Athens – As a passenger on the upcoming U.S. Boat to Gaza – the Audacity of Hope – I read with keen interest Ethan Bronner's account in The New York Times last week of Israeli military preparations to confront the Gaza Freedom Flotilla.
Not surprisingly, Israeli officials cited by the Times were putting out mixed messages.
On the one hand, a top naval official told foreign journalists: “We will do anything we have to do to prevent a boat from breaking the blockade.”
On the other hand, the Times reports that Israel's navy says it will do everything it can to avoid close contact with activists on board the freedom flotilla.
Moreover, the Israeli naval officer who briefed foreign journalists conceded that he did not believe that the coming flotilla would contain arms. The same naval officer further conceded that some [sic] of those on board the ships were peace activists, according to the Times' account.
But the naval officer asserted that these peace activists were naïve because “extremists will set the tone” if Israeli commandos board the ships. He also asserted that Israel needed to enforce the blockade indiscriminately to defend against weapons imports by future flotillas.
I'm sorry I wasn't able to attend this press conference. I would like to ask some follow-up questions of my distinguished friend in the Israeli navy, who thinks me naïve.
If you concede that we are peace activists who are not carrying weapons, what exactly is the urgency to confront us with force? Why not just let us proceed to Gaza unmolested? Does it pass a “straight face test,” as Speaker Boehner might say, to claim that it will set a horrible international legal precedent binding the Israeli government if you were to let us pass unmolested to Gaza, having conceded that we are peace activists who are not carrying weapons?
If you are concerned that “extremists will set the tone” if Israeli commandos board the ships, isn't it wholly within your power to prevent this outcome, by not ordering that Israeli commandos board the ships?
Furthermore, if you concede that we are peace activists, doesn't that mean that you concede that we are not “extremists”? Peace activists aren't “extremists,” are we?
If you concede that we are not “extremists,” and you are concerned that “extremists will set the tone,” doesn't that argue against blocking our communications, or arresting us and holding us incommunicado, or confiscating our communications equipment, as happened to passengers on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla last year? Because if you silence us, you prevent us from speaking on our own behalf, thereby facilitating the outcome that you say you wish to avoid. Again, avoiding the outcome that “extremists will set the tone” is wholly within your power.
When I first visited Ramallah in 1986, I heard a story from Palestinians there that is quite relevant to the present impasse. As you will recall, at that time, the display of the Palestinian flag was forbidden in the West Bank, by order of the Israeli military. A pattern was established: when Palestinian youths wanted to confront the soldiers of the occupation, they would hoist the Palestinian flag. Soldiers would come to disperse the demonstrators; the demonstrators would throw rocks at the soldiers; the soldiers would respond with weapons, often with live fire. Often, demonstrators would be seriously injured or killed in these confrontations, provoking more demonstrations and more Israeli military crackdowns not only on demonstrators, but on the overall civilian population, with curfews, school closings, and so on.
One day, there was a new Israeli military commander for the Ramallah area. I am sorry that I don't know the details of this commander's background. But here's how I imagine him: older, a reservist perhaps, with a wife and children in Israel, maybe even a little bit sympathetic to the young Palestinian demonstrators and their desire to be free. This Israeli military commander decided to try an experiment: what would happen if, when I get the report that Palestinian youths in the area under my command have hoisted the Palestinian flag, I don't send any Israeli soldiers there?
Well, what do you think happened? What happened was this: the Palestinian youths in Ramallah would hoist the Palestinian flag; they would chant and sing; they would wait for the Israeli soldiers; and when the Israeli soldiers never arrived, the demonstrators would get bored, declare victory, and go home. No rocks, no shooting, no violence, no killing, no injuries, no curfew, no schools closed. As a consequence of this Israeli military commander's common-sense policy, there was a significant decrease in violence in the Ramallah area. Of course, there was a downside to this policy: the prohibition on public display of the Palestinian flag was not enforced. But, as it turned out, enforcement of this prohibition was not so important to “Israeli security” after all.
Eventually, that military commander was rotated out, and another commander was rotated in, and the new commander was not so enlightened, and “things went back to normal.” The Palestinian flag was hoisted, soldiers came, rocks were thrown, demonstrators were shot.
This story illustrates, I think, that Israeli military officers have the opportunity to use good judgment and common sense in evaluating which actions they should take to “promote Israeli security.” Taking extreme actions in response to demands for Palestinian freedom does not make Israel more secure.
The logic of taking extreme actions in response to protest is seductive: if we show that we are very tough, people will stop resisting us.
But to think that this logic will work in the present situation is, dare I say it, naïve. It is far too late for that.
What was the result of the Israeli military attack on last year's flotilla? Did peace activists say, “oh dear, now that we see that the Israeli military is very tough, we had better not send any more flotillas”?
No, that was not the result. The result was that peace activists said, “We should send an even larger flotilla of ships, with boats from more countries, including our American boat, the Audacity of Hope.”
After the attack on last year's flotilla and the resulting international outcry not just against the attack on the flotilla, but also against the blockade of Gaza, the Israeli government announced that the blockade on Gaza would be eased, and since then, more goods have been let in to Gaza. Exports from Gaza remain largely blocked; restrictions on Gazans' travel to the West Bank and East Jerusalem for work, study, and medical care remain; imports of construction materials remain largely blocked; restrictions on Gaza's farming and fishing remain. Unemployment in Gaza is among the highest in the world, the UN reports.
But consider those restrictions on Gaza that were in fact eased last year following the international outcry: either those restrictions were necessary for Israeli security, or they were not.
If those restrictions were in fact necessary for Israeli security, then Israeli government officials endangered Israeli security by removing them, simply because the world was complaining. Will any Israeli official stand up and claim this?
If those restrictions were not necessary for Israeli security, then for years Israeli government maintained restrictions on Gaza's civilian population which were not justified by security concerns, simply because they wanted to punish the population and could get away with doing so, because international protest was not sufficient to overturn these restrictions.
If these restrictions were not necessary for Israel's security – and it seems obvious that they were not – then their removal shows that Israeli government claims that restrictions on Gaza are necessary for Israel's security cannot be taken as holy writ. Since governments refuse to act, organizing flotillas and other forms of international protest against the siege of Gaza is, therefore, a mitzvah, an obligation. People of conscience around the world have an obligation to organize and support such protests until all restrictions on Gaza not directly related to Israeli security – that is, not directly related to suspected arms shipments to Gaza – are removed. And the history suggests that such protests will continue until they are no longer necessary.
I urge my friend the Israeli naval officer to get on the right side of history, and to use his influence not only to oppose an Israeli military attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, but to support the lifting of the blockade of Gaza.