Haaretz exclusive: Organizer of Gaza flotilla sought assistance from Assad's office
In part two of the Haaretz expose of emails leaked from the account of the Syrian president's media adviser, former British MP George Galloway turns to Assad's aides with request to depart from Syrian port of Latakia.
The organizer of one of the flotillas to the Gaza Strip sought assistance from the office of Syrian President Bashar Assad, requesting it facilitates their departure from the Syrian port at Latakia.
Ths request came to light through the disclosure of emailed correspondence between former British MP George Galloway, who heads an organization called Viva Palestina, and Bouthaina Shaaban, who serves as media adviser to Assad.
The correspondence, which was obtained by Haaretz, was leaked following an attack by the hacker group Anonymous.
Galloway, who is identified with the extreme left in Britain, served as a member of the British parliament until May 2010. A former member of the Labour Party, he was thrown out in 2003 in the wake of his attacks against party chairman and then-prime minister Tony Blair, and his opposition to the war in Iraq.
Galloway has for many years carried on close contacts with dictators and extremist elements in the Arab world. In the late 1990s, he was closely linked with Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the Assad regime in Syria, Hamas in Gaza and the Iranian regime.
In July 2011, at a time when Assad was perpetrating massacres of his own people, Galloway was interviewed on Hezbollah's al-Manar network, where he heaped praises on the Syrian president. "Bashar Assad wants reform and change, to realize the aspirations of his people," he said in the interview, which was quoted in the official Syrian news agency Sana. "They are trying to pressure Syria and President Assad because of the good things that he did, such as supporting Palestinian and Lebanese resistance and rejecting to surrender to Israel."
In January 2009, Galloway founded the Viva Palestina organization, which began to organize aid flotillas to the Gaza Strip. The Shin Bet security service describes the organization as being "pro-Hamas" and assesses that Viva Palestina activists are involved in the transfer of funds to Hamas.
Galloway is considered persona non grata in several countries. In March 2009, Canada refused to permit his entry, stating that his organization was aiding Hamas in several ways, including the transfer of funds. In January 2010, Galloway was deported from Egypt following a visit he made to the Gaza Strip in the course of which members of his organization clashed with Egyptian soldiers at the Rafah border crossing, leading to the death of an Egyptian policeman. Egypt has since then refused to permit his entry into Gaza from its own territory.
On August 11, 2010, Galloway wrote to Bashar Assad's media adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, who is considered to be one of the closest aides to the Syrian president. In an email message that bore the subject heading "IMPORTANT - private and confidential," Galloway asked Shaaban for Syrian help in organizing the aid flotilla to Gaza.
"I am writing once again to ask for Syria's co-operation although I do not doubt it for one moment. Syria is as I have often said is the last castle of Arab dignity," Galloway noted. "This convoy sets out simulataneously [sic] on September 18th 2010 from London, from Casablanca and from the Gulf. The London and Gulf columns of vehicles would like to converge on Latakia and sail from there to Al Arish."
Galloway listed the organizations that would be taking part in the flotilla, including IHH, the Turkish group that organized the flotilla to Gaza in May 2010. "It is intended that the vehicles and passengers should sail to Al Arish on board the Mavi Marmara, which as you know is owned by IHH," he wrote. "If His Excellency the President Bashar al Asad and his government can accept this proposal in principle perhaps you could nominate partner organisation(s) and individuals with whom my colleagues could liaise about the practical details?"
Galloway informed Shaaban that the two members of Viva Palestina responsible for the flotilla were Kevin Ovenden and Zaher Birawi. The Shin Bet charges that Birawi is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. He lives in England, where he engages in intensive anti-Israeli activity. Birawi has been linked to the organizing of past convoys and flotillas to the Gaza Strip. Ovendon is a far-left British activist who was aboard the Mavi Marmara in the May 2010 flotilla to Gaza.
Three days later, Shaaban sent an emailed response to Galloway in which she expressed enthusiasm for the idea. "God bless your amazing efforts and I will be honored to be part and parcel of it and to be the catalyst for my country too," she wrote. "You will find me happy to put my time and energy to help with this most important cause of the Twenty First Century."
