LSD Magazine interviews Lorty Philips

On 31 May 2010, an flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian aid to the ruthlessly subjugated communities of Gaza was stormed by armed Israeli commandos resulting in 9 deaths and dozens of injured aid workers. Daring to suggest that basic human morality and indeed the tenets of international law supported their mission in the face of Israeli repression and apparent disdain for international opinion, the ships planned to run the gauntlet of the military blockade to deliver their critical cargo. Ever aware that the military ethos and siege mentality of Israeli foreign policy may throw up obstacles and repercussions, no-one dreamed that such a clumsy, unconscionable and ultimately self defeating massacre would follow.

In yet another brutal, paranoid and  deeply immoral attack both on basic human dignity and their own international standing, Israeli commanders somehow sanctioned the twilight raid in international waters. As film leaked out of aid workers resisting the barrage of bullets and stun grenades with broom handles and hoses, the world looked on as yet again the Israelis demonstrated their unsuitability to be accepted either as a reasonable political force or as a nuclear power.  The glare of the media spotlight suddenly illuminated the realities of the siege of Gaza  whose daily anguish rarely makes it onto the ‘If it bleeds it leads’ television news agenda, where bombings and casualties sell airtime, but the eradication of a culture, the theft of land, and the remorseless oppression of a caged people is seen as a minority issue.  We spoke to Lorty Phillips, one of the aid workers aboard the Mavi Marmara about her personal journey to the Palestinian cause, her reflections on the nature of the siege, the ever turning cycle of hatred and violence and the events of that fateful night in a frank and wide ranging discussion.

What was your motivation to join the flotilla?

Well this was actually the second time that I had joined an aid convoy to Gaza, the first one having been a land mission and my motivation to get involved in that was the bombing of Gaza in the winter of 08/09. I saw the images of women and children screaming, the massive destruction of buildings in Gaza and I thought well that’s what we’re seeing on the BBC and they usually censor or edit images to quite a high degree compared to some of the other channels out there these days. I didn’t really understand how it could be in the interests of security for Israel to carry out such a colossal massacre of people living right on their doorstep. I initially found the whole situation very confusing and I didn’t know enough about the conflict or the history so I thought I needed to take a closer look and try and understand what’s going on. I joined the Palestine Solidarity Campaign which has been established for 30 years and it’s like an information and campaigning organisation for Palestinian issues for the last 30 years. To begin with I didn’t really do anything apart from receive their emails and newsletters – I didn’t even attend any of their meetings and I was working full time, was really busy and while I still wanted to do something, I just didn’t know what. In August last year I saw a front page article saying “join the convoy” and I thought well that’s a really practical thing that I can do and it was a convoy to take aid to Gaza and I realised that that spoke to me on a number of levels. I’m not someone standing on a soap box and I’m not especially politically engaged but if I can do something really practical and take some aid to Gaza and when I’m there speak to the people there and say that I think what happened in the bombing of  Gaza was completely out of order and express solidarity with them and actually meet them, then it would be totally worth it.

Soon after going to the first meeting they said that volunteers were needed to be team leaders and I thought,  well I’m a coordinator in my team at work so maybe I’ve got some skills they could use so I ended up becoming a team leader which meant with 14 vehicles and 47 people from different countries, Belgium, Australia, Switzerland and Malaysia amongst them. I thought that a land convoy was a practical way to take supplies to people that need it but also an opportunity to raise awareness in the press. Funnily enough we didn’t have a lot of western media at all with us during the land convoy in December /January and got into Gaza in January and the only time the BBC or any western media showed any interest at all was when there was a clash with riot police in Egypt on the last leg of the journey. A lot of Turkish and a lot of Arab media were following us over land, and during that journey I met activists from a vast range of backgrounds – Muslim volunteers, Quaker volunteers, Atheist volunteers, Jewish volunteers, and people from all kinds of different countries all on the same 5 week journey. It was intensive because we were driving as fast as we could on very little sleep and as we got closer to Gaza, the authorities tried to control more and more. In Jordan they wanted to take our passports from us and give them back on the other side of the country and we had firm police escorts that began to give us a slight sense of what a siege means and what a blockade means – controlling people and their movement using identification papers as a weapon.

