P. Selvarani | New Straits Times
P. Selvarani speaks to Free Gaza Movement chairperson Huwaida Arraf to discover a woman determined to see an end to violence. She could have lived a blissful life as a successful lawyer, raising a nice, happy family in the Land of the Free. But social activist Huwaida Arraf, a first generation Palestinian-American, instead found her calling helping free her people.
For the past 10 years, Huwaida has often found herself staring down the nozzle of an Israeli army Uzi submachine gun, roughed up, handcuffed and thrown into jail — all in her quest to free Israeli-occupied Gaza and provide humanitarian aid to the Palestinians.
A lesser mortal would have caved in under such pressure and atrocity but then Huwaida is no ordinary woman.
“It’s not going to stop me. I’m lucky to be alive and not injured like others. Some of my friends have been killed. It’s bad when that happens but what Palestinians are going through on a daily basis is more horrifying,” said the Free Gaza Movement (FGM) chairperson and founder of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) whose mission is to resist Israeli occupation of Palestine using non-violent tactics.
Just a week before this interview was conducted in Kuala Lumpur, Huwaida and her team of FGM volunteers found themselves once again under siege by Israeli forces.
“On June 29, we departed Cyprus in the ‘Spirit of Humanity’ ferry to provide aid such as medicines, toys and books to the Palestinians in Gaza. But the next day, we found ourselves surrounded by Israeli warships. They threatened to use force against us if we would not leave.
“I told them we were unarmed civilians who were just bringing humanitarian aid. But they kept following us and when we were about 18 knots from the Port of Gaza, their commandos jumped on board our ferry and forcefully took control of our vessel. They took away our cameras and phones and when my husband (documentary producer Adam Shapiro) tried to prevent them, they beat him up.”
Huwaida’s efforts to placate the commandos and assure them that they were on a humanitarian cause ended with her being handcuffed by the soldiers.
“They isolated me in the kitchenette of the ferry. I didn’t know what happened to the rest of the volunteers, including my husband. As the ferry shook violently while they steered it to an Israeli port, crockery and cutlery were falling all over me. Fortunately, I was not injured.”
Huwaida and another volunteer, who are both Israeli citizens, were detained in a huge warehouse near the port with six soldiers watching over them. They were released 16 hours later without being told why they were arrested.
The 19 others, including Adam, spent the next six days in an Israeli prison and were eventually deported. They included Nobel Laureate Mairead Maguire and former US congresswoman Cynthia McKinney.
It’s this type of unnecessary aggression against innocent folk that makes Huwaida, a Christian, even more determined to fight the Palestinian cause.
Understandably, although she is only 33, Huwaida wears a weary look on her face as she has witnessed this kind of brutality all too often. But doesn’t it feel like she’s flogging a dead horse?
“I can’t accept the violence of the Occupation. When you see (the brutality and oppression) every day and you get used to it, THAT would be a tragedy. I try not to be desensitized to what is happening because we cannot give up.
“Sometimes you feel a sense of guilt, especially when you have access to luxuries denied to other people. I used to feel very guilty about sleeping (she manages on about five hours of sleep a day). Now, I don’t feel as guilty as before because I have to take care of myself but sometimes I still do, especially when I find myself in a place like this,” she said, gesturing at the Club Lounge of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Kuala Lumpur, where the interview took place.
(Barely hours after she landed at the KLIA, Huwaida was whisked to Putrajaya for a press conference held by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad on the plight of the Palestinians.)
Huwaida said the sight of Palestinians waiting in long queues for hours as they go through the numerous Israeli checkpoints to get to the West Bank is degrading.
“The soldiers decide everything. You see old folk, mothers and children going to school sometimes waiting the whole day just to get through.”
She recalled seeing a soldier yelling at a Palestinian man from Jerusalem who needed to get to Nablus to pay his last respects to his father who had died that morning before they buried him.
“The soldier refused to let him through but when the man kept on insisting, the soldier raised his gun. I intervened and pleaded for the soldier to let the man through on humanitarian grounds. Instead, they handcuffed and took him away. I still protested and they asked me to leave. When I refused, they arrested me.”
Huwaida’s parents — her father is an Israeli-Arab and her mother a Palestinian who both migrated to the United States as they wanted to bring up their children away from the violence in Palestine — are always pleading with her not to waste her life like this.
“I have sometimes thought about what we’re doing. But what’s happening in Palestine is so illegal and immoral. There have been times when I thought about returning to the US to practice law, become successful and build an influence, but I never thought about it for too long although I know I need to strike a balance in my life now.”
She said although she and Adam, whom she met at the Seeds of Peace youth organisation, have been married for seven years, they’ve hardly thought of starting a family because of the work they do and the limited time they spend with each other.
“I do want to have children but with so much to do now, I have not thought of starting a family. I guess I have to find a better balance in my life because I am not getting any younger!”
Huwaida confessed that when she first met Adam, they didn’t initially hit it off.
“For the first year we didn’t really talk to each other very much but I think there was a hidden attraction between us. And within a few weeks after our first kiss, he proposed! Two months after we were married, my husband was arrested in Israel and deported and not allowed to return for 10 years.”
It was a difficult period for Huwaida as she was unsure whether to stay on or join her husband in the US. She decided to stay on in Palestine and only went to the US in 2004 to read law.
“Our struggle is a long one and we need to gather as much support as we can from all over the world. Some governments support us but many are unwilling to stand up against Israel’s policies. People in power know what’s going on but they are consciously choosing to ignore it.
“But I know I can’t always be there. I tell myself not to allow this war pre-occupy me too much in order to focus on the bigger change.
“The people whom I have had the honor of meeting and working with, especially our volunteers — who come from all over the world and who’ve not given up in the face of all this persecution — offset the disappointments we face.
But what really keeps Huwaida going is the spirit and resilience of the Palestinians.
“I was in a village called Jayyous where we were planning a demonstration against the Israelis for confiscating the farms of the people to build a wall. The night before I was staying with a friend and his family and I was visibly distressed by what I saw.
“But here was my friend, who had just lost his land, trying to comfort me and make me laugh. I was bewildered! I asked him how he could laugh in the face of all this adversity.
“And he told me that although his land had been confiscated by the Israelis, what was important was that they didn’t take away his ability to laugh and live away from them.”
On another occasion when the [ISM] was trying to prevent the Israeli soldiers from conducting house-to-house raids in Nablus, Huwaida received a call from someone. “He said he could see our volunteers trying to stop the soldiers and although he felt the volunteers could not really do much, the fact that we were trying to do something was comfort enough for him. I did not know who this man was or how he got my number!
“It’s this kind of positive spirit that motivates me and tells me that our efforts are not wasted. At the very least, we are telling the Palestinians that “we see you, we hear you and we are doing what we can to help you”.
Her most challenging moment was when she had to face the parents of a 23-year-old American volunteer who was killed when an Israeli bulldozer ran over her as she was trying to prevent the demolition of a house.
“I was in the US when this happened. Having to face her parents was the most difficult thing I had to do.”
Despite the odds, Huwaida is optimistic that the conflict will end soon.
“We are going to continue to stop this blockade in Gaza. And I believe that if people unite and work together we can be a force to reckon with. Even one person can make a difference.”