November 02, 2011 < Previous Entry | Next Entry >

AUDIO: Amy Goodman Interviews Activists Aboard Freedom Waves Flotilla Boat Tahrir

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Click here to hear Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman interviews six activists and a journalist aboard the Canadian boat Tahrir as it sails through international waters toward Gaza. It is joined by the Irish boat Saoirse. Both vessels are part of the Freedom Waves Flotilla.

"I looked in the mirror, and I said, ’I’m a person who supports human rights and social justice for the Palestinian people, and I’m not going to be shy about talking about it publicly anymore,’" says Karen DeVito when asked why she joined the flotilla. "This is how I came to this project. I’m not a professional activist, just an ordinary person, an ordinary Canadian."

DeVito is interviewed alongside Australian Michael Coleman, Canadians David Heap and Ehab Lotayef, American Kit Kittredge, and Palestinian Majd Kayal.

Amy Goodman also speaks with Democracy Now! correspondent Jihan Hafiz, who is one of six reporters on the boat.

AMY GOODMAN: We have just reached the Tahrir. That is the Canadian boat that has left Turkey, headed to Gaza. It is part of the Freedom Waves to Gaza flotilla. It is in international waters right now. It’s the middle of the night. And it is going alongside an Irish ship that has the same destination in mind.

We’re going to turn right now to Democracy Now! correspondent Jihan Hafiz, who is there on the ship, to describe the scene there.

JIHAN HAFIZ: Well, the ship is a very spacious ship, very modest ship. Where we were docked, we were surrounded by million-dollar yachts, a number of them from Delaware, from the United States, from Russia. And you could sort of tell our ship from all of them, because it wasn’t decked out with big-screen TVs, with the same accommodations that most of those yachts have. The Tahrir did not.

And it was difficult to get on the boat. We were waiting for two days. It was, of course, not similar to what we—the same wait, two-week wait, that happened this past summer. But they were told, the organizers were told, that the 15—they were allowed 15 members by Turkish law, but because it’s not a commercial boat, they were only restricted to taking 12 people on. And so, upon waiting for 12 people, their passports to be processed, it took about two days for that to happen. And then, just this morning, we found out around 11:00, 10:00 to 11:00 Turkish time, that they were going to process our passports and let the boat sail into international waters. There were inspections. There were—the Turkish police did come to inspect to make sure that those who were authorized to leave Turkey, the passports were the same. They matched the information, the facial matchings. And so, and that was somewhat difficult, and people were growing somewhat impatient. However, as I mentioned, there was a two-week wait back in Greece, and there was much more bureaucracy. But there was—they did face some bureaucracy here in Turkey. I don’t believe it was on the same level, however.

In the end, though, they let us go. And as I mentioned, the Turkish coast guard accompanied the boat into international waters and is no longer following us now.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us, Jihan, about the plans for this, the secret plans that were made for this trip.

JIHAN HAFIZ: Yeah, the plans—the plans were made mainly—I mean, when we heard about the trip, it was very—it was very secretive. We didn’t know where we were meeting, who we were meeting. It was known as the "second city" to anyone that was attending this trip, and the second city was Dalaman, which is in eastern Turkey. So, delegates met there. They rarely spoke to each other while we were in this town. People wore T-shirts showing their support for Gaza or the kafiya, the Palestinian flag. The Irish delegation rarely spoke to us, really wanted nothing to do with us while we were at the—in this port town, simply because—to not draw any kind of suspicion that this boat was—that these boats were heading to Gaza. In fact, the Irish boat, the Saoirse, which is "freedom" in Gaelic, they say was sabotaged here back in the summertime. And so, the private planning, the secret planning, was meant to avert any kind of attention from the Turkish authorities, from the Israelis and from the media, that were not aware of this trip, in order to at least make it out to international waters. And as soon as we hit international waters, the media embargo was lifted. The embargo on all information was lifted. And the activists contacted their committees and organizations throughout the world, as well as a number of different media organizations.

