Sea of sup­port for Gaza ac­tivist

Fam­ily re­u­nion at OR

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - SHEREE BEGA

WAV­ING a Free Pales­tine flag, Dr Kelly Gille­spie kept look­ing anx­iously for her part­ner Leigh-Ann Naidoo as she waited in the ar­rivals ter­mi­nal at OR Tambo In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

Although she was sur­rounded by a sea of sup­port­ers, chant­ing “Free Pales­tine” and “Down with Is­rael”, all her con­cern was for Naidoo, who had spent a night in de­ten­tion in Is­rael’s Givon Prison with 12 other in­ter­na­tional ac­tivists.

“I’m very ex­cited but it feels like I’m only re­ally go­ing to know she is safe when she lands,” said Gille­spie, a se­nior lec­turer at Wits Univer­sity.

Naidoo, a Free Pales­tine ac­tivist and 2004 Olympian, was captured with the oth­ers in their ves­sel the Zay­a­tounaOliva while in in­ter­na­tional wa­ters dur­ing their Women’s Boat to Gaza cam­paign.

The aim of the cam­paign is to “bring hope to dev­as­tated Gaza” and to break the long Is­raeli block­ade of Pales­tinian ter­ri­tory.

The cou­ple’s 7- year- old daugh­ter, Ler­ato, whis­pered to Gille­spie: “We’ll have to buy mommy new clothes.”

Gille­spie smiled down at her, agree­ing.

“Leigh-Ann’s clothes were con­fis­cated at the prison,” she said. “She hasn’t changed since Wed­nes­day... I’m so lucky to have her. She makes me so proud.”

A few min­utes later, a tired-look­ing Naidoo emerged to ul­u­la­tion, cheers and Gille­spie’s em­brace. She picked up a Pales­tine flag and shouted “Free Pales­tine”.

The cam­paign’s ves­sel was 65km from Gaza’s shores when it was in­ter­cepted on Thurs­day.

“We made it so close, we were count­ing down,” said Naidoo.

“Then we saw these four huge mil­i­tary ships on the hori­zon and our satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tion was cut. They (Is­raeli forces) were watch­ing us the whole time, there’s no doubt. We had these young kids, 20-year-olds, fe­male and male sol­diers, board us with this Robo­cop equip­ment. They were so scared of us when they came on board, as if they thought we were go­ing to hurt them.”

All the group saw of Gaza, she said, in its “ab­so­lute dark- ness”, was the haze from its gen­er­a­tors.

“There’s a part of me that failed be­cause we didn’t reach Gaza and the peo­ple wait­ing for us.

Naidoo, who is do­ing a PhD in ed­u­ca­tion and is a leader of the #FeesMust­Fall move­ment at Wits, did not want to elab­o­rate on her prison or­deal.

“You have rooms of six with bunk beds, toi­let and shower... I was wo­ken up and put to sleep so many times – I think we spent 36 hours on land...

“In be­ing part of this cam­paign, ev­ery­one kept ask­ing me, ‘ where do you con­nect to Pales­tine, why do I feel so strongly about it?’ But Is­raeli apartheid was taken from the hand­book of apartheid in South Africa. There are so many sim­i­lar­i­ties. It’s ba­si­cally apartheid on speed in the sense the pos­si­bil­ity to be bru­tal is am­pli­fied so much be­cause of the amount of money and the mil­i­tary tech­nol­ogy that ex­ists over there.

“But the ba­sic ways that one de­hu­man­ises peo­ple, it’s about in­sist­ing peo­ple be­lieve they are dif­fer­ent to one an­other... forc­ing peo­ple to ex­pose them­selves phys­i­cally through strip searches. They de­hu­man­ise you in ways that don’t re­quire a lot of money.

“The thing that was con­fus­ing for me was that the op­pres­sor looked like the op­pressed. The de­hu­man­is­ing process is about lock­ing you up, ques­tion­ing you and then cross-ques­tion­ing you as if you are a ter­ror­ist, as if you come with in­tent even if you say that’s not the case.

“This was a peace­ful boat with women, and all we were do­ing was tak­ing the mes­sage of sol­i­dar­ity to a dev­as­tated place.

“But you are on the wrong side of this, you’re the en­emy... I think we were pri­mar­ily treated very well, we were clear we were go­ing peace­fully and we had me­dia at­ten­tion. They can show you a lit­tle bit of hu­man­ity when you are not chal­leng­ing them.”

Naidoo said her teacher fa­ther had been in­volved in anti-apartheid ac­tiv­i­ties when she was young.

“From a young age apartheid po­lice were com­ing into our home, so I’m fairly para­noid. I al­ways think of the worst-case sce­nario, it’s a good way to plan for sit­u­a­tions.”

Gille­spie thanked the in­ter- na­tional team of women who “were ab­so­lutely in­cred­i­ble in their in­tegrity”.

She com­plained that the In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions De­part­ment had “piggy backed” on other peo­ple’s work.

“They didn’t call me once to up­date me about any­thing, there was no com­mu­ni­ca­tion. It was dis­tress­ing.”

South African am­bas­sador to Is­rael Sisa Ngom­bane, who trav­elled on the same flight as Naidoo, was booed at Naidoo’s press brief­ing yes­ter­day af­ter he told the room he was the am­bas­sador to Is­rael. Peo­ple chanted “Pales­tine, Pales­tine”.

Later, as Naidoo gazed at her daugh­ter, she said: “I thought of Kelly and Ler­ato, but I’m glad they made the sac­ri­fice for me to be able to go so I can help peo­ple.”

PIC­TURE: JACOLINE SCHOONEES

South African ac­tivist Leigh Ann Naidoo was re­leased af­ter be­ing de­tained by Is­raeli au­thor­i­ties while trav­el­ling on a Women’s Boat to Gaza, which sought to peace­fully end the Is­raeli block­ade of Gaza.

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