By Mike Treen, National Director of Unite Union
The headline of this article tells the end of the story following an attempt by myself and others this past summer to take a Norwegian fishing boat loaded with medical supplies to the Palestinian territory of Gaza.
The only problem we faced was that Israel has maintained an almost complete siege on that territory of two million people for over a decade. Israel allows nothing to go in or out without their authority. What goes in or out has been radically reduced and is often completely arbitrary – like all sieges.
As a consequence, Gaza is in a state of economic collapse with over 50% unemployment – the highest recorded rate in the world.
Gaza has become like an open-air prison for its two-million people. But in many areas the situation is worse for the people there. They cannot receive visitors. They can never leave. Medical treatment is denied.
Since the end of March, protests by Gaza residents against the siege have been fired upon by Israeli military forces. Over 170 people have been killed and 18,000 wounded in just four months – overwhelming medical facilities in Gaza. People are being shot inside Gaza by Israel for crossing arbitrary lines often hundreds of metres from any supposed border.
The journey began for me when Kia Ora Gaza in the person of Roger Fowler asked me to join the latest attempt to get a ship through the Israeli siege. New Zealand has participated in numerous attempts to breach the siege by land and sea since 2010.
I joked with Roger that I must have been the last in a long list that had refused, but I received the request with real pleasure because I was excited to be part of something I knew has had and will have real impact in advancing solidarity with the people of Palestine.
It was also a moment of great pride for myself and Unite Union who have in small ways been trying to advance trade union solidarity with workers and their unions in Palestine. This has been especially true since the unions in Palestine were central to a call issued in 2005 by Palestinian civil society organisations for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel until it complies with International law and Universal Principles of Human Rights. This campaigned – dubbed BDS for short – similar in many respects to that which was carried out against the apartheid state of South Africa before 1990 in which New Zealand played a prominent role – including New Zealand unions.
Unite Union adopted the BDS call and successfully submitted a resolution to the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions to support the BDS campaign in 2009. But I am conscious of the need to turn the words that have been adopted in action. Joining the flotilla was one of the ways that could be done – making my presence on the boat a union presence. So it was with great pride that the Unite Union flag was flown on the boat from when I joined it in Palermo, Italy until it was torn down by Israeli naval forces off the coast of Gaza at the end of July.
In any social catastrophe, it is working people who suffer the most. This is true in all of Palestine under Israeli occupation but is especially true in Gaza. The economy has largely collapsed because of the siege. Little is allowed in, and nothing can be exported. Unemployment and poverty rates are through the roof and 80% of the population is now dependent on foreign aid.
Even the fishing industry has been deliberately destroyed with half the fishers unable to work. Israel imposes random arbitrary limits on how far boats can go out to sea – 3, 6 or 12 nautical miles. Boats are shot at stopped and seized. Boats are refused permission to take wounded people to another country for treatment. A few fishers are killed each year and dozens wounded. This is another form of daily terrorism imposed by the Israeli state.
It was in part this aspect of the siege that prompted the Norwegian solidarity campaign to buy and refit a fishing boat for this year’s flotilla. The boat was renamed Al Awda (the Return) for the journey. The Norwegian boat was also joined by three yachts from Sweden, one of which also got off the coast of Gaza and was seized by the Israeli navy.
Norway is a fishing country like New Zealand. Contact and solidarity had been developed between the solidarity campaign in Norway and the fishers of Gaza. Al Awda left the port of Bergen on April 30 and celebrated May Day, the international worker’s day, at Leirvik on the island Stord which is the centre of the Norwegian fishing industry. Mikkel Grüner, a Socialist Left city council member from Bergen travelled on the boat and another Bergen council member Torstein Dahle is a central leader of the Ship to Gaza Norway campaign and leader of the Red Party in Norway. Norwegian Trade Union Congress with almost 900,0000 members – passed motions in support of the international BDS campaign last year.
The small flotilla’s journey became an occasion for solidarity actions in over 20 ports in Europe along the way. In some ports, there were civic receptions and large crowds gathered to welcome or see off the boats. In France police boats deliberately rammed and damaged one of the Swedish sailboats. In Lisbon, Portugal, it required the intervention of the trade unions in the port for the boats to be allowed to enter.
