Registration for the new convoy, Viva Palestina 5 – a Global Lifeline to Gaza, is now live. The VP team has put a lot of work into reviewing everyone’s feedback from the previous three successful convoys, and from the Freedom Flotilla, in order to make this next convoy even more effective. So even if you have taken part before, please read through the application process (links at bottom of page) carefully. There are, for example, new procedures governing registration and controls on finance and aid.
The challenges are immense – the government of Israel, and others, remain committed to this siege on the Palestinian people. But the chance to make decisive progress is better now than at any time in the last three years. The blockade is weakening, though that has come at the enormous price of the loss of nine aid volunteers aboard the Mavi Marmara when it was so brutally attacked. Many governments and major NGOs are now calling for an end to the blockade.
Ending this illegal and immoral siege is going to require a huge effort from all those who care about Palestine. It is also going to need strategic cooperation between the international aid efforts.
That’s why Viva Palestina has agreed to launch this convoy after extensive discussions with partners in Gaza and internationally, aimed at maximising rather than duplicating our efforts.
It is hoped that a new, bigger, more international flotilla will head off for Gaza at around the same time as the land convoy is there. In any case, Viva Palestina 5 will be the biggest convoy yet, with three legs – from London, from Casablanca and from Doha, converging at Al Arish.
We are asking you to get behind the convoy in whatever way you can – going on it, providing a vehicle, fundraising, promoting it and helping to ensure widespread public awareness as it travels.
The aid we are taking will be of the highest quality. The people of Gaza deserve nothing less and we have clear lists of what is needed from those who are working on the ground and who know first hand.
We aim to take some of all the different categories of humanitarian relief required in Gaza. And, of course, by doing so we aim to highlight the unjust and unsustainable siege.
Enthusiasm for this convoy is very high and we anticipate it filling up quickly. Already, support is coming in from new areas, such as major trade unions in the UK, and new coalitions to build the VP5 convoy are forming in many countries – from New Zealand to Morocco and Italy.
We are very grateful for your ongoing support for the people of Palestine and for Viva Palestina’s efforts.
There are many ways you can help, including volunteering to be part of the teams working on aid, fundraising, vehicles and so on.
Please feel free to contact us with your ideas. But don’t delay, we have eight weeks to make a major contribution to ending the suffering in the Gaza Strip and moving a step closer to justice for the Palestinian people.
Saber Kushour apologises as he asks his guests to move the plastic chairs on his breeze-block balcony a little closer to the door to his house. If he were to sit where they are now, he explains, the electronic tag attached to his ankle would set off an alarm.
Kushour’s edginess is understandable – he is recalling a 15-minute encounter almost two years ago which he says “has destroyed my life”.
Last week the married father of two from east Jerusalem was sentenced to 18 months in jail for the “rape by deception” of a Jewish woman who claimed she would not have had sex with him had she known he was an Arab. What might have been a tawdry episode – casting neither Kushour nor the woman in a favourable light – exploded into a debate in Israel about racism, sexual mores and justice.
“I am paying the price for a mistake that she made,” Kushour, 30, told the Observer. “I was shocked at the sentence – it shows a very vivid and clear racism.” The message from the judge, he says, was that “because you are an Arab and you didn’t make that clear, we are going to punish you”.
In his verdict, Judge Zvi Segal conceded that it was not “a classical rape by force”. He added: “If she hadn’t thought the accused was a Jewish bachelor interested in a serious romantic relationship, she would not have co-operated. The court is obliged to protect the public interest from sophisticated, smooth-tongued criminals who can deceive innocent victims at an unbearable price – the sanctity of their bodies and souls.”
At his home in Sharafat, where he is confined while awaiting an appeal, Kushour tells a different story. The woman has not been identified and has not gone public with her account.
Kushour was buying cigarettes in September 2008 when an unexpected opportunity presented itself for a casual sexual encounter. “Any person in my shoes would have done the same thing,” he says.
