Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the second son of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and president of the Gaddafi Foundation revealed that a deal has been struck with Israel to allow previously banned building material and pre-fabricated houses, in addition to $50 million in aid, into the Gaza Strip for the purposes of reconstruction. This came after the Gaza-bound Amalthea aid ship, which was carrying around 2,000 tons of aid and a number of Libyan, Arab, and foreign activists, diverted from its original route to land at the Egyptian port of al-Arish.
The following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] This is the first time that you have spoken publicly about the Gaza-bound Libyan aid ship, after you vowed to remain silent on this issue since the aid ship first set sail.
[Gaddafi] Yes, I didn’t want to discuss this matter with the media. I believed that as a Libyan and Arab citizen, and a human being, I should play my part in helping my Palestinian brothers without excessive coverage.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Were you satisfied with the agreement that was reached with regards to the final destination of the aid ship?
[Gaddafi] Yes, definitely. What happened was far beyond our expectations; the UNRWA agency [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians in the Near East] informed me that they hadn’t been able to spend even a single dollar on reconstruction, or bring in a single metal screw or bag of cement into Gaza. They also informed me that they were completely unable to implement any [reconstruction] projects as a result of the Israel embargo. Therefore from a practical standpoint the issue of reconstruction was dead until now.
However thanks to the agreement that we reached, you can say that the reconstruction process has truly begun, and the Israelis – in agreement with our brothers in Egypt, of course – have agreed to Libya sending a total of $50 million to Gaza through UNRWA without any interference or problems, in support of the Palestinians and the reconstruction process, including building materials and pre-fabricated houses.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you mean an Egyptian – Israeli agreement has been secured?
[Gaddafi] Yes, as the saying goes “do you want the grapes or to kill the vineyard guard?” We want the grapes, and now we have them, so there is no need to create problems. Our goal was not to confront the Israeli navy, but Gaza reconstruction and helping our Palestinian brothers, especially as you know that there are 5,000 destroyed houses in Gaza and thousands of Palestinians currently living in the open. The problem is that another winter will pass whilst they remain in this situation. However through this initiative, God willing, they will be living in these houses next winter, as the agreement allows for this, and our top priority is for building material and pre-fabricated houses.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you consider this deal a success?
[Gaddafi] Yes, we consider this to be a great achievement when compared with a worn-out ship [aid ship Amalthea] whose market price today would not exceed $150,000, and which was crewed by 10…young activists. This is a worn-out ship, and this might be its last voyage, and we thank and praise God over what we have been able to achieve. This is a lesson for the Arabs, if they knew how to come to agreements and work well, it would have been possible for us to achieve more. I am very happy and I believe that I have achieved a great victory for the Palestinians.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us more about the Egyptian – Israeli negotiations?
[Gaddafi] You know that Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak contacted Egyptian Intelligence Chief Lieutenant General Omar Suleiman – this is no secret. The Egyptians reached an agreement with the Israelis who informed us via an official written response that they agreed to begin the transfer of Libya’s $50 million – [a figure] determined during the Arab Summit – for the reconstruction of Gaza. An Egyptian-Israeli coordination exists in this respect and Egypt is the guarantor to this agreement.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion on the role played by Egypt?
[Gaddafi] Without a doubt this was an important and effective role because without Egypt we would not have been able to do anything. Egypt is very important, and the truth is that the position of our brothers in Egypt was an unforgettable one, for which we are grateful.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are rumours that the scheduled meeting between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was postponed in order to see how Israel would deal with the approach of the Amalthea aid ship?
[Gaddafi] In truth, I have no knowledge of this and I have no specific information about it. But the Egyptian position was respectable and we are grateful for that.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you consider this to be a personal victory for yourself?
[Gaddafi] Perhaps…I played my part amidst these conditions. I see this as a lesson for the Arabs, it was also revealing about the true position of the Palestinian officials…for they let us down. There are conflicts between them taking place at the expense of ordinary Palestinians; everybody wants to see a show or spectacle or confrontation, rather than help…they all want to kill the vineyard guard at the expense of getting the grapes.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You seen to be disappointed by this?
[Gaddafi] That’s right, unfortunately all of our Palestinian brothers failed to approach this problem correctly. We would love to help them, but we were surprised to see that each party was trying to politically exploit the situation in the context of the inter-Palestinian conflict. We are not a party of this conflict. In truth, I am very displeased about this issue.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What does this mean for ordinary Palestinians?
[Gaddafi] Initially, when I first thought about the [Libyan aid] ship operation, many Libyan officials warned me [against this], telling me that I would be entering the treacherous ground of the inter-Palestinian conflict, and that everybody would try to control the [aid ship] operation to achieve their own political goals because nobody wants to help the Palestinian people in a serious manner, and part of the Palestinians suffering and problems is because they are victims of this conflict. Unfortunately, this is what we saw with regards to the Amalthea [aid] ship.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You held out in the face of attempts to dissuade you from undertaking this initiative?