I joined the flotilla in Palermo in Sicily in mid-July (see earlier report here). The Mayor, Leoluca Orlando welcomed us with open arms. He comes from a people’s campaign against corruption and Mafia control of the Church and the State in Sicily. He continues to be guarded by at least a dozen armed police day and night. At a reception in our honour, he announced that part of the port will be renamed in remembrance to the historic Palestinian national leader Yasser Arafat who died, or more likely murdered by Israel, in 2004. He is also fighting to preserve the city as a place of safe haven for refugees and beat back attempts by the right-wing and fascist forces in Italy to blame refugees for the social problems created by the capitalist Europe project which has resulted in nothing but austerity, welfare cuts and growing unemployment for working people across Europe. In June this year, he defied the central government and allowed the refugee ship Aquarius with 629 migrants aboard to dock. He said at the time: “Palermo in ancient Greek meant ‘complete port’. We have always welcomed rescue boats and vessels who saved lives at sea. We will not stop now.”
At the same time as our visit, there were people’s movement protests against the militarisation of the borders of Europe directed against the refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean sea. This refugee flow is itself a product of centuries of Western exploitation of Africa. We were able to join a festive procession of several thousand people that marched around the city that merged the demands for refugee rights and the rights of the Palestinian people.
While in the Palermo port we received an urgent request for medical supplies from Gaza. The mass shootings of Palestinians in Gaza by Israeli snipers which is now approaching 20,000 people had simply overwhelmed the medical services in Gaza. We had not initially intended the boats on this flotilla to be carrying aid because boats themselves were to be handed to the fishers of Gaza, but we agreed to load up with whatever we could purchase in Palermo. 114 boxes were loaded and have not been accounted for by Israel following their seizure.
After a few days of training in non-violent resistance, we set sail for Gaza. The fishing boat had quite a large rolling motion even in quiet seas that soon levelled most people not used to it with a violent sea-sicknesses. I discovered I was immune, to my great relief.
We had a heavy-smoking Norwegian captain and mostly heavy-smoking Norwegian crew. I was lucky to survive a decade-long non-smoking period of my life given the combination of factors that has usually led me back in that direction in the past. We all had shared duties between the solidarity activists and the crew. Mine was with the bridge and was on two four-hour shifts each day – 4am to 8am and 4pm to 8pm. The bonus of this shift was that I got to see sunrise and sunset each day. The ship required active concentration to steer it however as we lost the generator controlling the automatic steerage almost as soon as we left Palermo.
A big diesel engine also meant a lot of noise and heat to bear as well as the Mediterranean summer heat. I didn’t usually sleep in my bunk as a consequence preferring the deck or the shared cabin which had better ventilation.
While at sea, there was an attempt by a group of people with links to the solidarity movement in Greece to get us to rendezvous with them inside Greek territorial waters, but we soon smelt a trap and refused their request. Greek military and police are notorious for being sympathetic to Israel.
Tension built as we got closer to Gaza. We decided to head towards Egypt below the Suez Canal so we could use the heavy naval traffic as a bit of a cover. It would be difficult for Israeli naval forces to jam our communications in this area and we could time our arrival off Gaza to be in daylight hours and make it easier to see the approach of Israeli Naval forces if they decided to intervene against us.
The Israeli military had nothing to fear from the ship or crew. It was actually more a case of “Dad’s Army” for those who remember the TV show. The average age of the 22 participants was 56 and that’s counting the 28-year old captain Herman Reksten. Several were over 70 including 75-year-old Ger von der Lippe a Norwegian professor of sports and sociology who had recently had her hips replaced.
We agreed to divide into three groups. Ger would lead a group of about half the participants that would offer no resistance at all and simply sit at a table at the back with their hands face down. Another group of four were media including two Al Jazeera journalists and one from Australia and a film-maker from Singapore.
The rest of us would offer active, but non-violent resistance to make it clear that we did not accept the right of Israel to hijack a boat in international waters and kidnap all aboard, as had happened on previous occasions.
