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“Free Gaza” Boats Set Sail from Cyprus to Break Israeli Blockade

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Two converted fishing boats set sail from Cyprus today carrying more than forty activists and humanitarian workers who are part of the Free Gaza movement that is trying to break the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip. The Israeli foreign ministry said in an open letter to the participants, “We assume that your intentions are good but, in fact, the result of your action is that you are supporting the regime of a terrorist organization in Gaza.” We speak with three of the activists at sea: Huwaida Arraf, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement; Lauren Booth, a journalist and sister-in-law of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair; and Israeli anthropology professor Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Two converted fishing boats set sail from Cyprus today carrying forty-one activists and humanitarian workers who are part of the Free Gaza movement that is trying to break the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip.

The boats — the Liberty and Free Gaza — left the southern port of Larnaca this morning for the estimated thirty-hour trip. Israel has warned the activists to steer clear of Gaza, which it says is “the subject of an Israeli Navy advisory notice” that warns off foreign vessels from the “designated maritime zone.”

The Israeli foreign ministry said in an open letter to the participants, “We assume that your intentions are good but, in fact, the result of your action is that you are supporting the regime of a terrorist organization in Gaza.”

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined right now by one of the activists at sea on the boat Liberty. Huwaida Arraf is a human rights activist. She’s co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement. She teaches human rights law at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

HUWAIDA ARRAF: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Huwaida, tell us just where you are. And when did you set sail?

HUWAIDA ARRAF: We left the southern port of Larnaca at approximately 10:00 a.m. our time. We are headed straight for Gaza. We are two vessels, sailing without problems so far. The water is a little choppy, but everyone is in high spirits. If everything goes OK and we are not blocked by the Israeli navy, we expect to be there within the next twenty-four to twenty-six hours.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what do you hope to accomplish? What kinds of medical supplies do you have?

HUWAIDA ARRAF: Well, we are carrying onboard approximately 200 hearing aids that were requested by a society in Gaza for the children, because it’s not very well known, but many of Gaza’s children are going deaf because of the Israeli — the sound — the sonic booms that they constantly let off over Gaza. They actually requested 9,000. We could not arrange it in this time. We’re also carrying some urgently needed medical supplies.

However, we are very adamant and clear that this is not — ours is not, you know, a humanitarian convoy, because we do not intend to keep putting band-aids on Gaza, when what’s happening is that Israel’s policies are starving the people and causing them to basically cease to — or just exist on handouts, and that’s not what we’re after. We are out to show that the people of Gaza have human rights and deserve to be able to make a living and not just live on handouts, because Israel completely blocks them from travel, blocks them from coming in and out and completely controls their life. And right now, they are trying to starve and humiliate an entire people.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, press reports in England have quoted the Israelis as saying that they — the Israeli government as saying that they regard you as no better than pirates. Have you had any direct contact with Israeli officials or have any idea what you might expect in their response?

HUWAIDA ARRAF: Well, that’s ridiculous. We’ve been very open in our communication in — as far as what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and pointing out that Israel has grossly abused its authority as an occupying power. In 2005, Israel pulled its illegal settlements out of Gaza and now says — tries to claim that Gaza is free. But clearly, this is ridiculous. Well, they have been rejected by the International Committee of the Red Cross and other international human rights and humanitarian organizations, because Israel still exercises effective control over Gaza. And we see that, because Israel controls Gaza by air, sea and land, which is why they’re saying that they’re going to block us from coming in.

Now, so we have instituted many communications, put all of our intentions on the website. We even, before leaving the port of Larnaca, we had the Cypriot port authorities check our boats to ensure that we are not carrying anything that we didn’t say we are carrying, that we don’t have any weapons or any other contraband that constitutes a security threat to Israel at all. And we even, a few — a couple of weeks ago, an invitation to the Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to come with us, to come with us if she’s worried about a security threat and to come with us to see what Israel’s policies are actually doing to the people of Gaza. Now, they rejected that invitation and claim — you know, claim that they’re going to blockade us anyway. But it’s very clear that if they’re going to blockade us, it’s not for a security purpose.

