Trapped in Gaza, Lauren Booth experiences life under siege

MENASSAT's Gaza correspondent spoke with Lauren Booth, the British journalist and activist (and Tony Blair's sister-in-law) who is being prevented from leaving Gaza after she entered the Strip last month in defiance of the Israeli blockade.
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Booth arrives in Gaza on August 23 as part of a group of activists intent on breaking the Israeli siege of Gaza. © AFP

GAZA STRIP, September 4, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Lauren Booth sailed into the Gaza Strip with 45 other activists on August 23 as part of an effort to break the Israeli siege imposed on one of the most densely populated places on the planet.

And while most of the other protesters left on two humanitarian aid boats for Cyprus last Thursday, Booth, Tony Blair's sister-in-law, stayed in Gaza to do human rights work with several other protesters.

Israeli authorities admitted refusing Booth an exit into Israel, and an Israeli military spokesman confirmed that Booth had applied to the Israeli authorities in order to leave Gaza through the northern Erez crossing.
"Lauren Booth has entered Gaza illegally; anyone who enters Gaza illegally, cannot leave legally,” the Israeli statement read.

Booth also tried to exit Gaza from the Rafah crossing to the South but was denied entry by the Egyptian border guards. The Egyptian government has made no official statement on the issue.

Thanking Palestinian journalists

According to numerous human rights organizations, the Israeli siege, which began in June 2007 after the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, has had a crippling affect on the health and economic well-being of more than 1.5 million Palestinians.

The siege has also had a particularly stifling effect on the media attempting to transmit the difficulties faced by Palestinians on the ground.

In an interview with MENASSAT, Lauren Booth said journalists in Gaza are living under tremendous pressure, both internally from their own political infighting, and externally because of Israeli and Egyptian control over the territory.

But when the peace ships lost their communications upon arrival, it was the Palestinian journalists who came to the rescue.

"After Israel took control over the transmission waves of the ships that broke the siege [on August 22-23, Ed.], the only communication device we had on board our ship was a Thuraya-satellite phone for a Palestinian news agency,” Booth said.

"Palestinian journalists were always at the heart of this action, constantly reporting and going through many hardships to deliver their message."

The British government has confirmed that it was unable to secure Booth's release from the Strip, and an aide to Tony Blair said that the ex-prime minister would not get involved in the dispute.

The spokesman said from Jerusalem, "The work is being done by British consulate officials and we are happy to leave it to them."

Booth said she had no regrets for taking part in the attempt to break the Gaza siege, extending an ironic thanks to the Israeli government for giving other activists and journalists a brief look into the "world’s largest prison."

"Although both my husband and I received anonymous threats before I came to Gaza, I will come back again. Palestine and Gaza are in my heart. Next time, I am bringing my daughters along. We should all come and defy the siege on Gaza."

Booth's husband Craig was told in various threatening phone calls before his wife's departure that that the two humanitarian ships would be blown up in mid-sea if she didn't abandon the Gaza action.

The attempts to dissuade her backfired and Booth said she was even more intent on making the trip as a result of the threats.

Although Booth said she received only one threat herself, a Palestinian journalist and one of the organizers of the trip received dozens of threats in the months leading up to the trip.

Media vs. reality

As for her experiences in the Strip, Booth told MENASSAT that Gazans have a wonderful ability to live and smile and help others despite their suffering.

"Gaza would be a wonderful place if it had peace," she said.

She found conditions in Gaza "very harsh and disturbing."

Booth gave an example of when she wanted to buy batteries but couldn't find any, expressing her shock at people's ability in Gaza to live under such a siege and total collapse of infrastructure.

"I saw a Palestinian mother in one of the camps with nine children and no cooker in the house. I wondered as a mother, how can I imagine my children living like that?" 

Booth admitted that the media do not report the full scale of the Palestinians suffering and that she didn’t expect things to be that bad.

"Matters are often different from what one hears and what one sees with your own eyes. You realize how different reality is."

When asked about her brother-in-law, Tony Blair, and whether he tried to stop her from joining the humanitarian action, she said she never speaks to Blair.

"He had nothing to do with my trip," she said.