Zoe Lawlor relates her experiences on the Freedom Waves voyage to Gaza aboard the MV Saoirse and subsequent abduction of crew members by Israel in November 2011.
Freedom Waves to Gaza – Tales of a kidnapping from the MV Saoirse
Freedom waves, freedom rides, freedom marches…. it won’t stop until Palestine is free.
On Wednesday 2nd November 2011 the MV Saoirse and the Tahrir sailed from Turkey to Gaza as part of Freedom Waves to Gaza – the international effort to break the illegal, immoral siege of Gaza and show solidarity with the people there. Although the Tahrir was carrying medical supplies and the Saoirse sports equipment, the aim of the mission was to break the political siege imposed by Israel on the people of Gaza, not as an aid mission.
These are my personal thoughts and recollections and really represent a means for me to put the events into some sort of chronology – it’s less an analysis and more a recounting of events. I would like to preface this by first stressing that the experience of the Saoirse and Tahrir people in Israeli captivity is in no way comparable to what the Palestinian people face daily from the apartheid state. Our brief time in captivity provided a minute snapshot of what Palestinian prisoners experience and I am in no way equating what happened to us with what happens to the Palestinians. The prisoners held in administrative detention were on my mind a lot when we were in prison as the thought of not knowing how long you are to be detained is truly frightening and is the reality for so many Palestinians. We also had the security of knowing that there were family members, friends and loved ones, solidarity initiatives, embassy and other political figures advocating for us and pressuring for our release – our European person’s privilege highlighted in stark contrast to the extremely limited rights of the Palestinian people.
We are not the story – the story is Palestine, the story is Gaza, the story is the Freedom Waves, the story is freedom.
I want to pay tribute to my shipmates, great and brilliant people that they are: Mags O’Brien, Fintan Lane, Hugh Lewis, Trevor Hogan, Chris Andrews, John Hearne, Pat Fitzgerald, John Mallon, Phil McCullough, Billy Smith, Paul Murphy, Felim Egan, Ger Barron and our Captain Zach. We also missed our shipmates from the summer: Gerry MacLochlainn, Charlie McMenamin, Rik Walton, Hussein Hammed and Jim Roche. The shore team were amazing too especially Claudia Saba, Laurence Davis, Ronan O’Dowd, Kev Squires, Raymond Deane, Greg Manahan, Sinéad MacLochlainn and Caoimhe Butterly.
Family, friends and loved ones went through so much and were strong voices for us throughout – I know my brother Gay burned the ear off DFA officials and media outlets, kept my mum and friends informed and was just brilliant.
Other friends gave amazing support, some of it very practical, you know who you are – many thanks a cháirde.
From Wednesday we sailed for two days, extremely happy that despite sabotage and international governmental complicity in Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people in June, we were at last on our way to Gaza. The significance of sailing and demonstrating to the people there that they are not isolated, that there are hundreds of thousands of people represented on these ships who stand with them and wish for their freedom was huge to us, we hadn’t given up, we were sailing – on course for Gaza.
The trip was fun, funny and hopeful, interspersed with some shipmates suffering badly from seasickness and very interesting times in the kitchen for the galley slaves, cooking while being fired from side to side is challenging! Sailing alongside the Tahrir was exhilarating and getting close and talking our comrades across the waves was very emotional. Seeing the ships heading to Gaza, flying the Palestinian flag was just beautiful, I can only imagine how amazing the larger flotillas must have been.
On the Thursday evening after dinner we had a refresher meeting about what to do in the event of an Israeli intervention. Shortly after that a ship was spotted on our radar, there were spotter planes in the sky and everyone got ready for an Israeli intervention that evening. When the phone call hadn’t come by the small hours, most of us relaxed and thought we would get through the night safely.