It became even more clear when we got to the border with Egypt because Egypt are maintaining the blockade of Gaza on the Egyptian border side so Gaza is blockaded by Israel on 3 sides of it’s border and by Egypt on the Egyptian side. So they wouldn’t let us come through the route we wanted to take and they made us go back up another 900- 1000 kilometres to come round through their sea port and all of this is about controlling what goes into Gaza and who goes into Gaza and so we experienced that at first hand. I guess what I’m trying to say is this journey that I thought was going to be straightforward to take an aid convoy to Gaza actually  was a massive learning experience for me and I got to see what a siege and a blockade actually entails and how governments can resist and pressure our actions and how the mainstream media don’t want to cover it. Apparently the story of 30 or so different nations coming together to take 250 donated vehicles of aid and medical equipment isn’t worthy of western media coverage and my insights into media bias developed hugely right there. The other thing about travelling on that journey was the amount of support we got when we came over the border into Turkey. Massive crowds of people were waiting with flags and that continued across the country with people waving at the convoy and the local and the national channels in the countries from Turkey onwards were covering us and so people were coming out and giving support and it made me realise that this issue of Palestine isn’t like a marginal sort of weird, leftie thing it’s actually absolute mainstream interest to the majority of people in that region at least, while over here it’s been seen as a socialist protestor issue.

After that first land convoy, I stayed in touch with the people that I had met and started finding out about other initiatives and had my first contact with the Turkish organisation IHH which bought the passenger ship which I travelled on in the flotilla. They do humanitarian projects in 127 countries worldwide of which Gaza is just one, and they are not a political organisation, but a humanitarian organisation and I was very much attracted to that. The basic idea was just that there was  a humanitarian crisis which the United Nations have been asking the international community to do something about for years and yet our leaders just seem to stand there and say yes isn’t it awful and the blockade needs to be lifted and the siege needs to end, it’s unsustainable. Lots of words but no action basically. Instead of putting pressure on Israel to lift the blockade, this year alone, the European Union granted them preferential trade agreements and the United States provide $3 billion cash to them every year in the form of military aid. That’s an agreement that has been set up over 10 years so $30 billion worth of military aid will be given to Israel over that period.

So we feel that we are the ones upholding international law because our leaders are failing in their moral duties accentuated by the fact that our leaders try to use international law to justify troops going to Iraq and Afghanistan and spending so much tax payers money on weapons and military activities. That is sold to us on the grounds that “ Iraq broke 14 resolutions and that’s why we went to war” – well you know there have been 62 United Nations resolutions broken by Israel directly, several more indirectly for example the resolution for UN to educate refugee children is affected by the Gaza blockade preventing materials through to build schools, yet they continue to be our ally and we don’t even whisper about sanctions. It’s only people that are active in the campaign that are trying to push for boycotts, disinvestments and actions against Israel. So we’re part of that but trying to do it in a peaceful way through humanitarian aid which is needed desperately, although the volume from these convoys is just a drop in the ocean really of what’s actually required. For the flotilla I took a truck from Bolton to Istanbul carrying second hand NHS equipment but when I was unloading that onto the cargo ship in Istanbul with my colleague we could see the other lories coming through with water tanks, massive generators, crates of tiles, building machinery and there were prefabricated homes going onto these cargo ships but even though the volume wasn’t that massive, these things wouldn’t get through the Israeli border because machinery isn’t allowed in and construction materials aren’t allowed in.

