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Lebanese urged to help break Gaza siege

Josie Ensor | The Daily Star

24 July 2009

A Lebanese human rights worker with the Free Gaza Movement made a plea on Thursday for Lebanon to show solidarity over the issue of the Palestinian right of return and play a more active role in breaking the siege. Natalie Abou Shakra, who returned Wednesday from the Gaza Strip after an eight-month humanitarian mission, said it was Lebanon’s duty to help ease the situation in the Palestinian territories.

The plea comes a week after President Michel Sleiman told Russian Mideast envoy Alexander Saltanov that any attempt to achieve peace in the Middle East must include the Palestinian right of return.

Shakra, the only Lebanese activist currently on the ground, said the resettlement of Palestinians from countries offering refuge is one of the most important issues that Lebanon should support.

“A Lebanese initiative is also needed to break the siege,” Shakra told The Daily Star. “The last one was not a total failure and I think it should be followed up – and more creative and daring ways should be thought of.”

Shakra defied Israeli orders for Lebanese citizens not to enter Gaza and was able to get in with the Free Gaza movement’s SS Dignity boat on the December 20 last year. She has since been working with Free Gaza Movement (FGM) and International Solidarity Movement to bring medical and food assistance into the Gaza Strip.

Shakra drew on the relationship between Lebanon’s struggles and Gaza’s own, saying that there was a lot of commonality yet support was lacking.

She added that, as an Arab country with a history of struggle with Israeli occupation, Le­banon had a duty to help be­sieged Gazans – 80 percent of whom are currently dependent on food assistance.

“As activists, we need to deal with people who support civil resistance, culturally. It is easier to deal with people, like the Lebanese, who we don’t have to explain the ABCs to, as they already have that political discourse in them,” Shakra added.

She said that living through Israeli occupation during her childhood in the south of Lebanon gave her an appreciation of the plight of Palestinians. “Living there we had to endure a lot and as a result we hold a lot in common with the Palestinian people – we have a common enemy.”

On Tuesday, fellow Gaza aid worker FGM’s chief Gaza coordinator Caoimhe Butterly, gave a talk in Beirut to create greater awareness of the current situation in the Gaza Strip.

Butterly has organized several boats to be sent to Gaza carrying medical and food aid and urged on Tuesday that Lebanon join the efforts. “We want more activists from the Arab world on the boats, we don’t want it to be West-centric. We want the Lebanese to come on these boats,” Butterly, an Irish national, said during the talk in Hamra’s T’Marbouta.

Butterly said in Tuesday’s talk that the situation in Gaza today is hermetic: “There are an estimated 4,000 aid items banned from entering Gaza at present; from cancer treatment medicines, to anesthetic, to footballs. And Israel won’t give out a list because it could be used by humanitarian groups.

“We had to try to negotiate pasta onto the list for three weeks – they said while rice was an essential, pasta was not. Shampoo is allowed in, but shampoo with conditioner is banned.” Butterly said that such decision on the list were deliberately calculated by the Israeli authorities: “That is the most terrifying thing – the seige is deliberately created to bring an entire people to their knees.”

The Free Gaza Movement has successfully made five aid deliveries by boat to the Gaza Strip since August of last year, defying a blockade that was imposed by Israel due to Hamas rocket attacks.

However, Butterly says that Israeli forces have intercepted many more. “The last four boats have been stopped, inclu­ding the one from Lebanon earlier this year. We believe that there was a decision to block these voyages.

“We want to bring in cement and steel; building materials but they’re being blocked, which cripples any ability to reconstruct the 12,000 homes that have been destroyed,” Butterly added.

In December of last year, she was on a Free Gaza Movement boat that was intercepted by Israeli ships as it headed to Gaza with medical supplies.

Sleiman ordered that the boat be rescued and it was welcomed at the port city of Tyre. “We received wonderful hospitality from the Lebanese and it was a great sign of support, but it shouldn’t stop there – the country needs to be much more active in its support for the cause,” Butterly said.

The organization is now planning to send convoys and passenger boats into Gazan waters to create greater international pressure. “We anticipate Israeli security trying to board the boats, but we will withstand as long as we can – we will try for five days.”

Butterly said that the idea was to have these initiatives happening on a more regular basis so that the situation in Gaza is not forgotten.