[Gaddafi] Yes, and I said to the Libyan officials that this is support for the ordinary Palestinians who have no shelter and who are sleeping outdoors, and who do not have homes. As for the Palestinian politicians, may God guide them to the righteous path; they are fighting with each other and trying to exploit this initiative to serve their own political goals with regards to the inter-Palestinian conflict. We avoid this and do not have anything to do with it.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Gaddafi Foundation has succeeded where many others have failed. What is the reason behind this?
[Gaddafi] In my opinion, our success could be attributed to two factors. Firstly, we were honest in our intention to help the Palestinians, and we did not have any kind of political agenda, and even the Israelis knew that our mission was purely humanitarian and not political. Our slogan was “we want to get the grapes, not kill the vineyard guard”. We were not a warship or army to enter into a confrontation with the Israeli army. The Arabs always want to kill the vineyard guard, and this is the difference.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some people might argue that you failed to reach your goal of making port in Gaza. What would you say to that?
[Gaddafi] No, we achieved more than that by striking this deal. I honestly couldn’t have dreamt of it, and I didn’t anticipate it. I said to myself, if the ship continues to Gaza, it would be attacked or seized by force; lives would be lost and we would gain nothing. This worn-out ship would be completely incapable of facing the Israeli navy, and all those on board would die after the first encounter.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What does this deal mean for the people of Gaza?
[Gaddafi] The deal that we reached with the Israeli side represents a historic achievement. The reconstruction of Gaza begins today in earnest and on a large-scale. As I said earlier, we will start with an initial payment of $50 million. Until now, the Arabs have been unable to spend one dollar [on reconstruction] and I challenge any Arab to send a single dollar, or a metal screw, or a bag of cement, into Gaza…nothing has gone through into Gaza since the beginning of the Israeli war on Gaza in late 2008 until now. Today we are talking about an Egyptian-Israeli agreement to implement projects worth $50 million, and bringing in building material, especially steel, cement, and pre-fabricated houses. Did you know that the import of pre-fabricated houses was banned by Israel? Now they have allowed this for the first time, and this is the most that we could have achieved.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Were any concessions offered as part of Israel agreeing to this deal?
[Gaddafi] No, Israel’s terms were clear from the beginning, and we were clear and honest. They did not want a repeat of the Turkish Mavi Marmara [aid] ship incident, which was part of the Freedom Flotilla; they were reluctant to attack the [Amalthea] ship. They discussed this, and said that the crew of the ship was hostile and ready to enter into confrontation, and they announced this. They knew that if no agreement was reached, the ship would continue its journey towards the Gaza Strip, and that would possibly result in a confrontation which would result in material and human losses. As I said, our goal was not just to cause a scene.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] I understand that Western mediators also played a role in this deal. Is this true?
[Gaddafi] Yes, some European parties entered mediation, and all communication was made indirectly through European parties. However Israel’s goal was to ensure that there was no repeat of the Mavi Marmara problem, and so in return for agreeing to change course away from Gaza and dock in the Egyptian port of al-Arish, they agreed to the deal that was concluded with Egyptian efforts. I am happy and proud of what we achieved; and this is the deal clearly and explicitly.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What drives you to do what you are doing to support Gaza?
[Gaddafi] First of all, during the last Gaza war, the Gaza Foundation was one of the most important institutions contributing to the relief efforts, and we are one of the most important institutions that send aid to Gaza. Don’t forget that following the death of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, a Libyan decision was taken not to provide any support to the Palestinian National Authority, and so I had to circumvent the Libyan government and institutions and send aid to the Palestinian Authority. The former Palestinian Minister of Finance, Salam Fayyad, visited Libya more than once and I would smuggle out funds to support he Palestinian people. So this position is not a newly-adopted one.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some people say that the Gaza blockade could have ended long ago if there was a Palestinian – Israeli understanding. What do you think of this?
[Gaddafi] We believe that without work such as that which we are undertaking, the Gaza blockade would continue forever because all Palestinian factions are content with the status quo and the blockade will not be lifted when all Palestinian parties are seeking to exploit the suffering of their people to serve their own political agendas. The Israeli blockade of Gaza has practically ended today; building materials and funds will enter, and work will begin. There is no longer a ban, and the reconstruction process that the Arabs promised to initiate has now become real.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What can you tell us about the defamation campaign that you previously mentioned you were exposed to from the US?
[Gaddafi] The Americans came out to claim that the medical report that was issued by the doctor which led to Abdul-Baset al-Megrahi from prison due to terminal cancer was false, and they went a new investigation into the circumstances surrounding his release. Of course the timing was deliberate, because I played a large role in securing al-Megrahi’s release, while the Libyan government played no role whatsoever in al-Megrahi’s case. The US ambassador to Tripoli also called us and said, please you must reach an agreement because continuing towards Gaza means a confrontation with the Israeli navy and there will be casualties…this was an official message that we received from him.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did the US position change after you reached this agreement?
[Gaddafi] Yes, the Americans welcomed this agreement, and said that this had spared a lot f trouble. This was the initial response that we heard from the Obama administration.