lorty-03When it’s announced that the blockade has been eased and people relax, all they’ve done is allowed some extra food and consumables to be put on the list and they haven’t changed anything in terms of construction materials. That’s the point we were making, we were trying to take cement for rebuilding homes and hospitals and schools that had been destroyed in the bombing let alone the natural population growth. And it’s an unusual sort of humanitarian organisation that wants to actually try and change the causes of a disaster rather than just patch it up and continue doing the work year to year. It’s not just coming along to put a plaster on but trying to address the symptoms so I’ve got a massive amount of respect for IHH for taking that approach and for understanding that in this situation, the  media and public opinion is crucial. We’ve received criticism from a woman broadcasting in Israel saying that “you are only interested in this as a pet project, why don’t you care about people in Africa?” She hasn’t done her research because IHH have completed more than 50,000 cataract operations in central and eastern Africa in the last two years, they’ve dug 267 well’s in in Somalia just off the top of my head so you can’t level that argument at this mission like Oh you only care about Palestine because you hate Jewish people it’s just not true, it doesn’t stand up. I suppose after the land convoy I had seen what it was like in Gaza and I had met people there from break dancers and musicians to people with masters degrees that can’t get work and people with masters degrees to finish that can’t get out to universities that they have places at because the blockade blocks the movement of people above all. It’s not just about getting jam and coriander into Gaza it’s about allowing people to carry on their everyday lives and get on with it.

We’ve got a friend, Rada who hid herself and stayed in Gaza until very recently with the International Solidarity Movement which is a smallish organisation that has been sending witnesses to Palestine to go out with fluorescent jackets with the farmers, with the fishermen, with the people trying to live their everyday lives just to witness what happens to them and they get shot at by troops every day. One of the ISM volunteers was shot in the leg in front of Rada, and this is just what goes on. The people there are educated but forced to live in a suspended reality where they can’t get on with their lives. Gaza traditionally has a lot of traders and the impact on them psychologically, people that used to travel to Turkey or Pakistan or wherever on business runs very deep. , They are trapped, they can’t move and it’s just not in their historical or cultural realm of existence to live like that.

Is that the real scandal? Because yes you’ve got the bombings and the high visibility stuff that the international media does to some extent get involved in but isn’t really what came out of this flotilla the attention it drew to the day to day realities to this idea of a siege, this idea of an ongoing prison camp that doesn’t get any coverage. Do you feel that ultimately the real, and we hate to use the word success, result was the media storm that actually highlighted  the stifling reality within Gaza. Would that be fair?

I’d definitely say that’s fair. Even speaking to my 75 year old aunt, she was outraged to actually find out what was and what wasn’t allowed in to Gaza and it has made the blockade look really, really daft. To be restricting children’s toys in case parts of them could be used in weapons. You know your average member of the public is going to question that, and it has I hope shown up the blockade as being economic warfare and collective punishment and the collective punishment of more than one and a half million people, more than 50% of them under the age of 16. It’s against the Geneva convention, it’s an international crime and it’s also against international humanitarian law. It’s illegal and that’s why we’re taking this action. It’s quite hard for members of the group to know exactly what the impact has been because we weren’t able to see what happened during the one or two days we were in custody and then it took from Monday morning to Thursday for us to get to back Istanbul and even then we were just knackered and just going to the funerals and nobody had time to go “I wonder what’s happening in the press”. But it slowly dawned on us that there had been a massive impact around the world and a lot more interest and that will hopefully will lead to a step change in people’s involvement in the issue and people looking at what’s going on there.

I was embarrassed to find out when I travelled in the land convoy how little I know about the previous blockades on refugee camps and the massacres in refugee camps. I was aware of the apartheid wall in the West Bank but its actual impact on splitting up communities and its role in illegal settlement, consolidating water resources and economic warfare was all new to me. The other really clear thing about travelling overland was meeting the refugees who were driven out by the conflict into the surrounding countries. They were incredibly supportive when we got to Syria and Jordan and begging us to take things through for family members they had been separated from. I took a plastic bag of shoes and handbags from a guy whose sister lives in Gaza and when his family came to meet me they were just so overjoyed that they insisted we come home for dinner and allow them to show us every possible degree of hospitality. It was just so sad because because the Egyptians only opened the border for two and a half days and they wanted us gone. So we came in, rushed to hand over the aid to the agencies that were dealing with it, see people as quickly as possible and just rush off again with a gnawing emptiness

