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Penn forum

Challenging the siege of Gaza

Published Nov 7, 2010 10:23 PM

Huwaida Arraf was a witness to Israel’s May 31 attack on the Freedom Flotilla ship, the Mavi Marmara, when Israeli naval commandos killed nine Turkish activists. She gave a first-hand account on Oct. 27 to a standing-room-only meeting at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia sponsored by Penn for Palestine.

Huwaida Arraf and Adam Shapiro expose
Israeli terror, Oct. 27.
WW photo: Joe Piette

Arraf is the chairperson of the Free Gaza Movement and a co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement. She and Adam Shapiro, an ISM co-founder, reviewed the history of the flotilla movement that has challenged the siege of Gaza since 2008 and announced plans for a 2011 international flotilla.

Arraf described the high rates of unemployment and illness and the racial discrimination, ethnic cleansing and apartheid that are rampant in Gaza and throughout occupied Palestine. These horrific conditions led her and other activists to challenge Israel’s barriers, which have left Gaza residents in an “open-air prison.”

Israel’s siege and militarization of the borders made it very difficult to bring international delegations into Gaza to witness conditions, Arraf explained, so the idea developed to sail boats to Gaza to break the siege.

In August 2008 two small fishing boats filled with activists, unsure of Israel’s response, set sail for Gaza. Even though Israel cut off their communications, the boats got to Gaza after a 30-hour journey. Tens of thousands of people rushed to the port, many swimming out to sea, to greet the solidarity activists.

“We weren’t carrying tons of aid,” Arraf noted, “but [the people] treated us as heroes because it was the first time they had seen anyone succeed in standing up to Israel in challenging the blockade.”

Five more boat trips to Gaza were successfully carried out until December 2008 when Israel launched its deadly bombs and an invasion that killed more than 1,400 Gaza residents. That month, Israeli military vessels rammed, damaged and prevented an aid boat from reaching Gaza with medical supplies.

In June 2009 when former Congressperson Cynthia McKinney, Nobel Laureate Mairead Maguire and 19 other activists bravely sailed to Gaza, Israeli naval commandos seized their boat, arresting all aboard.

Arraf explained that the international multivessel Freedom Flotilla was then planned. “We decided to go again, but rather than one small boat, we wanted to send a flotilla and appealed to other organizations to join us.”

“One of [Israel’s big lies] was that there were violent terrorists on the Mavi Marmara and that the other ships [in the Freedom Flotilla] were taken over peacefully. Not so,” stressed Arraf. Though they radioed Israeli forces that they were unarmed civilians carrying humanitarian aid and were not a threat, Arraf said, “They stopped talking and launched an attack on us.

“I was on the deck of another boat and saw the attack on the Mavi Marmara. Masked Israeli commandos using attack dogs also took over our boat, beat us and went after ... recording equipment. Our injuries were mild compared to what happened on the Mavi Marmara.”

Freedom Flotilla II

“We are not going to back down or [concede] that we can’t stand up to Israel’s military might. We have [called] for the Freedom Flotilla II for the spring of 2011. Thousands are calling us to take part. Not only do we believe that the blockade can be broken, but the entire colonial system of apartheid can be overturned,” Arraf concluded.

Shapiro told of the successful Viva Palestina 5 convoy of more than 150 vehicles and 370 people from 30 countries, carrying $5 million in aid, that broke the blockade on Oct. 21.

He then detailed plans for the upcoming flotilla that will include ships from the U.S., Canada, Italy, Sweden, Turkey, Greece, South Africa, Belgium and Britain. Participants will include activists from Southeast Asia, Pakistan and India.

The growing movement has forced Israel to modify the blockade and has caused many performers to cancel concerts in Israel, Shapiro emphasized. “We are seeing this conflict being transformed. It’s no longer just Israeli soldiers turning guns against Palestinians, but wherever Israelis go around the world, they get the idea there is a cost. After 62 years of struggle, the situation is still desperate, but at this point momentum is on our side.”