An Eyewitness Account of the Stay Human Flotilla

September 22, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Susan Schwartz, TMO

Readers of The Muslim Observer will be familiar with the dedicated work of human rights activist, Mary Hughes -Thompson. Beginning with her travels a decade ago under the auspices of the Christian Peacemaker Teams and including her work with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), we come now to her most recent attempt to be part of the second flotilla to Gaza. Mary has been a tireless fighter for the rights of Palestinians.

Ms Hughes-Thompson was part of the original Free Gaza Movement and sailed aboard one of the two ships that broke the decades long Israeli siege of Gaza along its Mediterranean coast in August 2008. She has made numerous trips since then and was part of a three woman communications operation on Cyprus during the first flotilla attempt in 2010. She was one of the first people to receive the news of Israeli piracy aboard the MAVI MARMARA.

Ms Hughes has made public appearances since her return from Greece where the ship she was on was interdicted by the Greek Navy. She has agreed to speak to The Muslim Observer in depth about her experiences.

TMO: You have done so much and travelled so many miles for Palestine, you must at some point have wanted to skip this trip with its attendant risks. Could you share your feelings and what, in the end, compelled you to go?

MHT:  Traveling to and inside Palestine is something I have always found to be physically and emotionally exhausting.   Also as a senior on a fixed income I have to make a lot of sacrifices in order to cover the extensive travel costs involved, as of course do all of us who make Palestine a priority.  For all these reasons I felt I couldn’t afford to participate in another flotilla.   As the time for departure neared, and so many of my friends and colleagues prepared to join the flotilla, I realized I needed after all to find a way to be a part of it.

Ms Thompson contacted organizers of the Turkish campaign and was told there was a strong possibility the MAVI MARMARA might not sail. 

Israel had announced, following the deaths on the MAVI MARMARA in 2010, that it regarded only that ship as hostile. The other members of the flotilla were acknowledged by Israel to have non threatening humanitarian aims. It was felt that the presence of the MAVI MARMARA might give Israel the excuse to stop the flotilla. In the end, the ship stayed in port in Turkey.

TMO: Could you tell us, please, what your next step was.

MHT: I then contacted the organizers of Canadian Boat to Gaza campaign and asked to be considered as a passenger on its boat TAHRIR.   I was delighted to be accepted for  passage, and ten days later I left for Greece and the island of Crete where the boat was berthed.

At this time Greece was in turmoil due to severe domestic and financial problems.  For weeks, thousands of Greek citizens held huge demonstrations against their government.  While I felt that the people of Greece supported the Palestinian cause, it became apparent that the government could probably not withstand pressure from the governments of Israel and the US.
Nonetheless, a member of the Greek parliament went to the boat to express his best wishes.

TMO: What did he say, and did he bring the wishes of other people and/or groups?

MHT:  After the Coast Guard delayed our departure repeatedly over nearly two weeks, the Greek minister came on board TAHRIR to show support for our efforts to be allowed to leave Greece and sail for Gaza.  He promised to do his best to intercede on our behalf, assuring us that most Greek citizens supported the flotilla.

In the weeks before passengers on all the boats gathered at various Greek ports,  Israel sent its ambassadors to all of the countries whose citizens were sending boats to join the flotilla, attempting to persuade the governments to stop them from doing so. Israel also pressured maritime Insurance groups and companies which supplied satellite equipment to the ships of the flotilla, threatening  legal action if they provided their services.

Israeli journalist, freedom advocate, and TAHRIR passenger, Amira Haas wrote: “The flotilla’s organizers added a term from the world of business and globalization to their description of Israel’s domination of the Palestinians. Israel, they said, was outsourcing the industry of the blockade on Gaza.”

TMO: Can you describe the feeling aboard the TAHRIR – optimistic, pessimistic, wait and see?

MHT: We stayed optimistic throughout, even when we began to see it was just a game being played by Greece at the behest of Israel and the U.S.  We hoped Greece would eventually run out of excuses and let us leave.  We all wanted more than anything to sail to Gaza, but we felt that no matter what happened we were winning because of the publicity and of the shameless way Israel and the U.S. were behaving.  We felt everything just proved how scary we were to Israel.  Also, once we decided to break out and set sail, even though we didn’t expect to get far, we were euphoric and were almost as excited as if we truly were on our way to Gaza. 