The planned resistance was simply linking arms in small groups impeding the access to the bridge. Two groups of three or four were on the deck passageways leading to the bridge and I was selected to guard the door with Charlie Andreasson from Sweden. Charlie was the first mate and a true veteran. He had participated in two previous flotillas, worked in Gaza as a volunteer, and helped rescue refugees in the Mediterranean.
Once the bridge was captured, it signified the end of any form of active resistance.
On Sunday, July 29, the ship started receiving messages from the Israeli Navy to halt our course. We repeatedly informed them that we had no intention of entering Israeli waters and the Israeli Navy had no right to interfere with our freedom of navigation under exercising our right of innocent passage in international waters under international customary law.
After a few hours, at least 5 naval ships appeared. Two were relatively large warships and they were accompanied by at least three zodiac-type small boats. When they pulled closer, we saw a large machine gun on a rotating platform on one boat trained on us.
The heavily armed naval forces then boarded rapidly and with significant force. They are evidently a secretive special unit of the Israeli Navy that specialises in these interventions at sea. They have a special white uniform with a blue Israeli flag ensign. All their faces are covered in ninja style masks to prevent identification.
By this stage, we had taken our positions and I had my arms locked together with Charlie. The soldiers forcibly attacked the groups in the pathway to the bridge. Most people were simply tossed aside without too much struggle. But the rather stout chef Jorgen Pedersen proved a bit more difficult to move so he was the first to be tasered until he fell and could be dragged out of the way.
Charlie and I were now the last line of defence with only two people able to fit into the door well that lead to the bridge. Charlie tried explaining international law and the right of passage to the people getting ready to attack us, but to no avail. Before the arrival of the troops, we had joked about which side of the door we would each take before just assuming position without much further thought.
That was lucky for me in the circumstances as Charlie’s side was more open to attack and he began to receive a flurry of blows whilst they were stomping on my feet and trying to force me away from the door.
Very soon the order to use tasers was given and again Charlie was receiving the bulk of the attention. I began to worry that I may be holding him so tight that I was preventing him from falling to the floor which we had all agreed we would do if the pain got too much. But before long the order came to use tasers on both our necks and then we received a number of misdirected hits with tasers hitting our heads, faces and necks until we both collapsed.
Lying on the ground Charlie said he would be happy to go sailing with me again so I am glad was able to hold him up as long as I did.
Dr Swee Ang, the diminutive 69-year-old ships doctor who was also assaulted during the boarding, has written that she got to examine us both at that point and found that we were both “semi-conscious”, which I assume was accurate. There was also bleeding from my face from the tasering.
The troops then tried to put plastic restraints on our wrists. Again I didn’t want to make this job easy for them so they kept getting the straps in the wrong position and eventually they just strapped my hand to my other wrist so hard it cut off circulation to my fingers completely.
Once in control of the bridge, the Israeli military discovered they did not know how to start the engines and simply assaulted the captain Herman Reksten, with maximum force possible including smashing his head into the fittings. They then threatened to simply take into the bowel of the ship and execute him unless he agreed to start the boat. At this point, the ships engineer Arne Birger Helisaid he would do so if they stopped the assault on the captain. He went to the engine room to start the ship but when he returned he discovered the assault on Herman had continued.
All of the ship’s crew and activist volunteers were gathered together on the back of the ship under an armed guard.
The Norwegian, Palestinian and Unite flags were all taken down. The soldiers trampled on the Norwegian flag which deeply angered the Norwegian crew and violated all sorts of protocols associated with naval travel.
All the Israeli military seemed to have go-pro type cameras on their bodies and we had been warned that they would seek to use footage of them trying to “help” us on Israeli television if they could. This had happened in the past so we made sure we had our own food and water available once captured and could refuse any assistance from them.
As blood wasn’t circulating to my fingers the group took up a chant for them to cut the restraints which was eventually acceded to for both Charlie and me.
The first thing the soldiers did then was to remove all phones or recording devices we had in our possession. None of these things were to be seen again despite the occupiers ostentatiously labelling each bag with our name before putting the phone inside. They also took our passports to put with the phones which military forces don’t have a legal right to do.
We were kept in the sun without shade for several hours because the rigging we had to provide shade was a giant Palestinian flag which the Israeli Navy appeared scared of. Eventually, a more senior officer boarded who allowed the dangerous flag to provide shade.