When the sun came up on Friday morning and we were still sailing unimpeded, hopes began to rise that we would get to Gaza. Looking at the Irish flag and the Palestinian flag fluttering on the Saoirse with Gaza in the not too far distance, it all seemed possible. Unfortunately and criminally it was not to be as the Israeli government sent an astonishing amount of force to stop twenty-seven people, armed solely with humanity and solidarity, from reaching Gaza. We were only forty nautical miles away when we were attacked, tantalisingly close. Our ships were surrounded by warships, zodiacs and gunboats, all populated by heavily armed, masked commandos. Our ships were corralled at sea and forced to collide causing much damage to the Saoirse which was taking on water – all of us put on our life jackets. Then the pirates water-cannoned the ships, causing massive electrical damage, almost causing the bridge to go on fire and forcing our coordinator Fintan Lane down the stairs into the front saloon where water was pouring through the closed windows, soaking absolutely everything inside. The Saoirse was then violently boarded with the windows smashed and commandos armed to the teeth boarding and threatening all the people on both ships. The crew on the Tahrir were also assaulted. In the front saloon of the MV Saoirse, Mags O’Brien and myself were held separately from our male colleagues and sat in the dark the entire trip to Ashdod as the lights had been blown by the water cannons – we were accompanied by at least four commandos for the journey, there were many more with the men. The efforts of our crew, especially Pat Fitzgerald the ship’s engineer, to keep us safe and also informed as to everyone’s welfare were incredible.
The commandos attempted to steal the Irish flag that they had removed from the Saoirse but were prevented from doing so. They also tried to put an Israeli flag on the Saoirse’s flagpole but we stopped that and ensured that our ship was not brought into Ashdod flying the apartheid flag. The commandos tried to sing military songs while saluting to each other in the front saloon but were ‘interrupted’ by our visits to the loo – we weren’t listening to that shit. From these actions the efforts to humiliate us are clear to see but thankfully were thwarted, equally obvious were pathetic efforts to capture propaganda footage to be used to paint the interception as not violent – offering us water and trying to film it (we refused), asking us if we were ok and telling us not to worry while pointing guns at our heads.
On shore captivity
Once in Ashdod the groups in both saloons unanimously demanded to see the Irish ambassador and refused to leave the ship. The presence of Paul Murphy, Socialist Party MEP no doubt lent weight to our demands as even for the Israeli government there are limits and they most certainly include the European Parliament. There was a very large group of people in the port waiting to see us dragged from our ship, most of them with film cameras at the ready. (The level of voyeurism that accompanied all of the Israeli encounters was amazing, from multiple, unnecessary searches to constant filming).
Conor Long, the Irish Deputy Head of Mission, came to speak to us and a representative of the Israeli Department of Foreign Affairs was the liaison. We left the Saoirse under protest, stating we had been kidnapped and brought to Israel illegally and refusing to accept any status of illegal entry to the state. We were guaranteed phone calls, no strip searches and refused to accept any physical assistance from the ship – no propaganda opportunities. In Ashdod the Israeli searching machine kicked into action with a vengeance and all of us were taken to temporary cubicles for a ridiculously thorough search of our belongings and the theft of all of our electronic equipment from phones, cameras, satellite phones and also personal items such as notebooks, work swipe cards, money etc.
Having been body searched twice and stripped down to my underwear the second time, I was taken to a prison van where one of my friends was handcuffed and shackled and one handcuffed (John Mallon and Phil McCullough), at the van a security person attempted to search me again, having just brought me from a search, I objected.
From there we were brought to Ofer military prison where we were ‘processed’, fingerprinted, photographed, and asked to sign deportation papers stating we had entered Israel illegally. Some of us were given copies of the papers for this procedure but most were not, the explanation of the process was negligible. Everyone also had an interview with Israeli intelligence who asked us if we were aware of the ‘military’ blockade of Gaza– needless to say we all explained that we were well aware of the illegal and immoral blockade of Gaza.
The next stop on this endless day in Israeli captivity was Givon prison in Ramle and the women went there separate from the men, our group now reduced to five: Mags O’Brien and me from the MV Saoirse and Jihan Hafiz, Kit Kittredge and Karen de Vito from the Tahrir. On arriving in Givon prison we were again searched thoroughly despite having just arrived from a lengthy search process, this time it was filmed and carried out before a large audience, some of our friends had their underwear sniffed. At 4 am I was locked into my cell and about half an hour later my friend and cellmate, Mags, was put in with me. Throughout this process we repeatedly asked for a phone call which we were denied.
