Since its establishment in August 2014 as a coordination group seeking to provide a practical mechanism for joint humanitarian support for the Palestinian people, the Popular International Committee to Support the Gaza Strip has been working to expand its operations. In doing so it is identifying Arab, Muslim and international organisations which can tackle the challenges posed by the current humanitarian catastrophe facing the Palestinians, especially in the Gaza Strip. They cover such sectors as charitable assistance for the poor and needy, health, development, education and reconstruction.
The Head of the Committee is veteran human rights and charity activist Dr Essam Yousef. He remains focused on the task in hand, despite the enormity of the situation facing his fellow Palestinians. Given Israel’s continuous targeting of Palestinians and their legitimate rights, dignity and humanity, the Committee is playing a critical role in standing with the people in defence of the very real threat to their existence, identity and culture.
In this exclusive interview, Dr Yousef explains the background and work of the Popular International Committee to Support the Gaza Strip.
Given the severe deterioration of the humanitarian situation as a result of the continued siege on Gaza, has the Committee planned any solidarity projects to be implemented in the near future?
Dr Essam Yousef: The Popular International Committee to Support Gaza Strip is implementing projects and activities that provide humanitarian support to those who have been trapped in the Gaza Strip by the Israeli-led siege for over 12 years. It continues to launch and implement emergency humanitarian and charitable projects, such as, for example, repairing the homes of the poor, food distribution and supporting families during adverse weather conditions in winter.
In terms of solidarity, the Committee coordinates with several international organisations and bodies in order to ensure the success of solidarity activities and projects aiming to break the unjust Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip. Among these bodies is the International Committee to Break the Siege on Gaza and Support Palestine. Our Committee is participating in the fifth Freedom Flotilla, due to set sail for Gaza in a few days. We will be sending supporters representing the Committee as well as their countries and organisations, in coordination with the International Committee to Break the Siege.
How important is sending a flotilla to Gaza, especially since previous ships were unable to reach the shores of occupied Palestine? What is this new flotilla carrying?
EY: Preparations for the fifth Freedom Flotilla are going at a steady and confident pace, with two ships being prepared to sail to Gaza. They will be carrying at least 60 international supporters from a variety of countries, who will visit a number of European ports for solidarity activities with Gaza and the flotilla itself.
The importance of sending another flotilla during this period is to highlight the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza, whose humanitarian catastrophe has reached such a level that we can no longer ignore it. The effort is also a reminder to the international community that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza will go beyond the besieged territory if it is not dealt with by lifting the siege without delay and facilitating the movement of people and goods, to and from the Gaza Strip.
Moreover, the flotilla is also a reminder of the history of the Palestinians’ suffering since their land was seized by brute force, the people were driven out at gunpoint and the occupation state was created. The flotilla will set sail on the 70th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba (the Catastrophe of the creation of Israel in Palestine); one of the ships is named Al-Awda (Return), adding even greater significance.
The flotilla also aims to raise awareness of the overall Palestinian cause, which is currently experiencing the bitter reality of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, the systematic Judaisation of Jerusalem, the denial of Palestinian rights — including the refugees’ legitimate right of return to their homes — and the plans to liquidate the issue altogether. These plans are now known as the “Deal of the Century”, and was the basis for US President Donald Trump to declare Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel and announce his intention to move his country’s embassy to Jerusalem.
What are the main humanitarian projects planned by the Committee during Ramadan?
EY: The Committee is preparing to launch a humanitarian solidarity campaign focusing on the Gaza Strip in particular, and Palestine in general, under the slogan “”Make your Ramadan for Gaza… Palestine”. The campaign aims to activate charitable organisations by coordinating with local NGOs in Gaza in order to provide humanitarian aid to the besieged area. This aid will also include areas in the occupied West Bank and occupied Jerusalem. It will provide 100,000 food parcels, initially, as well as encourage the participating organisations to launch various charity projects in the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians in Gaza are suffering more than ever before with the intensification of the unjust siege, which has been going on for over 12 years.
How do you view the decline in interaction between Gaza and the international solidarity movement, compared to previous years, when the people of Gaza received numerous supporters from around the world?
EY: The protests carried out by the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip during this time are coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the Nakba. It is a great effort made by the Palestinians in the enclave who have sacrificed their blood for the sake of Palestine and Jerusalem, with thousands being wounded and almost 50 killed so far.
This mass movement has many dimensions, the most important of which is raising awareness internationally about the magnitude of Israel’s oppression and brutality against the Palestinian nation. Such oppression is based on a policy of collective punishment, the siege on Gaza being the most prominent example of this.