TMO: Can you tell us something about your fellow passengers aboard the TAHRIR? Were the passengers an eclectic mix? Were various peace groups represented?

MHT: The participants called theirs the A-B-C-D group;  while most passengers were from Canada, there were contingents from Australia, Belgium and Denmark which had helped raise the money to buy TAHRIR.  All of the training was conducted in French and English, and we became close friends. Though not well known in the U.S. we had several participants who are well known leaders in their own countries.  Also Kevin Neish who was on board the MAVI MARMARA last year.  He and Amira were to be on the MAVI this year but transferred to TAHRIR when MAVI dropped out)
{ Note from TMO that a list of passengers and their specifics can be found on their web site: www.tahir.ca.}

Spokespersons for each boat told of the same unrelenting demands by the Greek Navy and the same tedious excuses – the need to see papers, papers, and more papers; finding fault with the size of the berths, and inadequate temperature control. In the end, no one was allowed to leave Greek coastal waters.

TMO: When you were boarded by the Greek Navy after you began to sail absent permission, were you frightened? Did you think you would be arrested?

MHT:  I wouldn’t say any of us were frightened because we hadn’t found any of the Greeks to be hostile to us.  When they boarded with guns drawn they certainly were serious about stopping us, but they didn’t attack any of the passengers.  I personally found it somewhat intimidating because I realized how helpless we would have been if it had been Israelis who would be very brutal and would have no consideration for our safety, no matter how old we were.

TMO: Tell us about the medicines aboard the TAHRIR. Had you reached Gaza what would have been the next step in their distribution?

MHT: Our two doctors (one Belgian, one French-Canadian) told us we had $30,000. in much needed medicine.  They said it was chosen  very carefully because it was important medicine that was completely unavailable in Gaza and which would save lives.  We saw it ourselves, and saw the earliest expiry date was 2014.

Amira Haas has noted that the primary problem in Gaza is not starvation. Food is brought in via tunnels albeit at an inflated price. And the Palestinians in Gaza take care of one another. The real problem is freedom. By separating the West Bank from Gaza the public can easily forget that Gaza is Palestine. Prisoners released from incarceration in the West Bank are often sent to Gaza where they cannot leave. This is a life sentence for them.

TMO: Can you tell us your hopes for true freedom for the people of Gaza?

MHT: My hope is that as the world community becomes increasingly aware that Israel is the primary cause of all the violence in Palestine, Israel will find itself even more isolated and unable to continue getting away with masquerading as the victim.   Facebook and social networking have been very important in educating more and more people to what is happening, and I believe these people are increasingly on the side of Palestinian rights.

TMO: Despite the failure of the flotilla to reach Gaza so many passengers have seen good come out of the attempt. Can you comment on that?

MHT: We were disappointed, of course, because we hadn’t anticipated that Israel’s talons could reach so far from its own shores.  We knew our friends in Gaza were enthusiastically planning for our arrival, and that they too were disappointed once again. But I don’t see it as a failure.  I see it as just another nail in the coffin of zionist Israel.  Starting with the attack on Lebanon, then Gaza, followed by last year’s massacre on the MAVI MARMARA and attack on all the flotilla boats, and finally what happened to Flotilla 2 – Stay Human, Israel finally realizes its glory days are over, and that if it doesn’t made some serious changes it will soon be completely friendless.  More important, we continue to be energized by the strength and endurance of the people of Gaza and all of Palestine who have found hope from our boats.  I am so proud to have been instrumental, along with some wonderful Free Gaza colleagues, in reaching the shores Gaza three years ago, and humbled to realize all that has happened as a result of our crazy idea.

TMO: We know you do not give up. Can you tell us your plans for the next trip to break the siege of Gaza?

