Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Work of Western Activists in Gaza

On March 30, western activists took part in a non-violent Palestinian demonstration against the buffer zone, the “no man’s land” between Gaza and Israel that Palestinians are forbidden to enter. They marched towards the border fence in the same area near Khan Younis where two Israeli soldiers had been shot and killed last Friday. Israeli troops then fired “warning shots,” according to the Israeli military.

While the situation was particularly unstable this week due to the recent deaths of the Israeli soldiers, incidents like these happen regularly, particularly in places where the buffer zones cut off Palestinian livelihoods. Fishermen, for example, are only allowed to fish within three nautical miles of the coast, where the catches are much smaller and often contaminated by sewage. The AP reported last month that despite its once-thriving fishing industry, Gaza has become “a net fish importer” as a result of the blockade. The same is true of Palestinian farmers, whose businesses have been devastated by the blockade.

One of the western activists at the March 30 demonstration was Vittorio Arrigoni, knicknamed "Vic", who visited my apartment for a three-hour coffee chat last Friday. Vic is a 35-year-old Italian activist from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) who has lived in Gaza on and off over the last six years. He has twice been jailed and then deported by the Israeli Defense Forces; in 2008, Israeli soldiers put him on an El Al flight back to Italy wearing “smelly clothes and no shoes.” During Israel’s Operation Cast Lead last year, which Vic calls “the massacre,” he rode with ambulances to document horrific civilian injuries and deaths (see picture, taken by Vic). He reports that sixteen Gaza paramedics were killed in 22 days.

Vic has since published an Italian book about the war and is now working on a new book about the siege. He doesn’t speak much Arabic, but peppers his English with Arabic expressions; he taught me new words like taburah (Israeli gunboat) and muqawima (Palestinian fighters). During our conversation, Vic got a call from friends telling him that two Israeli soldiers had just been killed. The friend encouraged Vic to come to Khan Younis, but Vic declined because there were muqawima in the area. As a non-violent movement, ISM does not defend armed Palestinians—only civilians.

ISM is the same group to which 23-year-old American activist Rachel Corrie belonged when she was killed in 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer while seeking to stop a bulldozer from destroying a Palestinian home in Rafah. British activist Tom Hurndall, who was shot and killed by an Israeli sniper a couple of months after Rachel’s death, was also an ISM member. The soldier who shot Hurndall was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years in prison. This was the only time since 2000 that an Israeli soldier was convicted of any offence greater than negligence for the death of a civilian.

ISM currently has six volunteers in Gaza and most have entered in undisclosed ways. Vic entered with a flotilla organized by the Free Gaza Movement that set sail from Cyprus in August of 2008 and managed to get some its boats through the Israeli blockade. One boat was so severely damaged after it was rammed by a taburah that it was forced to dock in Lebanon and almost sank. Vic is anticipating the next “Free Gaza” flotilla will arrive next month carrying construction materials, medical aid supplies, journalists, more activists and possibly parliamentarians from European countries.

(Courtesy of Vittorio Arrigoni)

When the electricity went out and I placed my headlamp on the table as an improvised candle, Vic shared some videos that he’d personally filmed in the buffer zones. One showed an incident in which Vic dodged live gunfire and was cut by shards of broken glass as an Israeli water cannon broke the windows of a Gazan fishing boat cabin (see video). In another of Vic's videos, a deaf Palestinian farmer is shot in the leg by Israeli soldiers while tending to wheat fields near, but allegedly outside, the buffer zone.

Throughout our conversation, Vic inhaled deep puffs of smoke from his pipe as he recalled especially traumatic incidents, including: a Palestinian friend killed in Jabalia, Vic's near death by hypothermia in the Mediterranean Sea as an Israeli taburah tried to “kidnap” him (and ultimately did pull him from the water and arrest him), a bullet that whizzed by within millimeters of his ear, and the "life-changing trauma" of seeing “Gaza turned into Auschwitz” during Operation Cast Lead.

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