World Bulletin / News Desk
Former Olympic beach volleyball player Leigh-Ann Naidoo compared the apartheid era of her native South Africa to Israel’s occupation of Gaza as she returned home from Israeli detention late Friday.
Naidoo, one of 13 women detained by Israeli authorities as they attempted to break the Gaza blockade earlier this week, was visibly emotional as she gave a news conference at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.
“For me personally it was important to go on this mission,” the 40-year-old said. “People asked me why take the risk to struggle for Palestine? Because apartheid is something we experienced in South Africa and I feel there are so many similarities with the way Israel operates and treats the Palestinians.”
She added: “The most heartbreaking moment was as we approached the shore people pointed out Gaza to us. You could see all the lights on the Israeli side but on the Gaza side it was pitch black. Just complete darkness.”
Naidoo, who took part in the 2004 Olympics but is now studying for a doctorate at Wits University, described the moment Wednesday when the Israeli navy appeared alongside their ship the Zaytouna-Oliva as it approached Gaza.
“Four huge Israeli military ships appeared on the horizon and our communication with the outside world was cut off,” she told reporters.
“The Israeli navy tried to have us change course and indicated that they would use force if necessary. We indicated over the radio communication with the Israeli navy that we intend to make our way to Gaza.
“We told them that we don’t have guns on board. We don’t even have food or money to take to the people of Gaza. This is not a humanitarian boat. All we are doing is taking hope to the devastated people of Gaza.”
After the Women’s Boat to Gaza ship was boarded it was towed to the Israeli port of Ashdod and the activists were taken into custody. They were released after being held for a day.
Naidoo was greeted by a large crowd of family, friends and supporters as she emerged from the arrivals gate.
Waving a Palestinian flag and shouting “Free, free Palestine”, she was accompanied by South Africa’s ambassador to Israel, Sisa Ngombane.
The attempt to reach Gaza is the latest by foreign activists since the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish aid ship, was attacked by Israeli commandos in 2010, resulting in the deaths of 10 Turkish activists.
Gaza has faced a crippling Israeli and Egyptian blockade since 2007 that has deprived its almost 2 million inhabitants of most basic commodities including food, fuel, medicines and building materials.
In June, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the blockade as “collective punishment” that “suffocates its people, stifles its economy and impedes reconstruction efforts”.