Natalie Abu Sha'ra: 'It makes sense for me to be in Gaza'

Just a week before Israel's latest assault against Gaza, a humanitarian aid ship was allowed through the Israeli blockade of the Strip. On board was Natalie Abu Sha'ra, a 21-year-old Christian from South Lebanon who defied her own country's travel ban to come to the aid of people in Gaza. She told her story to MENASSAT's Olfat Haddad.
Natalie Abu Sha'ra, seen here wearing a Naji Ali t-shirt, defied a Lebanese travel ban to Israel and Palestinian Territories to deliver aid to Gaza. R.R.

GAZA, December 29, 2008 (MENASSAT) — Last week, Natalie Abu Sha'ra, a 21-year-old Lebanese woman whose family is from South Lebanon, defied her own country's travel ban to Israel and the Palestinian Territories to help deliver badly needed aid supplies to Gaza.

She was part of a group of 17 people, including three Lebanese and four Qataris, who were aboard a ship carrying humanitarian aid that docked in the Gaza Strip after being allowed to sail through an Israeli naval blockade that has all but crippled the territory.

The situation has worsened in recent days in Gaza, with Israel launching unprecedented air strikes against densely populated urban areas, killing more than 300 people and wounded more than 1,000.

Shortly before the Israeli attack, Abu Sha'ra spoke to MENASSAT about her motivation to join the aid ship to Gaza.

"I left everything in Beirut," she said. "I didn't care what my parents or friends thought about Gaza. I had always believed that the Palestinian cause was really a cause for every Arab who calls himself free."

Abu Sha'ra was planning to stay in Gaza until January, when the 66-foot British-owned aid ship, Dignity, is due to leave the Gaza Strip.

A self-described social and political activist in Lebanon, Sha'ra has become the first Lebanese woman to visit the Gaza Strip since the Israeli siege began in 2007. Considering that Arab countries pay such lip service to the Palestinian cause, she said that more Arab nationals should be trying to break the Israeli siege.

"Doesn’t it make more sense that I am here rather than the foreigners?" she said.

Coming home

The Free Gaza Movement, the organization running the aid operation, has successfully sailed the Dignity through the Israeli naval blockade four times in recent months in order to deliver humanitarian aid supplies.   

Sha'ra said she flew to Cyprus after the group gave her the green light to join the most recent voyage of the Dignity, which left the port of Larnaca on December 19.

On the night of December 19, Dignity was intercepted at sea by the Israeli navy and inspected before the vessel was allowed to continue towards Gaza. Sha'ra said she felt a good deal of anxiety at the possibility of being turned back by the Israelis so close to Gaza.

"But when the boat arrived in the Gaza port, I felt I was home. I felt I was living Mahmoud Darwish's poetry, with Ghassan Kanafani’s words and Naji Ali’s sense of country," she said, referring to three of Palestine's most iconographic literary figures.

Sha'ra said that she has felt like a refugee at several points during her life. When she returned to Lebanon in 1994 at the age of seven, her family didn't have a home and was forced to live with relatives. It was a feeling she revisited in 2006.

"Two years ago in July 2006 we experienced mass refugee conditions during the Lebanon war with Israel. I often felt that there was something in common between me and these refugees and the Palestinians," she said.

'Not a passing visit'

During the 33-days of bombing in Lebanon, around one million South Lebanese were internally displaced. They were mainly Shia, but there were also Christians like Abu Sha'ra.

Still, it is fairly unusual for a Lebanese Christian to identify so strongly with the Palestinian cause. Many Lebanese Christians blame the Palestinians for the 1975-1990 civil war that killed some 200,000 people.

"I used to despise the racism against Palestinians in Lebanon," Abu Sha'ra said. "I mean, they are deprived of almost everything in Lebanon and the borders of their lives are those of the Palestinian refugee camps. They cannot leave except for short periods of time."

As the reality of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza under Israel's assault begins to emerge, MENASSAT has been unable to confirm how the events have affected the plans of Natalie Abu Sha'ra and the other 16 members aboard the Dignity.

But even before the attack began, Abu Sha’ra said her trip to Gaza wasn't going to be a "passing visit."

"I plan on staying in Gaza to live with the people and then talk about their suffering to the outside world," she said.

More information about the Free Gaza Movement: