Montage: Elvin Nethononda
Montage: Elvin Nethononda

Israelis free SA Olympian after sea detention

By Janet Smith Time of article published Oct 7, 2016

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Johannesburg - South African Olympian and Free Palestine activist Leigh-Ann Naidoo is expected to arrive at OR Tambo International Airport on Friday afternoon after a night in detention in Israel.

She was captured at sea in the Women’s Boat to Gaza (WBG) peace vessel, the Zaytouna-Oliva, by Israeli naval commandos on Wednesday afternoon and held at Givon Prison outside Tel Aviv, along with 12 other international activists.

These included Northern Ireland Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire.

It is believed the intervention of Israeli human rights legal firms Adalah and Gaby Lansky Attorneys helped secure Naidoo’s release and that of the other activists on Thursday night.

Sources close to the WBG campaign in Joburg said the Israeli lawyers had worked “tirelessly” as volunteers on the matter over the past few days.

Naidoo’s release was also attributed to the interventions of South African ambassador to Israel, Sisa Ngombane.

Nelson Kgwete of the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) said on Thursday that Ngombane had worked with the Israeli foreign ministry on the matter.

South Africa had not been given an official reason for Naidoo’s arrest by Israel, said Kgwete, and it expected to receive further information “about the circumstances of arrest” once it had had “direct interaction with her”.

This will be good news for Naidoo’s 7-year-old daughter Lerato and Naidoo’s partner, Dr Kelly Gillespie.

The Zaytouna-Oliva - the vessel used for the international peace campaign against Israel’s blockade of Gaza - was estimated to have been about 65km from Gaza’s shores in international waters when Israeli naval vessels flanked it. It had been warned to change course, but when the vessel steered on for Gaza, it was boarded and redirected to Ashdod Port in Israel where the activists were detained.

This was not the first attempt by peace activists to break the decade-long blockade of the Palestinian territory. The bloodiest was in 2010 when the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, was boarded and nine Turkish activists killed by Israeli commandos. Another died in 2014 after being in a coma for four years.

On Friday last week, the Israeli government paid $20 million (R277m) to Ankara in compensation for the Mavi Marmara attack, following talks which were finally settled in August.

Lerato told Gillespie, her other mom, on Thursday that her concern was that she didn’t want her mother to die, and Gillespie - who is a senior lecturer in the anthropology department at Wits - had to rely on the grounding she and Naidoo have given their daughter in human rights, to make sense to their child of what had happened.

Gillespie highlighted the desperate living conditions of people in Gaza.

Three al-Jazeera journalists who were on board the Zaytouna-Oliva were released on Thursday.

“Leigh-Ann is so brave,” an emotional Gillespie said on Thursday.

“I trust her instincts completely. We were terrified of the actual arrest because of the multiple deaths on the Mavi Marmara.

“But the activists on the Zaytouna had very systematic non-violence training over the past two weeks, including on-board simulations of attacks, so they were fully prepared.

“Many hundreds of people were waiting for them on the shores of Palestine. That sense of loss at not being able to show that kind of international solidarity for what the people of Gaza are going through, is very intense.”

Naidoo, who represented South Africa in volleyball at the 2004 Athens Olympics, is doing a PhD in education at Wits. She has been active in the Wits chapter of #FeesMustFall.

Widespread calls were made on Thursday for the government to intervene, including from Right2Know, and trade union Nehawu.

The Embassy of Israel in Pretoria did not respond to several requests for comment earlier this week or on Thursday.

[email protected]

The Star

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