November 22, 2008
: Dear Greta, dear Mary, you’re two of the founders and deeply involved organizers of Free Gaza. In my opinion, it is one of the few new world realities in the fight for human rights. It truly was and is able to make something concrete, new, positive and useful change - as well as a radical change. A change that otherwise very probably wouldn’t even happen. The initiative comes from civil society and has nothing to do with the old politics. How, where and when did it start, and what did you personally do and are continuing to do within this movement?
Greta Berlin (*) : The Free Gaza Movement was organized two years ago by five people on two continents. Paul, Mary and I were working from California, and Eliza and Bella were working in parallel in the UK. We found each other and thought sailing a boat to Gaza would be a great idea. The original idea came from Michael Shaik in Australia who thought we should sail a boat from the US to Gaza. "Why not sail a boat to Gaza?" Why not, exactly? And that was the beginning of this long two-year process that ended up with 44 people taking two small boats to break Israel’s draconian blockade of Gaza. I have been responsible for much of the media work, especially in the last two trips.
Mary Hughes-Thompson (**) : During my years as a TV documentarian in Hollywood I researched and wrote about Israel’s creation and the many conflicts it provoked among its neighbors. Initially I supported Israel but came to realize it was not the victim it claimed to be, but was in fact the victimizer of people whose land and natural resources it coveted. After my retirement and the start of the "second intifada" I decided to go to Palestine in 2002 with a Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation. The horrors I witnessed then convinced me that in the name of Zionism, Israel was attempting to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians from their ancestral land. For me the die was cast, and I became passionate about Palestine.
Joe Fallisi : How is Free Gaza organized? How did (and how does) the movement, Free Gaza, find the financial support necessary for its actions? Mary Hughes-Thompson : In the beginning it wasn’t easy to convince people, even our friends, that we weren’t all slightly crazy. We opened a PayPal account, and Greta and I each deposited $100 to get it started. Small donations started to trickle in, especially after Swiss-Italian journalist Silvia Cattori wrote an article about us .
More volunteers joined us, including our wonderful webmaster Anis Hamadeh in Germany. I think people were just intrigued by the audacity of our plan, and though it took a year longer than we had planned, we eventually raised enough money to buy a used fishing boat. I think people who had supported but doubted us then started to realize we were serious, and more donations came in.
Greta Berlin : Thank God we weren’t that ambitious. We asked for donations on the website, and Paul, Bella, Eliza, Mary and I started going out to talk to groups about our project and asking for money. When one of the board members from FGM filed for a charity status in the US and received it, we began to get more and more donations, especially from the US. But the donations have come from all over the world, some as small as $1.50 and a few well over $25,000.
Joe Fallisi : Till now, and against all of the roadblocks put up by Israel, Free Gaza was able to break the Zonist siege three times. What are you planning for the future? Mary Hughes-Thompson : We are fighting for human rights and civil rights of the people of Gaza who have been suffering for years as a result of Israel’s occupation and blockade.
Our goal was simply to sail our two little boats from Cyprus to Gaza and we could hardly believe it when we found ourselves in the harbor, amid 40 thousand cheering and waving Palestinians who had waited 41 years for a boat to arrive. We want to continue our trips, taking high-profile people including journalists and parliamentarians who can return to their countries and spread the message as to what they have witnessed.
Other passengers will be human rights watchers who intend to spend weeks or months in Gaza helping in whatever ways theycan, including accompanying fishermen in Gaza waters who are routinely attacked and sometimes killed by Israeli Defense Forces aboard Naval gunboats. Farmers welcome our help in the buffer zones declared by Israel on the Gaza side of the border, where Palestinian farmers risk injury and death from Israeli sharpshooters when they try to work their fields.
In addition, we hope to encourage other groups with greater resources than our own to sail through the blockade to bring humanitarian aid including food and medicine which is routinely blocked from crossing to Gaza from Israel. Greta Berlin : We have so many requests now from Parliamentarians, from civilians, from activists, from journalists, that we could probably run two or three trips a month. The only thing that is holding us from doing it is that each trip to Gaza and back costs at least 20,000 euros. We are hoping that donors will step up and let us continue these trips. Down the way, we would like to begin an actual ferry service from Cyprus to Gaza.