And the worst thing was that I genuinely thought that the flotilla was another opportunity for us to get through to Gaza, we broke the siege in January so I assumed that we could break the siege by sea. And it’s such a massive organisation and it seemed so well organised to me and they had done such a lot of preparation in the months leading up to it in terms of PR and in being so open about what we were going to be doing that it seemed completely ludicrous for Israel to attack us under the guise checking for weapons. It would have completely undermined the whole campaign if we had weapons on board, and the fact that we went through Turkish and Greek port security seemed to apparently not carry any weight.

Were there repeated warnings from the Israeli’s before they actually boarded you in the middle of the night

We knew that the Israelis had put out press releases saying that they wouldn’t be allowing this flotilla to go through but in terms of the warnings, what I’m aware of is that the captain of the ship was contacted to ask where he intended to go. I’m not sure whether he was told not to enter the demilitarised zone which in any case we didn’t but then again we don’t recognise those kind of ultimatums as being legal. If they have withdrawn as they claim from Gaza then what are they doing controlling the waters there? Either way though, in this incident we were travelling in the opposite direction as the captain changed the direction of the flotilla to get further away from Israeli waters because had detected 14 or so vessels approaching our boats so rapidly that he thought they are going to attack. At this point, he may even have decided to move down to Egyptian waters but they didn’t wait for us to come into any sort of disputed zone or into Israeli waters – they attacked the flotilla when it was travelling away from Israeli waters in international waters. I simply don’t understand the justification for that.

Do you have any idea why, because in some ways the Israeli’s have an amazing talent for shooting themselves in the foot on the PR front. Why do you think they would have launched this kind of attack? Do they have an inbuilt paranoid siege mentality or are they just trigger happy? It just seems so bizarre because the second they attacked they lost the argument.

Exactly. Well they were in a very difficult position, they either let the flotilla through and the siege is revealed as being breakable and done for or they stop us. They could have stopped us in a different way but the mindset unfortunately seems to be a military solution to everything and you see that throughout the whole of Palestine because it’s a military occupation. The decision to intercept the flotilla in this way was apparently made by a group of seven strategists and while one of them was a dissenting voices, the others pushed it through. It didn’t go through any democratic group or parliamentary vote – it was made by military strategists and perhaps if it had gone through the Knesset, they might have made a more sensible decision.

lorty-04How did it feel when these young commandos boarded the boat – did the testosterone simply take over – the brainwashed military mindset?

That’s what the commandos and the next boarding party felt like as they stormed around the place full of it and when we got to the port and the search began, it felt even more domineering. Strangely enough there was a combination of these uniformed guys in masks marching around aggressively and a bunch of people in civilian cloths laughing and joking and taking pictures of the spectacle in an I’m going to put this on Facebook – what a laugh sort of way. Very bizarre, and a Palestinian woman called Lubna who lives in Jerusalem pointed out one of the guys who was getting on to the ship and said that was one of Netanyahu’s relations either a nephew or a son but he wasn’t in uniform – they were just civilians with their cameras coming on to have a look around. Privileged civilians. It was just so surreal – they had these access all areas bands on their arms like they were going to bloody Glastonbury.

Were you awake when they dropped on? What happened, was there panic, and to what level was there a we’re not going to fucking have this, we’re going to resist spirit. How did the dynamic feel on the ship?

We waited at sea for the whole flotilla to get together between Friday and Sunday and on Sunday afternoon about 4.30pm we had all the six ships and for the next few hours it was just a brilliant feeling of achievement. Then about 13 or 14 vessels were detected rapidly approaching and the captain ordered everyone to get their life jackets on. I was really quite scared at that time because I worried about the ship going down, and the women’s quarters were downstairs and so when we were confined to quarters for safety, I was seriously apprehensive. Luckily my American colleague Fatima came down to get me about 2 or 3 in the morning and she said we need you upstairs because we are broadcasting. We had continual broadcasting going on from the open deck at the back of the ship throughout the journey and  I went upstairs at about 2 or 3 in the morning and we made several broadcasts with small groups wearing our life jackets relaying the situation across the airwaves. One of the lights went off so it wasn’t suitable to continue filming and I said right I’m going to send an email so I went down to the press room which had about 25 laptops in it and satellite communications sending emails which the press were able to use. Suddenly the satellite got cut off so I couldn’t send and that struck me as an ominous sign.

