US activists prepare to break Israel’s blockade on Gaza

Activists across the United States have organized to raise funds for the US Boat to Gaza.

US Boat to Gaza Flickr

Recent weeks have seen renewed attention on the blockade of Gaza as international activists’ efforts to break Israel’s blockade with a flotilla come to a head.

The Israeli government has begun to ramp up its propaganda efforts, claiming the flotilla has ties to terrorism. The United States government has warned activists working against the blockade, with a State Department spokesman telling reporters earlier this month that “groups and individuals who seek to break Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza are taking irresponsible and provocative actions” (State Department press briefing, 1 June 2011).

But while the flotilla is only beginning to make headlines now, it’s been a long time in the works.

The organizing for an American boat to join the flotilla began a year ago. Ten days after Israeli forces killed nine activists aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara ship seeking to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza on 31 May 2010, hundreds of people streamed into a Manhattan church basement for a report on the attack. The one question on everyone’s minds was: “What could we do next?”

The event featured Ann Wright, a former US army colonel who resigned from her State Department post in 2003 to protest the Iraq war, and Adam Shapiro, a co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement. Wright, who had just described her experience on board the US-flagged Challenger boat that was part of the international Gaza Freedom Flotilla, gave the answer: organize a boat filled with American passengers and join the next flotilla to break the blockade.

Wright’s idea was met with thunderous applause, and activist Laurie Arbeiter proposed two names for the boat: The Audacity of Hope and Dreams From My (Palestinian) Father, based on US President Barack Obama’s memoirs. The former name was chosen.

Nearly a year later, final preparations are underway for the next big flotilla to Gaza, which is scheduled to occur in late June. The US Boat to Gaza will take part in the largest planned fleet yet, with an estimated 1,000 passengers from an array of countries collaborating to break Israel’s blockade.

Solidarity activists say that because the US is Israel’s chief economic, military and diplomatic backer, it’s crucial to have US citizens challenge the blockade.

“It’s precisely because of the horrendous role that the US government has played literally for decades now that people inside this country need to have strong voices” against the blockade, said Leslie Cagan, coordinator for The Audacity of Hope and longtime anti-war activist.

“Critical organizing effort”

Although the US-flagged Challenger had American passengers, this year’s effort will be the first time a large-scale campaign with national involvement for an American boat participates in a flotilla to Gaza. Thousands of people around the US are contributing to the initiative in the form of donations and volunteer labor. The US Boat to Gaza group says they have raised more than $400,000 since they started last year. There’s only one paid coordinator for the enormous effort, and most of the core activists based in New York volunteer.

“It’s a critical organizing effort. I’m getting phone calls from all over the country from places where you would think there is not a single Palestine solidarity activist. It’s about American citizens trying to change America,” said Felice Gelman, an organizer for the US Boat to Gaza who was a member of the Gaza Freedom March Coordinating Committee.

“We’ve made so much incredible progress on the issue of Palestinian rights and justice, but we have a government that absolutely refuses to cede an inch … It seems to me obvious that the US would participate in this international flotilla and force the government to choose between the interests and lives of US citizens and their attachment to Israel,” Gelman added.

An estimated fifty passengers, including Wright, will sail with The Audacity of Hope, which will join at least ten other ships to sail to Gaza in an attempt to break the Israeli naval blockade. “It’s the role of those not in danger to help those in danger, and the Palestinians are in danger,” Wright told The Electronic Intifada. “We can’t let [Israel’s] violence stop us from being with the people of Palestine.”

Other passengers on the boat besides Wright include Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author; Hedy Epstein, an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor; Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK; and former CIA analyst Ray McGovern.

Defying Israel’s siege

Two ships from Europe will be carrying infrastructural and medical supplies. And in a unique move, the US boat will carry letters of solidarity from Americans to Palestinians in Gaza.

Although the flotilla will carry some aid for Gaza, activists say that is not the main point of sailing. Instead, as Leslie Cagan put it, “we’re certainly not opposed to aid getting through to the people, but the whole effort is not about just making sure a little bit more aid gets in. It’s about respecting the fact that Gazans should control their own borders.”

The international flotilla, like past boats, will be aiming to break Israel’s naval blockade, which has strangled Gaza’s fishing industry. The Israeli navy enforces a harsh “buffer zone” around Gaza’s territorial waters, only allowing Palestinians to venture out three miles before being shot at or detained — contrary to the twenty miles Gazans were promised under the Oslo accords signed in 1993.

