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.

13-39

Eyewitness to History

August 11, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Susan Schwartz, TMO

During mid summer the attention of the world was once again focused on Gaza, often referred to as the world’s largest outdoor prison. Humanitarians had organized a flotilla to sail to Gaza from Mediterranean ports on the anniversary of last year’s attempt – an attempt which resulted in the death of nine people as Israel committed a barbaric act of piracy against the Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara.

The Los Angeles area was privileged to hear two first hand accounts of this year’s flotilla thanks to a  presentation titled: “Eyewitness Account of the Gaza Flotilla”  held this past weekend. Featured speakers were Yonatan Shapira and Mary Hughes Thompson. Mr. Shapira is from Israel and is a former Israeli IDF pilot. He is a Refusenik, a member of Boycott from Within, and a co founder of Combatants for Peace.

Ms Thompson is a veteran peace activist and a co founder of the Free Gaza Movement. She was on board one of the two ships that sailed simultaneously into the port of Gaza to break the decades long blockade in the late summer of 2008.

The event was one in a series of conversations about the Middle East and was sponsored by Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP); the Levantine Cultural Center; LA Jews for Peace (LAJP); Friends of Sabeel; Women in Black LA (WIBLA), and BDSLA.

Mr. Shapira began by giving his background as a child growing up in a privileged position in Israel, the son of a high ranking Air Force officer. He told the audience that the squad which dropped Israeli soldiers onto the Mavi Marmara in 2010 was his squad. He told of being disillusioned by Israeli targeted assassination attempts which killed innocent civilians, including children.

He addressed the audience and asked if there were persons present who held a point of view different than his. Two people raised their hands. “I want to hear what you have to say after the presentation” said Mr. Shapira
Mr Shapira said that he was on the American Gaza bound ship, The Audacity of Hope. He and others arrived in Athens at the end of June and immediately began training in non violent resistance.The ship was not permitted to leave Athens because of bogus claims that the vessel was not seaworthy. There were representatives of the press on board including CNN, the New York Times, and the Nation. Thanks to the heavy hand of Israeli and American pressure on the government of Greece,  the voyage was aborted. The ship was confiscated, and attorneys are still working for its release.

Mr. Shapira had been on a small “Jewish vessel” which tried to sail to Gaza shortly after the incident of Israeli piracy on the Mavi Marmara. The vessel carried harmonicas and was stopped by the Israeli navy.

Israel claimed that the vessel carried dual use items.

Mr. Shapira said that even if the voyage to the port of Gaza had been successful, success cannot truly be declared until Gaza is free.

Ms Thompson told briefly of her work with the people of Palestine. She chose to take the Canadian boat, Tahrir because of ties that she has to Canada. At first she had planned to skip the voyage but then thought of all the brave people who were going, and she felt she had to make another statement for her cause – the cause of Palestine. She rendezvoused with the Tahrir on the island of Crete where she also underwent training in nonviolent resistance. Israeli journalist Amira Hass was on board the Tahrir.
Ms Thompson spoke of the support of the Greek people for their cause. The Greek navy insisted on seeing every detail of paperwork. They declared the boat un seaworthy because, among other things,  the beds were too narrow, and the air conditioning did not work. When the handwriting was on the wall, the passengers found five men on board who were familiar with maritime engineering. The captain of the Tahrir was a Greek citizen and left the boat fearing arrest. He first instructed the five men in the techniques they would need to sail the vessel. Then the ship took off. Two people got into kayaks to create interference. The boat was physically prevented from sailing far, and soon the Tahrir were boarded. The boarding party found the wheel house empty and when the passengers were asked who the captain was, everyone raised his or her hand.

Ms Thompson mentioned the large amount of goods confiscated by Israel from the vessels of the first flotilla – cell phones, cameras, computers and other equipment. This material was never returned. This information brought a gasp from the audience.

“I never thought of that” said one woman “that adds the element of theft.”
Ms Thompson and Mr. Shapira agreed that the publicity the flotilla received and the light that was shown on Gaza and the conditions of the Gazans under the boot of Israel, rendered the mission of the Flotilla II at least partially successful. When non violence is a tactic, then the value of public opinion becomes increasingly valuable.

A lively question and answer session followed.

13-33

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.

12-13