And that is why, actually, we’re on this mission, because, as an occupying force, Israel does control the Gazan waters. Now, we argue that Israel’s occupation, in itself, has become illegal, because for over forty-one years it has been in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, and Israel has abused its power by placing an entire civilian population, which Israel needs to be responsible for — you’re responsible for the people that you occupy, their well-being — but Israel has completely abused their power and is starving the people of Gaza, and it’s placing an entire population, 1.5 million people — it is collectively punishing them. This is not only illegal under international law, but it’s also immoral, which is why we’re setting out on this journey.

Because of the state that exists over the past couple of years that Israel has had this stringent siege over Gaza, 200 patients in Gaza have died because they have not been able to access the medical — to leave Gaza to access the medical care they need. 80 percent of the Gazan people, according to the United Nations, are living —- cannot survive without handouts. You have hundreds of students that seek to pursue their education abroad that cannot leave. You have a horrendous sewage crisis, because Gazan people cannot import the materials they need to construct adequate sewage systems, so you have UN organizations claiming that pretty soon there might be an outbreak of waterborne diseases. You have fishermen that try to fish and get shot at when they go out more than three nautical miles. And so, the situation is really unbearable, a manmade humanitarian crisis. And the international community, governments, institutions that are supposed to uphold people’s human rights are not doing anything about it. And that’s really the purpose of our mission -—

AMY GOODMAN: Huwaida Arraf, can you describe who is on the two boats, the Liberty and the Free Gaza? We are trying to reach the other boat right now with Lauren Booth, Tony Blair’s sister-in-law, journalist, and Jeff Halper, the Israeli professor of anthropology, coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. But who else is on these two boats?

HUWAIDA ARRAF: Sure. We have approximately — we have forty-three civilians from seventeen different countries. We have on our —- on the Liberty, which I’m speaking to you from, eighteen people. We have a Greek member of parliament that was with us. The Greeks, which we started our journey from, has been very supportive, as have the Cypriot officials. We have, as you mentioned, Lauren Booth, Tony Blair’s sister-in— law, and Jeff Halper and many other average civilians. I think we — it’s a really good representation of the international community. We have a doctor, we have lawyers, we have nurses, we have students, we have professors, not necessarily big names, but concerned people from all over the world that are saying that we’re not going to sit by and watch this happen. [inaudible]

AMY GOODMAN: Huwaida, I just wanted to ask if, by any chance, as we’re talking to you, if you could tell people on your boat to tell the others we’re trying to reach them. We had reached them all morning. Now we’re not able to reach Free Gaza, the other boat. But if you could tell them that, maybe they could — I don’t know how you two communicate, the two different boats.

HUWAIDA ARRAF: We do have satellite phones, which I’m speaking to you now from, and we also have walkie-talkies. And we have the VHS system. So we have various means of communication.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, could you —-

HUWAIDA ARRAF: We have not had a problem reaching them, but -—

AMY GOODMAN: We are right now. But could you also tell us — we’ve heard that you’ve gotten death threats before you left Cyprus — what is the situation? — and that you had frogmen, police, checking out the bottom of the boats, Cypriot police, underneath the boats before you set sail.

HUWAIDA ARRAF: Yes. Well, over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been into many harbors. And we have tried to be vigilant about security, because we’ve learned from previous experiences, and specifically in 1988, the Palestine Liberation Organization tried to organize a similar boat to Palestine, and that boat was — that boat was actually attacked, it was exploded. So we’ve had people on twenty-four-hour watch. And before leaving each boat — before leaving each port, we’ve done dive checks. We’ve done our own dive checks in Cyprus. The Cypriot authorities volunteered to do that for us, so they checked out the bottom of our boats. And we were very adamant about wanting them to also give our boats a clean bill of health, so that Israel cannot say that they’re preventing us from going in because of any kind of security reason. So they checked our boats. They’ve checked all of our belongings, everything we have on board, and have said that there are no weapons or there aren’t any other contraband. And hopefully, if the bottom of the boat check was clear, then these vessels are good to go.