And as I mentioned, the strategy—it’s a very different strategy compared to previous flotillas, previous convoys to Gaza. For example, I attended the Gaza Freedom March that was very well known was happening. The Egyptian authorities prevented that march, at least the 1,300 people who did not go, from getting to Gaza. And so, the strategy they took, they did it, [inaudible] it, because they thought it was the only way to make it this far out and to allow them to make it to Gaza. And from here on out, the only barrier that will keep them from getting to Gaza at this point will now be the Israeli navy or the Israeli forces from preventing them from getting to Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: And how far are you from where you expect to meet the Israeli military?

JIHAN HAFIZ: I can’t give that information at the moment. We are—I believe we’re about a hundred kilometers off the coast of Turkey. And it will take us about—it will take us two days to reach Gaza. There will be stops along the way to contact the media, to do checks with the Irish boat. As I mentioned, they’re sailing alongside us. But this is really the first time that anyone has had any kind of contact, has seen the Irish boats, has been able to speak with anyone from that boat. So we actually don’t know who’s on the boat.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain—

JIHAN HAFIZ: We’ve seen them in town, but we haven’t been able to communicate with them.

AMY GOODMAN: Say again the name of the Irish ship. Yours is Tahrir, your boat. It has 12 people on it, including—

JIHAN HAFIZ: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —you and other members of the press, as well as how many of the activists are there, and the captain?

JIHAN HAFIZ: Yes, there are six activists, five journalists and one captain. And there are two members, two activists, who are serving as crewmen.

MICHAEL COLEMAN: My name is Michael Coleman, and I’m from Sydney. I’m on board the Tahrir as part of Freedom Waves. And it’s a privilege to be here to represent the Australian delegation and stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you on a previous boat, in a previous flotilla?

MICHAEL COLEMAN: Yes, I was part of Freedom Flotilla II that failed to get out of Crete, due to the extension of the blockade of Gaza being extended to European borders, and was actually arrested for obstructing [inaudible] coast guard and [inaudible]. And we challenged the extension of the blockade.

AMY GOODMAN: Where were you arrested?

MICHAEL COLEMAN: In Crete.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about this journey, how you got involved with this, and why you’re doing this.

MICHAEL COLEMAN: Well, to quote Martin Luther King, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." And the motivation for me getting on the boat was spending several months in the occupied West Bank in Nablus working with Project Hope. And while I [inaudible] a lot of Palestinian people, it dawned on me while I was there that what was witnessing, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Palestine. I’ve committed myself to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people until, you know, they have the right to self-determination, they have the right to freedom of movement, they have a viable economy, and they have their own state.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael, thank you very much for being with us.

EHAB LOTAYEF: My name is Ehab Lotayef. I’m one of the people who initiated the project of having a Canadian boat to Gaza. A year and some months ago, after the Mavi Marmara and the Freedom Flotilla I incident, we said that we need to have a Canadian boat join the flotilla efforts, because the position of the Canadian government is so shameful, that the Canadian civil society has to speak up and take a position to expose our own government and also to make sure that the international community doesn’t link the position of Canada to the position of the Canadian people in the civil society. I am of Egyptian origin. I’ve been living in Canada for the last 20 [inaudible]. My name is Ehab Lotayef.

AMY GOODMAN: And describe where you are right now. Can you describe the scene, for people who can’t see the boat, for people who can’t see you in the water, what this experience has been like for you?

EHAB LOTAYEF: The scene is two boats sailing in the middle of the night now. It’s a couple of hours after the sunset here, where we are, on the northern Mediterranean. Just, we’re getting away from Turkey, about two hours ago, three hours ago. We are extremely in high spirits, a mix of six nationalities and three, four media outlets represented, journalists. Our accompanying boat is an Irish—15 Irish activists on board. And we are heading, slowly, but surely, towards Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the significance of the name of this boat?

