June 8, 2010
SPIEGEL: Mr. Mankell, you participated in the recent attempt to break through the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. Why?
Henning Mankell: The Israelis attacked Gaza in 2008. They destroyed everything, and since then the lives of Palestinians have been unendingly difficult. Some friends and I felt that we ought to do something about it. We wanted to express solidarity. They can’t get out, no one is allowed to go in, and they have nothing. We wanted to show that the blockade is illegal.
SPIEGEL: How did you intend to go about it?
Mankell: We needed ships to do it. The idea was to use a convoy to take things there that were urgently needed, from cement to medication to chocolate for the children. And we wanted the world to know about the suffering in Gaza.
SPIEGEL: Who did you team up with?
Mankell: There are many, very diverse people in Sweden, from churches and apolitical organizations to individual figures. The campaign was supposed to be strictly humanitarian, because we knew that otherwise there would be problems.
SPIEGEL: The Gaza Strip is controlled by the Islamist group Hamas. Wasn’t it naïve to believe that you could keep out of the power struggle there?
Mankell: I was asked again and again whether we could rule out the possibility that Hamas would take control of the campaign. I always responded that I couldn’t guarantee anything, of course. But I can promise you that we work solely and exclusively with humanitarian organizations. That’s the important thing. Everything else was out of our control.
SPIEGEL: Were you involved in the preparations?
Mankell: Not much. I first heard about the campaign a year ago. I thought: It’s a good idea. And I immediately saw a role for myself, as I happen to be quite well known. I told the Swedish organizers that I could be there on the last part of the trip. They said that was wonderful.
SPIEGEL: You say that the Palestinians are in a pitiful state. Have you ever been to the Gaza Strip?
Mankell: No, they didn’t let me in. I’ve been to Israel and Palestine several times. I attended a Palestinian literary festival in Hebron a month ago, and I have also visited Jerusalem. We tried to travel to Gaza, but the Israelis turned us away. You know, I was born in 1948, the same year as the establishment of the State of Israel, so this conflict has accompanied me my entire life. For me, the thought that this conflict will still exist when I die is unbearable.
SPIEGEL: Your political goal is to direct the world’s attention to the blockade. You achieved this goal, but not in the way you had expected. What did you experience on your ship, the Sofia?
Mankell: The convoy consisted of six ships, and the Sofia was one of two smaller freighters. I was never on the main ship, the Mavi Marmara. We set sail from Cyprus. We were far out in international waters when the Israelis attacked. It was late, I was tired, and I had already gone to bed.
SPIEGEL: What time was it?
Mankell: Exactly 4 a.m. Half an hour later, someone came in and said that the main ship had been attacked. From a distance, we saw the helicopters and the soldiers rappelling onto the deck, and we heard shots. We had no connection to the Mavi Marmara. It was only on the way to the Lufthansa flight that took me back to Stockholm (Editor’s note: Mankell was deported by Israeli authorities) that I learned of the dead.
SPIEGEL: When did they board your ship?
Mankell: At 5:35 a.m. They came in speedboats. We went onto the bridge and waited for them there, and we offered no resistance.
SPIEGEL: How many people were on board the Sofia?
Mankell: I think there were 24, including the crew. The Israeli soldiers were wearing masks, and they told us to go below deck. Some of us were somewhat older, and we weren’t moving fast enough for the Israelis, so the soldiers used electroshock weapons to speed us up. It was horrible. People were falling down. They shot rubber bullets at a man who was standing next to me. The soldiers were prepared to use violence on us from the beginning. And all of this in international waters. They had no legal basis for coming on board.
SPIEGEL: And then?
Mankell: They took control of the ship and set course for Israel. First it was piracy, and then it was kidnapping.
‘They Are Thieves’
SPIEGEL: The Israeli government had issued several warnings that it would not allow the convoy to reach Gaza.
Mankell: At least they should have let us continue for another two hours, until we were just off the coast. Then they could have said: This is as far as you can go. The Israelis are now claiming that they didn’t want to hurt anyone or injure anyone. But why, in God’s name, didn’t they just disable our radar or destroy the rudder? It would have been very easy, and no one would have been injured or killed.
SPIEGEL: Then you were taken to a prison. How were you treated?
Mankell: I didn’t know where they were taking me. The soldiers stood in rows to the left and the right, and we had to run the gauntlet, with military photographers filming us in the process. They turned us into objects in a show, for which I will never forgive the Israelis. And then they took away everything we had: phones, money, clothing, credit cards. That’s how each of was treated. They are thieves.
SPIEGEL: The Israeli government argues that it is at war with Hamas, from which it derives the right of intervention.
Mankell: That’s the arrogance of power. They are conducting this war on the high seas. Can they do that? There were no weapons on board, just a few Swedish civilians.
SPIEGEL: The propaganda war is now in full swing. The Israelis are releasing videos that support their version of the incident, and the Palestinians are doing the same thing. Videos in circulation that were taken on board the Mavi Marmara show a group of men with slingshots, clubs and metal bars preparing themselves for the Israeli attack. But the images say nothing about what really happened.
Mankell: Who is attacking whom here? The commandos arrived in helicopters. It wasn’t the people on the ship who were boarding the helicopters. Besides, there is a right of self-defense in international waters.
SPIEGEL: It isn’t very smart to hit Israeli commandos with clubs.
Mankell: I think the Israeli soldiers deliberately provoked this reaction. They wanted to kill people.
SPIEGEL: That’s an assumption. What makes you say that?