MHT:  The U.S. boat is still being held in Greece, clearly under orders from the U.S.  Most of the other boats have been moved to other ports, including TAHRIR. While I can’t give details of future plans, I am confident there will be another flotilla.  And I will be there.  Today’s announcement from Turkey that warships will accompany future flotillas is very welcome, because we know each time we set sail we risk death or serious injury in the international waters of the Mediterranean.  We find it remarkable that Israel seems to underestimate our commitment to peace for the people of Palestine.  Each time they stop our boats, attack our boats, ram our boats, murder our passengers… thousands more around the world ask to join our next flotilla.  We will not be intimidated and we will not stop sailing our boats until Gaza and all of Palestine are free.

The Muslim Observer extends its thanks to Ms Hughes-Thompson for her time and for the great work she has done as a human rights activist.

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The STAY HUMAN Flotilla to Gaza

June 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Susan Schwartz, TMO

The Freedom Flotilla II, named the Stay Human flotilla, will sail for the beleaguered Gaza Strip of the Occupied Palestinian Territory in the latter part of June. The postponement from the originally scheduled March departure date is due to the complex logistics involved in campaigns to raise money for multiple sailing vessels and to outfit them properly and prepare them for their journey. Another factor is the political turmoil in the region, particularly what is happening in Libya and Syria.

The name Stay Human was chosen to honor the late Italian Palestinian activist Vittorio ‘Vik’ Arrigoni. His recent violent death, under circumstances still in question, left the Palestinian activist community stunned. Tributes poured in from all over the world, and people who knew him and worked with him and were touched by his charm and dedication could only work through their grief by rededicating themselves to his cause.

His favorite expression to his co workers was “Stay Human”, and thus the flotilla name.

“Our message of peace is a call to action, for ordinary people like ourselves, not to hand over our lives to whatever puppeteer is in charge this time round, but to take responsibility for the revolution. First, the inner revolution- to give love to give empathy; It is this that will change the world.”

Two activists who contributed to this article, veteran  human rights activist and International Solidarity Movement (ISM) member, Greta Berlin, and human rights activist, ISM co founder, and member of the Flotilla Steering Committee, Huwaida Arraf, were among the many who paid tribute to “Vik”.

Ms Arraf delivered a tribute at his funeral and Ms Berlin had the following to say: “Nothing that we can write can capture the man who was so full of the joy of life, a man with the pipe in his mouth and the captain’s hat always tilted at an angle on his head.The man with the big smile and gentle nature, someone who used his physical strength to hold small children in his arms, sometimes several at a time. His laughter and his last comments every time we saw him will ring in all of our ears as we board the boats to return to Gaza at the end of May.”

In the past the organizers of the vessels have worked with the government of Cyprus. This coming flotilla is and will be working with the Mediterranean governments of France, Spain, Greece, Italy and Turkey.

Ms Berlin urges all our readers to advocate for the flotilla’s safe voyage. People should call their representative, send an email, call the White House, and the State Department and inform them that the American people expect all on board the vessels to be safe.

Most of the monies raised were raised by grass roots fundraising. The only boat scheduled to leave from the United States, named The Audacity of Hope”,  was funded in part by activists going into the streets of New York with buckets and asking for contributions. The organizing group bought a 100 foot boat that will support from 50-60 passengers. Most on board will be from civil society with a few notables.

The boat will not carry cargo but will carry messages and letters from the American people, said Jane Hirschmann of the US Boat to Gaza. The relevant web site is: www.ustogaza.org. Americans who want to send a personal message should access the web site to find out the protocol.

Present estimates give the number of ships in the flotilla as between ten and fifteen. A number of the ships represent joint ventures. The ships are nation oriented though they are networks of national organizations and do not represent a government or an NGO.

There will be high profile people aboard these ships including members of parliament. For security reasons many are not currently named. It is known that they will include Colonel Ann Wright, Alison Weir of If Americans Knew, and Code Pink leader Medea Benjamin as well as Rugby star Trevor Hogan. Mr. Hogan has written an opinion piece in The Irish Herald in which he announced that he will be a part of the flotilla and will be aboard the Irish ship to Gaza.

