'They had weapons pointed at our heads,' recalls secret Gaza flotilla activist
Karen De Vito, 65, joined two international activist flotillas this year attempting to break Israel's blockade of Gaza -- the last one kept secret even from her own family. The Israel-Palestine conflict is controversial -- this is one woman's story of an audacious attempt to change Israeli government policy.
As boatloads of navy commandos surrounded the 12-passenger Canadian vessel Tahrir on the Mediterranean Sea – dozens of guns pointed, fighter jets overhead, faces masked – Vancouver's Karen De Vito glanced across at her colleagues on the Irish boat Saoirse to see its windows smashed by two water cannons, and the ship seemingly floundering as it took on water.
The 65-year old former teacher – who will speak tonight Vancouver Unitarian Church about her experiences in last month's “secret freedom flotilla” to Israel/Palestine – sat down with the Vancouver Observer to tell her story. What took a year to plan in secrecy ended November 4 when the Israeli navy intercepted the flotilla, arrested the 27 activists (tasering Canadian David Heap in the process), and seized their boats.
“This time it was decided it would be done in secret,” De Vito said, explaining that the six journalists on board were only allowed to report on the mission once it reached international waters on November 3, for fear the mission would be stopped earlier. “We didn't even tell our own families.
“We're not getting the full story and I think Canadians are realizing that. We'd promised Palestinian civil society groups that we'd try to break the blockade. We fulfilled a promise – we went.”
The Israeli government said that attempts to break the blockade of Gaza are dangerous and ill-informed attempts to meddle in international politics in an already-volatile region.
It has opposed the three flotilla efforts, alleging that participants are hypocritical in isolating the country for condemnation, and even suggesting that the pro-Palestinian efforts are backed by terrorist organizations.
“The evidence is clear – there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza," Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak told a military gathering, according to a report in Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. "If the Gaza flotilla organizers were sensitive to human suffering, they should redirect their efforts to the immediate release of (captured Israeli soldier) Gilad Shalit."
On November 3, the two boats of activists – crewed by Irish, Canadians, Americans, Brits and an Israeli-Arab -- met up in international waters off Turkey. Together, the boats attempted a repeat of two previous attempts to break the State of Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip – a policy Israel says is a consequence of rockets fired into Israeli civilian areas, but which critics label an illegal siege and collective punishment of civilians.
“In Gaza, young people are working as rubble collectors,” she said. “If they get too close (to the Israeli border) they can be shot with remote-control weapons.
“This is what Palestinians are doing to rebuild something: rummaging for building materials. If you can't leave Gaza to go to university or medical school, where's the next generation of doctors or legislators supposed to come from?”
The mission's purpose, De Vito said, was to symbolically deliver medications, cooking oil and other embargoed supplies into the Gaza Strip, where levels of unemployment, poverty and crumbling infrastructure have led to widespread international criticism. Israel says it is now allowing some essential supplies in, but insists it cannot end the blockade while Hamas is in power. It also offered to deliver activists' medical and food supplies itself.
“That's beside the point,” De Vito said. “The point is that the blockade is illegal.
“On one side it's Israel, the United States and Canada, and in the other side it's the rest of the world.”
In 2010, Israeli commandos raided the first “freedom flotilla,” killing nine activists, including a U.S. citizen, aboard the M.V. Mavi Marmara – the Israeli government said the raid party came under attack from the activists, but others disputed that account.
De Vito said the activists involved in the latest effort were willing to face the risk of violence, but tried to mitigate it by ensuring nothing on board could be construed as a possible weapon, even dumping kitchen knives overboard. When Israeli commandos finally boarded – delayed by fishing nets draped around the stern to slow their progress – they held the activists at gunpoint while other soldiers ransacked the ship's hold, De Vito said.
“They were shouting at us to shut up -- but I don't remember us talking,” she said. “It was violent, messy, and not organized.
“Each commando was yelling a different order: 'Sit down.' 'Stand up.' 'Get down on the deck.' They had their weapons pointed at our heads. Israel talks about how their army keeps order, but it was chaotic. It seemed like an extremely large effort for a bunch of peaceniks."
The activists were then imprisoned for three days and given access to Canadian embassy officials, who she said “did a great job,” even offering her up to $400 cash she might need during her deportation (she accepted $100 and has since paid it back).
“We got off lucky -- as foreign nationals, we were the luckiest prisoners in Israel,” she said. “There's no embassy to help (Palestinians). Where's the justice?”
She recalled one female prison guard asked her about her beliefs. De Vito told her she'd joined the flotilla hoping that Israeli and Palestinian children could live without fear of violence; when she was released, the guard expressed her gratitude for meeting her.
But the United Nations, U.S., European Union and Russia – dubbed the Middle East Quartet for their role in attempted peace negotiations between Israel and Palestinians – opposed the flotilla attempts, despite expressing concerns for Gazans.
“The Quartet remains concerned about the unsustainable conditions facing the civilian population in Gaza,” the countries said in a July 2 statement, after the prior attempt to breach the blockade. “(We call) on all Governments concerned to use their influence to discourage additional flotillas, which risk the safety of their participants and carry the potential for escalation.”
Regardless of the outcome, which saw the activists' boats and cargo seized, De Vito said she is glad she went -- but will not forget the experience.
“It's hard to take in something like this if you've never had something happen like this,” she said. “(The secrecy) led to some interesting discussions when we got home.
“There's so many seized Palestinian fishing boats in Ashdod (Israeli town near Gaza) now. Our boat is now one of them.”
De Vito will speak tonight at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver (949 West 49th Avenue) at 7:30 p.m. She will be joined by John Soos, who traveled to Israel/Palestine last month to help Palestinian farmers in their olive harvest. The events mark International Human Rights day.