On November 18, 2008, Darlene Wallach of California was kidnapped at gunpoint by Israeli forces and deported to New York City on Thanksgiving Day. She arrived without money, passport, cell phone, warm winter clothes and had no way of contacting her family and friends in California, London, or Cyprus.
Darlene spoke to me on the phone from the home of the parents of an International Solidarity Movement/ISM activist who met her at JFK Airport.
The International Solidarity Movement (ISM) is a Palestinian-led NONVIOLENT movement that resists the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land in creative and always nonviolent ways. ISM was founded by a few committed thoughtful people in August, 2001. ISM supports and strengthens the NONVIOLENT Palestinian popular resistance front by providing international presence and a voice that will not be silenced.
Darlene began and ended our conversation talking about why she “will return to Gaza. It is because of the people of Gaza. It is their spirit, courage, resilience, kindness, warmth, hospitality, love and resistance to the occupation that pulls me back.”
Twice, Darlene has been to Gaza and arrested and deported by Israeli Forces.
Her first visit was in 2002. While in the Balata Refugee camp she was arrested along with seven other nonviolent internationals who were there bearing witness to the collective punishment of Palestinians. All eight were arrested and deported, but that did not stop Darlene from returning for more.
Darlene arrived in Gaza for her second time, aboard the SS Liberty on August 23, 2008. She was arrested this time along with Andrew Muncie from Scotland and Victor Arrigoni from Italy who had arrived at the same time and had remained in Gaza until they were kidnapped by Israeli Forces on November 18, 2008.
Darlene said, “I told the American Embassy I wanted to be deported to London or Cypress where I have many friends as I had no money did not know anyone in New York and had no means of contacting anyone. Their response was to issue me passport valid for one month which become invalid once I entered the USA. The two Embassy employees kindly gave me fifty five dollars out of their own pockets, but the American Embassy, whose job it is to take care of American citizens and my Congressional Representative, whose job it is to represent me, failed me…
“It began around ten in the morning on the 18th. I was with 15 fishermen and Andrew and Vittorio; all on three typical wooden Palestinian fishing boats. The usual response from the Israeli Naval Forces who illegally invade Gaza water zones, is to shoot machine guns, canons, grenades. They do a lot of damage to the boats with targeted high pressure water canons. Those water canons have cracked peoples ribs and one of the nonviolent activists was nearly washed over board from the force. The Palestinian fishing boats have sustained a lot of damage from the high pressured water fired from the water canon. The Israeli navy has also used some kind of “dirty water”. We still don’t know what the Israeli Forces are mixing in that water, but it smells like putrid sewage and they wear protective clothing – masks, gloves and what ever else, to keep themselves protected from the liquid they shoot at the fishing boats, the catch in the nets and at the Palestinian fishermen and internationals who are in Gaza territorial waters.
“On that Tuesday morning, the Israeli Forces had three gunboats that were joined by five Zodiacs. Zodiacs are inflatable, high-speed maneuverable water craft. The Zodiacs came right up to each wooden fishing boat one at a time. I saw them board the boat Andrew was on – he raised his arms above his head and they put a life vest on him and put him on the Zodiac. Then more Israeli Forces boarded that boat and began putting the Palestinian fishermen on another Zodiac. Usually the Israeli Forces do not board the fishing boats. They order the fishermen to strip and then swim over to the Israeli boat. This time was different…
“After they finished with the boat Andrew was on, a Zodiac came and Israeli Forces boarded the boat I was on. One of the Israelis said in English “you are in Israel.”
“We were in Gaza waters and I did not want to go to Israel, but the Israeli Forces kidnapped me at gunpoint and forced me to Israel against my will. We were told in English to raise our hands.
“I said, ‘I want to stay with my friends. I want to stay on the boat.’ The three notebooks I had with me were confiscated. At gunpoint I was forced off the Palestinian boat, onto the Israeli Zodiac and then onto the Israeli gunboat.
“I saw the Palestinian fishermen, blindfolded and handcuffed, taken from the boat Andrew was on. I said I wanted to stay with my friends on the deck. I was then forced below to the second level and I finally saw Andrew again. He was handcuffed and sitting at a table in a galley-kitchen area. We started to talk and were ordered to shut up. The Israeli Forces separated us and later they brought Vittorio in.
“Vittorio looked awful! I was very concerned about him, but didn’t learn until much later that he had been tasered while holding onto a metal structure on the roof of the fishing boat. He ended up in the cold water and I am assuming he was suffering from hypothermia; he was barefoot, and shivering!
“When we arrived in Ashdod and as I was being taken off the Israeli gunboat I saw the Palestinian fishermen, blindfolded and handcuffed sitting on the deck. I yelled, in Arabic, that they were my dear friends and I will see them again.
“I was questioned by many Israelis and my response was that I was not talking to anyone or answering any questions without my attorney present.
“All of my belongings — cell phones, cameras, keys to my apartment, everything was confiscated and while in Israeli custody, I was taken to Ben Gurion Airport for an audience with the Minister of the Interior.
“I told him-and every other inquisitor that I wasn’t answering any questions without my attorney. His response was, ‘We are done!’
“I do not know what charges were filed against me. I was held in the women’s compound in the men’s prison at Ramle that held people with visa violations. So I’m assuming I was there for being in Israel without a visa – pretty ridiculous given I was forced to go to Israel at gunpoint against my will. Israel deported me against my will back to America. I wanted to go to London or Cypress, but my requests were ignored. My belongings were not returned to me – my cell phone, my three notebooks, my keys to the apartment!
“When I saw the Zodiacs, I tried to text on my cell phone but there was no network. By some miracle, I received a phone call and told the person what was happening. A little later the captain, Adham, handed me his phone as Fida, the ISM-Gaza Strip Palestinian coordinator called to talk with me, she could not get through on my phone. If I had not received that first phone call I don’t know how our friends in Gaza would have known what happened to us.
“Usually Israel will hold Gaza fishing men and their boats for weeks or months at a time. This time the men were released the following day and their boat a week later. The Israeli Forces damaged a motor on one and stole all the GPS units.
“On this trip 15 men who usually remain at sea for two days at a time, were denied their catch and that resulted in denying hundreds of children some protein! Hundreds of people were impacted just from this one illegal action by Israeli Forces. The families and everyone connected with the three Palestinian fishing boats were without their source of food and income for ten days — longer for the damaged boat.
“The thing that pulls me back to Gaza is the people. The Palestinians have touched my heart and I will continue to work in solidarity with them and I will return to Gaza.”