage and the steadfastness of the Palestinian people, and I think that’s a very important message that we need to deliver, that we don’t just see Palestinians as victims of Israeli war crimes. They are victims, but they are also survivors, they are also proud, dignified and unbroken people. I think that it is very important that be present in everything that we say; it’s not that we are reducing the Palestinian struggle down just to a humanitarian case. It’s not that we think that we can throw a few thousand tons of cement and medicine in the Gaza Strip and that’s it. On the contrary, what we are struggling for, hand in hand, with Palestinian brothers, sisters and comrades, is for the liberation of Palestine, is for the right of return, for all of the exiled refugees in diaspora and the release of over 11,000 Palestinian political prisoners. It is also for the implementation of international law. So I think it is important that our messages are clear, that it’s not that we are going to Gaza out of pity, we’re going there out of admiration, love, and respect and we learn from the daily example of the Palestinian people and all people, internationally, who resist, who struggle and who refuse to be broken.