On 29 June, the Spirit of Humanity ship started off on its short voyage from Larnaca (Cyprus) to Gaza. The purpose of the voyage was to delivery urgently-needed food and medical aid to the people of Gaza and to break the deadly blockade that Israel has maintained against them for years.
Among the 21 solidarity workers and journalists on board was Cynthia McKinney – US Green Party presidential candidate, former member of the House of Representatives, and a highly respected African-American politician, best known for her work around civil rights, against both Iraq wars, against the mining of coltan in Congo, and for justice for Palestinians.
As the ship moved into Gazan waters, it was intercepted and boarded by the Israeli navy. The boat was towed to the Israeli port of Ashdod and all those on board were arrested.
McKinney was able to send an audio message out from her cell in Israel to her supporters, the transcript of which we reprint below.
Message from an Israeli jail
This is Cynthia McKinney and I’m speaking from an Israeli prison cellblock in Ramle. [I am one of] the Free Gaza 21, human rights activists currently imprisoned for trying to take medical supplies to Gaza, building supplies – and even crayons for children; I had a suitcase full of crayons for children.
While we were on our way to Gaza, the Israelis threatened to fire on our boat, but we did not turn around. The Israelis hijacked and arrested us because we wanted to give crayons to the children in Gaza. We have been detained, and we want the people of the world to see how we have been treated just because we wanted to deliver humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza.
At the outbreak of Israel’s Operation ‘Cast Lead’ [in December 2008], I boarded a Free Gaza boat with one day’s notice and tried, as the US representative in a multinational delegation, to deliver 3 tons of medical supplies to an already besieged and ravaged Gaza.
During Operation Cast Lead, US-supplied F-16s rained hellfire on a trapped people. Ethnic cleansing became full-scale, outright genocide. US-supplied white phosphorus, depleted uranium, robotic technology, DIME [dense insert metal explosive] weapons, and cluster bombs [were used] – new weapons creating injuries never treated before by Jordanian and Norwegian doctors.
I was later told by doctors who were there in Gaza during Israel’s onslaught that Gaza had become Israel’s veritable weapons-testing laboratory, [with real] people used to test and improve the kill ratio of their weapons.
The world saw Israel’s despicable violence thanks to al-Jazeera Arabic and Press TV that broadcast in English. I saw those broadcasts live and around the clock, not from the USA but from Lebanon, where my first attempt to get into Gaza had ended because the Israeli military rammed the boat I was on in international water …
It’s a miracle that I’m even here to write about my second encounter with the Israeli military, again a humanitarian mission aborted by the Israeli military.
The Israeli authorities have tried to get us to confess that we committed a crime … I am now known as Israeli prisoner number 88794. How can I be in prison for collecting crayons [for] kids?
Zionism has surely run out of its last legitimacy if this is what it does to people who believe so deeply in human rights for all that they put their own lives on the line for someone else’s children. Israel is the fullest expression of zionism, but if Israel fears for its security because Gaza’s children have crayons then not only has Israel lost its last shred of legitimacy, but Israel must be declared a failed state.
I am facing deportation from the state that brought me here at gunpoint after commandeering our boat. I was brought to Israel against my will. I am being held in this prison because I had a dream that Gaza’s children could colour and paint; that Gaza’s wounded could be healed, and that Gaza’s bombed-out houses could be rebuilt.
But I’ve learned an interesting thing by being inside this prison. First of all, it’s incredibly black: populated mostly by Ethiopians who also had a dream … like my cellmates, one [of whom] is pregnant.
They are all are in their twenties. They thought they were coming to the Holy Land. They had a dream that their lives would be better … The once proud, never-colonised Ethiopia [has been thrown into] the back pocket of the United States, and become a place of torture, rendition, and occupation. Ethiopians must free their country because superpower politics [have] become more important than human rights and self-determination.
My cellmates came to the Holy Land so they could be free from the exigencies of superpower politics. They committed no crime except to have a dream. They came to Israel because they thought that Israel held promise for them. Their journey to Israel through Sudan and Egypt was arduous. I can only imagine what it must have been like for them.