Joe Fallisi : I’m proud to have taken part to the second trip, that may have been the most uncertain as to whether it would go or not. The third one has been definitely a confirmation that the boats will not be stopped. But the first one was really, I guess, a crazy, audacious, wonderful invention, and both a risk and a challenge. Can you remind us how this first mission started and developed? Who believed in you besides yourselves? Greta Berlin : I’m not sure anyone believed in us except for us at first. Then, little by little, people came on board. By the time we actually left for Cyprus, we had 44 people who wanted to go on the first trip. Most of us were activists and a few, like Hedy Epstein and Jeff Halper and Lauren Booth, were also high-profile activists. We felt they would actually prevent the Israeli navy from stopping us. That turned out to be true.
Mary Hughes-Thompson : I guess I answered this already. A lot of people thought we werechasing a pipedream. There were times even I found myself wondering if we were crazy. Greta was my rock throughout. She was determined to sail to Gaza. And when Greta is determined you’d better pay attention. Joe Fallisi : Among the people who founded Free Gaza as well among its organizers, there are many mostly mature women, and normal people. Can you tell me something about that? I think this is a new thing, something you can find, for instance, in Italy among the founders and organizers of the strong and new movements against the construction of the new military USA base in Vicenza. Common citizens, from common families; mothers and fathers - especially mothers - who finally, out of frustration, decided to take in their own hands their lives and destiny. And spontaneously adopting libertarian ways of self-organization.
Greta Berlin : Well, out of the first five organizers, four of us are definitely women, between 30 and 74 years. Certainly, the two of us who are older came out of the 60’s revolution in the US for women’s rights and African/American civil rights. That was true of the man as well. We based this project on the simple premise that Palestinians don’t need humanitarian aid. They need their civil rights. They are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves if given the opportunity to exercise the rights granted to everyone in international law.
As the movement expanded, we were proud to have many people join, the youngest on board the first voyage was 22 and the oldest was 81. The 44 people who went on the first trip represented 17 countries. On the second trip, the 23 passengers on board represented 13 countries. Mary Hughes-Thompson : I think - I hope - more people are recognizing the value of "seniorpower." Too many younger people see us as older, retired, past our prime, gray haired, a bit out of shape. They need to know we were all achievers in our own time and we have all of that to contribute. For the most part all of the younger people in the project had no problem with the fact I was old enough to be their grandmother. (And I’m hoping the one who said I was ancient was just kidding)
Joe Fallisi : How do you think your action will develop in the future? What are your next plans and steps to fight against the Gaza siege and, more in general, against the Zionist oppression, for the final freedom of Palestine? Greta Berlin : We will continue going to Gaza as often as we can afford. We have talked about flying a small plane into the Gaza airport and even having a blimp hover into Gaza, making a statement that Israel still occupies the air space as well as the land and sea.
Mary Hughes-Thompson : We will do our best to keep the sea lanes open, and end the siege byair. We would like to see a trade route established so that goods as well as people can get in and out of Gaza. We will continue to join those who protest against Israel’s inhumane siege, and against the US for providing billions of dollars annually to finance it. Joe Fallisi : Will you stay a free movement or do you imagine that Free Gaza one day will become something like a formal party?
Greta Berlin : I doubt we will ever become a party. We are too diverse and too spread around the globe. We would hope other people will sail boats there as well. We would like to begin our own ferry and would encourage others to do the same. Mary Hughes-Thompson : The people of Gaza have been isolated for so long. I want them toknow there have always been vast numbers of people around the world who support them and their cause. When we left Gaza we told the people we would never forget them and we would never abandon them.
It’s a promise I know we all intend to keep.
Joe Fallisi : Have you any particular message to our Italian readers? Mary Hughes-Thompson : Italy was well-represented by its native sons Vic and Joe. Our latest Italian voyager was Fernando Rossi who was aboard the DIGNITY on the third trip. We are proud to fly the Italian flag, and we hope to take more of your countrymen and women to Gaza. You will be welcomed with love and open arms, as we were.