Mankell: I spoke with a Swede who was on board the Mavi Marmara. He said that they shot a Palestinian in the middle of his head. That requires targeting, and it’s something that has to be intended.
SPIEGEL: The Israeli government argues that the Turkish organization IHH, which was largely behind the coordination and financing of the convoy, has ties to Hamas and al-Qaida. There were allegedly weapons hidden on board.
Mankell: I’ll tell you a little story. When we gathered below deck, the soldiers searched our ship, and when they returned they said they had found weapons. What were they? Razor blades and utility knives.
SPIEGEL: Do you know the IHH and the Free Gaza movement, an international organization?
Mankell: No, not well enough to be able to form an opinion. I had to trust my Swedish organization and the agreements it had made: no weapons, no violence. If it turns out that not everyone abided by those rules, I will, of course, comment on it.
SPIEGEL: You are known for your activism in Africa, and you often shuttle back and forth between Sweden and Mozambique. Your support for the Palestinians, on the other hand, is new. How did you hit upon the idea?
Mankell: It isn’t new, because I’ve fought against oppression my entire life. Africa was my focus, but I never ignored other conflicts.
SPIEGEL: When you talk about AIDS and hunger in Africa, it’s about life and death. But no one in the Gaza Strip is starving, notwithstanding the many hardships.
Mankell: In my view, the connection between Africa and Palestine is the apartheid system that the Israelis have established. I experienced in South Africa how that monstrous system was destroyed. The same monster has been resurrected in Israel, just in a different form. Palestinians are second-class citizens. When I see the hideous face of this apartheid, I have to do what I can to destroy it.
‘The Blockade Must End’
SPIEGEL: For European intellectuals, there is only one country in the Middle East where they could live the way they do at home: Israel, a free, democratic country with an open society. Isn’t equating it with South Africa hugely exaggerated?
Mankell: No. I attended the Palestinian Festival of Literature in Hebron last year. I was scheduled to speak at the opening event in the Palestinian National Theater in Jerusalem. We were about to begin when the door opened and the Israeli military disrupted the event. I asked them what the reason was, and I was told that I was a security risk. I, an author, I said? I told them I was there to talk about culture. There will be no discussion, they replied, and the event was over. Israel is not an open society — it just pretends to be. The people are treated just like back then in South Africa.
SPIEGEL: Is Hamas a source of hope for you, as the ANC once was?
Mankell: I am extremely critical of Hamas. I don’t like the political developments in Gaza at all. However, I don’t know enough about the issue.
SPIEGEL: Can an Islamist organization like Hamas, with its cult of martyrdom, its contempt for women and its racism, even be a serious partner for a left-wing intellectual?
Mankell: I took part in a humanitarian attempt to break through the naval blockade of Gaza. It’s an important step to alleviate Palestinian suffering, but it shouldn’t be confused with the policies of Hamas. If my criticism of Hamas had prevented me from being part of this campaign, I would have discredited myself intellectually and morally. I can do the one thing, but that doesn’t mean I have to give up the other.
SPIEGEL: In South Africa, Nelson Mandela appeared at the right moment, turning the ANC into a political organization that created a shared country for blacks and whites. How do you envision the future of Israel and the Palestinian territories?
Mankell: Unfortunately, there is no Mandela in Israel, nor is there an F.W. de Klerk. There are really only two options: the South African solution or the two-state solution. I don’t know what will happen. But if everything remains the way it is, there will be an explosion. That’s why the blockade must end. It’s a first step, if nothing else. It could lead to a real dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, but how that comes about is their business.
SPIEGEL: This conflict is complicated enough, but is probably doesn’t even constitute the biggest threat to peace in the region at the moment. That is posed by Iran, with its controversial nuclear program and its prediction that Israel will disappear from the map.
Mankell: I am very concerned, because I don’t trust this president (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) and the mullahs. They want to have any weapon that can be used to destroy Israel. Naturally we cannot accept that.
SPIEGEL: But what do you want to do? Campaigns like this one can be directed against a democratic country like Israel. The Iranian government wouldn’t even let things get that far.
Mankell: I had an invitation to a literature festival in Tehran, which I turned down.
Mankell: Because Iran puts writers and intellectuals in prison and makes some of them disappear. I can’t go to a country like that.
SPIEGEL: Why don’t you go there and make the repression public?
Mankell: I wouldn’t be able to do what I would like to do. They would misuse me for propaganda purposes.
SPIEGEL: And you didn’t have this concern with the Gaza campaign?
Mankell: I saw what I saw. I felt what I felt. I thought what I thought. I saw what happened to people, and that’s what I want to report on.
SPIEGEL: European intellectuals are deeply divided over Israel. On the one side are the critics of Israel like you, the famous Swedish author, and on the other side are the critics of Islam like Leon de Winter, the famous Dutch author, who calls you a "useful idiot" of Hamas. What do you say to him?
Mankell: Of course that’s not what I am, but I would like to have a discussion with anyone who is of a decidedly different opinion, whether it’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Leon de Winter. But it doesn’t make any sense to shout at each other. By the way, I have many Jewish friends, my books are published in Hebrew and are bestsellers, and a branch of my family is Jewish.
SPIEGEL: What role are you playing at the moment? Are you still an author or are you already a politician?
Mankell: I’m an eyewitness, because I was there. So much false information has already been disseminated, so I make an offer to people: I was on one of the six boats, and I can tell you what happened there and what it means.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Mankell, thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Tobias Rapp and Gerhard Spörl in Berlin on Thursday, June 3, two days after Henning Mankell was released.