Professor imprisoned following blockade breach attempt

University of Western Ontario professor David Heap is among three Canadians detained by Israeli troops following a confrontation aboard a Canadian ship trying to breach the naval blockade of Gaza.

Heap, who teaches in the Department of French Studies, was aboard the ship Tahrir, chartered in Turkey, attempting to carry medical aid to Gaza. The group, Canadian Boat to Gaza, reports on Nov. 4 the Israeli navy intercepted the ship bound for Gaza. The passengers were taken to the Israeli port of Ashdod and the trio placed in Israeli detention.

According to a news release by Canadian Boat to Gaza, Heap remains imprisoned for refusing to sign a waiver stating they voluntarily entered Israel. It was reported Tuesday Karen DeVito, of Vancouver, was the first Canadian to be released from prison.

“I write to you from cell 9, block 59 Givon Prison near Ramla in Occupied Palestine. Although I was tasered during the assault on the Tahrir, and bruised during forcible removal dockside (I am limping slightly as a result). I am basically ok,” Heap writes in a letter to family and friends he smuggled out of prison with a lawyer.

Heap says he was transported in handcuffs and leg shackles.

The goal of Heap and fellow activists was to fight against Israel’s blockade of Gaza in a peaceful and non-violent manner. The blockade restricts materials going in and out Gaza, which denies Palestinians the ability to trade with the world, they argue.

Heap was also a delegate aboard the Tahrir in July, which failed in attempt to reach the blockaded Palestinian territory.

Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada warns Canadians the security situation along the coast of Gaza remains dangerous and volatile.

In May 2010, an attempt to breach the naval blockade along the coast of Gaza was intercepted by Israeli security forces and resulted in death, injury, arrest and deportation, the ministry reports.

In a statement on its website, the federal ministry cautions: “Canadians are strongly advised against participating in any attempt to break the naval blockade.”

Heap does not have any assigned teaching duties at this time, and is absent from campus in compliance with university policies on absence, says Alan Weedon, vice-provost (academic planning, policy and faculty).

“The University of Western Ontario takes no position on the views expressed by any faculty member, nor the manner in which they are expressed,” Weedon says.

“Rather, the university supports the right of faculty members to exercise academic freedom, and to express their views on any matter in a manner that does not exceed legal limits. Academic freedom does not confer legal immunity or legal defence by the university in respect of the views a faculty member may express.”

Canadian Boat to Gaza is asking the Canadian government to take action to secure release of the passengers and is putting pressure on Israel to release the detainees.

“We don’t have any word about what’s happening with them or when they are going to be released,” Wendy Goldsmith, member of the steering committee for Canadian Boat to Gaza, said during a phone interview Tuesday. “I think it is outrageous Canadian citizens were kidnapped in international waters and they’re in an Israeli prison being denied basic rights.”

Marjorie Ratcliffe, associate professor in Spanish at Western, is part of Heap’s local support group and is concerned about her friend and colleague’s situation.

“I have known David since he was a boy,” Ratcliffe says. “I knew his parents and I know his sons. I admire him greatly for the selfless sacrifice he is making in defense of his ideal of a peaceful world where we are all free to live productive lives.”

While details about her friend’s state have been limited, Ratcliffe is hoping the Canadian government will work to allow Heap to return to Canada.

As she waits to hear of Heap’s status, Ratcliffe continues to support his family and is hoping for a quick and safe return of her friend. “We are basically there to back him up should he need us or should his family need support during this stressful time, before he left and when he gets back.”