Running the Gaza blockade: An interview with Karen DeVito

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Karen DeVito on board the Tahrir

Back in October 2011 ran an interview I conducted with Karen DeVito, a Canadian activist and participant in that summer's Freedom Waves to Gaza. Freedom Waves is an international effort by activists to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. Since 2010 the activists have launched three flotillas carrying humanitarian aid. The first met with tragedy when Israeli forces stormed the ship called the Mavi Mamara on May 31, 2010, killing nine activists and wounding dozens more. Karen DeVito joined the following year's flotilla, which was scheduled to sail from Greece. Under Israeli diplomatic pressure, the Greek government tried to keep the ship she was on, the Tahrir, docked in the town of Agios Nikolaus. When the Tahrir made a break for international waters, it was boarded by the Greek Coast Guard. I first met with Karen after her return from Greece. During that original interview I was impressed by the depth of her courage and compassion, and so I wasn't surprised when the news broke in early November 2011 that she was on board the Tahrir again, heading straight to Gaza from Turkey. I met with her at her home shortly after her return to Canada, and over tea we talked about her experience.

Michael Nenonen: Tell me about your second journey aboard the Tahrir.

Karen DeVito: We arrived in Istanbul at the end of October. We then converged discreetly near the port. We travelled without publicity to avoid sabotage, as happened on the last mission, to allow the Turkish government to be uninvolved officially and not to embarrass them as our host country. The objective was to leave quietly if we could. In the end, the Turkish government did enforce a regulation that privately owned boats may sail with only 12 people aboard. And so we were 12.

When we did sail a coast guard ship followed us into international waters. It was more like a shepherding action. We had been delayed a couple of days, but not prevented from sailing.

"We set out on November 2 in the afternoon-our boat would take three days to reach Gaza. On the evening of November 3 we slowed down to avoid approaching that 100 mile line at night and risking a more dangerous nighttime interception. We knew the Mavi Mamara had been attacked somewhere about 85 miles offshore.

In the morning we had a delusional moment, thinking we might make it. We had reviewed our nonviolent training as we sailed to make sure nobody resisted in any way. That afternoon, about 2 p.m., we saw a huge grey shape on the horizon and then two more. We knew what was coming. We continued preparing the boat by putting nets around the stern to slow boarding and prevent a rapid onslaught. As the other ships neared, we threw overboard anything that remotely resembled a weapon. And we waited.

The Israeli Navy contacted us by radio. There was some discussion. About 15 other small craft, landing crafts and a number of inflatables, approached, each carrying a dozen fully battle-garbed, masked commandos. Repeatedly they asked, "what is your destination?" We told them we're sailing to Gaza, we have no weapons, we have no cargo, we have a small amount of medical aid, we are 12 people. We're non-violent and we don't approve of your boarding but we won't resist. Shortly after that they demanded we congregate in the bow and then water cannoned us, so we tried to stay dry behind the wheel house. They had a scissor lift, and they lifted several troops onto the boat and water cannoned the wheel house. Commandos then rushed onto the deck with weapons pointed at our heads. They shouted conflicting orders. It was very chaotic. We did our best to comply. We were just standing there with our hands visible. They were yelling "Shut up!", though I don't remember anybody's voice until after David Heap was tasered. A couple people objected quite strongly but standing still, visible, with their hands up.

MN: Where did the Israeli Navy take you?

KD: We were taken to the port of Ashdod, where Gaza's confiscated fishing boats are taken. There is now a three-mile limit from Gaza for anyone sailing from shore. Fishermen often get shot at one and a half miles offshore. Now the Tahrir is in Ashdod with other confiscated flotilla boats and a lot of rickety old Gazan fishing boats. The port of Gaza, by the way, can't be used. The port cannot be improved, it cannot be repaired. Israel forbids this.

We were then processed. It took several hours. By about 3:30 a.m. we were taken to Givon Prison, which is a detention centre for people about to be deported. Men and women were separated. In our cell block we were five: two Irish women in one cell, me and two American women in another. 3:30 in the morning, frost on the ground, really cold. All the windows had been opened for our reception in the cell. We couldn't reach them; they were 15 feet above the ground. We each got one dirty wool blanket.

MN: Describe the prison for me.

KD: The women's wing has two cell blocks. The rest of the detainees, in the adjoining one, were with a couple of exceptions, African and Asian women. We call them refugees, but Israel calls them work infiltrators. And their children were in prison with them. At night you would hear things: doors slamming, guards shouting, locks, big bunches of keys. And we were lucky because we were foreign nationals with embassies that would speak for us. But at night I heard a door slamming and a child screaming, then a mother scream and guards shouting, more noise, and then quiet. Another night I heard screams from the men's part of the prison. I heard automatic gunfire somewhere outside. You don't un-hear those things. So how do ordinary Palestinians of Gaza un-hear and un-see the things they've had to hear and see?

MN: How were you treated by the guards?

KD: The guards generally spoke to us in one-word orders, but occasionally you had a chance for some human contact if you were being taken out to see the representative of the embassy, when we could talk to the guard about why we were there. Some guards clearly didn't want to hear it, others were hearing it for the first time, I think.

One of the guards told me she was a child of immigrants and that she had a daughter. I said, "Your daughter will have a beautiful future. Children in Gaza have no future. They can't get an education. They can't travel outside. I did it for those children. They all have post-traumatic stress syndrome, not just from being bombarded and having drones fly by overhead every day, but from Operation Cast Lead, from supersonic flights-some of them are deafened. I would like to see that stopped, and I did this so that people would see that Palestinians and Israelis all deserve to live in peace in the presence of justice."

The guard said, "That is not a bad thing to do." She held out her hand and said, "Karen DeVito, I am very glad to have the opportunity to meet you." I took her hand and said, "I'm very glad I had the opportunity to meet you too."

MN: What happened to the Tahrir?

KD: The boat is being held in the port of Ashdod as far as I know. We've had no word on its return. It's about an 85-foot steel-hulled day ferry with two really powerful diesel engines. We had put on a lot of extra food, cooking oil, dried beans and supplies, rice, the kind of things that don't spoil to share with the people in Gaza when we got there. If we were able to leave again, we would have left with some export, but if we couldn't we would have donated that boat to the people of Gaza. The boat itself is an aid package, and to take it away is a cruelty. The diesel engines could generate electricity, and could be really useful in Gaza.

MN: What is next for your movement?

KD: The next part of Freedom Waves is to make a political statement and to make people aware of the Canadian government's role in this and their complicity in the siege and blockade of Gaza.

It's crazy to think that the Canadian government did and said nothing. They suggested we should not do this called our actions "provocation," and I have to say that is true: we mean to provoke thought on this matter.

I can't imagine why the Canadian government isn't concerned that a foreign government sent out such a huge military force to apprehend 12 peaceniks. It was 15 boats with 10 to 15 commandos on each, heavily armed, who boarded our ship and put automatic weapons in our faces. And then when they were holding us, turning the laser sights on and off on our heads and our bodies. Why is that acceptable? There were so many ships, there were fighter jets flying above. This was a huge military exercise. That they would turn an aid and peace mission into a military exercise is just beyond belief. The Canadian government knows this. How could they allow this? And why are they allowing Israel to hold our ship?


Her questions hung in the air between us, shining brightly with her commitment to her cause. I sipped my tea and thought to myself, "Karen DeVito, I am very glad to have the opportunity to meet you."

Michael Nenonen is a social worker and freelance writer who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. His work has appeared in The Republic of East Vancouver,, and Information Clearing House.

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