We decided that when the ship was being docked in Ashdod port, Israel, we would continue to make our displeasure at being hijacked and kidnapped known to the authorities by chanting “Free, Free, Palestine”. Since we get lots of chanting practice at Unite Union and I am known to have a loud voice, I was soon leading the group by doing the “Free, Free” part while everyone else replied with Palestine. Joe Meadows, a US participant who was next to me said he was going to put in a claim for industrial deafness as a consequence of being in too close a proximity. Joe is a survivor of the 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, a surveillance vessel operating in international waters of the Mediterranean Sea near Gaza during the 1967 Six-Day Arab-Israeli war, which left 34 US servicemen dead and 174 injured.
However, leading the chants meant that I was targetted for immediate attention when the soldiers boarded the boat. I was simply grabbed and frog-marched off with considerable force and violence down the gangplank and hit land with some force – but still chanting.
Israel had about 150 people assembled in a special area to process the 22 of us. There was confusion and pandemonium everywhere. Everybody appeared to be arguing with everybody else in loud voices. I had two people argue over what number they would assign me and then a paper sticker with a number on it was attached to my wristband which I simply took off and threw on the ground. No one ever asked to see it again. I was filled with confidence that this was not the invincible military machine that Israel tries to portray for itself.
The luggage which we had carefully packed and labelled, was removed from the boat and dumped in a pile outside for us to sort through. It was clear that it had been completely ransacked and only a small part of my and other boat participants property was still present.
We were then transferred to an immigration detention facility near the port. Charlie and I were shackled by our feet before being transferred.
My prison stay was relatively uneventful. The food was truly awful but that is to be expected in prison rather than especially bad treatment for us. Prison doctors examined us but ignored complaints when we had them, Larry Commodore, a first nations participant from Canada, had his bladder stop working in prison and they ignored his discomfort and pain. He has since been hospitalised in Canada as a consequence. I asked a doctor about my swelling foot and he casually observed from about 3 meters that I probably had a sprain. After I got back to New Zealand I was found to have a small fracture and had to wear a moon boot for several weeks. I also discovered had cracked several ribs which gave me extreme discomfort and difficulty sleeping for a week or so after I got back. But it gave me a grim satisfaction that the arrogant Israeli prison doctor was proved wrong.
Israel wanted us out reasonably quickly to prevent our detention becoming an international incident. We asked for access to lawyers and our countries diplomatic representatives which did happen. I have written elsewhere about the poor job the New Zealand representative did on my behalf. Winston Peters responded on behalf of the government and I replied to his brushing off of my concerns here. But treatment appeared arbitrary and random. A few people got most of their stuff back. Most did not. Some people had their wallets stolen or money removed and others didn’t. The Al Jazeera journalists appeared to be treated very badly and lost everything whilst the Singaporean got most of his equipment back
Eventually, I was bundled off to a plane to Hong Kong and back to New Zealand. I didn’t get my passport back until I reached New Zealand. I had had nearly all my possessions lost, confiscated or stolen by the Israelis- including my backpack, all my clothes, phones, Go Pro, IPad etc
But my discomfort and pain pales into insignificance to compared to the daily humiliations, abuse, violence and killings – the permanent regime of terror – that is inflicted on the two million people imprisoned in Gaza, the three million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the two million Palestinians living as second-class citizens inside the 1948 borders of Israel. The seven million Palestinians of Israel/Palestine and the almost same number of Jewish citizens of Israel/Palestine must all have equal rights to live as free and equal citizens in the land that they share.
According to a recent opinion poll, one million Jews who live in the land of Israel/Palestine say they agree with that future. That fills me with hope. But a similar number feel that they need a military final solution to drive out even more Palestinians or the establishment of an apartheid state in law as well as through facts on the ground.
The only way to stop growing right-wing direction of Israeli society is to cut the threads of support for the apartheid state that go all the way back to Washington, London and Paris. Israel receives billions in aid each year from the western powers. Cutting this aid and imposing boycotts on Israel will lead to a collapse of the apartheid system in much the same way as the South African apartheid regime came to an end.
That is our job to achieve.