And we’re going to keep sailing until we reach Gaza or until, you know, Israel decides to — what they’ve said is that they’re going to forcefully block us. If they do blockade us, we are prepared to stay out at sea for as long as our water and our food holds out. If we start to run low, we will go back to Cyprus, we will restock, and we will come back out, insisting that we have a right to go through. As long as there isn’t any kind of security concern, Israel cannot completely isolate the Palestinian people, the Gazan people, and cut them off from the rest of the world. Now, the other possibility is that they could decide to fire at us, they could decide to shoot at us, or they can decide to forcefully board our boats and arrest us. Again, this will be illegal. We constitute no security threat. And actually, we invite — you know, we’re leading the way right now. Any other vessel, anyone that has a boat that wants to come join us, we invite them to.

AMY GOODMAN: Huwaida Arraf, we are moving on to our next segment. If you all could reach the other boat, tell them we are trying to reach them, we’ll try to reach Lauren Booth and Jeff Halper later in the broadcast. Huwaida Arraf is a human rights activist, co-founder of International Solidarity Movement. She teaches human rights law at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. She is in the Mediterranean Sea right now on the Liberty. Two boats, the Liberty and Free Gaza, are attempting to make their way from Cyprus, where they just set sail, to Gaza. The website is freegaza.org. We’ll try to reach them later in the broadcast. Thank you for being with us.


AMY GOODMAN: I want to warn our stations, we’re going to be a little late with break, because we have reached the other boat that has set sail from Cyprus to Gaza. This is Free Gaza. The other boat is Liberty, where we were speaking with Huwaida Arraf.

Lauren Booth is on the line with us now, journalist and broadcaster, also the sister-in-law of the former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Lauren Booth, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain to us why you’re on the Mediterranean Sea right now in this ship called Free Gaza.

LAUREN BOOTH: Thanks very much for calling. I’m on the Mediterranean Sea between Cyprus and Gaza — I don’t want to say exactly where — because we are — the Free Gaza movement, whom I am joining to report on, is trying to break the blockade of Gaza that has been going on since 2006 by Israel. Israel does not allow essential items into Gaza, increasing the suffering of an already impoverished people.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And could you tell us why you’ve decided personally to get involved? Obviously you’re a high-profile figure, and I’m sure that the former prime minister, your brother-in-law, has his own opinions of your actions.

LAUREN BOOTH: It’s his duty as Middle East envoy to be aware of movements like this who want to help the people that he’s supposed to be partially representing. And unfortunately, Tony Blair has not been to Gaza in his role as Middle East envoy. So it’s unclear how he can represent the Middle East, when this important question of people being besieged in this almost-Medieval-style way is not addressed.

AMY GOODMAN: Is he supporting you in your effort to call attention, to challenge the Israeli blockade of Gaza?

LAUREN BOOTH: Can you say again? I missed that.

AMY GOODMAN: Is Tony Blair, your brother-in-law, supporting you in your effort to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza?

LAUREN BOOTH: Well, you’d think that Tony Blair would support the Free Gaza movement in its peaceful mission. Well, likely, I can’t say that there’s been any direct contact. What we do know is that Israel has been using a lot of diplomatic pressure to stop the mission from leaving Cyprus, from starting out in the Greek waters. But the Greek and the Cypriot governments and their local authorities were brilliant and very supportive.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you attempting to accomplish?

LAUREN BOOTH: The most important thing that could be accomplished tomorrow when we arrive in Gazan waters is an open contact between Gaza and the rest of the world. Economically, it will be great for them to start exporting. They have some wonderful produce. They have olive oil that they need to send out to the world. They have people who need to come and share their lives. They have voices that need to be heard. And [inaudible] that this is the first boat to do that in forty years.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Lauren Booth on the Mediterranean Sea. They’ve just set sail from Cyprus, heading to Gaza. We were speaking with Huwaida Arraf on the Liberty, your — the sister fishing boat that has been converted to go on this trip. She was talking about death threats before you left. Are you concerned about your safety, Lauren Booth?