We cannot view this mass movement in isolation from the international Palestinian solidarity movement working to break the siege on Gaza and support Palestine and its people. However, we must also take into account the closure of the Rafah Border Crossing, which has made solidarity visits to Gaza almost impossible to arrange.
Will you continue to launch campaigns and convoys similar to the relief convoys taking medications and medical supplies to support the health sector in Gaza that you have arranged in the past?
EY: Such campaigns will continue. We believe that it is important to give them more momentum because Gaza’s health sector has deteriorated badly. There is a severe lack of medicines and disposables, and a shortage of fuel to power emergency generators during the frequent power cuts. The sector also needs equipment to be upgraded and repaired, as well as training for medical staff. Specialist delegations are sent whenever the possibility arises.
Moreover, last month there was a major conference in Beirut to support the medical sector in Palestine and, specifically, Gaza, in cooperation with Lebanon’s Al-Khair Fund, the International Medical Association (MEDIX) and Turkey’s Gazze Destek Association. It also had support from Albaraka Charitable and Humanitarian Society in Algeria. Under the patronage of His Eminence Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian, the Grand Mufti of Lebanon, as well as pledges for projects worth more than $8 million, the conference also resulted in a medical project that the state of Qatar announced it would implement as part of the varied support provided by our Qatari brothers to the Gaza Strip.
The Committee would like to express our gratitude and appreciation for the efforts made by His Excellency Mohammed Al-Emadi, Qatar’s Ambassador to Lebanon in terms of humanitarian support. He announced the provision of one million meals for the people of Gaza during Ramadan, as well as $15 million in aid to the heath and education sectors in the Gaza Strip, which will also go towards rebuilding the homes of the poor in the territory.
The Popular International Committee to Support the Gaza Strip calls for the intensification of such efforts, and for Ramadan to be an occasion for solidarity with all of the Palestinian people.
After observing and learning from the past Freedom Flotilla experiences, is there a plan in place to rally as many international solidarity activists as possible to protect those sailing to Gaza?
EY: Such efforts are ongoing; the plan for the ships in the fifth Freedom Flotilla to sail to European ports first is a step in this direction. The purpose is to attract international solidarity with the flotilla and raise awareness of the Palestinian cause. All of this will occur before the ships set sail for Gaza.
The fifth Freedom Flotilla will be accompanied by a media campaign that will follow its progress and related events. These include a programme organised by the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH) in commemoration of the Turkish ship that participated in the first Freedom Flotilla, the Mavi Marmara. This was attacked by Israel in May 2010 in international waters, resulting in the death and injury of dozens of unarmed passengers.
In your view, what is needed in light of Israel’s attacks on peaceful activists and the attempts to thwart any action supporting Gaza? Could such attacks reduce or hinder your work in support of the besieged Gaza Strip?
EY: We are actually witnessing the exact opposite of this, as Israel’s attacks on the freedom flotillas are being faced with greater determination by the international solidarity activists who are more eager to participate in sea convoys bound for Gaza. By doing so, they aim to declare their solidarity with the Palestinian cause and their rejection of the immoral and inhumane blockade of the territory.
The diversity of the solidarity activists participating in all of the convoys is a demonstration of the continued solidarity with Palestine and its people. The determination to take part in the flotillas is highlighted by the participation of senior figures representing well-known organisations and bodies, including some who have held senior offices of state in their home countries.
What do you think of Israel’s recent bombing of ships that were due to set sail from Gaza with patients requiring essential medical treatment overseas?
EY: This criminal act targeting civilians was not the first of its kind, as Israel has destroyed ships in the past that were due to sail out of Gaza, such as Gaza’s Ark, which was destroyed by the Israeli occupation forces during their brutal 2014 military offensive.
However, this has not deterred us from preparing new ships to confront the Israeli siege on Gaza. The Israeli occupation authorities are deluded if they believe that their crimes will be able to stop our efforts to break the siege.
In a separate context, to what extent does the Committee contribute to the efforts to prosecute Israel at an international level?
EY: The Committee‘s participation in this comes in the form of coordinating with specialist legal parties that continue to file lawsuits regarding the Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people. We are working within various partnerships to provide humanitarian support to the Palestinian people, including that which requires legal action.
Demands were made for the return of the vessels pirated by Israel when it attacked the Freedom Flotilla. The Committee was successful in recovering the ships and obtaining compensation for the disruption of the work and the damage caused.
We continue to give legal procedures great importance and attention. Such endeavours have been supported and backed by the International Public Foundation to Aid Gaza for years. In this regard, we call upon all interested legal parties to continue to file lawsuits against Israel for its crimes whenever possible and by all legal means in the relevant international courts.