And it wasn’t cheap. Many of them represent their family’s best collective efforts for self-fulfilment. They made their way to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. They got their yellow paper of identification. They got their certificate for police protection. They are refugees from tragedy, and they made it to Israel, only after they arrived, Israel told them “there is no UN in Israel”.
The police here have license to pick them up and suck them into the black hole of a farce for a justice system. These beautiful, industrious and proud women represent the hopes of entire families. The idea of Israel tricked them and the rest of us.
In a widely propagandised, slick marketing campaign, Israel represented itself as a place of refuge and safety for the world’s first jews and christians. I too believed that marketing and failed to look deeper.
The truth is that Israel lied to the world. Israel lied to the families of these young women. Israel lied to the women themselves who are now trapped in Ramle’s detention facility. And what are we to do?
One of my cellmates cried today. She has been here for six months. As an American, crying with them is not enough. The policy of the United States must be better, and while we watch President Obama give 12.8 trillion dollars to the financial élite of the United States, it ought now [to] be clear that hope, change, and ‘Yes we can’ were powerfully presented images of dignity and self-fulfilment, individually and nationally, that besieged people everywhere truly believed in.
It was a slick marketing campaign, as slickly put to the world and to the voters of America as was Israel’s marketing to the world. It tricked all of us, but, more tragically, these young women.
We must cast an informed vote about better candidates seeking to represent us. I have read and re-read Dr Martin Luther King Junior’s letter from a Birmingham jail. Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever imagined that I too would one day have to do so. It is clear that taxpayers in Europe and the US have a lot to atone for, for what they’ve done to others around the world.
What an irony! My son begins his law school programme without me because I am in prison, in my own way trying to do my best, again, for other people’s children. Forgive me, my son. I guess I’m experiencing the harsh reality which is why people need dreams. [But] I’m lucky. I will leave this place. Has Israel become the place where dreams die?
Ask the people of Palestine. Ask the stream of black and Asian men whom I see being processed at Ramle. Ask the women on my cellblock. [Ask yourself:] what are you willing to do?
Let’s change the world together and reclaim what we all need as human beings: dignity. I appeal to the United Nations to get these women of Ramle, who have done nothing wrong other than to believe in Israel as the guardian of the Holy Land, resettled in safe homes.
I appeal to the United States’ Department of State to include the plight of detained UNHCR-certified refugees in the Israel country report in its annual human rights report.
I appeal once again to President Obama to go to Gaza: send your special envoy, George Mitchell there, and to engage Hamas as the elected choice of the Palestinian people.
I dedicate this message to those who struggle to achieve a free Palestine, and to the women I’ve met at Ramle. This is Cynthia McKinney, July 2nd 2009, also known as Ramle prisoner number 88794.
After a week of being stuck in an Israeli prison cell, the 21 prisoners were released and deported to their countries of origin.
In spite of the illegal incarceration of a high-profile US politician, the press in the US and the rest of the imperialist world was silent about the plight of the Gaza 21. As Adam Shapiro, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and one of the imprisoned Spirit of Humanity volunteers, noted, “the US government was notably silent … In his Cairo speech, President Obama asserted, ‘Palestinians must abandon violence’ … Yet how seriously can Palestinians take his exhortation to nonviolence when he allows an ally to kidnap and beat American citizens attempting nonviolently to assist Palestinians in war-ravaged Gaza?” (Huffington Post, 17 July 2009)
Eventually, a week or so later, McKinney managed to make it into Gaza, where she addressed a rally with George Galloway MP, whose Viva Palestina US convoy, carrying over $1m in aid, had made it into Gaza after days of bureaucratic manoeuvring by the Egyptian authorities. McKinney wrote:
“Gaza is beautiful. Gaza is full of life, despite Israel’s Operation Cast Lead. And now, I have seen, Gaza has been bombed to smithereens. I think I’ve mastered my video camera enough to share some images with you. I’ll post them on the sites below when I return. In the meantime, my fellow Americans and citizens of the world, we have a lot to do to put right all the wrong things done in our name. Much love to all of you who helped me, guided me, prayed for me, to make this successful entry into Gaza happen.
“Free Gaza!! ”