x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

She turns her anguish into action

Compelled by an assault on the Gaza Strip early this year, a Bahraini woman joined a human rights group to challenge Israel's naval blockade. She's doing it again.

a boat carryi8ng a group of pro-Palestinian activists and European politicians was allowed to dock in Gaza in November despite a strict Israeli blockade.
a boat carryi8ng a group of pro-Palestinian activists and European politicians was allowed to dock in Gaza in November despite a strict Israeli blockade.

She was held in an Israeli detention facility for three days, interrogated, prevented from contacting her family and finally deported.

But Kaltham Abdulla, a Bahraini banker who was among the passengers on a boat attempting to break the Israeli siege of Gaza in June, says she would be willing to do it again. "It was the most important experience I have ever been through in my life," she said in a telephone interview from Bahrain. "It was an amazing experience to touch the soul of Palestine, which is a holy land for everyone." Ms Abdulla, 36, was among five Bahrainis who joined the Free Gaza Movement on its eighth attempt to challenge the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip one of the most densely populated places in the world, where 1.5 million people live. Most of them are unable to leave.

Since 2006, the blockade on the territory has continued to tighten, restricting not only the movement of people, but food and fuel and other goods. The Free Gaza Movement, an international human rights group, was established to challenge the blockade by sailing vessels across the Mediterranean into Gaza. The group has made five successful trips, one in December when a group including Qataris reached Gaza City. On three occasions, including the most recent attempt in June, the boats were blocked from entering by the Israeli navy.

The movement is planning another trip in October. Huwaida Arraf, the head of the movement's board, and Adam Shapiro, a board member, are currently in the UAE meeting potential supporters. "A few" people here had expressed interest in being part of a trip to Gaza, they said, while others had indicated they would like to provide financial and other support. The Free Gaza Movement, according to Ms Arraf, challenges both the blockade and the security pretext for the siege.

"We were either going to get to Gaza or we were going to expose as much as possible that Israel's policies are not about security, they're about collective punishment, which is a war crime and violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention," she said. An American lawyer of Palestinian descent, Ms Arraf became involved with Free Gaza in 2006, when it was just a far-fetched idea. Two years later, after tireless fund-raising and preparation, the movement was readying two boats to be launched from Cyprus.

On August 23, 2008, 44 people from 17 countries including Lauren Booth, a British journalist, and Anne Montgomery, an 81-year-old American nun boarded two boats and set sail for Gaza City. After 30 hours on board, and after getting word that the Israeli navy would not stop them, Ms Arraf stood on the deck. As she looked out at the Gaza shoreline, she saw thousands of people gathered at the port to greet them. Some hopped on fishing vessels to meet the two boats; children swam out to greet them.

Once the boats docked, the passengers and crew disembarked, many in disbelief that they had actually made it through. "Even our captains who were hired and probably didn't even know where Gaza was to start with were crying," Ms Arraf, 33, said. "It was extremely emotional and surreal because I had expected and was planning to be spending that night in an Israeli jail, not in Gaza." The day after they arrived, Ms Arraf was approached by an elderly Gazan man, who stopped her in the street.

"He had tears in his eyes, he said you gave us hope that our people, our family outside have not forgotten us," she said. Mr Shapiro, 37, an American documentary film-maker and activist, became involved this year, drawn in particular by the idea of what he described as making Israel's actions "politically costly". "As much as Israel relies on its military force, it also needs and requires its position internationally with the legitimacy it claims it wants.So that's why it is important to keep up these efforts and why we launched again over the summer."

Among those on board in June were Ms Abdulla and Juhaina al Qaed, another banker from Bahrain. Both women had been concerned about the Palestinian question for years, but it was only following Israel's offensive on Gaza in January that they felt compelled to turn their anguish into action. "We thought we had to do something, that the Israeli terrorism against these people had exceeded all levels," Ms Abdulla said. "When we saw that some of the ships had broken the siege of Gaza, we wished that we were with them."

She and Ms al Qaed, 26, contacted the group through their website freegaza.org determined to join the next attempt. The two women, along with another Bahraini woman and two men, left for Cyprus towards the end of June. On June 29, the Spirit of Humanity disembarked from Larnaca port, loaded with three tonnes of medical aid and 21 people, including Mairead Maguire, the winner of the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for her work in Northern Ireland, and Cynthia McKinney, a former US congresswoman. Then, in the early hours of the next morning, the Israeli navy approached the vessel and ordered it to turn back.

"We told them we were civilians from different countries and that we were no threat to them. Our main worry was that they would make us turn back, so we prayed that we would make it," Ms Abdulla said. For several hours, the navy vessels tailed the boat. Then soldiers boarded the boat and commandeered it into the Israeli port of Ashdod. For the next few days, the passengers were held and interrogated. On July 3 the Bahrainis were deported from Israel and returned to their country via Jordan.

"All of our friends and family and even people we didn't know said they were proud of what we had tried to achieve," Ms Abdulla said. "People said we are always just thinking to donate some dinars, but that we opened their eyes to what we can actually do." Both Ms Abdulla and Ms al Qaed say they are determined to try again to reach Gaza. "The conditions are becoming even more serious in Gaza and action needs to be taken, not just words," Ms al Qaed said. Both are unequivocal about encouraging others to do the same.

"I think Arabs in particular should go," Ms Abdulla said. "At the very least they should support the movement financially. Everyone is obliged to do something to stop this tragedy." zconstantine@thenational.ae Editorial, page a19