EHAB LOTAYEF: When we were choosing the name, the word "tahrir" was on top of the people’s attention because of what was happening in Cairo and how what’s happening in Cairo was so important for many people around the world. I, personally, as an Egyptian origin, who was the only one actually on our steering committee [inaudible] mostly second- and third-generation Canadians, I was more for choosing a name that is representative of the Canadian activism, the Canadian positions. But my colleagues insisted to choose the name "Tahrir" for the boat and said that the Arab Spring should extend into Palestine and into Gaza. And this is the token we give to the position that the Egyptian people took against the dictatorship and our hopes for what will happen in Gaza and in Palestine. So the name was chosen that way.

AMY GOODMAN: So, more than a year ago, as the Mavi Marmara set sail from the same country you’ve set sail from, Turkey, it was attacked by the Israeli military. Nine Turkish activists died, one of them a U.S. citizen, a young man. You have undertaken this journey. Are you concerned for your safety and the safety of the other people on board these two ships, your Canadian ship and the Irish ship alongside you?

EHAB LOTAYEF: Of course we are concerned, and we are very much determined to give everybody on board as much nonviolence and non-confrontation training as possible, as the time will permit us. We, of course, also are concerned about the security of everyone on board. We did not get the chance, due to the silence we wrapped our mission around 'til this point, to do nonviolent training for everybody on board on shore, but we are determined to do that on board of the boat before we get close to any expected danger zone. We are totally committed to nonviolence and non-confrontation. We will not, for sure, give the Israelis any excuse to attack us in any way. Yet, of course, we do know, and we are not naive not to realize that the IDF and the Israeli navy can act irrationally themselves and do not hold much respect to human life, especially if it's the life of people who challenge its illegal and inhumane actions, like what we are doing.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re an engineer? You’re a playwright? Can you talk about why you’ve chosen to leave that life and how what you do bears on what you’re doing right now?

EHAB LOTAYEF: I have always been working for many causes, and the cause of the people in Gaza, in particular, was always very close to my heart, because of my Egyptian background and the feeling that Egypt has participated in the siege of Gaza. I participated in two visits to Gaza since the Cast Lead invasion. I participated in organizing the Gaza Freedom March, where the Egyptian Mubarak authorities had not let us pass to Gaza. And it’s a very simple choice. The choice is to watch people suffering who cannot fend for themselves and live in the luxury of our Western cities, or to get implicated. And to me, that was a non-issue. The question answered itself very simply, that we all should be involved, in whatever way we can, to help those who cannot have a voice for themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Ehab, if the Israeli navy says you must not move forward, or if they board the ship, what are your plans?

EHAB LOTAYEF: Our plans are very clear. We are going to take a non-confrontational, nonviolent position and refuse [inaudible] any orders they give us. Yet, if it comes to any threats against the lives of the people on board or the boat itself, we are not there to fight one of the strongest armies in the world or one of the most vicious, when they want to be, armies in the world. We will put people’s lives and people’s safety above all else. Our position is made by our determination and our sailing towards to Gaza, not necessarily by reaching the shores of Gaza. We are here to make the world realize that the civil society all around the world will continue to come and come again in waves of freedom towards Gaza, even if we can’t come as one big flotilla. And that, we achieved. We are here to tell the Palestinian people that the world has not forgotten you. And that, we are achieving by what we are doing. The rest, I would say, is details, is not the goal itself. But it would be great if we reach Gaza. And we demand, and we clearly say, that it is our right to reach Gaza, and we will continue on that road, but not at the expense of life or endangering people in any way.

DAVID HEAP: I’m David Heap from London, Ontario, in Canada, and I’m on the Canadian boat to Gaza, the Tahrir, to challenge the illegal and immoral blockade of Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: Why are you on this boat? What—can you talk about your history of activism and what it took for you to get to this point, as we speak to you in the middle of the night in international waters, as you’re making your way to Gaza?

