Ship Carrying Humanitarian Aid for Gaza Seized by Israel

Posted: July 10, 2009 in society
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CYPRUS-MIDEAST-CONFLICT-GAZA-AID-BOAT

Interview with Caoimhe Butterly, an Irish solidarity activist, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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On June 30, an unarmed boat, named “Spirit of Humanity,” carrying 21 international peace activists was seized in international waters by the Israeli Navy, as it attempted to sail from Cypress to Gaza with relief supplies and messages of solidarity for Palestinians living in Gaza. Israel says the boat had been boarded for security reasons in the area of the blockade, after it had entered into Gaza’s coastal waters. According to an International Committee of the Red Cross report released June 29, the Palestinians living in Gaza are “trapped in despair.” Thousands of Gazans whose homes were destroyed during Israel’s December/January invasion and air attacks are still without shelter despite pledges of almost $4.5 billion in international aid, because Israel refuses to allow cement and other building materials into Gaza. The report also notes that hospitals are struggling to meet the needs of their patients due to Israel’s disruption of medical supplies.

Since August 2008, the Free Gaza Movement has organized eight sea missions, successfully landing in Gaza on five separate occasions. On two earlier voyages, Israeli Occupation Forces used violence to stop the ships, physically ramming and almost sinking the boat named “Dignity,” in December 2008, and threatening to fire on and kill unarmed passengers in January.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Caoimhe Butterly, an Irish solidarity activist who was on board one of the boats last fall that arrived successfully in Gaza. She spent most of the next several months there, and was in Gaza during part of the Israeli winter offensive and served on the support team from Cypress for this most recent voyage of the Spirit of Humanity, whose passengers included former U.S. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire. Butterly explains exactly what happened in the June 30 seizure.

CAOIMHE BUTTERLY: Probably at 12 today it was clear that what had been sort of quite general threats made by the Israeli navy over the course of the whole morning were becoming much more serious. At about 3 o’clock, the boat was boarded by Israeli navy commandos. They took possession of the boat, looks like confiscated the phones of those on board, and proceeded to tow the boat to Ashdod, and the activists who were on the boat were split off into different groups and taken on navy vessels to Ashdod as well.

The boarding of the boat was done in international waters. The boat was blocked in international waters and the navigation system — radios, etc. — of the Spirit of Humanity had been jammed for hours, which is extremely dangerous, to jam the navigation system of a boat obviously places it in a very vulnerable position. But the activists — we got a text from them — are okay, they’re safe. They’re obviously very frustrated, but they’re okay and they’re presently being interrogated in four different police stations around Ashdod and Ashkelon, and it looks like they’ll be deported tonight or in coming days, some of them out through Allenby Bridge out across Jordan and others through Ben Gurion airport.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And what about the boat?

CAOIMHE BUTTERLY: The boat — it looks like there’s a possibility the captain and crew might be able to sail it, probably with military — I’m not sure if escort is the right word – but yes, out to Cypress. The activists will be deported, it looks like, back to their home countries. And we’re hoping we’ll manage to get the boat back quite quickly. The Lebanese boat that was attacked in January is still being impounded by the Israelis, so we’re hopeful we can get the boat back sooner rather than later, and obviously that everybody who was on board from the 11 different countries who came to participate in this siege-breaking initiative, returned safely to their families. Among those participating was quite a large delegation from Bahrain of different women from different humanitarian organizations. There were folks from the States, Britain, Ireland, Scotland, Jamaica, Palestine, etc., so it was quite a diverse group of people from diverse backgrounds, but completely united in the mission and the belief that the time for demonstrations and petitions and perhaps the more traditional ways we have to resist this occupation, they’re not over, but it’s really necessary to up the ante. And we feel that taking direct action in resisting these policies of collective punishment and the hermetic closure of the Gaza Strip — these sort of actions and activities need to spread and more people need to get involved. I know there’s a North American initiative coming up in a few days –Viva Palestina — U.S. convoy, and, again, that’s a great embodiment and symbol, I think, of the outrage and solidarity and dissent that so many people in the world feel, watching the daily oppression and brutalization of the Palestinian people.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Caoimhe Butterly, the Israeli military seized the boat in international waters, but did they give any explanation? Did they claim the boat was in their territorial waters?

CAOIMHE BUTTERLY: All three attacks that happened on a variety of boats — the Lebanese boat, the Dignity in January, and now the Spirit of Humanity — have happened in international waters. Generally, the Israelis only pretext for this is either that we were told we were entering a closed military zone. They said they had a duty and a responsibility to stop us, that we had given them false information, that we were going somewhere else and then tried to enter Gaza, etc. Regardless of the very well publicized pullout of settlers from the Gaza Strip, the Gaza Strip remains — and I think it’s a semantic question of whether it’s occupation or siege — but whatever it is, it results in the collective punishment and humiliation and degradation of a captive population, so the Israelis control not only the sea, but the air space, the borders, etc. And Gaza is completely locked down, and it’s in that context that the responsibility we have to act is pretty big. I think a lot of us feel as Westerners that we come from countries that finance this occupation. We come from countries where multinationals and our own governments profit off of the blood of the Palestinian people. In that context, it’s so important, I think, that we embody an alternative face of the West — one of compassion and solidarity and humanity. And one of action. It’s really, really time to act.

Interview with Caoimhe Butterly, an Irish solidarity activist, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

For more information, and ways to contact Israeli officials responsible for the boat seizure, visit the group’s website at www.freegaza.org.

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Melinda Tuhus is a producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 45 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at http://www.btlonline.org. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending July 10, 2009. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Anna Manzo and Scott Harris.

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