I went out straight away and the ship was under attack.. There were small Zodiac raft boats alongside us and bangs going off as things got thrown onto the boat. Almost straight away, a helicopter came overhead and while I couldn’t see the guys coming down because I was on the deck below they were obviously boarding from the sky. Total panic had set in with men running all over the ship trying to hose the rafts off the side and throwing empty bottles over the side to try and deter the boarders. I went into the stairwell under the roof and on the ground I could see an Israeli soldier who had been brought down and I could see a guy standing at his head saying “calm down it’s ok calm down”. He had been disarmed and he had a bloody nose and he looked terrified but I was satisfied that he wasn’t going to be hurt any more I actually think that he might have been one of the guys that fell off the roof on to he deck below. He was winded and that was it – they took his guns off him and there was a woman standing there saying ‘he’s not to be hurt we need to take him to medical’ and I thought well I’m satisfied with that. Very shortly after that, I started to see people coming down the stairwell from upstairs with blood pouring out of their arms and their legs, I turned around and there was an old man lying on the ground with his legs bleeding and his leg up. We put a life jacket under his head and hoped he’d last.. Then one of my colleagues Ken O’Keefe started shouting “stretcher, stretcher, stretcher” so I grabbed the stretcher with him and we  went up onto the back deck where we had previously been broadcasting and there was this man lying there on the ground.

I said to Ken  “how are going to get him to he medical room?” and the guys around me just took my arm and said “don’t worry”. I didn’t even realise then but I realise now that he was dead already and there was no point in taking him to any medical room. He was our internet guy and he was also the official photographer from the ship, he had a big stills camera and from the Cultures of Resistance footage you can see him walking around one of the decks with his camera taking pictures (www.culturesofresistance.org). He was shot with a bullet to the forehead while holding a camera. There’s no justification for boarding the ship in the first place but to shoot a man in the forehead when he’s holding a camera on the deck below where the fighting is taking place is completely unjustified and there is no explanation for that whatsoever. Yes there was chaos but it was the boarding parties who were entirely responsible for that chaos.

We were anticipating some sort of interception, we knew that something might happen but we didn’t know what form it would take or imagine that it would be like this with the use of live ammunition against civilians. The organisers were perhaps slightly more aware that there might be an illegal incident because the whole ship was rigged up with cameras to broadcast any eventuality on www.livestream.com. They had that system set up all over the ship and there was a guy responsible for making sure that the broadcast was going out and while the soldiers tried to stop the communications, they didn’t realise there was another system in place and so all credit to the IHH for that. They basically anticipated that this would happen and came up with backup systems to get the images out and that’s why for 2 hours we managed to broadcast images of the attack which the Israelis were trying so hard not to have broadcast. They went out and that’s probably one of the reasons why if you like to use that word “succeed” even in the face of 9 people dying we succeeded in getting that imagery and the truth of what their attack was like out of that ship.
Were you the only passenger ship

lorty-01We were the main passenger ships but the other 2 passenger ships in our flotilla were much smaller. The main passenger ship was like a day trip boat that used to go around the Marmara Islands near Turkey but had been refitted for the longer journey. We didn’t have cabins, but big salons with lots of seating and tables and we just slept on the seating or slept on the floor. Lots of guys were sleeping on the decks and everyone had their bed mats and sleeping bags. It was lovely warm weather and the sea was really smooth so people could sleep outside and it was absolutely functioning perfectly for our purposes.

On a personal level for you, having been through that experience with people who effectively started out as a bunch of strangers, did you find it an incredibly, again dubious wording, rewarding experience for you?

