When weighing up how to spend a Friday night in the capital city, during the wonderful Wellington on a Plate food festival, I guess that listening to a veteran trade union leader talking about his recent trip to the Mediterranean might not rate highly. Unless, of course, the trade union leader in question is Mike Treen (National Director of Unite Union) and the Mediterranean trip, his participation in the international Freedom Flotilla to challenge the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. Last Friday night 50 Wellingtonians decided that was exactly the place they wanted to be, and they were not disappointed.
Mike Treen is a long standing supporter of Palestinian human rights and, in partnership with Kia Ora Gaza, was the New Zealand representative in this international, humanitarian mission. Before embarking on the Flotilla, when interviewed by Nadia Abu-Shanab of Wellington Palestine, Mike said that:
The blockade of Gaza will end one day. I hope that we will be the ones to do it. It would be an enormous privilege to see the people of Gaza with my own eyes and hand over these boats to be used by their fishers. I fear that I won’t be so lucky and the Israeli military will stop these ships as they have done many times before. But if they do, we will use their piracy on international waters to expose the inhumanity of the blockade before the people of the world.
In fact, on the 29th of July, as Mike and 22 fellow activists on board the Al Awda (The Return) approached the shores of Gaza, they were boarded illegally by Israeli naval forces. Along with other activists, Mike was beaten, tasered, robbed, detained and, later, deported. He returned to Aotearoa undaunted, and with ‘…a few stories to tell!’.
Mike warmed up the audience with a few short video clips on the situation in Gaza before launching into his account. He described the aims of the Freedom Flotilla, outlined the impact of the Gaza blockade on the Palestinian people and described how the Al Awda made the trip from Norway to the Mediterranean. He regaled us with stories of the journey: from the harassment of the Flotilla by French maritime police; to the support offered by hundreds of European refugees, workers and council leaders in Palermo; to the eventual seizure of the boat and its diversion to the port of Ashdod in Israel. Mike made light of his violent treatment at the hands of the Israeli Occupation Forces. But make no mistake, he and his companions placed themselves at risk of considerable personal harm in order highlight the siege of Gaza. Mike has bruises and fractures to prove it.
Mike’s talk was peppered with references to the history of the struggle for Palestinian human rights and made constant parallels with the previous historic struggle against apartheid South Africa
During question time Mike was asked how ordinary Kiwi’s can support the struggle for Palestinian human rights. He emphasised the critical importance of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. He said, “Trade unionists should call on their union to implement the 2009 Council of Trade Unions resolution on Palestine”. This resolution, amongst other things, calls on trade unions to support the BDS movement. He also highlighted the need to press political leaders, both local council leaders and MPs, to stand up for Palestinian rights. Mike pointed to the recent success of the Irish Palestine Solidarity campaign in ensuring the Irish senate passed a bill banning the import of goods produced in Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine.
Some commentators consider the Freedom Flotilla a forlorn attempt at solidarity, or a mere stunt to attract attention. It is true that, as Ramzy Baroud states, “Between 2008 and 2016, 31 boats have sailed to Gaza from many destinations, all intercepted, their cargos seized and their passengers mistreated.” However, praising the work of Mike Treen, Roger Fowler and other New Zealand Palestinian activists, Baroud concludes that:
…this is precisely the real mission of the Gaza flotillas: While Israel wants to normalize the Gaza siege as it is currently normalizing its occupation and apartheid regimes, the solidarity movement has created a counter-discourse that constantly foils Israeli plans….like the horrific apartheid regime in South Africa, the Israeli apartheid will also collapse, because Palestinians continue to resist and because millions of people, like Treen and Fowler, are standing by their side.