Galloway responded in another email, in which he wrote, "I knew that I could rely on you and the last Arab country in this historic endeavour. Can I respectfully request that you task officials in Damascus and Latakia to make contact with my comrades in advance of your arrival back to Syria?"
The flotilla ultimately sailed from Latakia on October 18, 2010 and arrived in Al Arish three days later, and from there continued in a land-based convoy comprising dozens of vehicles and hundreds of activists to the Gaza Strip. The entry into Gaza by Galloway and 16 others was denied by the Egyptian security services, although the convoy itself was permitted to enter following talks between the Egyptian and Syrian governments.
The following is the original correspondence between George Galloway and Bouthaina Shaaban:
Sent: Sun 15/08/10 6:30 PM
Fwd: VivaPalestina5 convoy to Gaza
Your Excellency dear Ambassador and honourable lady Dr Shaaban,
Assalam o Aleukum.
Thank you for your beautiful reply. I knew that I could rely on you and the last Arab country in this historic endeavour.
Given the shortness of the time (we leave London Casablanca Doha on September 18th, and these three columns joined by big contingents from Turkey Jordan and Lebanon hope to sail from Latakia aboard the Mavi Marmara between October 5-7th) can I respectfully request that you task officials in Damascus and and Latakia to make contact with my comrades in advance of your arrival back to Syria?
I remind you they are Kevin Ovenden email@example.com and Dr Zaher Birawi firstname.lastname@example.org
This would be very helpful to us.
I hope you are enjoying your travels and have a safe journey back to Damascus.
With all my good wishes,
Sent: Sat 14/08/10 12:05 PM
Re: IMPORTANT - private and confidential
Thank you very much for your email which I was delighted to receive. God bless your amazing efforts and I will be honored to be part and parcel of it and to be the catalyst for my country too. I am now abroad for about 10 days and expected to be back in Syria on August 24. If we can touch base then and get further details about what is really required and from whom in more details you will find me happy to put my time and energy to help with this most important cause of the Twenty Firtst Century. I hope you are following my writings in Counter Punch. Take care and God bless you and your efforts.
On Wed 11/08/10 3:05 PM , Ayesha Bajwa <email@example.com> wrote:
Your Excellency Dr Bouthaina Shaaban
Special Advisor to President Bashar al Asad
President of the Syrian Arab Republic
Your Excellency, dear Dr Shaaban
I hope this letter finds you well. Please be assured of my warmest fraternal greetings always. I am writing on behalf of Viva Palestina whose world-wide family of solidarity organisiations and registered charities will soon be setting out for beseiged Gaza again with our fifth convoy of aid. You will recall the outstanding assistance
afforded us in Syria on previous occasions over the last period. I am writing once again to ask for Syria's co-operation although I do not doubt it for one moment. Syria is as I have often said is the last castle of Arab dignity. My only regret is to have to ask for your help again.
This convoy sets out simulataneously on September 18th 2010 from London, from Casablanca and from the Gulf. The London and Gulf columns of vehicles would like to converge on Latakia and sail from there to Al Arish. The Casablanca column hopes to join us in Al Arish and we hope all three columns - hundreds of vehicles strong – will enter Gaza through Rafah without hinderance.
The aid on board the vehicles will be 50% medical equipment and 50% educational, construction and other aid.
The organisers of the convoy are Viva Palestina UK, Viva Palestina USA, Viva Palestina Arabia, Viva Palestina Malaysia, Viva Palestina Ireland, the Turkish NGO IHH,the International Committee to break the Seige on Gaza, Kia Ora - the Viva Palestina sister organisation in New Zealand, Viva Palestina Australia, Viva Palestina South Africa, Viva Palestina Spain, Viva Palestina Italia, and Viva Palestina France.
It is intended that the vehicles and passengers should sail to Al Arish on board the Mavi Marmara, which as you know is owned by IHH.
If His Excellency the President Bashar al Asad and his government can accept this proposal in principle perhaps you could nominate partner organisation(s) and individuals with whom my colleagues could liaise about the practical details? The liaison from our side would be Mr Kevin Ovenden and Mr Zaher Birawi of Viva Palestina UK (as we believe 2 is enough).
In any case please convey my respect and my admiration to His Excellency the President.
With all good wishes