The whole of my involvement in these humanitarian actions for Gaza has developed me personally.. Even from the first meeting, I met people that I have so much respect for and that hold values that I respect and have been reliable, have helped me, have demonstrated humanity, have assisted me and my colleagues and just to live an experience with people like that is amazingly rewarding and I’d advise anybody to get involved. I’ve also had to learn to articulate a bit better what I’m doing and what the issues are about, and learn about communicating with people and helping those in my group to deal with the challenges.

I know a couple of people from the land convoys have had some difficulties in adjusting back to normal life and I think that’s why I’m lucky at the moment because I haven’t gone back into my work which was in a youth offending team in Enfield. I was working as a co-ordinator with 5 social workers in prevention working with young people trying to break the pattern of their getting into trouble with the police. I had a 9 to 5 job there and if I had to go back into that sort of environment right now I think I’d find it Lorty, Bulent Yildirim leader of IHH, Baboo Zanghar, Fatima Mourabiti, Kenza Isnasni and Julie quite hard. Luckily I resigned; I knew there would probably be some serious repercussions because after seeing the toll and the twists and turns the land convoy took, then what would a flotilla be like? I decided that I wasn’t going to expect my team or my department at work to put up with me disappearing again – I was just going to resign and devote my focus to this.  I’ve got that opportunity because I don’t have any children and I’ve been working for 10 years with a mortgage that is mostly paid off. I’ve got a flatmate and he helps with the bills, but I feel like there are many, many people who would have taken the opportunity to go on the land convoy if they had known about it and negotiated a 4 week absence with their boss.

I think that once you are involved, it’s a lot easier to carry on and while I naively thought that I could make my contribution, then come back and get on with my life – it doesn’t work like that. Once you experience what life is like there, you meet real people and you feel the compulsion to do more and see this struggle through it becomes both a passion and an obligation. I came back and I found myself going to 2 or 3 meetings a week that related to Palestine, but it’s just been incorporated into my life. I still seem to have a social life and I don’t think I’ve become obsessed about it. I’ve just fitted it in and it feels quite natural. Obviously it must have had a big impact on me personally because I don’t have a job anymore but I don’t see that as a massive loss at the moment It’s given me a different perspective on life and the world and I‘d recommend it to anybody who’s got the opportunity to do it or to get involved in some way. It is massively rewarding and the people that I’ve met in Gaza and Turkey that I keep in touch with on line have massively appreciated our presence as well and it’s going to lead to more things in the future.

Being civilian, non-governmental, independent and just normal everyday people is incredibly important and we could be part of the key to peace. We’re trying to provide links and opportunities, and from my work in youth offending and from academic research, I know all too well that young people can have all sorts of damaging factors in their life like trauma, abuse, loss, lack of educational opportunity, but you can build resilience through community networks, encouragement, support, developing young people’s talents and giving them options and choices. Ironically, I asked someone I met in Gaza what the risk of offending was there, especially with such a high teenage population. And he bluntly told me that the risk of offending there boiled down to joining the armed brigades.  You see that’s why I can’t understand Israel’s reasoning for kettling a bunch of kids in a brutal siege and not allowing them opportunities for education or trade or a future because then their only option will be to join a brigade for their identity, their feeling of self worth, their pride and their standing up for their country. Almost everyone has lost a friend or family member from the ongoing everyday incursions as well as the major bombing campaigns so the vicious circle of violence keeps spinning with hardly any incentive or opportunity to stop. That’s what we are all about about.
The next convoy is due to leave the UK, North Africa and the Middle East in September organised by Viva Palestina. It aims to coincide with a sea flotilla and be the largest attempt to break the blockade yet.  Volunteers can join Viva Palestina by registering online, this time individuals need to raise a minimum of £3500 for Viva Palestina in order to become drivers, the charity will organise the vehicles and the aid.  Individuals will need to pay their own expenses on the trip.

lorty-6More details are available on www.vivapalestina.org. / www.ihh.org

Lorty on Twitter