sailing to gaza and remaking refugees

Aside from the bit that Rana Hayeck wrote about me in Al Akhbar last week, I have been waiting and wanting to write about the Free Gaza boat that set sail from Cyprus to Gaza this week. I was invited to go on this boat by activists last summer in Lebanon and then in the fall in Washington DC at the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation conference. When I first heard about the boat last summer both from international activists here in Lebanon and then later on Naji Ali’s podcast I thought it sounded like an interesting, unique idea–to break the siege, to enter Gaza by boat, to prove to the world (via the media) that the Israelis didn’t really leave Gaza when they moved their illegal settlers (many of whom now reside in illegal settlements in the West Bank). To highlight that Gaza is one big prison and that the Israelis control the air, land, sea borders. To show the brutality that people in Gaza are subjected to on a daily basis that goes beyond inhuman in terms of Israeli Aggressive Forces (IAF) behavior.

In spite of the good intentions of many of the activists organizing this boat, I have serious problems with it on a number of levels.

1st, it seemed to me that the organizers didn’t necessarily want to get into Gaza. Rather, it seemed as though they intended to create an action that would necessitate that they not get in merely to call attention to the fact that this siege exists. I met another woman later in Los Angeles before I left the U.S. at the Al Awda conference who said that the only relief supplies they are bringing are hearing aid batteries (apparently Israelis think Palestinians would use these to make bombs so they are banned).

And this is my 2nd problem with the boat. It isn’t bringing supplies into Gaza, a place where people are in desperate need (such an understatement) for everything and anything from anesthesia to bread.

3rd, the boat is asking people to raise all this money to support the boat itself in lieu of using the money to support the people of Gaza by building community gardens that would feed people, for instance; and the money is not just being raised for the boat, as people who go on it are required to pay their passage to Cyprus and then pay a fee of at least $1,000 to the boat.

4th, I was told that the people invited or selected to go on the boat, once in Cyprus, would be further whittled down based on unknown criteria.

5th, couldn’t that money be used for something better–like for the people of Gaza? To support their resistance in whatever form?

6th, these activists are only staying for a few days, it seems, or at least most of them so I expect there will not be any real solidarity or political, or humanitarian work done (or at least this remains to be seen).

7th, this ship has Israelis on it. I’m sure they are Israelis who consider themselves anti-Zionist, but that is not the point. I’m sure some of these people do good work, but the point is: they are Israelis. The people organizing such an action should know better than to arrange for such an action that becomes one that is about normalization. Politically this is deeply problematic not the least of which is due to the fact that the IAF has unleashed what one of its leaders termed a “holocaust” on the people of Gaza earlier this year. It may not look the same as earlier such genocides, but make no mistake about it whether the death is quick or slow it still a genocide. And if Israelis care about the situation then they should work within their own society to end this occupation and bring about the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Here is an example of what I mean; this is a letter sent out on various listservs by Jeff Halper from the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions:

In another few days, I will sail on one of the Free Gaza movement boats from Cyprus to Gaza. The mission is to break the Israeli siege, an absolutely illegal siege which has plunged a million and a half Palestinians into wretched conditions: imprisoned in their own homes, exposed to extreme military violence, deprived of the basic necessities of life, stripped of their most fundamental human rights and dignity. The siege violates the most fundamental principle of international law: the inadmissibility of harming civilian populations. Our voyage also exposes Israel’s attempt to absolve itself of responsibility for what is happening in Gaza. Israel’s claim that there is no Occupation, or that the Occupation ended with “disengagement,” is patently false. Occupation is defined in international law as having effective control over a territory. If Israel intercepts our boats, it is clear that it is the Occupying Power exercising effective control over Gaza. Nor has the siege anything to do with “security.” Like other elements of the Occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where Israel has also besieged cities, towns, villages and whole regions, the siege on Gaza is fundamentally political. It is intended to isolate the democratically-elected government of Palestine and break its power to resist Israeli attempts to impose an apartheid regime over the entire country.

This is why I, an Israeli Jew, felt compelled to join this voyage to break the siege. As a person who seeks a just peace with the Palestinians, who understands (despite what our politicians tell us) that they are not our enemies but rather people seeking precisely what we sought and fought for – national self-determination I cannot stand idly aside. I can no more passively witness my government’s destruction of another people than I can watch the Occupation destroy the moral fabric of my own country. To do so would violate my commitment to human rights, the very essence of prophetic Jewish religion, culture and morals, without which Israel is no longer Jewish but an empty, if powerful, Sparta.