During our incarceration in Givon we were denied a phone call and kept incommunicado until Sunday, we were also without books, pens or paper until then. In the women’s wing, as our numbers were smaller than in the men’s, we didn’t have a lot of free association with each other and spent 21 hours and 19 hours locked in on the first two days respectively. We tried to assert our rights as political prisoners and got some concessions but we were less successful than our male colleagues who were very organised. The prison guards were obnoxious, abusive and delighted in asserting whatever power they could over us. They would often refuse to tell us the time, repeatedly lying about it, wouldn’t turn our lights off at night, wouldn’t release us from the cells when it was our ‘out’ time. There were constant attempts to get us to sign the papers stating we had entered Israel illegally, to get us to buy our own tickets home, to threaten us with indefinite detention and there were constant lies – everything we were told was a lie. The guards dehumanised us in their own eyes as best they could, one of them screaming at Karen, Jihan and Kit that we were not human, not Israeli and had no rights. This was a constant among the security personnel we encountered, they hate supporters of Palestine, just less than they hate the Palestinian people.
Guards would burst into the cells in the morning, about 6 am, demanding we stand to be counted- there were usually two women and two men. We explained that if they couldn’t count two people locked in a cell while they were lying down, then that was their problem. There was a stream of disinformation from the prison people all the time, from lying about the time, to what the others were doing, to the timing of our release. We staged a protest in the corridor and refused to re-enter our cells unless we were guaranteed more time outside and free association with just the five of us. The prison commander came and the ‘rules’ were relaxed somewhat and we had more time in the air and the dreaded corridor – all better than the cells. Small victories, they seemed bloody huge at the time…
On a personal level, being with our sisters from the Tahrir and with Mags was a great experience and we got to know each other well, shared stories and laughs and planned more flotillas and BDS actions! Every time we got to meet with our friends in the male wing was a huge bonus and seeing them and their strength kept us going. From Monday, when our US and Canadian colleagues left, it was just Mags and me on our wing and while we felt more vulnerable and isolated, we kept each other going and never had a cross word, it was great solidarity and a little sanity, more insanity!
‘Court’ Part 2
A judge visited the prison and left shaking having been through individual meetings with each of the men. When we met him the following day, he seemed resigned to his fate! He admitted to me that we hadn’t been treated in accordance with Israeli law, that we hadn’t received our full rights, hadn’t been given a copy of our deportation orders, that we should have been given both phone calls and access to phone cards. When pressed as to where the decision for this treatment came from, the judge first tried to blame the prison governor and then the Ministry of the Interior or the Department of Foreign Affairs – he conceded that “some procedures were not followed” but insisted that “technically” it was all the same thing – I insisted that “actually” it wasn’t and also queried the situation regarding the location and legitimacy of many of the ‘legal processes’ that took place in the corridors of the prison. The judge was also unable to explain why he didn’t recognise international law.
The Ben Gurion Vortex
On Wednesday 9th November we were called to leave Givon prison and seven of us were put on a bus to a detention centre inside Ben Gurion airport complex, via a trip to a high security check in the airport where one of our friends was handcuffed for sitting on the same side of the room as us. I was elated to be leaving the prison, delighted to be reunited with some of my shipmates and looking forward to meeting the other seven later that night. The detention centre was worse than the prison with the staff there displaying even more sadistic tendencies than those in Givon had. We were again separated by gender and put into a cell with six other women and no water. When I banged on the door to ask for water and to get some air, one of the guards came to the window, shouting and banging his head off it – he perfectly set the tone for the remainder of our captivity – rotten and aggressive.
