Activists Yudit Ilany and Heather Milton-Lightening explain why Israel’s blockade of Gaza must end
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris, reporting for The Real News Network from Montreal, Canada. The Gaza Strip is home to approximately two million Palestinians, one half of whom are children. In 2007, the state of Israel, with the cooperation of Egypt, imposed a punishing land, air, and sea blockade on Gaza. Since Israel’s imposition of that blockade and following repeated military assaults on the strip, Gaza has been rendered essentially unlivable. Approximately ninety percent, ninety-seven percent of its water is contaminated, its hospitals barely function and lack basic essential supplies. Electricity is supplied to its people for only a few hours a day. And in 2014, the World Bank reported that Gaza had the highest unemployment rate in the world at nearly forty-four percent.
Rather than sit idle in the face of such immense suffering, human rights activists from around the world have repeatedly attempted to break the sea blockade peacefully. In one such attempt in 2010, Israeli forces boarded, in international waters, a flotilla of ships carrying activists and humanitarian aid. Those forces killed nine activists on one of those ships, the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish vessel. According to a UN report, all activists’ deaths were caused by gunshots and quote, “the circumstances of the killing of at least six of the passengers were in a manner consistent with an extralegal, arbitrary, and summary execution.”
Starting this week, human rights activists will again attempt to break the blockade of Gaza peacefully. Several ships, including a Canadian vessel, are departing this week from Copenhagen and Denmark. They will sail South through Atlantic waters, and then into the Mediterranean, stopping at various ports along the way to draw attention of the world to their voyage, and above all, to the suffering in Gaza.
For The Real News, I will be joining the expedition in the second half of June. Today, we are joined by two of the activists who are boarding the Canadian boat to Gaza. Their names are Yudit Ilany and Heather Milton-Lightening. Yudit is a political consultant, documentary filmmaker, and community activist in Israel. She works as a parliamentary consultant to Haneen Zoabi, a member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. Heather Milton-Lightning is a community organizer from Canada. She is the founder of Native Youth Movement and she works- or once worked, I should say, for the Indigenous Environmental Network, as a national youth organizer. Thank you very much, Yudit and Heather, for joining us today.
So, Yudit, I’d like to start with you. You are, as I mentioned a moment ago, an Israeli. You are a consultant for a member of Israel’s parliament. In the circumstances, one would imagine it’s rather challenging for you, in the current political environment, to participate in this action. Why are you doing it, and what are the risks for you personally?
YUDIT ILANY: I’m obliged. I live, personally, very close to the Gaza border. When Gaza is bombed, I can hear it from my home. And I’m very much aware of the situation in Gaza. I have friends in Gaza, and I know this is being-Israel carries out these acts in my name, and I feel the obligation to do whatever I can to stop the blockade, because I think it’s inhuman. It’s a crime against humanity.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And given the fact that you are Israeli and given the current political environment, has there been a backlash? Are you expecting a backlash from some of your compatriots about your participation in this issue?
YUDIT ILANY: Yes, it is to be expected. I also participated in a women’s boat to Gaza about two years ago. They tried to fire me from my job- I work for a small TV station. They tried to close us down. They kicked us out of our offices, basically. They tried to stop our public funding. They tried to sack me from my job. I was personally threatened. So, yes. It isn’t nice coming back.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And, Heather, as a member of Canada’s Indigenous community, do you see parallels between the struggles of Indigenous peoples in Canada and the struggle of the Palestinian people? If so, what are they?
HEATHER MILTON-LIGHTENING: So, I had the opportunity, a couple of years ago, to go with a delegation, with Interfaith Peacebuilders, a group- an organization that sends delegations over- about four times a year. And so, we didn’t go into Gaza, but we did go to the West Bank, and we tried really intentionally to have us visit all different facets of Palestinian life, but to also get a better sense of the political climate. And I think the things that really stood out for me on that trip was just seeing the escalated violence, but also the similarities in a lot of different ways. And I think that’s something that we can relate to, is the settler colonial machinery.
And for us, that was Britain, and then later Canada. And a lot of the topics that were used by Canada, by the British Crown, are so similar, in terms of not being able to leave the reservation boundaries without a pass being, the only people in Canada that, by race, have an identity card, which is very similar to the Palestinian identity card. There’s just an ongoing list of things that are super similar. And I think the thing that stands out to me is just the high level of escalated violence that Palestinian people have to deal with on a daily basis. And I think we’ve been in the process of dealing with this colonial machinery for a very long time, and it’s stretched over a period of time. And I think there’s differences in the way violence plays out in our communities, but also in the ways that it’s inflicted by the state.
And I think the that thing I really appreciate is the resilience of the Palestinian people. And I think, you know, really understanding my home territory. There’s Palestinian families that are exiled that live there. You know, I had the opportunity to go to Standing Rock and to support the actions that were happening there against the Dakota Access Pipeline. And there were numerous Palestinian delegations that came to Standing Rock. And so, I think that’s the message that we’ve always kind of told each other, is to show up for each other in solidarity, because we understand that our struggles are inter- they’re linked together.
And I think the thing that really stood out for me is really understanding how the process happened, and really understanding that there’s a link with the British Crown, both with Palestine and in Canada, in particular, and with a lot of other Indigenous people that were colonized by the British.
And so, it’s really interesting to see how colonial powers have played out both historically but in present day. And really understanding that, you know, Britain and Canada, the United States and all the other countries- Canada in particular, as The Great March happened and the series of protests happened, we’ve seen a lot of people being killed. Canada made public statements, but it hasn’t imposed a sanction. It’s not going to stop doing business with Israel. It’s not going to do any of those things. And so, you know, it’ll pat itself on the back for being a good humanitarian publicly, on Twitter. You know, all these different things. But when it comes to taking action and opposing those, we haven’t seen that yet.