DAVID HEAP: I’ve been involved in different peace and social justice causes for a long time. But for the last two years, we’ve been increasingly focusing on the occupation of Palestine and the blockade of Gaza—in particular, starting, let’s say, from the attack on the first Freedom Flotilla, when people died on the Mavi Marmara, and many, many, many Canadians took to the streets to protest that. At that time, the peace movement and the solidarity movement people were coming to us and saying not "Could we have a Canadian boat to Gaza?" or "Would it be possible to have a Canadian boat to Gaza?" They were saying to us, "When will we have a Canadian boat to Gaza?" So we took that as a signal in June of 2010 that we had to start a campaign.

None of us had ever been involved in anything that raised this amount of money. We were overwhelmed by the generosity of communities and people across Canada who dug deep for solidarity and enabled us—took us a little longer than we thought, but it took us until the spring of 2011. We were able to purchase this boat in Greece. We went with the—tried to go with the Freedom Flotilla II from Greece in June or July. Your listeners may remember what happened. We made a break for it at the beginning of July and were brought in by force by the Greek coast guard, because the blockade had been subcontracted from Israel from the Palestinian territorial waters to the ports of Greece. But, you know, we didn’t take that as an end. We still owned the boat, so we moved the boat to another port. We repaired it, got it ready, brought our delegates to Turkey, and we’re sailing again. Our destination remains the same. Our destination is freedom for the Palestinians in Gaza, and our course is the conscience of humanity.

I’m sailing, among many other reasons, because my colleague, Ziad Medoukh, a French professor at Al-Aqsa University in Gaza, who sent us a message of solidarity and hope last July, when he said, "Even though your boat didn’t reach the shores, your message of peace and solidarity reached us here in Gaza." So I think it’s very important that academic students, trade union—most of the trade unionists, people from [inaudible] realize that the most important thing for people of Palestine, for the Palestinians of Gaza, in particular, is people-to-people solidarity.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain how the route goes—you’re in international waters—and then what happens near Gaza.

DAVID HEAP: Correct. Well, when we arrive there, and, you know, we’re not—we’re going to arrive—our plan is to arrive in the Palestinian territorial waters off Gaza directly from international waters at a time of our choosing. Obviously, we’re not going to announce in advance when exactly that’s going to be, because we know that the Israeli occupation forces and their navy have a bad history of intercepting boats in international waters in acts of state piracy. So we’re going to—our intention is to arrive at a time of our choosing directly from international waters into Palestinian territorial waters off Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: Does Israel consider that Israeli waters?

DAVID HEAP: That’s not what international law says. They consider whatever they want. They regularly extend their territorial waters well beyond the legal limits, and they are known to act extraterritorially in international waters in ways which violate international law. People with guns and arms tend to think that they make their own laws. They can do that for a while. We’re prepared to face the violence of the state against nonviolent resistance, but the fact is, the conscience of humanity had to be focused on the blockade and the lack of freedom of movement for people in Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: The Israeli military says it has the blockade to prevent weapons from coming into Gaza. What is your response to that?

DAVID HEAP: As they’ve said publicly, they know that there are no weapons aboard any of the Freedom Flotilla boats. They’ve said that absolutely last spring. Our boat carries only—well, it carries some humanitarian aid, because our colleagues in Palestine have told us about medical supplies, which are in short supply there, but mainly know that it’s just carrying solidarity and wishes of hundreds and thousands of people around the world. So when they’re afraid of us, they’re afraid of us not because of any arms or security threat; they’re afraid of us precisely because of the arms and weapons we are not carrying. They’re afraid of nonviolent resistance. They know how to deal with armed resistance. They’ve been doing that with grim, deadly efficiency for many years. What they don’t know how deal with is unarmed people power. So, we are a threat only in the sense that we are an unarmed, peaceful opposition to a blockade which they know is illegal.

KIT KITTREDGE: This is Kit Kittredge from Quilcene, Washington, U.S.A. I’m a massage therapist, volunteer firefighter, EMT, organic farmer, mother, grandmother, and a passionate peace activist. And I’m on the Tahrir Canadian boat to Gaza because the siege of Gaza has got to end, and the U.S. complicity with Israeli policy has to stop, and because our government is not stepping up to it. Democracy is not a spectator sport, and so I’m stepping up to it, so I can look my grandchildren in the eyes and say I did everything to end the siege and occupation of Palestine.