Foremost among the cargo will be construction supplies, equipment for hospitals, water purification systems, and generators. Organizers would also like to be able to bring solar paneling for Green energy so that Gaza might become more independent  of Israel for its energy needs. However the costs are prohibitive. Individuals who want to contribute but hold back because the amount they can contribute is small should consider that their donation, along with others, will purchase a part of an important commodity. Please access the following web site: www.freegaza.org/donate.  

The International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in Gaza is in need of volunteers, and some of the flotilla passengers may elect to remain in Gaza to work with them. Huwaida Arraf cautions those who wish to remain that pre arrangement must be made with an organization including the ISM. ISM works with fishermen who challenge the limitations that Israel places on their right to move their fishing vessels – and therefore their livelihood – more than a few miles from the Gaza coast. Farmers with ISM help challenge the buffer zones imposed by Israel which zones prevent them from reaching their land.

People who must leave Gaza may be on the departing vessels. Again Ms Arraf cautions that they must have the proper paperwork required by the nations where they hope to be taken as this is an immigration issue that the Free Gaza Movement has no control over. While previous vessels leaving Gaza have dealt with the issue, the permanent opening of the Rafah border renders the issue moot.

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Gaza Freedom Marchers vs Egyptian Police

March 25, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Susan Schwartz, MMNS

Gaza has become the central focus of the human rights struggle. Many groups have called for its liberation, and many are striving to bring aid to that beleaguered area. This concern has accelerated since the launching of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead last year and the devastation that this operation wrought.

A coalition led by Code Pink had announced plans to enter Gaza through Rafah during a three week period which would coincide with the first anniversary of Israel’s destructive campaign. While in Gaza the group planned to march from Rafah to the Eretz crossing – the entry into Gaza from Israel – and symbolically link there with marchers from Israel.

Mary Hughes-Thompson, familiar to readers of The Muslim Observer and to activists worldwide, was a participant in the planned Gaza Freedom March. Ms Thompson is a member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and has travelled to the Occupied Palestinian Territories several times. She  is co-founder of the Free Gaza Movement and was on the first ship to reach Gaza in August 2008, breaking a decades long siege. She has given The Muslim Observer an interview.

The story of the Gaza Freedom March (GFM) and its failure to achieve its announced goal is a story whose central factor and key players are Egyptian collaboration. The Egyptian police used an intimidating physical presence to thwart the peaceful demonstrators.

In late December some 1400 international activists assembled in Cairo prepatory to travelling to El Arish and then on to Rafah.  On arriving in Cairo they were told by the Egyptian authorities that they would not be permitted to assemble or to travel to Gaza.

Code Pink as speaker for the Gaza Freedom Marchers announced a press conference. Immediately after the announcement they were told by Egyptian authorities that they could not hold a press conference.

TMO:  Am I correct that the Gaza Freedom Marchers went to Cairo with the expectation that the proper protocol had been observed and that they would be permitted to travel to Rafah?

Ms Thompson:  The Egyptian authorities had agreed to facilitate our travelling to Gaza.  They had asked that the names and passport information for all participants be provided to them by November 30th, and this was done.

TMO:  What reason did the Egyptian authorities give for disallowing a press conference?

Ms Thompson:  I do know they had originally granted permits for both the press conference and for the orientation meeting which was scheduled to be held December 27th.  A few days earlier Egypt suddenly withdrew the permits which meant we could not hold either event.

TMO:  Could you tell us what threats were made to taxi cab drivers and/or bus drivers to prevent the group from using these means of transportation?

Ms Thompson:  They were told their licenses would be revoked.

TMO:  Could you tell us the behavior of the Egyptian police when they blocked the exits from a number of hotels where activists were staying?

Ms Thompson:  They blocked exits from a number of the hotels where activists were staying.  We had several policemen stationed outside our hotel at all times, and every time we left we were asked where we were going and when we would be back.  The first couple of days a policeman came with us in our taxi and stayed with us all day.  Each time we took a taxi from our hotel, a policeman questioned the driver, took his license number and ID, and, on one occasion, sat on the hood of our taxi refusing to let us leave.

TMO:  Did the GFM group at any time engage in or threaten violence?

Ms Thompson:  I would definitely say no to that. There was not a great deal of violence at all but what there was was on the part of the Egyptian police trying to control the crowds and trying to lock us into our hotels to prevent us from assembling.