LAUREN BOOTH: There have been some very strange situations in the last few days. Yes, my family have called at home and told, oh, that the boats would slightly be blown up when they reached Gaza. Other people who have Palestinian families have been under a great deal of pressure not to take part. And we’ve had some of our machinery interfered with and sabotaged. And just this morning, the port authority told us that there were Mossad agents operating in their ports, that they were very unhappy with, and that is why the Cypriot authorities escorted us out. We had a police escort follow us out of Cypriot waters. So, there is interference already going on.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Lauren Booth, we understand you’re also there with Jeff Halper, the Israeli professor of anthropology and coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Would it be possible to pass the phone to him, that we might talk to him for a minute?

LAUREN BOOTH: I shall pass you on to Jeff, who looks like an old sea sort, real old sailor he is here. He’s just staggering — Captain Birdseye, if anybody knows Captain Birdseye. I’ll pass Jeff Halper over, the esteemed Jeff Halper.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Jeff Halper —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- and Lauren Booth on the Free Gaza boat that is headed to Gaza.

Jeff Halper, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you explain why you’re on the boat and what the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions — why this group is supporting this trip?

JEFF HALPER: I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff, explain why you’re on the boat.


AMY GOODMAN: Explain why you are on the boat.

JEFF HALPER: I’m the only Israeli Jew onboard this mission. You spoke to Huwaida, I guess, who’s also Israeli, but is actually Palestinian. She just has Israeli passport. So I think it’s very important that there be an Israeli presence, because, after all, we’re the occupying power, and we have to take responsibility. And so, in a sense, symbolically, my presence here is a taking of responsibility by Israelis for the occupation and for the siege and the oppression for which we put the Palestinians under.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Jeff, some of the press reports have indicated you also have a Holocaust survivor among those who are as part of the mission. Could you tell us about that person?

JEFF HALPER: Yeah. Her name is Hedy Epstein. She, actually, the last — she didn’t join the ship. She fainted a couple days ago. She’s eighty-four years old, and there was some concern about her health. But she’s been with us for the last three weeks and fully intended to come, again, as a kind of a moral witness, you know, of a Jew, of a Jewish person who’s gone through the Holocaust, who feels a sense of responsibility towards, you know, what we’re doing to the Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Halper, we have to — we have to —

JEFF HALPER: I think this is a common theme between Jews and Israeli Jews, and that is that we have to begin to take responsibility. We can’t always present ourselves as the victims. We’re not the weak party. And we have to take responsibility for what we’re doing. And that’s, I think, our central message to our own people.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff, we have to wrap right now, and we’re going to follow this journey you all take in these two fishing boats. But we’re headed to the Democratic and Republican conventions. What message do you have for Barack Obama and Senator John McCain from the Mediterranean Sea?

JEFF HALPER: Well, you know, I don’t expect from American politicians much in the way of justice or human rights. To tell you the truth, I think the way an American president could break through on this issue is to present it in American terms. If we’re against [inaudible], this occupation, this conflict, is the epicenter of instability in the Middle East, which is what James Baker called it, and it is absolutely counterproductive to American interests. And I am the American president; I’m not the Israeli president. And this occupation simply has to cease for American interests. I believe the vast majority of Congress and the American people would support that. That’s the only way to break through. As long as you look at Israel as an ally in the war on terror and Hamas and all that stuff, Israel has an upper hand, and human rights and justice get trampled underfoot. So I think framing it in an American way is the approach that I would suggest to these guys, because they’re not going to take a human rights approach.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Halper, I want to thank you for being with us. We will be in touch with you soon next week. Jeff Halper, Israeli professor of anthropology, coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Before that, Lauren Booth, journalist and broadcaster, sister-in-law of the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

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