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An Interview With David Heap on Gaza's Ark

Sailing From Gaza to Break the Blockade

by ALESSANDRA BAJEC

A new mission vows to challenge the blockade of Gaza by sea following Freedom Flotilla efforts since 2010, and Free Gaza missions preceding Cast-Lead in 2008. Not a Gaza-bound aid convoy this time.

With a crew of Palestinians and international activists on board, Gaza’s Ark will sail from the port of Gaza, carrying Palestinian products to buyers around the world, to defy Israel’s illegal and inhuman blockade.

Gaza’s Ark is rebuilding a cargo vessel that will attempt to open the sea to Palestinian exports to show to the outside world that Palestine is a productive land, while drawing public attention on the 7-year blockade.

Because nearly all previous attempts to reach Gaza were blocked by the Israeli navy, and given Israel-imposed three mile limit from the Gazan coast, campaigners are well aware that Israeli forces will hardly let any boat leave Gaza port.

David Heap, French-language and linguistics associate professor at the University of Western Ontario, is a spokesperson for Gaza’s Ark. He talked about the new solidarity initiative.

How did the idea of Gaza’s Ark come about? 

D.H: After the last flotilla sailing I was involved in with other members, we realised we obviously need to carry on our work, trying to think of ways to continue direct action. Not just talking about the siege, but acting directly against the siege to change the premises of it.

Gaza’s Ark is the continuation of the Freedom Flotilla movement, but it’s different in significant ways due to the direction, the non-humanitarian connotation, and because fundraising efforts are being spent primarily in Gaza.

Why is this initiative important? 

DH: Freedom of movement is a fundamental human rights issue that has been systematically denied to all Palestinians, in particular most severely to Palestinians of Gaza. I feel it’s an obligation to try, even in a small, symbolic way, to demand some kind of hope for these people, especially the young ones.  When I visited Gaza last autumn, I was struck by the youth and their thirst for contact with the outside world.

What makes Gaza’s Ark different from previous attempts to break the siege? 

D.H: Gaza’s Ark has a broader focus. We don’t just talk about the sea blockade but the whole blockade imposed on Palestine. What we’re addressing is freedom of movement –both commercial goods and people- national sovereignty and territorial integrity. We will have goods on board from all over Palestine, as Palestinians themselves have told us they should be exporting goods from not only Gaza but also the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Could you discuss how trade rather than aid may help Gaza more effectively? 

D.H: Working with the Palestinian civil society in Gaza, what we at Freedom Flotilla Coalition hear is they’re sick of being recipients of international humanitarian aid. Palestinians tell us they don’t want more humanitarian aid, they want to live on their own economy as they’re very capable of doing. They claim the same freedom of movement rights that everybody enjoys.

Gaza, in particular, had a very prosperous economy in the past. But the infrastructure was systematically destroyed by Israel, and the only factories that are surviving can’t function due to the Israeli blockade.

What potential do you think the project has in comparison with the flotillas that have so far tried to sail to Gaza?

DH: If we take the Flotilla Movement as a whole, it has almost had as many successful arrivals to Gaza as attacks. This is something that goes easily forgotten in the mainstream media.

The choice of allowing us to sail safely to other destinations in the Mediterranean is something the occupier decides, not us.  We can only control what we do. When the Israeli navy assaulted prior flotillas, the rhetoric used was that the boats posed a threat to Israel’s security. Which is absolutely false, none of the inbound voyages created a security risk for anyone, nobody ever found dangerous items on the flotillas that could possibly threaten the security of Israel.

Given that Gaza’s Ark is outbound, it will be interesting to see what the response from the Israeli military will be. They won’t be able to use the security argument since, even if we carried anything dangerous –which is to exclude- Israel shouldn’t care about a boat sailing out. However, I’m sure they will come up with a pretext, but It will be even harder to defend in international public opinion.

How open are international consumers to Palestinian products from Gaza? 

D.H: We’ve been conditioned to think of Palestinians, Gazans in particular, as being dependant on aid. We don’t think of them as capable of having a productive economy. Part of our work is to educate the world that Palestinians can and do produce goods, and they have goods that they could export. Most people don’t know what products are available in Gaza, for example.

There’s a small selection of products that can be viewed on our website, including dugga, za’atar, dates, olive oil to name a few. Our campaign partners based in a number of countries are putting together group purchases of products from interested businesses, individuals and community groups to have their goods exported onboard Gaza’s Ark. Whichever goods potential buyers are more appealed to, whether agricultural or handicraft products, we will match them with producer organizations in Gaza.