TMO:  Did you have an opportunity to interact with the Egyptian people?

Ms Thompson:  While in Egypt we met several high profile people who were actively engaged in protesting. In fact, we went to the courthouse one day to support a local lawyer who was part of a group trying to challenge the Egyptian government’s building of the wall along the Rafah border. At the end of our trip Yvonne Ridley hired a van to take us to the pyramids (so she could videotape Hedy). {TMO: Hedy Epstein, an 85 year old Holocaust survivor and a Palestinian activist}, and our driver pointed to the spot on which we had been roughed up a few days earlier and said:  “The other day there was a revolution there.”

TMO:  Would you describe for our readers the details of the Egyptian police activity vis a vis your group at Tahrir Square?

Ms Thompson:  We decided that on the day we had planned to march to Erez crossing, we would hold a symbolic march in Cairo, and go as far as the Egyptian police would let us.  We started in Tahrir Square, opposite the Museum, and we ended there.  We came in small groups of two or three, from all directions, and the police were waiting for us.  They stopped my group (me, Hedy, and her two friends from St Louis, Sandra and J’Ann) and wouldn’t let us go to the meeting point.  We refused to leave, and insisted we were tired and needed to sit on a bench on the sidewalk.  Suddenly we saw a swarm of people crossing the street, and we ran to join them.  We were immediately surrounded by policemen three deep, and they wouldn’t let anyone in or out.

Generally the police didn’t use rough tactics, and I think my grey hair and cane might have helped me.

Even assembly in small groups was not permitted and any such gatherings were quickly surrounded by Egyptian police in riot gear.

Eventually through the intervention of Susan Mubarak, the head of the Egyptian Red Crescent Society, 100 of the Gaza Freedom marchers were told they could travel to Gaza and bring with them the supplies they wanted to provide to the people there. This happened before the event at Tahrir Square.

TMO:  Thank you Ms Thompson on behalf of The Muslim Observer. You have given us an insight into events in Cairo, an insight not readily accessible in the media.

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Israel Attacks Humanitarian Ship, Hijacks Crew

July 2, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Susan Schwartz, MMNS

Editor’s note:  This event occurred in 2009.  If you are looking for the attack that occurred in June of 2010, please look at the following posts:

http://muslimmedianetwork.com/mmn/?p=6280 (Erdogan’s Speech to Turkish Parliament)

http://muslimmedianetwork.com/mmn/?p=6279 (Paintballs to pistols, Israel admits ship blunders)

http://muslimmedianetwork.com/mmn/?p=6278 (Turkey calls for punishment of Israel for killings)

http://muslimmedianetwork.com/mmn/?p=6277 (Egypt Opens Gaza Border After Israel Clash)

While sailing from Cyprus to Gaza on a humanitarian mission as part of the Free Gaza Movement, the SS Spirit of Humanity, an unarmed vessel with only civilians aboard, was attacked and boarded by Israeli Naval forces and its passengers and crew kidnapped. Prior to this the Humanity had been surrounded by ships of the Israeli Navy. The Israelis had jammed the ship’s navigation system, its GPS, and its radar. This took place in international waters, and the initial hostile action from Israel put the ship and its passengers and crew in grave danger.

Early Monday morning (June 29, 7:30 am local time) , the SS Spirit of Humanity left the Cyprus port of Lenarca to sail to the beleaguered nation of Gaza. Aboard are 21 human rights activists from 14 countries. The ship also carries three tons of medical supplies, crayons and coloring books for the children of Gaza and reconstruction kits for 20 homes to be rebuilt in Gaza.

Former Congresswoman, Cynthia McKinney, a vocal proponent of the rights of the people of Gaza, is aboard. Ms McKinney attempted to make the trip in December 2008, a trip that was interdicted by an attack from the Israeli Navy. Also aboard are Huwaida Arraf and Adam Shapiro, a husband and wife team who founded the International Solidarity Movement and Mairead Maguire, a Nobel Prize winner.

The destruction in Gaza inflicted by the Israelis during Operation Cast Lead (December 2008-January 2009) resulted in the loss of over 2400 family dwelling places, educational and medical centers, cement factories and charitable establishments.

