In a few days time, ten ships with hundreds of civilians from 22 countries on board will be setting sail for the Gaza Strip. The Freedom Flotilla 2 - Stay Human will be challenging Israel's four year siege and blockade of the Gaza Strip, as well as its 44 year occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Unarmed and committed to nonviolence, members of the flotilla include members of parliament, writers, artists, clerics, activists and journalists.
On May 31, 2010, Israeli forces violently boarded the ships comprising the first Freedom Flotilla while they were in international waters (a violation of international law). On the Mavi Marmara, commandos killed nine individuals, including U.S. citizen Furkan Dogan, who the UN found was killed "execution-style," as were five other victims. This time around, the Israeli military has announced its plan to deploy attack dogs and snipers against the flotilla and stated, “We will do anything we have to do to prevent a boat from breaking the blockade...If there is the same violence against our forces on board, there is a pretty good chance there will be injuries.”
One of the boats in this flotilla will be a U.S.-flagged vessel, "The Audacity of Hope." On board will be around forty U.S. citizens and ten members of the media. The passengers include Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker and Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein. Twenty-five percent of the passengers are Jewish.
Given Israel's exceedingly violent response to the first flotilla, in flagrant violation of international law, one would expect the U.S. government to caution Israel against using force against U.S. citizens. Yes, we are all aware what super good friends Israel and the U.S. are, but when your friend says, "I'm ready to kill your people," you'd expect the U.S. to at least suggest Israel show a tiny bit of restraint. After all, it is the State Department's role to protect and assist U.S. citizens traveling abroad. Well, those running the show at State must have forgotten that part of the job description, as instead of cautioning Israel, in recent days the State Department has unleashed at all-out diplomatic offensive against its own citizens, essentially giving Israel the green light to kill them while washing their hands of any responsibility. Consider the following:
We have made clear through the past year that groups and individuals who seek to break Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza are taking irresponsible and provocative actions that entail a risk to their safety.
On June 22, the department issued a travel advisory, which in part reads:
The security environment within Gaza, including its border with Egypt and its seacoast, is dangerous and volatile. U.S. citizens are advised against traveling to Gaza by any means, including via sea. Previous attempts to enter Gaza by sea have been stopped by Israeli naval vessels and resulted in the injury, death, arrest, and deportation of U.S. citizens.
On June 23, Secretary Clinton stated:
[W]e think that it’s not helpful for there to be flotillas that try to provoke actions by entering into Israeli waters and creating a situation in which the Israelis have the right to defend themselves.
And today, June 24, State spokesperson Victoria Nuland upped the ante even more:
Groups that seek to break Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza are taking irresponsible and provocative actions that risk the safety of their passengers...We underscore that delivering or attempting or conspiring to deliver material support or other resources to or for the benefit of a designated foreign terrorist organization, such as Hamas, could violate U.S. civil and criminal statutes and could lead to fines and incarceration.
The U.S. government's indifference to the grave danger posed by Israeli threats to U.S. citizens and it's passive endorsement of Israeli violence against U.S. citizens is utterly appalling. Even those of us who are extremely cynical, with no illusions as to the beneficence of U.S. domestic or foreign policy, should be outraged by this daily rhetoric unleashed against human rights defenders.
Perhaps most telling is the marked contrast between the ill-informed public statements of U.S. government functionaries and the well-reasoned and considered perspectives of the flotilla passengers. Obviously, behind the scenes the State Department knows perfectly well the reality of the situation in Gaza and what international law - and U.S. law - says about Israel's actions. But in public you'd think they hadn't even read their own human rights report when they claim that the "humanitarian situation has significantly improved" in Gaza. To help them out, that report in part states,
International and Israeli human rights organizations described the blockade as "collective punishment" of the residents of the Gaza Strip, as it restricted access to basic goods and prevented civilians from temporary travel abroad or changing their place of residence permanently. During the year Israel eased the blockade, but with only one open commercial crossing, the number of truckloads entering the Gaza Strip each week was less than 40 percent of that before the blockade began.
And it goes on. Then there's report after report after report after report after report issued in the past year by NGOs, the UN and other international bodies which show how little the situation in Gaza has changed, and how dire it remains, after Israel's supposed "easing" of the blockade last June.
Clinton's above statement about the flotilla entering "Israeli waters" makes one wonder if she even knows what is going on. The flotilla will be traveling from international waters to Gazan waters, not even coming close to Israeli waters. At best, one hopes she misspoke or is gravely uninformed. At worst, the U.S. will need to explain why it believes Gaza's waters belong to Israel.
Finally, there is no recognition by the U.S. that an Israeli boarding of a U.S.-flagged ship in international waters will constitute a violation of U.S. sovereignty under international maritime law. Were that to happen, surely Clinton will find a way to blame the passengers.
While the U.S. and Israel unite to deny the rights and basic humanity of more than 1.5 million Gazans, those members of civil society who are taking part in the flotilla offer us a better vision of what is possible.
In an interview with Electronic Intifada, Alice Walker notes:
[W]e are moving into a situation where you cannot tell what will happen. And that is why I am steeping myself in the words of the people before me who have been in the same position and who have decided: “Well I love this world. I love it. I love these little children. They don’t deserve this. They don’t deserve to be abused; they don’t deserve to be frightened. I’m an adult. I’m an elder. So, how can I let this happen to them without some kind of resistance?”
Lawyer Richard Levy, talking with Democracy Now!, states:
[W]e sometimes look for a model in the folks who went on the Freedom Rides, the people who have stepped forward in a lot of situations and said someone has to challenge this. And if there were legal means to do it, if I could do it in a courtroom, I would do it in a courtroom. But I don’t think those means are available.
Student Gabriel Matthew Schivone writes in Haaretz:
As a consequence of various nonviolent actions undertaken all over the world, led crucially by Palestinians on the ground, the Israeli occupation will one day end. Those of us who face up to the unavoidable choice of either tolerating or resisting these crimes will determine how long the death and suffering of mainly Palestinian noncombatants continues, and how long a lasting peace in Palestine/Israel remains out of reach.
As well, the U.S. Boat to Gaza site has numerous testimonials from flotilla passengers as to why they're going to Gaza.
Yet again, as we've seen in the Arab world these past months and as we've seen throughout history, civil society is mobilizing, risking their lives, to confront and change institutionalized practices of injustice, racism and inhumanity, which are maintained by the most powerful governments in the world. While those members of the flotilla take direct action in solidarity with Gaza, those of us not on the ships must act to ensure there is not a repeat of last year's massacre and work to amplify the flotilla's powerful cry for justice in Palestine.