From Givon Detention to Gaza Open-Air Prison
By: David Heap
Published Wednesday, December 5, 2012
A year ago, I spent six days in Givon Prison near Ramle in occupied Palestine. I was part of a group of internationals en route to Gaza who, following the Israeli Navy’s seizure of the Tahrir and the Saoirse (Canadian and Irish boats, respectively) in international waters, were illegally detained.
Then, a month ago, I concluded a visit to Gaza. My travelling companions and I were overwhelmed with the warm welcome offered by Palestinians in Gaza and struck by their amazing resilience. At the international linguistics conference we attended, my colleagues, including Noam Chomsky, noted the “vibrancy and vitality among young people, particularly at the university”.
We also witnessed constant reminders that the Palestinians of Gaza are imprisoned by an occupying force that controls land, air, and sea access to the densely populated Strip. Their situation is in many ways worse than that of prisoners in a “normal” prison. Prisoners in many countries receive regular meals and medical care; most Palestinians in Gaza depend on food aid while crucial medications are in chronic shortage or prohibitively expensive.
Civilized countries do not imprison children or refugees, but the majority of the population of Gaza are children or young people, and most are refugees, i.e. protected persons under UN conventions. Of course, prisoners know when their sentences are due to end, while the Palestinians of Gaza have no such assurance. On the contrary, they are acutely aware that the governments of the world have effectively forgotten their plight. They know their eventual freedom depends on their own perseverance backed by solidarity from people of conscience throughout the world.
During the short time of our visit, a number of Palestinians were killed and others injured in Gaza by Israeli forces. This was during the “relative calm” before the Pillar of Cloud, or Pillar of Defense, assault – more aptly dubbed “Pillar of War Crimes” by a Canadian organization, Independent Jewish Voices. Constant threats of aerial bombing by planes and drones, machine-gun fire, shelling, or armored vehicle attacks make up part of daily life for Palestinians in Gaza.
We also know that any truce is fragile, and that a lasting peace can only come with freedom and economic justice. The media in Canada and elsewhere in the West remain shamefully silent about – and therefore complicit with – this violence suffered disproportionately by Palestinians, both during ‘normal’ times and during the latest assault.
Of course, some Palestinians also fire rockets at Israel; the regrettable casualties they cause are a tiny fraction of those inflicted by Israel on Palestinians. It is illegal in international law, as well as grossly immoral, to collectively punish an entire population for the actions of a few. Furthermore, the ongoing blockade of Gaza clearly worsens the security situation of Israelis as well. As former Mossad head Efraim Halevy observed in 2009, the best way for Israel to ensure an end to rocket fire from Gaza would be to lift the blockade.
After the eight-day assault on Gaza in November, everyone was relieved at the news of the recent ceasefire. We also know that any truce is fragile, and that a lasting peace can only come with freedom and economic justice. This means lifting the blockade against Gaza and full freedom of movement for Palestinians.
There are of course differentials of power and resources among prison populations everywhere, and Gaza is no exception. The fact that a small elite manages to profit from the blockade does not change conditions for the vast majority of the population. In many ways, the conditions are worse than in prison: abject poverty in refugee camps, rampant unemployment, and severe isolation.
If the world’s governments continue to rob generations of Palestinian youth in Gaza of hope, we should not be surprised if some of them turn to hopeless acts. The fact that many of them embrace peaceful resistance like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and Gaza’s Ark is an inspiring tribute to hope and humanity.
Gaza was also the destination of the Estelle, the three-masted schooner from the Freedom Flotilla Coalition seized by Israel in October while we were there. Our international coalition now plans to rebuild a cargo boat in Gaza to export Palestinian products for international buyers while challenging the blockade from inside out.
US author Alice Walker called the movement to end the blockade of Gaza the “Freedom Rides of our time.” As with the movement for civil rights in the southern US and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, grassroots movements will keep pressure building until freedom is achieved. World governments may have forgotten the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, but civil society groups have not. Whether we sail towards Gaza or out from the only Mediterranean port closed to shipping, our course remains the conscience of humanity.
Imprisoned then deported by Israel following the seizure of the Tahrir in November 2011, Canadian academic David Heap is a steering committee member with Gaza’s Ark who represented the Freedom Flotilla Coalition for part of the sailing of the Estelle in September. He spent two weeks in Gaza this fall just before the latest Israeli assault.
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