The Humanity is carrying kits which attempt to compensate in arenas of need destroyed by Israel and that have, thus far, been closed off to aid from outside forces. These arenas include, but are by no means limited to: agriculture, education, electricity, water and sanitation. While billions in aid was pledged by other nations, only a trickle of money has come to Gaza, none of it for the acutely needed rebuilding efforts.

This past Thursday the Humanity and its sister ship, the SS Free Gaza, were both poised to depart for Gaza. They were unable to leave Cyprus  when they were denied departure credentials by Limasol, the Cyprus Port Authority. The activists learned from a source in the government of Cyprus that the Israelis applied pressure to prevent the departure. Strangely, the letter of refusal was dated two days before the actual inspection was made.

The Free Gaza Movement was created to break the siege of Gaza by sailing ships into its port via Gaza’s Mediterranean border. In August 2008, two ships, the SS Free Gaza and the SS Liberty accomplished this and became the first ships to enter Gaza by sea in 41 years. This current voyage is the eighth attempt. Two attempts were thwarted by the Israelis. One ship, the SS Dignity, left Cyprus in December 2008 and was rammed by the Israeli Navy. But for the ability of the captain and crew, it would have sunk with the probable loss of life of all aboard. In January 2009, subsequent to the Israeli invasion of Gaza, the SS Spirit of Humanity attempted to make the journey was forcibly turned back by the Israeli Navy.

The SS Free Gaza, one of the ships that made the first voyage, and the SS Spirit of Humanity had between them 36 passengers and crew from 16 nations and were carrying 15 tons of cement,  three tons of medical supplies and crayons and books for children. Gaza desperately needs cement for rebuilding, but Israel has denied it to them. The cement being carried by the activists is but a token, a small percentage of what is needed. Crayons and books are also forbidden to the people of Gaza by the Israelis.

The organizers of this trip include Greta Berlin, an internationally known human rights activist and a veteran participant in the International Solidarity Movement; Huwaida Arraf , Mary Hughes Thompson, another veteran of humanitarian activity in Gaza, and Ramzi Kysia, an American of Lebanese descent.

Past voyages have seen the activists tour hospitals, in critical condition even prior to the Israeli invasion. They have watched patients fight for their lives when necessary electronic equipment could not function as Israel did not permit a constant supply of electricity. They have accompanied fishermen into the Mediterranean beyond the limit permitted by Israel so that they could pursue their livelihood. They have helped farmers plant olive trees. They have brought hope and friendship to the world’s largest outdoor prison.

Two recent incidents have highlighted the danger posed to the brave people of the Free Gaza movement. Free Gaza activist, Hedy Epstein, an 84 year old Holocaust survivor was brutally attacked in St Louis on her way home. She required a hospital visit for her injuries. Ms Epstein has been an active supporter of the rights of Gaza and has been the recipient of numerous telephone and email threats.

Recently the SS Dignity suffered damage during a storm and sunk to the bottom of the Mediterranean while in port in Cyprus. Shortly before this happened, two men made a threat regarding the boat. It has still not been determined whether the force of the storm resulted in its destruction or whether the storm provided a convenient cover.

The travelers have made promises to the people of Gaza. They promised to return, they promised to exit with residents of Gaza who yearned to be re united with family and residents of Gaza who had secured acceptance in colleges outside of Gaza but whom Israel would not permit to leave. And, they promised to carry to the rest of the world the story of Gaza under siege.

A Gaza volunteer gave a poignant account of her experiences in Gaza where brave and resilient people struggle to obtain the basics of existence. “I’ve done work in prison” she said “This is worse than being in prison.”

The public is urgently asked to contact the following groups:

Israeli Ministry of Justice; tel  +972 2646 6666 or +972 2646 6340; fax +972 2646 6357.

Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs;      tel +972 2530 3111; fax +972 2530 3367

Red Cross Israel; tel +972 3524 5286;      fax +972 3527 0370.

Also readers and members of the public should contact the White House and their Senators and Congresspersons.

Free Gaza may be accessed at: www.freegaza.org.

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