A woman in her 20s struck up a conversation as he left the shop to return to his job delivering legal papers around Jerusalem by scooter. “She said ‘you have a nice bike’ and other things which I don’t remember.” Within minutes, he says, he realised that her interest was not confined to small talk.
Kushour speaks fluent, unaccented Hebrew, as do many Palestinians living and working in Jerusalem. The woman asked his name and Kushour replied “Dudu” – a common Israeli name. “Since I was a kid everyone calls me Dudu – even my wife calls me Dudu. It’s a nickname.” At no point, he says, did the woman – who gave her name as Maya – ask if he was Jewish, although he has acknowledged that he said he was single.
The pair went to a small roof area in a nearby office block. “When we were having sex, she was worried that someone would see us, but she never told me to stop. She was more than willing – she initiated it.”
It has been suggested that Kushour presented himself as a bachelor interested in a long-term relationship. If that had been Maya’s concern, Kushour points out, she might have asked him more about his background. After the brief encounter, Kushour tapped Maya’s mobile number into his phone and left. “I didn’t treat her like garbage – this is what she wanted.”
Unknown to him, Maya contacted the police after the encounter to lodge a complaint. Kushour says he doesn’t know how or when she realised he was not Jewish. The woman was given a medical examination, presented in court, which showed, according to Kushour, no signs of force or injury.
Six weeks later Kushour was idly flicking through numbers in his mobile’s address book. “I saw ‘Maya’ and I thought ‘who is Maya?’ I had already forgotten about her. I rang the number to see who it was, and then I realised it was the girl. I said ‘Can I see you?’ and we arranged to meet.”
Maya didn’t show up and didn’t respond to Kushour’s calls and texts. But, crucially, she now had a vital piece of information for the pursuit of her complaint – his contact details.
Three days later Kushour received a phone call from the police. “They told me I had a problem and to come to the police station.” He was interrogated for five to six hours, without a lawyer.
In the final hour of questioning, the police began to mention a rape claim. Eventually Kushour was handcuffed and taken to a cell. Over three days the questioning continued. “This was the hardest moment of my entire life,” says Kushour. “I didn’t have a clue what they were going to do.” On the third day, Kushour was taken to court – by this time represented by a lawyer found by his brother – and charged with rape. He spent the next two months in prison and since then has been electronically tagged and confined to his home. The case came to court last week. His lawyer has told him that, because of the publicity surrounding the case, the appeal may be expedited. In the meantime, says Kushour, “I can’t leave the house, I can’t work, I can’t feed my children.”
Kushour’s conviction has transfixed Israel. Some see echoes of a primeval – and racist – instinct to protect “our” women against outside marauders. Others are outraged at what they see as a blatant injustice, pointing to a backdrop of widespread, systematic and – some say – growing discrimination against Arabs who make up 20% of Israel’s population.
“This is a most amazing decision by the court,” says Tamar Hermann of the Israel Democracy Institute. “Deception is one thing – but to be convicted of rape?” It has, she says, “struck a sensitive chord in the Israeli mainstream of Arabs pretending to be Jews.”
The issue of identity is paramount in a land where both communities regard each other with suspicion and hostility.
Yuval Yonay, a sociology professor at Haifa University, in one of Israel’s few mixed cities, says Kushour’s behaviour “might be improper but it is not rape”.
He says that in 16 years of teaching at a university where 20-25% of the student population is Arab, he has “never even heard of a mixed relationship”. Discrimination against Arabs is, he says, evident at all levels.
Some have defended the verdict. “We all have different characteristics, and it is a person’s right to have sexual relations with a person knowing the facts about those characteristics,” Dana Pugach of the Noga Centre for Victims of Crime told the Israeli daily Haaretz.
Kushour says he has had a lot of support over the past week from Israeli Jews. “The problem is not with the people themselves, but those in power,” he says. “I just want justice.”
Whatever the outcome of his appeal, his brief encounter with Maya has turned his life upside down. His relationship with his wife has been severely tested. “I asked her last night to forgive me. She said yes, but I can see the pain and hurt in her eyes.”