Israel has, of course, legitimate security concerns, and Palestinian attacks against civilian populations in Sderot and other Israeli communities bordering on Gaza cannot be condoned. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel, as an Occupying Power, has the right to monitor the movement of arms to Gaza as a matter of “immediate military necessity.” As activists committed to resisting the siege non-violently, I have no objection to the Israeli navy boarding our boats and searching for weapons. But only that. Because Israel has no right to besiege a civilian population, it has no legal right to prevent us, private persons sailing solely in international and Palestinian waters, from reaching Gaza – particularly since Israel has declared that it no longer occupies it. Once the Israeli navy is convinced we pose no security threat, then, we thoroughly expect it to permit us to continue our peaceful and lawful journey into Gaza port.

Ordinary people have often played key roles in history, particularly in situations like this where governments shirk their responsibilities. My voyage to Gaza is a statement of solidarity with the Palestinian people in their time of suffering, but it also conveys a message to my fellow citizens.

First, despite what our political leaders say, there is a political solution to the conflict, there are partners for peace. The very fact that I, an Israeli Jew, will be welcomed by Palestinian Gazans makes that very point. My presence in Gaza also affirms that any resolution of the conflict must include all the peoples of the country, Palestinian and Israeli alike. I am therefore using whatever credibility my actions lend me to call on my government to renew genuine peace negotiations based on the Prisoners Document accepted by all Palestinian factions, including Hamas. The release of all political prisoners held by Israel, including Hamas government ministers and parliamentary members, in return for the repatriation of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, would dramatically transform the political landscape by providing the trust and good-will essential to any peace process.

Second, the Palestinians are not our enemies. In fact, I urge my fellow Israeli Jews to disassociate from the dead-end politics of our failed political leaders by declaring, in concert with Israeli and Palestinian peace-makers: We refuse to be enemies. Only that assertion of popular will can signal our government that we are fed up with being manipulated by those profiting from the Occupation.

And third, as the infinitely stronger party in the conflict and the only Occupying Power, we Israelis must accept responsibility for our failed and oppressive policies. Only we can end the conflict.

In the Israeli conception, Zionism was intended to return to the Jews control over their own destiny. Do not let us be held hostage to politicians who endanger the future of our society. Join with us end the siege of Gaza, and with it the Occupation in its entirety. Let us, the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, declare to our leaders: we demand a just and lasting peace in this tortured Holy Land.

(Jeff Halper, the head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, was a nominee for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.)

The items emphasized in bold above are those I added emphasis to. They are intended to highlight the limitations of an Israeli/Palestinian normalizing project. Notice that Halper says nothing about the right of return of Palestinian refugees under UN Resolution 194. He does, to his credit, state the need for Israel to return all Palestinian political prisoners. He discusses the illegality of the Occupation, but his sense of the Occupation is entirely rooted in a very specific geographical territory: Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem as if these are three separate territories. As if they are disconnected–historically–from the rest of historic Palestine. Moreover, he does the typical anti-Zionist Jewish thing that for me smacks of Jewish supremacy (read: white supremacy) by suggesting that somehow Jews have some essence culturally, religiously that is more moral than others. I’ve never seen evidence to support such a claim (historically, religiously, culturally). And, like so many such activist the privileging of non-violence as a strategy is done to the exclusion of honoring Palestinians’ legal right to resist militarily. Halper’s referencing of the Fourth Geneva Convention is interesting here given that Palestinians also have a right to resist an illegal military, colonial occupation through military means under that same convention. Finally, his need to make this about balance–as if Israelis and Palestinians have equal concerns for their safety, well being, rights–that somehow Israel has “legitimate security concerns” is outrageous. It makes it clear precisely why Israelis–non-Zionist or otherwise–should be invited on such a boat or into Gaza. Obviously I am not Palestinian so such invitations are not for me to make. But I think that those who read this letter from Halper will understand what I mean and why I find it so offensive that such people are going to Gaza.

I was thinking about this boat in relation to an art project here in Lebanon in the Palestinian refugee camps. There was a project for the kids to produce art through found objects. This particular project had the kids making boats with the idea that these would symbolize their right of return to Palestine–that they would be symbolic of a journey they should be able to take from Lebanon to Palestine to return to their villages. Each child painted their name and the name of their original village on these boats. The kind of boat ride I would like to see would be one that sailed from Lebanon, filled with Palestinians, returning to their villages for good.

Finally, the image above of Dalal Moghrabi was taken today in Shatila refugee camp. There are many posters of Moghrabi and other Palestinians whose bodies were “returned” to Lebanon with the Lebanese political prisoners who were released a few weeks ago. As of yet her remains (bones, which is how most of the resistance fighters came back to Lebanon) have not been identified among three remaining fighters, I believe. But her return, like all the other Palestinians “returned” to Lebanon is bittersweet for most Palestinians here. Dalal was a refugee who became a heroic fighter who led her own team by sea to Palestine where they carried out an operation against a bus full of IAF soldiers. She was a refugee turned heroic fighter who returned to and died on her land, buried in her soil. For her to be brought back to Lebanon is a way of turning her–and the other Palestinian resistance fighters–into refugees once again.