Greta Berlin : Dear Italian readers. We have been so delighted to have Vik and Joe on our trips. They are both wonderful activists with true hearts. Vik has stayed in Gaza to go fishing and bear witness to what the Israelis do to them. Joe gave a fantastic concert in Gaza where everyone cried when they heard him sing. We are honored to know them both. And now there is the Italian Parliamentarian on the third trip. We wish we had more room for an entire boatload of Italians.
Joe Fallisi : I wish you sincerely all the best dear Greta and dear Mary. GO ON!
Larnaca, 9th November 2008.
(*) Greta Berlin (USA)
One of the cofounders of the Free Gaza Movement, Greta Berlin,since the early 1960s has been an advocate for justice for the Palestinian people. She is the mother of two Palestinian/American children, whose father was born and raised in Safad, Palestine and was driven out in 1948. She has been an outspoken advocate for the rights of Palestinians and has spoken and written extensively about what she has witnessed during her three trips to the Occupied West Bank. When not working with Palestinians, Greta has spent 32 years teaching engineers and scientists how to design and deliver presentations. She has been in the West Bank three times since 2003 and was wounded by Israeli gunfire in July 2003 while trying to pull down the gate in the fence at Anin, just outside of Jenin.
(**) Mary Hughes-Thompson (Canada)
Mary was born in Bolton, England and immigrated to Canada, then to the United States. She is a member of the Writer’s Guild of America, a licensed pilot and a proud grandmother. She’s been to the occupied West Bank six times, and her voyage aboard the FREE GAZA was her seventh trip and her first to Gaza. In 2002, she was beaten and robbed by illegal Jewish settlers from Itamar in the tiny village of Yanoun, where she was helping Palestinian farmers harvest their olives. Mary is one of the original co-founders of the Free Gaza Movement.
"Sailing to Gaza - An Interview with Greta Berlin", by Silvia Cattori, Counterpunch, June 7, 2007.
"Greta Berlin : « Pourquoi nous allons naviguer jusqu’à Gaza » " , par Silvia Cattori, Réseau Voltaire, 6 juin 2007.
« Por qué vamos a navegar hasta Gaza » - Entrevista con Greta Berlin , por Silvia Cattori, Rebelión, 8 de Junio de 2007.
"Greta Berlin: "Perche’ navigheremo fino a Gaza"" , di Silvia Cattori, comedonchisciotte.org, 18 luglio 2007. "I Was Not Prepared for the Horrors I Saw - An Interview with Hedy Epstein" , by Silvia Cattori, palestinechronicle.com, June 14, 2007.
"Palestine : "Je n’étais pas préparée à toutes les horreurs que j’ai vues" - Entretien avec Hedy Epstein ", par Silvia Cattori, mondialisation.ca, 14 juin 2007.
"No estaba preparada para todos los horrores que he visto" - Entrevista a Hedy Epstein, por Silvia Cattori, Rebelión, 17-06-2007.
Israele : "Non ero preparata a tutti gli orrori che ho visto" - Una intervista con Hedy Epstein, di Silvia Cattori,silviacattori.net, 14 giugno 2007.
Israel: "Ich war auf all die Schrecken, die ich sah, nicht vorbereitet." - Interview mit Hedy Epstein, von Silvia Cattori,silviacattori.net, 14 Juni 2007.
"Não Estava Preparada Para Todos Os Horrores Que Vi" - Entrevista com Hedy Epstein, por Silvia Cattori, alquimidia.org, 14 de junho de 2007.
"Δεν ήμουν προετοιμασμένη για τη φρίκη που αντίκρισα" - Μια συνέντευξη με την Hedy Epstein, Της Silvia Cattori, greece-palestine.blogspot.com, 13 Ιουνίου, 2007. "Hedy Epstein et Greta Berlin : « Nous sommes déterminés à lever la voile pour Gaza » ", par Silvia Cattori, Réseau Voltaire, 13 août 2007.
"Hedy Epstein and Greta Berlin: "We Are Committed to Sailing to Gaza – Ahoy!" ", by Silvia Cattori, Red Voltaire, 13 August 2007.
"Nos hemos comprometido a navegar a Gaza" - Entrevista a Hedy Epstein y Greta Berlin, por Silvia Cattori, Rebelión, 16-08-2007.