Whatever happens to the boat, there will be a connection established between purchaser and producer in the end. Even in the event the goods don’t reach the port of destination, commercial partners in other countries will be connected to Palestinian produce organizations, they will know they bought goods and who sent them. That puts a human face to Palestinians as people who produce, and has the longer term function of building relationships which will ultimately help challenge the power of the occupier as well as the complicity of our governments in the West.

How doable is it for Palestinian producers of Gaza to secure trade deals with purchasers when there’s a real risk that goods will be confiscated by the Israeli military? 

D.H: Although there’s commercial deal, it’s a special kind of commercial deal. We work with civil society partners, businesses and organizations. Purchasers in Europe, North America, Australia or South Africa have to be prepared to secure full payment before the boat sails. Palestinian producers are assured they will be paid the full purchase price of the goods before anything travels.

The risk is borne outside of Gaza by supporters of Palestinian businesses who believe that Palestinians should have their own economy. Then if something happens during the sailing, the risk is being shared by many people keeping in mind the human and commercial interest involved in this mission.

Only a small number of people can board a small boat in the east Mediterranean. But hundreds or thousands of people from different countries can potentially get on board with the campaign by buying parts of the cargo. 

You intend to raise awareness and mobilize to action. How do you hope Gaza’s Ark will help put pressure on national governments and international organizations?

DH: There are bilateral trade agreements between Israel and the EU stipulating that there must not be obstacles to trading with occupied Palestinian territories. When we sail, and European buyers have purchased goods stocked on Gaza’s Ark, if the Israeli navy interferes with that sailing that’s an obstacle to trade. European commercial businesses will then have a very strong case to go their governments and claim that, despite they have commercial relations -with documentation proving purchase of those goods- their imports have been confiscated.

We usually address to human rights parliamentary commissions in Europe, now we may also appeal to commerce commissions. People have so far protested about human rights in reference to flotillas, but this initiative opens up another avenue, the commercial one, to bring up the blockade issue. Why is there free trade with Israel while there isn’t free trade for Palestinians? Why can’t Palestinians use their only port in Gaza?

Israel has used violence to stop other boats from leaving or entering the port of Gaza. What do you expect Gaza’s Ark will achieve? 

DH: Again, the choice to use violence lies with the occupier, it’s not our choice. Everybody that sails with us is committed to non-violence, and we are very transparent about it. Whoever goes will make the choice to sail knowing the implications and possible consequences. Unfortunately we are dealing with a state that attacks unarmed civilians with impunity, as our governments in the West don’t hold it accountable.

When I went on the Gaza relief boat earlier in 2011, I was very aware of the risks. I and two dozen other activists were kidnapped, beaten and illegally arrested after Israeli naval forces seized the Canadian vessel we were on. The Canadian government did nothing. Canadians don’t overall support the blockade on Gaza, this government is in discordance with Canadian public opinion. So how can we make pressure? By putting Canadians and other internationals on the frontline. When I embark on a boat to break the blockade, I don’t just sail against the occupier, I sail against my own government.

What will be the next step if Gaza’s Ark will not reach its destination?

D.H: There’s always an after campaign. People are still following up actions from past flotilla sailings with regards to Gaza relief boats that have been seized in the last few years. With Gaza’s Ark, there will be more people involved because there are also purchasers on board. So we’ll be also bringing commercial actions against whoever happens to steal goods on the ship. We will also continue to stand in solidarity with the fishing fleet of Gaza, which is daily subject to violent constraints from the Israeli navy.

When do you anticipate Gaza’s Ark will be ready to sail?  

D.H: We’re set to depart sometime this year hopefully. It depends on a lot of factors that we don’t control. The process of rebuilding the vessel has been difficult, especially this past month, raising funds internationally has not gone as fast as we would like.

But the date of sailing is for us less important than the lead up to it. The lesson we’ve learned from 2012 flotilla is a long campaign is an advantage because it allows you to develop more support in more countries. As long as we’re developing support for Palestinians of Gaza, spending most of the donated money in Gaza, we’re achieving the goal of affirming our support for a Palestinian economy. So if we don’t sail in 2013, we will sail after. The important thing is we keep opposing the blockade.

Alessandra Bajec lived in Palestine between June 2010 and May 2011 starting to work as a freelance journalist. Her articles have appeared in various Palestinian newswires, the European Journalism Centre’s magazine, The Majalla, among others.