AMY GOODMAN: You attempted to go on another flotilla to Gaza, The Audacity of Hope, the ship of Americans that left from Greece. What happened then? Why try again, Kit?

KIT KITTREDGE: Well, we will sail until Palestine is free. That was one of many flotillas, as you know. And what happened then was Israelis basically put a lot—they put a lot of pressure on Greece, because of their financial ties. And Greece, being in its economic strife, crumbled and said, "OK, OK, we won’t let any boats go." And so, basically, the Greek coast guard put the kibosh and stopped all of the boats from leaving there. I’ve been to Gaza five times in the last two years, and each time makes me more committed to helping end this illegal, immoral siege.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is Gaza, the Occupied Territories, such an important issue to you as a peace activist in Washington State?

KIT KITTREDGE: Well, as you know, or as many people know, the U.S. gives billions of dollars—it gives $15 million a day, $3 billion a year—to Israel in military aid. In this economic time, I think that’s outrageous, but more, it’s just immoral. And in Washington State, I would say I’m acting more as a citizen of the world. And it’s just not, in any kind of way, acceptable to be strangulating Gaza and occupying the West Bank and continuing to tear down Palestinian homes, or anyone’s homes, and buildings, keeping people under siege for five years. It’s basically an imprisonment. And as a citizen of the world, I have to stand up and say, "No more. No more of my tax dollars. No more of American policy standing, you know, in line with Israel." They seem to be the only two that vote—you know, there’s UNESCO, against the UNESCO and the U.N. They are the two that stand out in numerous votes on the international scheme. And it’s time that they get a grip on how absolutely illegal and immoral their actions are, and human rights violations are, just too abhorrent on Israel’s part, with American complicity. We just have to say, "No more." We have to say, "No more."

AMY GOODMAN: So what are your plans on this ship? You’re in international waters. It’s the middle of the night. When do you expect you will—you will be near Gaza? And then, what happens if the Israeli navy comes out, says they will board, or that you must turn away?

KIT KITTREDGE: Well, it is the middle of the night. We are along in tandem with the Irish boat, which is wonderful. And we don’t know when we are going to arrive there. We hope in the next couple days, but we’re not determining any specific time. We imagine that Israel is fully aware of our movement. We are a peaceful, nonviolent group of folks with absolutely no arms and no intention of any kind of violent behavior. And hopefully, there will be no violence on the part of the Israelis. So we’re just going to go on our way and hope for the best at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: You are the only American of the—is it five activists, six activists on board right now? So there’s five activists—

KIT KITTREDGE: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s six journalists, and there’s one captain?

KIT KITTREDGE: That’s correct. That’s correct, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And the group of you, the—

KIT KITTREDGE: One captain, six journalists and five activists.

AMY GOODMAN: And the group of you, you are from which countries?

KIT KITTREDGE: We’re from Palestine, Australia, U.S., Canada.

AMY GOODMAN: Two people from Canada?

MAJD KAYAL: Majd Kayal from Palestine, Haifa City. I’m a student for philosophy in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. And me, as a Palestinian, it’s important for me to be on the boat, to show the united—unity of the Palestinian people and also on ’48 lands.

AMY GOODMAN: Majd, have you been on previous flotillas?

MAJD KAYAL: No, it’s the first time I’m on the boat to Gaza, and I hope it’s not the last time.

AMY GOODMAN: You speak Hebrew, Arabic, English.

MAJD KAYAL: Hebrew, Arabic and English, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about how you got involved with this flotilla, that has left from Turkey and is in international waters right now.

MAJD KAYAL: We were supposed to be in the third boat that it’s a boat for youth movements from the Arab world, which is the Vittorio boat from Free Gaza. And it was canceled in the last minute, so I joined the Canadian—the Canadian boat with Ehab and David. And I hope the next time I will be able to go in Arab—in the Arab youth boat to Gaza with the guys from Canada and the U.S. and the Irish.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Majd, about what this means for Palestinians? Do you see this as a largely symbolic gesture? What does it mean?

