By Steve Fake
The Israeli closure imposed upon the Gaza Strip is approaching its fifth year, ‘choking off any real possibility of economic development,’ in the words of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Contrary to attempts to whitewash the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, the blockade has created rampant unemployment, poverty, and unparalleled degradation of the medical system. The stated rationale for the Israeli siege is to prevent the importation of goods that would provide support for the ruling Hamas party. The reality has prompted the ICRC, not known for overstatement, to call it “collective punishment” – a war crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention. The recent halting and partial opening of the Rafah Crossing, while welcome, only applies to the (still restricted) movement of people, rather than supplies, and will not ease the humanitarian situation.
Of the many regions in the world facing acute suffering, Gaza has special salience for American citizens due to the bipartisan complicity of Washington, which bankrolls Israel’s policies with some $3 billion in military aid per annum. That is why approximately 50 U.S. citizens joined people from almost two dozen other countries in what was dubbed the Freedom Flotilla 2. Earlier this month we set sail for Gaza in an attempt to break the blockade. The American ship, The Audacity of Hope, attempts to pressure the White House to adopt a more even-handed approach to the conflict. Our boat, along with many others, has thus far been trapped in Greece under spurious pretexts, the result of heavy Israeli lobbying and economic leverage over Greek authorities. The previous flotilla was attacked last year in international waters by Israeli commandos who shot and killed nine people, including a U.S. citizen. Six of the deaths were “extra-legal, arbitrary and summary executions,” according to the findings of a United Nations Human Rights Council investigation. Yet in the aftermath of Israel’s “disproportionate, excessive and inappropriate” use of force, international pressure did compel Israel to loosen the restrictions on foodstuffs allowed into Gaza, though, contrary to Israel’s initial announcement, badly needed construction and humanitarian supplies have remained blocked.
The movement to break the siege has been notable for its effectiveness. Where government diplomacy has failed for lack of will, people-to-people solidarity has already won tangible gains for Gazans. However, the ruinous blockade remains in force, and the movement must continue.
The prestigious author, Alice Walker, who was aboard the U.S. boat, recently called the flotilla “the Freedom Ride of this era.” The comparison is apt. We, too, rely upon the use of nonviolence – all passengers received nonviolence training before departure – in the face of threats of brutality, in this case including the use of snipers and attack dogs, to dramatize the injustices we seek to combat before the eyes of the world.
One of the more evocative parallels lies in the similar language used to criticize both actions. The flotilla is “provocative” according to the State Department, Israel, and Canada. In 1961, exactly 50 years ago in May, then-Alabama governor John Patterson complained that the Freedom Riders, “are going from town to town and getting off the bus and seeking through mixed groups, nigra (sic) men and white women, to force themselves into situations which tend to inflame the local people, in such a manner as to incense them and enrage them and provoke them into acts of violence.” The New York Times, though broadly supportive of their aims, agreed, observing, “an element of incitement and provocation” in the Freedom Rides.
Many of that generation who opposed, or maintained a studied indifference towards, the Riders are still alive today, sometimes repentant, often not. Those who are participating in or supporting the Freedom Flotilla today do not wish to join them on the wrong side of history. Notably, Human Rights Watch recently released a report documenting Israel’s discriminatory “two-tier” legal system in the occupied West Bank.
The wave of democratic unrest sweeping aside dictators in the Middle East and North Africa is already upon Israel’s doorstep. The tentative unity deal between Fatah and Hamas and the opening of the Rafah crossing are among the first fruits of the Arab Spring for Palestinians. The nonviolent demonstrations at the borders of occupied territories, in which Israel has shot and killed dozens of youth, are further proof that the Palestinians will not be left disenfranchised and disinherited in the lands of their birth. President Obama claims that the Libyan intervention is intended to support the Arab Spring. Yet his administration shows few signs of shifting U.S. policy towards permitting Palestinians to have the democratic rights so clearly desired by all peoples in the region. The Freedom Flotilla movement, which will continue, is a far more genuine contribution from the international community – of citizens rather than heads of state – towards the fulfillment of dignity and human rights in the Middle East.
– Steve Fake is an author and a resident of New Orleans. He was a passenger on The Audacity of Hope. (This article was contributed to PalestineChronicle.com.)