I’m going to be a passenger on the Audacity of Hope, the US boat in this summer’s international flotilla to break the illegal and deadly Israeli siege of Gaza.
Organisers, supporters and passengers aim to nonviolently end the brutal collective punishment imposed on Gazan residents since 2006, when the Israeli government began a stringent air, naval and land blockade of the Gaza Strip, explicitly to punish Gaza’s residents for choosing the Hamas government in a democratic election.
Both the Hamas and the Israeli governments have indiscriminately killed civilians in repeated attacks, but the vast majority of these outrages over the length of the conflict have been inflicted by Israeli soldiers and settlers on unarmed Palestinians. I was witness to one such attack when last in Gaza two years ago, under heavy Israeli bombardment in a civilian neighborhood in Rafah.
In January 2009, I lived with a family in Rafah during the final days of the “Operation Cast Lead” bombing. We were a few streets down from an area where there was heavy bombing. Employing its ever-replenished stockpile of US weapons, the Israeli government sought to destroy tunnels beneath the Egyptian border through which food, medicine, badly-needed building supplies, and possibly a few weapons as well, were evading the internationally-condemned blockade and entering Gaza.
Throughout that terrible assault, Israel pounded civilians in Gaza, turning villages, homes, refugee camps, schools, mosques and infrastructure into rubble. According to Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, the attack killed 1,385 Palestinians, nearly a quarter of them minors, with an uncountable number more to succumb, in the months and years following, to malnutrition, disease and suicidal despair, the consequences of forced impoverishment under a still continuing siege that salts Gaza’s dreadful wounds by preventing it from even starting to rebuild. All I could feel at the time was that the people in the Gaza Strip were horribly trapped, almost paralysed.
The day of the ceasefire, when the sounds of bombing stopped, my young friends insisted that we must move quickly to visit the Al Shifaa hospital in Gaza City. Doctors there were shaken and stunned, after days of trying to save lives in a hopelessly overcrowded emergency room, with blood pooling at their feet. Dr Nafez Abu Shabham, head of Al Shifaa’s burns unit, put his head in his hands and spoke incredulously to us. “For 22 days, the world watched,” he lamented, “and no country tried to stop the killing.”
He may well be putting his head in his hands again today, as too many of us have stopped even watching. “Human rights groups in Gaza are urgently requesting international aid groups and donor groups to intervene and deliver urgent medical aid to Palestinian hospitals in Gaza,” according to an Al Jazeera report on 14 June: “Palestinian officials say that Gaza’s medicinal stock is nearly empty and is in crisis. This affects first aid care, in addition to all other levels of medical procedures.”
After the attack, I visited the Gaza City dormitory of a young university student with two of his friends. It was a shambles. We sifted through broken glass and debris, trying to salvage some notebooks and texts. Their lives have been like that. They’ve since graduated but there is no work. “The Gaza Strip enters its fifth year of a full Israeli blockade by land, air and sea with unemployment at 45.2%, one of the highest rates in the world,” according to a UN aid agency report (14 June).
Harvard scholar Sara Roy, in a report for Harvard’s Crimson Review in 2009, noted that: “Gaza is an example of a society that has been deliberately reduced to a state of abject destitution, its once productive population transformed into one of aid-dependent paupers... After Israel’s December (2008) assault, Gaza’s already-compromised conditions have become virtually unlivable. Livelihoods, homes, and public infrastructure have been damaged or destroyed on a scale that even the Israel Defense Forces admitted was indefensible. In Gaza today there is no private sector to speak of and no industry.”
When the bombing had stopped, we visited homes and villages where the unarmed had been killed. Sabrina Tavernise of the New York Times would later verify that, in the village of Al Atatra, IDF soldiers had fired white phosphorus missiles into the home of a woman named Sabah Abu Halemi, leaving her badly burned and burning to death her husband and three of her children. I visited her in the hospital, watching a kindly Palestinian doctor spend his greatly-needed time off sitting at her bedside, offering only wordless comfort as she gripped his hand.
We must not turn away from suffering in Gaza. We must continue trying to connect with Gazans living under siege.
There is some risk involved in this flotilla. The Israeli government threatens to board each ship in the flotilla with snipers and attack dogs. A year ago, the Israeli navy fired on the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, from the air, then documented its passengers’ panicked response as their justification for executing nine activists, including one young US citizen, Furkhan Dogan, shot several times in the back and head at close range. Israel then refused to co-operate with an international investigation.
The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, amounting to what is internationally recognised as an apartheid system, could end in peace, with Israel abandoning paranoia and racial violence to allow peace.
Apartheid ended in South Africa without the wave of bloodshed and reprisals that its supporters claimed to fear as their excuse for holding on to the wealth and power which their system afforded them. They achieved greater peace and safety for themselves and their children by finding the courage to finally allow peace, safety, and freedom to their neighbours. It’s a lesson the US government has all too often missed.
This June, the governments of Israel and (above all) the United States must finally embrace the audacity of hope.