On Thursday morning Mags and I were brought to the airport to allegedly board a flight home, we were brought to the main terminal where I was taken for another search despite having been in Israeli captivity since the previous Friday and having to sleep in my clothes as my belongings were now ‘secure’. We then entered a twilight zone that was to last the whole day, driving randomly around the airport with our guards either not knowing, or pretending not to know, where to bring us. We were eventually brought to our plane but not allowed to board and were brought back to the detention centre while being told to stop protesting or we would stay in Israel “forever”. Our five friends were at the detention centre as were the Irish Ambassador and Deputy Head of Mission, all of whom were infuriated by the fact that we were not on a flight home. The guys were not even released from their cells or brought to the airport so there was clearly no intention to get us on that flight. At this point we were able to make only our second call home in seven days to let our loved ones know that we would not be home as expected. With much wrangling and many phone calls by the ambassador and deputy, the seven of us were organised for a flight to Frankfurt that afternoon, we were vouched for by the Irish ambassador, and the German and Polish embassies contacted the airline too. We were getting anxious about departure time but were assured that there would be time as there would be no further searches, then we were loaded into segregated prison vans and taken to the plane. There the main guard went on board with all of our documents and then we were driven away from the plane and up to the main terminal where Fintan Lane and I were taken off for another search. I was furious at this point and knew we would never get on that flight, especially as the search was so slow and there was no van waiting when we came out after it. When we were eventually put in another van, we were driven to near where the planes were and then turned around and driven away, we repeatedly asked where we were being taken to but they ignored us, saying only there was a passport problem. This was the time I was most worried as we were separated from the rest of the group and didn’t know where we were going. After some aimless driving around, we were brought again to the detention centre where the furious DFA people met us and attempted to get us on another flight. The guards in the detention centre refused to let them see our passports and treated the Irish officials with contempt, as they had with the Irish government with all the messing around regarding flights. Flights to Istanbul were organised finally and then we were told to run, get our bags and go to the airport again. When we got to the van to go to the airport one minute later we were told it was too late and we had needed to check in three hours previously – comical, groundhog day, malicious mind games stuff. Some sense prevailed in the centre and a call was made and we were brought to the airport in the same van as Hassan Ghani, one of our colleagues from the Tahrir. On our way out, we met the second seven of our friends – heading in to spend a night in that horrible place. Only when the flight took off did I believe I was out of Israel, which I never wanted to visit in the first place.
Twelve hours in Istanbul airport and then HOME.
Some final observations:
For me the most important aspect of this leg of the Irish Ship to Gaza, Freedom Flotilla 2 campaign was that we did sail and we refused to accept the crimes being perpetrated on the people of Gaza by Israel and that another year didn’t pass without people at least getting on the water. We didn’t reach the shores of Gaza but we got close and demonstrated our love and solidarity for the Palestinian people, also our immense respect and admiration for their incredible sumoud.
Civil society is key to ending Israeli apartheid – Palestinian civil society leads and the international solidarity movements follow. The BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign is vital to delegitimising the Israeli regime’s crimes against the Palestinian people. All efforts to end complicity with this regime have to be supported – boycott all Israeli goods, ensure no artist performs there without huge protest, work to end EU funding for collaboration with Israeli research projects, highlight the importance of Israeli blood diamonds to the economy and to funding war crimes against the Palestinian people.
The security apparatus employed by the Israeli state is staggering, the sheer numbers of people employed to police and enforce apartheid are huge. The amount of searches reflects the matrix of control they try to impose and for every searcher, there are at least five observers.
While Irish embassy staff in Israel did a lot to help us, especially on the Thursday when they went all out to assist us to get home, it is profoundly depressing and disenfranchising for our government not to have called for our immediate release. I have no doubt that had another state kidnapped fourteen Irish citizens in international waters, illegally brought them to that state and then imprisoned them, the Táiniste would have called for their release – in our case he didn’t.
The clichés are sometimes true, small numbers of people can take on oppression – the reaction where the Israeli navy had to send gunboats, warships, massive weaponry to stop twenty-seven people is testament to that. Israeli pirates won’t stop us, their jails won’t break us. We will sail again to Gaza.
The inspiring resilience and resistance that the Palestinian people have displayed since the Nakba of 1948 is what moves people all over the world to act and to support them in their hundreds of thousands. No militarised, aggressive, apartheid state can stop the Freedom Waves and waves of love for Palestine. We’ll keep sailing, marching, freedom fighting until Palestine is free- they can do it, why can’t we? I’ve been trying to get to Gaza for years, I’ll get there yet.
Freedom waves, freedom rides, freedom marches…. it won’t stop until Palestine is free.
Thanks for reading and Stay Human.
Fintan Lane and Zoe Lawlor, who were among a group of 14 Irish activists arrested last week while trying to break the blockade of Gaza, speak about their time in detention in Israel after arriving at Dublin airport today.