MAJD KAYAL: Yeah, yeah. For me as a Palestinian, it’s very symbolic, and it’s very strong to say. And in the time that our leadership is trying to make the Palestinian cause as a—and the Palestinian conflict as a problem of borders and problem of 1967 lands, it’s important to us to say that the real problem is the problem of the colonialist and racist state of the apartheid state of Israel. And the real problem started in 1948. The dividing of the Palestinian people into West Bank and Gaza in '48 and the refugees camp is—it's the major and the main target for Israel. So, me being here on this boat, it say that we are all—the Palestinians are in the same boat, in the same struggle, in the same—and for the same target, ending the colonialization of Israel and the apartheid state of Israel, and free all Palestine, free all the historic Palestine from a Zionist and racist state.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do you study?

MAJD KAYAL: I’m studying in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

AMY GOODMAN: Ah, so you study at the—at an Israeli university, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Have you spoken with—

MAJD KAYAL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —fellow Israeli students, how they feel about your activism?

MAJD KAYAL: They are divided. The Israeli students are not one face. They are divided. There is some left students that believe that what we do is right. Some believe that wrong. And there is no one opinion. But in a big—if we look at the main speech in the Israeli—for the Israeli people, they are against. And we don’t feel that it’s—they can’t understand that we are one people. They can’t understand that we are people under occupation also, the Arabs and the Palestinians that live inside Israel. There is very little part of that, the Israelis that can understand the problem from our side.

AMY GOODMAN: What are your plans, Majd, as you—

MAJD KAYAL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —approach the waters off of Gaza?

MAJD KAYAL: My—the plan and the target is to get into Gaza. We know it’s—I know it’s hard, and I know it’s—being a Palestinian and being a citizen of Israel makes this thing very dangerous. I may go to jail. I know this. But I believe that breaking the siege on Gaza is much more important than the few days or the few months that I might spend in jail.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the condition of the people in Gaza?

MAJD KAYAL: I know that the people in Gaza are suffering from choking their freedom of movement. They can’t—and it gives the educational rights of the Gaza, the health rights and the work rights for the people in Gaza. And millions of people in Gaza live in a very non-human, under a siege that choke all the Palestinian people there, and dividing them from their people, from their homeland, that they are apart of it, and they can be neither.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us.

KAREN DEVITO: I’m Karen DeVito. I live in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. I’m an ordinary person who’s on this boat, because I, at one point—I looked in the mirror, and I said, "I’m a person who supports human rights and social justice for the Palestinian people, and I’m not going to be shy about talking about it publicly anymore." And so, this is how I came to this project. I’m not a professional activist, just an ordinary person, an ordinary Canadian.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did you end up on this boat leaving from Turkey?

KAREN DEVITO: I was on the—I was on the boat when it—I was on the previous attempt to join the flotilla from Crete. So I was one of the delegates then. As you know, we went eight nautical miles, the best eight nautical miles we traveled, but still, we did not reach our destination. We didn’t get very far out of the harbor. The blockade has been outsourced. So, we all assembled, quietly as we could in Turkey. And there were 35 of us initially, but the Turkish officials, for whatever reason, decided they must follow the absolute letter of the law on a pleasure craft. So they told us that only 12 people could be on this boat, including the captain. So, a choice had to be made, and I was chosen to represent western Canada.

AMY GOODMAN: And what message do you have—

KAREN DEVITO: It was a choice—

AMY GOODMAN: —for the Canadian government?

KAREN DEVITO: For the Canadian government, I read that our prime minister has made the decision to stop funding to UNESCO because of its recognition of the Palestinian membership. And I really wonder if Canadians have lost their sense of compassion for other human beings. And I don’t think so. I really don’t think so. I think ordinary Canadians would like to see the Palestinian people be able to live in peace, instead of fear, and with justice.

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