Nobel Peace laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire was one of five Irish activists who rode the MV Rachel Corrie toward Gaza last week in a follow-up attempt to break the blockade after Israel's fatal raid on the "Freedom Flotilla" May 31.
Ms. Maguire, a Northern Ireland peace activist, is the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She received it in 1976 at age 32 for her work in mobilizing hundreds of thousands of women to demand an end to violence in Northern Ireland.
Maguire is a frequent visitor to Israel and the Palestinian territories, who has made news in the region before. In 2004, for example, she traveled to Israel to welcome home nuclear engineer Mordechai Vanunu, who had just been released from prison for divulging Israel's nuclear program to a British newspaper in 1987. In 2007, Maguire was struck in the leg with a rubber bullet during a march from Ramallah to the separation barrier erected by Israel to guard against Palestinian suicide attacks in Israel proper.
Last week, Maguire and her fellow activists aboard the Rachel Corrie were stopped by the Israeli navy, diverted to the southern Israeli port of Ashdod, and detained incommunicado for several days. She returned to Dublin Monday and spoke to the Monitor by phone from there. The views she expresses are her own. For the Monitor's news coverage of the flotilla and its fallout, please click here.
Why Israel? Why of all the conflicts in the world is this the one that you have decided to devote your time to?
Because I love Israeli and Palestinian people. When I first went to Israel about a decade ago – at the invitation of Rabbis for Human Rights, friends of mine – and saw the ongoing violence, it made me think of Northern Ireland, and I knew that in Israel, like at home, militarism would not solve the problem.
Since my first trip to Israel I have continued to go back, once or even twice a year. I have many friends in both Israel and Palestine, and those friendships are very important. I think the policies of the government are what need to be changed. And I think once they are changed there is a great potential for peace. I don’t think the problem is between Arab and Jewish people. It is the [Gaza] siege that must be ended.
Tell me what happened on your trip to Israel. How were you treated by the Israeli authorities and where were you between Saturday, when the Rachel Corrie ship was stopped, and Monday afternoon when you flew back into Dublin.
When we got 30 miles outside Gaza we were told by the Israeli navy that we would not be allowed to go on. They threatened us with force if we did not turn back. At 11 a.m. they appeared with Zodiacs [Israeli navy boats], and there were two navy ships on the horizon. Then, about 35 Israeli navy soldiers came on board. They had a sniffer dog with them.
Our captain took the lead to coordinate with them. He said, "If you are coming on board it will be totally without violence." None of us were armed and it was done in peaceful way. We just stood there on the deck. The soldiers then came on board with full combat gear, faces blackened, and they were carrying hand guns and rifles. They took our passports. We stood there for about two hours as all this happened, and then we were taken to sit in the captain’s lounge and later to Ashdod, and from there to the detention center at Ben Gurion Airport [in Tel Aviv] where we were put in cells.
We were kidnapped. From 9 a.m. that Saturday morning, when they knocked down our radar, until the moment we landed in Germany and then in Ireland at 10 a.m. Monday no one knew where we were. They took away our phones and our cameras.
It was not a nice experience. To begin with, we were kidnapped in international waters and everything was taken off of us. One of the girls was strip-searched.
Then, the detention center was not clean, and the people there gave us the cold-shoulder treatment. If you smoked you were allowed to go outside, but it you do not smoke – and I don’t – you had to stay indoors. For those who smoked, the guards would not give a light for the cigarettes. And when we asked for water, we were told to drink the tap water.
What about the offer on the part of the Israelis to deliver the aid on board your ship to Gaza themselves, once the cargo had gone through a security check in Ashdod? Was that not a fair or genuine offer in your opinion?
We refused that offer because we are trying to challenge the blockade. The blockade is illegal and in violation of the Geneva conventions. You are denying Gazans their basic human rights.
Also, in our cargo, we had humanitarian aid that is not allowed by the Israelis into Gaza. For example, we had 20 tons of paper for printing schoolbooks that was donated by Norway. Under the current list of basics allowed in, school supplies are banned. We also had 550 tons of cement to help rebuild Gaza – but cement is not allowed in either.
We felt that if we were to give our humanitarian aid to the Israelis in Ashdod we had no way of knowing whether it would be passed along to Gaza.
When we were forcibly brought into Ashdod, we saw the Turkish ships from the flotilla in the port, sitting with millions of pounds of confiscated material still on them. So we have asked the Irish government to see what they can do about getting all our aid into Gaza and getting our ships back as well as our personal possessions such as cameras.
Do you think your actions and those of the other activists involved in this flotilla have served to further the cause of peace in the region? Do you think resisting a sovereign state’s orders is a peaceful action?
I believe when states have polices that are unjust we all have a moral obligation to challenge them. We are not against the state of Israel or its people, but we believe that civil disobedience helps change polices and Israel’s policies need to be changed. Look at what we accomplished in South Africa and in Northern Ireland. It is possible to bring about change. It is only by people mobilizing that governments will change their policies.
There is much talk that not all the activists on board the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, where Israel's fatal raid took place, were peaceful. Did you know anything about militant passengers on board that ship? What do you think of them?
I have been reading the first-hand reports just today, and how the actions of the Israelis were carried out. It was shameful. I think the people to hold responsible here are those in the Israeli government and whoever is in charge at the army who sent young Israeli soldiers into such a difficult and impossible mission.
The entire ship was searched before it sailed. There were no arms on board and everyone had pledged to be peaceful. But what happened was, it was 4 a.m. and helicopters and Zodiacs were approaching, and there was live shooting as the soldiers came on board from the air and the sea. You had over 600 people on that ship, and some surely panicked, and would have been absolutely scared.
You boarded a ship in international waters. This was a civilian ship filled with unarmed people. It's surprising that more people did not die. It was a shameful act of the Israelis. I do hope that those who ordered such an exercise are investigated.
I am a pacifist and totally not violent, and I have spend my life working for non violence and we worked hard to ensure the Rachel Corrie was totally non violent.
I was not on board the Turkish ship but I do believe that with over 600 people, many of them for the first time on the sea…. when they were attacked it must have been extraordinarily frightening. It is the Israelis who behaved badly.
What’s next for you? Do you intend to try and return to Gaza in the near future?
In October I will be joining some other Nobel prize-winning women in a trip to Ramallah and to Israel, where we will be meeting people on the ground and advocating for nonviolence. This is no other way. We must support those who are working for a nonviolent and peaceful solution to the conflict. If it can happen in Northern Ireland, it can happen in Israel, too.
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