Former Irish rugby star Hogan sets sail for Gaza

Says activists on peaceful mission should have “nothing to fear”

Former Irish rugby international Trevor Hogan, who will set sail for Gaza as part of Freedom Flotilla II.

Former Irish rugby international Trevor Hogan, who will set sail for Gaza as part of Freedom Flotilla II.

A year after Israeli commandos stormed the Freedom Flotilla bound for Gaza, leaving nine peace activists dead, one Irish rugby star has joined a new international gathering which will set sail at the end of the month in an attempt to break Israel’s naval blockade of the territory.

Tipperary man Trevor Hogan (31), who was capped three times for Ireland and played over 100 times for both Munster and Leinster before retiring earlier this year, will sail on the MV Saoirse as part of the Irish Ship to Gaza group. The 1.5 million Palestinian inhabitants of the coastal enclave have lived in what is often described as an “open-air prison” since Israel began a policy of isolating the strip in 2006.

The Irish vessel, part of a global 10-15 ship-strong “Freedom Flotilla II”, will carry up to 30 activists from all walks of Irish social and political life, including former Fianna Fáil TD Chris Andrews and his party colleague Senator Mark Daly, Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó’ Snodaigh, Sinn Féin councilor Gerry MacLochlainn of Derry and artist Felim Egan.

Irish organizations which fall under the umbrella of the Irish Ship to Gaza campaign include the Free Gaza Movement, the Irish Anti-War Movement and the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign. The wholly Irish-owned MV Saoirse was purchased for 70,000 euro after a massive fundraising drive throughout the country.

The international outcry which followed last year’s Israeli assault has seen the flotilla’s size more than double to an estimated 1500 passengers from 100 countries, and Hogan is thrilled to be involved.

“I’ve always been interested in current affairs, and the plight of the Palestinians is something that has concerned me for a long time,” the former rugby professional told The Irish Emigrant. “When I was offered a chance to be on board the flotilla, I jumped at it.”

Support

Hogan laughs as he recalls enrolling for an Arab-Israeli conflict night course at University College Dublin some time ago, only to attend his first lecture and see his then Leinster coach Michael Cheika sitting in the same hall.

“He’s been extremely supportive all along, as indeed have all of my rugby colleagues,” the Nenagh man says, giving special mention to the likes of Ireland and Munster star Jerry Flannery.

Referring to the recent “Stay Human” Youtube video in which Irish rugby players such as Gordon D’Arcy, John Fogarty and Eoin Reddan offer support to the flotilla, Hogan says he “could have had ten or eleven more in the clip”, such was the response.

“Stay Human”, which the flotilla has adopted as its motto, was a phrase coined by the Italian pro-Palestinian activist Vittorio Arrigoni, who was killed in April by a radical group in Gaza who had been in conflict with the governing Hamas administration.

Hogan says his dream would be to set up some sort of rugby initiative in Gaza, following on from similar efforts previously made in the West Bank by other groups. By now packed with cargo and ready to go, the Irish vessel contains 130 kg worth of rugby boots, balls and Leinster jerseys, which he hopes to hand over to the locals before getting them accustomed to the game, most likely via tag rugby.

It is expected the flotilla will meet somewhere in the Mediterranean in late June, with the exact ports and leaving dates yet to be revealed for security reasons. On top of the obvious safety risks, a determined Israeli political campaign has seen certain nations refuse to let flotilla ships use their ports, and some vessels pull out of the trip.

Pressure

A French ship recently decided not to sail after coming under intense pressure from the Israeli lobby in that country, and Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), the Turkish NGO which has led efforts to break the siege to date, decided Friday not to sail the refurbished Mavi Marmara, on which the nine activists were killed last year.

The official reasons given were, initially, concern over unrest in neighboring Syria and later “technical problems”, but those close to relief efforts say that IHH is dismayed by the damage Israel has done to its humanitarian operations worldwide, with the organization having been placed on a terrorist watch-list by Israel and certain politicians calling for the US to do the same. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently urged activists not to “take steps that could be exploited” by Israel, and this pressure is also said to have played a part.

The group’s activists were accused by Israeli officials of attacking the commandos who stormed the Marvi Marmara last year, in an attempt to set off a political reaction. The group has vehemently denied this, insisting the activists were acting in self defense. Reports had indicated that IHH received some 300,000 applications for just 500 places aboard the Mavi Marmara for the 2011 trip.

Despite the decision on the IHH vessel, boats from Britain, Denmark, Greece, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, the USA and Canada are still expected to sail, loaded with aid cargoes such as medicine and educational materials.

Israel argues that it already allows all necessary supplies into Gaza, and that the port at Gaza is not properly equipped for cargo ships. Officials have said they will not allow the ships to break the blockade, and the Israeli navy recently held training exercises focused on the interception of large vessels. This has led to fears among activists of a repeat of last year’s carnage, but Hogan says the group should not be intimidated.

“We would ask that the Irish government urge the Israelis to exercise constraint and not attack unarmed civilians,” he says. “This is a totally peaceful humanitarian mission; we should have nothing to fear. It’s not about politics. We simply see it as the best way to highlight the terrible conditions in which the people of Gaza are forced to live.”

Blockade

After Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006 and later took full control of Gaza in 2007, Israel, aided by Egypt, massively scaled down imports and exports in and out of Gaza.

Since October 2006, Gazan access to coastal fishing waters has been reduced, first from 20 nautical miles down to six, and eventually down to three after winter 2008’s infamous Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli assault on Gaza in which some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died. This has led to the almost complete collapse of the fishing industry in the territory.

The outcry after the flotilla killings brought about a slight ease in the siege, but bars on goods such as building materials remain in place, making the reconstruction necessary after Cast Lead impossible without humanitarian intervention. Israel claims construction materials could be used to make weapons.

Though the Rafah crossing with Egypt has been reopened with restrictions since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the situation remains dire. Last week a UN report to mark the fifth anniversary of Gaza’s isolation said conditions have dramatically deteriorated since 2006, with unemployment rising to 45.2 per cent and the number of people living on less than $1 a day tripling to almost 300,000.

Israel said Thursday that its military would, if necessary, use force again to prevent activists from breaking the naval blockade.

“They are not coming to help the Palestinians but to harm Israel,” government spokesman Yarden Vatikai said on Israel Radio.

Flotilla activists counterclaim that rather than harming Israel, their focus is on fundamental human rights and the supply of humanitarian relief which, the UN agrees, the people of Gaza urgently need.

“It is hard to understand the logic of a man-made policy which condemns hundreds of thousands of potentially productive people to a life of destitution.” UN spokesperson Chris Gunness said last week.

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