Palestine activist back in SA from Israeli jail
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Johannesburg - Waving a Free Palestine flag, Dr Kelly Gillespie kept glancing about anxiously at OR Tambo International's arrivals terminal.
She was surrounded by a sea of supporters chanting “Free Palestine” and “Down with Israel”, but her eyes were searching for one person: her partner, Leigh-Ann Naidoo.
“I’m very excited but it feels like I’m only really going to know she is safe when she lands,” said Gillespie, who is a senior lecturer in the department of anthropology at Wits University in Joburg.
The Free Palestine activist and 2004 Olympian spent a night in detention in Israel with 12 other international activists in Givon Prison near Tel Aviv.
They were captured on international waters in their vessel, the Zayatouna-Oliva, during their Women’s Boat to Gaza campaign to “bring hope to devastated Gaza” and to break the years-long Israeli blockade of Palestinian territory.
The couple’s seven-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 from the terminal to ululations, cheers and Gillespie’s embrace.
Naidoo picked up a Palestinian flag, shouting across the terminal, “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.
“We had these young kids, 20-year-olds, female and male soldiers, board us with this Robocop equipment.”
All the group saw of Gaza, she said, in “absolute darkness” 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,” said Naidoo, sobbing.
Naidoo, who is doing a PhD in education and is a leader of the #FeesMustFfall movement at Wits, did not want to elaborate on her prison ordeal.
“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 that 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 de-humanises people, it’s about insisting people believe they are different to one another... forcing people to expose themselves physically through strip searches,” she sobbed. “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. That this is a peaceful boat with women, and that all we’re doing is 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 that we were going peacefully and we had media attention.”
Ten people died when Israeli commando forces executed Turkish activists on the Mavi Marmara.
“Did I think I would die? My father was very involved in anti-apartheid activities,” said Naidoo. “ So I'm fairly paranoid. I always think of the worst case scenario, it’s a good way to plan for situations. Certainly I did imagine the possibility... but because of the high-profile people on board, we knew it was unlikely.”
Gillespie thanked the international team of women with her who included Tasneem Moosa, who was assisted by Ziyaad Patel and the WBG team in SA, as well as Gaby Lasky attorneys and Adalah in Israel.
But the Department of International Relations “piggy backed” on other people’s work, she said. “They didn’t in fact call me once to update me about anything, there was no communication. I phoned them on Thursday morning to ask for information. There was a response to say 'we’re looking into it'. 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 on Friday after he said he was the ambassador for Israel.
Later, Naidoo gazed at Lerato, saying: “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,” she said.