To raise awareness in Japan of the crisis in Palestine, Peace Boat organized an urgent event “Voices from Gaza beneath the Airstrikes: Palestine Now” on May 21. It featured Peace Boat partners in Gaza and Jerusalem, as well as Japanese experts who were able to give context to the mainly Japanese audience. The event was held online and broadcast live from the Peace Boat Center in Tokyo on Youtube and Facebook with over 600 viewers live and over 4000 views after the event, and was followed by an online press conference with Japanese media.
Video Message from Gaza - Zaher Sbaih
Moderator, Hatakeyama Sumiko, spoke about Peace Boat’s visits to Palestine and Israel, as well as to Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan. For many years, Peace Boat has been working with Zaher Sbaih, a humanitarian aid worker in Gaza. Zaher has been a guest educator onboard Peace Boat’s ship on several occasions, and has worked with Peace Boat over the years on educational support for children and providing medical supplies to hospitals in Gaza. On May 12, Peace Boat Director and Founder, Yoshioka Tatsuya received a telephone call telling him that the apartment building where Zaher lived together with his family had been completely destroyed by Israeli airstrikes. Zaher was unable to join the event live but even as the bombing on Gaza continued, he sent a video message to Peace Boat speaking about what had happened.
“My brother's mobile rang. Somebody who identified himself as an Israeli army officer was asking him to inform all the residents of our apartment building that they must evacuate the building in five minutes because an Israeli fighter jet will bomb the commercial stores which are located beside the building on the west side. And the Israeli officer said to my brother, “You know that the missile will affect the surroundings of the targeted area”. My brother informed the officer, “We are far away from the building right now, we need more time”. Zaher described calling his family members telling them to evacuate immediately and rushing back to the apartment building. He described the 90 minutes before the airstrike as the longest in his life. “Which part of the house will be damaged and how will it be repaired? How will my daughter Sama prepare herself for the high school exams in one month?” he asked himself. The whole apartment building was completely destroyed. Zaher described his happiness later as he was able to find the next day amongst the rubble; a stuffed sheep, a guitar for his youngest child Mohammad, and his wife’s Eid clothes. Sumiko announced that Peace Boat has launched a fundraising campaign to rebuild Zaher’s home.
The Context to the Current Crisis- Takahashi Masaki
After this video message from Zaher, Takahash Masaki, an author, journalist and lecturer at the Open University of Japan who has written a number of books in Japanese on Palestine and Israel, spoke. He said that in Japan the media often talks about statistics of people who have been killed or wounded, but these figures do not show the daily suffering. It is often seen as a conflict between two sides and both have used violence, Hamas and the Israeli authorities, but we need to consider the context of the occupation which is illegal under international law, Masaki explained. Gaza has been under blockade for the last 14 years and this is the fourth bombardment of Gaza since 2008. The Israeli government claims these are "targeted attacks" but many innocent civilians and children are killed. He explained about the impact of the continuing blockade on daily life in Gaza where people are dependent on international aid and unable to have access to basic necessities such as drinking water, electricity, gasoline and medicine. This form of “collective punishment” is illegal under international law. Furthermore the blockade makes it more difficult to deliver emergency aid and rebuild after airstrikes because of lack of access to building materials. Masaki continued to explain that the current bombardment of Hamas is connected to the situation in East Jerusalem which is also under illegal occupation with Palestinians suffering daily injustices including checkpoints, the ID system which affects everything from freedom of movement to family unity. Settlements have been built on occupied land displacing Palestinian families.
Live from Jerusalem - Rami Naser Eddin
Rami Naser Eddin joined the event from East Jerusalem to share the current situation on the ground. Rami took part in a youth programme onboard Peace Boat in 2001 and has been involved with Peace Boat since then, coordinating programmes both in port and onboard the ship. He is based in East Jerusalem and is the founder of the NGO Palvision which supports and empowers Palestinian youth. Rami summarised what had been happening the last two months in East Jerusalem and Gaza using videos made by Yplus, a youth led digital storytelling platform that diffuses Palestinians unheard voices to the world. He showed a video about the situation in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood which explained that Israel illegally annexed East Jerusalem in 1967 when the West Bank was under Jordanian rule. UNRWA made an agreement with Jordan to provide houses for 28 families after the 1948 Nakba in Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. The Palestinian families were given these homes in exchange for abandoning their refugee status in front of UNRWA. The Jordanian government was supposed to hand the deeds to these houses to the families after 3 years. But that never happened. The first eviction took place in 2008 and the second in 2009. Rami explained that it was a policy by the Israeli authorities to make the Palestinians a minority in the neighbourhood and to replace the Palestinian families with Israeli setter families. After silence from the international community since 2009, on the displacement of the two families, there were attempts to evict the remaining families. He said that Palestinians had been peacefully protesting the forced displacements and protecting their families but had been met with violence from the Israeli authorities.