Despite the much-heralded “easing” of the siege of Gaza following the Israeli attack on the May 2010 Freedom Flotilla, a November 2010 report from a coalition of human rights groups found that there had been “no change” in Israel’s “buffer zone” policies.

“Access to around 35 percent of Gaza’s farmland and 85 percent of maritime areas for fishing remains restricted by the Israeli ‘buffer zone,’ with devastating impact on the economy and people’s rights and livelihoods. An estimated 178,000 people are directly affected. Boundaries of the restricted areas are highly arbitrary and enforced by live fire,” the report reads (“Dashed Hopes: Continuation of the Gaza Blockade, Joint Agency report,” 30 November 2010).

The second flotilla, named Stay Human in honor of the late Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni, will be facing down an Israeli government and military willing to do whatever it takes to enforce the brutal and illegal blockade.

Bodies on the line

“We’re directly challenging the blockade with our bodies,” Robert Naiman, the policy director of Just Foreign Policy, said as he stood near New York’s East River, where a fundraiser and celebration for the US boat were being held on a ship with music and Middle Eastern food. Naiman will also be on board The Audacity of Hope.

The passengers on last year’s flotilla paid a dear price for challenging the blockade with their bodies. At about 4am on 31 May 2010, Israeli naval commandos rappelled onto the Mavi Marmara from helicopters above, opening fire and killing nine persons and injuring more than fifty.

A UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission later found that Israeli forces violated international law in attacking the flotilla and used “unnecessary, disproportionate, excessive and inappropriate” force. The mission also found that the deaths of six passengers can be “characterized as extra-legal, arbitrary and summary executions” — including the killing of Furkan Dogan, a 19-year-old US citizen of Turkish origin.

The report also reiterated what other UN reports and individuals have called an illegal blockade that amounts to collective punishment (“Report of the international fact-finding mission to investigate violations of international law, including international humanitarian and human rights law, resulting from the Israeli attacks on the flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian assistance,” Human Rights Council, 27 September 2010 [PDF]).

Organizers of the flotilla are well aware of the dangers that lie ahead, but they remain unbowed.

“After that flotilla was hit, we decided to make an even bigger one, basically not to back down,” Huwaida Arraf, the chairperson of the Free Gaza Movement, the organization that sits on the international coordinating committee for the flotilla, said in a phone interview from Amman, Jordan. “We’re not going to back down to Israel’s violence. That’s why they hit us — to try to break this movement. But we’re showing them that we’re coming back with larger force.”

The Israeli government has already made it clear that they are prepared to use deadly force again on the flotilla’s passengers. In testimony to the Turkel Commission, the Israeli government created board that was tasked with looking into the raid on the flotilla, then chief-of-staff for the Israeli army Gabi Ashkenazi said that snipers would be used on future flotillas (“Ashkenazi: Next time, IDF will use snipers to halt Gaza-bound flotillas,” Haaretz, 12 August 2010).

Other media reports indicate that “attack dogs” may be used (“IDF will use attack dogs in future flotilla interceptions,” The Jerusalem Post, 7 October 2010).

Despite the threats of violence from Israel — which eerily echo the warnings sounded before the Mavi Marmara raid — there have been big changes: the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, formerly the chief Arab partner to Israel’s blockade, and the Arab revolts rocking the Middle East. Palestine solidarity activists see the flotilla as part of the Arab movements for freedom and democracy.

“As a nonviolent movement, we are following in the footsteps of the Freedom Riders, and following in the footsteps of the Arab Spring,” said Jane Hirschmann, an organizer with the US Boat to Gaza and a member of the New York City-based group Jews Say No!.

Egypt’s recent decision to open the Rafah border — a result of the overthrow of Mubarak’s regime and the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah — was praised by activists, but they insist that the flotilla will still sail. Gelman said that while the opening of Rafah was “great,” the “US and Israel are conspiring to keep Gaza blockaded. Egyptians should not have to bear the entire burden of confronting US/Israeli policy.”

US support for the Israeli blockade isn’t likely to change, and the flotilla will sail ahead in the face of opposition expressed by members of US Congress, the UN Secretary General and Susan Rice, the Obama administration’s ambassador to the UN.

As Paki Wieland, an activist who will be sailing to Gaza on The Audacity of Hope, put it, “We will not stand for it. The people can make the difference.”

Alex Kane is a blogger and journalist based in New York City. He is a frequent contributor to the blog Mondoweiss, and his work has appeared in Salon, AlterNet, The Electronic Intifada, Common Dreams, Palestine Chronicle, Gotham Gazette and Extra. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.