And I think the thing that’s linked to that is Canada has 98.8 percent of our land, and we agreed to share it. And I think that’s the thing with colonial powers, is that they have to go through a process of admitting that they stole the land and took it illegally. And I don’t think Canada, United States, or Britain, or any of these other colonial powers, including Israel, are going to do that any time soon. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t take action to fight back, but also to incrementally take back our rights. And we’ve seen that in Canada and we’ve seen that, of course, with the Palestinian struggle, and also be really global. So, I think that’s really important, to figure out the ways that we can have solidarity and be strategic about that. And taking action is really important.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So, Yudit, you mentioned you live near the border of Gaza. Could you talk to us a bit- and Heather your colleague specifically referred to a moment ago, The Great March of Return- can you talk to us a bit about, you know, your feelings as an Israeli living on the other side of the border, about what’s happened in the last few weeks, and about the context in which this expedition, this particular expedition, has been launched? The timing of it is quite remarkable, happening as it is, after the conclusion, or at least the nominal conclusion, of The Great March of Return. Could you talk to us about this context and what you’ve experienced as an Israeli on the other side of the border?
YUDIT ILANY: Well, first of all, the right of return exists, and it needs to be recognized. Israel creates a refugee situation in 1948, as well as in 1967. And the Palestinian refugees living in the diaspora do have rights, by the decision of the UN and by basic humanitarian rights, to return to their home country. And they are fighting for something which they are entitled to. That said, in Gaza, a large- how it call it, like a coalition was created of different organizations who decided to use non-violent means in order to demand the return, and they published the decision to use non-violent means according to the tradition of Martin Luther King, of Gandhi, of the ANC- of the ANC in South Africa, and they published this on various Internet platforms, said it would be nonviolent demonstrations by civilians.
Even before the first demonstration took place, the Israeli security forces announced also on social media platforms that they would employ snipers and that they would shoot to kill at anyone getting close to the border. Now, the right to have a demonstration is a legal right. The place where they have the demonstration is the Gaza Strip, it is theirs. I also recognize that beyond it, it’s theirs, but they- it’s a civil act, of demonstrating. And the fact that Israel employs snipers to kill, means that Israel is committing war crimes. Israel is committing crimes against humanity. You don’t shoot at civilians. And they use live bullets, and they said they would do so.
There are thousands of people wounded. Most of them have been shot in the upper body, so they’re shooting to kill. And amongst the dead- and I’ve even lost count because there are so many. There are children, there are women, there are journalists also amongst the wounded, and they have all been- you know, they’re basically being murdered. So, Israeli soldiers are committing crimes. And this is being done in my name, but not that I agree to it.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Now, lastly, I’d like to talk to you about the geographic and political environment in which you currently find yourselves, namely Europe. There have been numerous efforts by European authorities to suppress Palestinian solidarity, activism. For example, France has gone so far as to sue BDS activists, and last year during the presidential campaign, French President Emmanuel Macron stated, “boycotting Israel has been condemned by France and there’s no reason why we should discuss the matter again.”.
So, I’d like you both to talk a bit about the differences that you’ve seen, in terms of official European policy, towards Israel, and towards your expedition, and the reaction of the people on the street in Europe? And perhaps, Heather, you could start there. Tell us about- how are Europeans, grassroots Europeans, responding to your expedition?
HEATHER MILTON-LIGHTENING: That’s a great question, and I’m not sure I can give you an answer because I just got here today. So, I haven’t really had the opportunity to get a really good pulse on the ground about how people are feeling. I think, when it comes to policy, particularly when France is saying no to BDS- we’ve seen the same thing in Canada, there’s been numerous legislation tries to push against BDS. We’ve seen colleges and universities try and obliterate BDS from on-campus and doing work there. I think that just shows to me that the campaign is really effective. And you know, we’ve seen celebrities and different people of influence that have gotten pushed by BDS, and in the right way. And I think that’s really important.
And I think it’s all about strategy and about tactics, and about being really emboldened and empowered by that. And if we have governments like France coming out against BDS, then I can only say that I think that it’s effective and it’s working, for them to be backing up Israel. However, it’s effective in a way that they’re taking a stance, and maybe not in the right direction. So, we still have work to do, but I think it’s a really effective campaign.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: For sure. And Yudit, have you had a chance to gauge the sort of grassroots reaction amongst Europeans towards this particular expedition?
YUDIT ILANY: Well, obviously, in every- I joined the boat about a week ago, and in every harbor we’ve met with amazing people supporting, presenting us with food, with works of art, doing graffiti, all kinds of activities-pro-Palestine and pro-Gaza, and in favor of the boats to Gaza. So, the welcoming has been amazing. We have spoken a lot about BDS. Most people are very much aware of the need to boycott and of BDS. What I think is important, however, is also to stress the “D” in BDS, the disinvestment, because that is much less obvious, and needs to be done as well. And as to BDS, also within Israel, there is something which we call “BDS from within.” And this is being criminalized in Israel.
So, it is quite difficult- I mean, we can carry it out easily enough, but we cannot publish it. So, I feel very comfortable coming from abroad to support BDS. It’s really important because it is very successful. Israel is under great pressure because of BDS. And it’s important to carry it out and to continue carrying it out, all over Europe, all over the world, and also from within.
Well, this has been Dimitri Lascaris, speaking to Yudit Ilany and Heather Milton-Lightening, two passengers and activists on the Canadian boat to Gaza, which is disembarking shortly from Copenhagen. Thank you very much for joining us, here on The Real News.
YUDIT ILANY: Thank you for having us.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris, reporting from Montreal, Canada.