This situation had been taking place throughout Ramadan, the holiest month in Islam. Muslims, including many of the million and half Palestinians living within Israel, travel sometimes long distances to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque. Israeli authorities tried to prevent them going to the mosque including, as Rami explained, placing barriers and checkpoints at Damascus Gate to check anyone entering the Old City. According to Rami, it was a psychological tactic to make Palestinians afraid to go to pray. Palestinians were able to stop the checkpoints by setting up their own barriers forcing the Israeli security forces to open theirs. Later, Israeli settlers and security forces entered Al-Aqsa Mosque and attacked worshippers as they prayed during Ramadan. Rami explained that clashes and violence have been happening daily and showed another video from YPlus which showed the use of weapons such as tear gas bombs, stun grenades and rubber bullets both of which can cause serious injury or death. There was footage of “Skunk Trunks” which spray a mixture of sulfuric material and artificial stool made to keep its odor as long as possible. It is sprayed on protestors and on houses as a form of collective punishment. According to Rami these tactics from the Israeli authorities are intended to intimidate and divide Palestinians but have had the opposite result;
“After all of what’s happened, we’ve become much more united as Palestinians. From Jerusalem, from Gaza, from 1948, and from the West Bank, we have the spirit that we have all one unity as Palestinians”.
It was after these events in Jerusalem that Hamas reacted and started rocket fire into Israel. This then gave Israel a reason to start the bombardment of Gaza which killed civilians and destroyed homes including that of Zaher. Rami said that the Palestinians have welcomed the ceasefire and seen it as a victory.
The International Context - Takahashi Kazuo
After Rami’s explanation of the situation on the ground, viewers heard from Takahashi Kazuo. He is Professor Emeritus of The Open University of Japan, well known in Japan as a specialist on the Middle East. He also emphasised the importance of the occupation and said Israel was trying to make people who had been refugees once in 1948, to be made refugees again. He believed the attacks in Jerusalem were an opportunity to provoke Hamas into reacting. Professor Takahashi spoke about the situation in East Jerusalem as a way for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to gain support within Israel following the March election, as well as the relationship between Israel and the United States. President Joe Biden has been preoccupied with other issues including the climate crisis and COVID-19 and has avoided the situation in Palestine. At the same time there has been a marked shift with progressive politicians talking about Palestinian rights not only Israel’s right to defend itself. Responding to a question about opinion in Israel from those watching, Professor Takahashi said that while there were those who were critical of the government, there had been a move towards the right in Israel with increased nationalism. At the same time, in Gaza, opinion is also divided on Hamas. While they are referred to as a terrorist organization, they were democratically elected, but there has not been elections in 15 years making the situation more complicated.
When asked about his thoughts on the international community, Rami said “I am really disappointed in the international community. There is no justice anymore - the UN, the EU, the international community - they are all quiet even though there is a big massacre going on in Gaza. For 73 years we have tried everything that has been asked of us - international law, human rights law, the UN, negotiations”, he said but nothing has brought an end to the occupation. We continued though to say in reference to the worldwide solidarity marches for Palestine, that he and other Palestinians are “really very proud of the global solidarity from around the world, from the people in Britain, the US, from all over the world”.
Solidarity and Support
Asked what people in Japan and around the world can do to support people in Palestine, Rami said the first thing is to “spread our stories, our resistance and our struggle”. He asked people to share stories of Palestinians on social media to raise awareness of the situation and to follow organizations like the youth media platform YPlus. Prior to the event, Peace Boat volunteers and former participants had already started their own online photo action campaign on social media using the hashtag, #SaveGaza to raise awareness in Japan and express solidarity with and raise funds for those affected by Israeli airstrikes. Photos from the campaign were shared during the broadcast. Many of the organizers of the online action had stayed with Palestinian families in homestay and study programs during the global voyages or been on board with Palestinian and Israeli youth.
Another way is to pressure governments to stop arming Israel. Rami told viewers that even as Gaza was being bombed, the United States agreed a 750million USD arms deal with Israel and all of the weapons used on Gaza were from the US. There is also a campaign to boycott Israeli goods especially with companies that are complicit in the occupation and the Israeli army. Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) is a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality.
Peace Boat is continuing with its fundraising efforts hoping to raise 50,000 USD to build Zaher’s home. Peace Boat has never before raised funds for a private home before. However Zaher is a community leader who has supported those around him, including those who have before been affected by bombings. By supporting Zaher, Peace Boat is supporting his community. Details on how to donate can be found on Peace Boat's website.
The recording of this event can be seen on Youtube in Japanese with guests from Palestine speaking in English with interpretation into Japanese.