If we were not Israeli Jews, if the nine ships bringing 800 peace-makers from 40 countries would be sailing with humanitarian aid to an imprisoned population of a million and a half to, say, Haiti, the flotilla now on its way to Gaza would be hailed as a monumental event, and the government of Israel would donate another 50 tons of food and materials and a brigade of army volunteers from the “rescue corps.” But we are Israelis, and the fact that such an operation is being launched against a siege we imposed on a civilian population three years ago – actually, the blockade goes back to the late 1980s – should cause us all to reflect upon how we and our country have arrived at this sorry state – how the “light unto the nations” has become one of the most oppressive states on earth, subject to international protests like this one.
The flotilla is sailing with a number of messages. First and foremost, to the government of Israel: Lift the siege on Gaza! The siege is absolutely illegal in international law, and for those of us who believe that the rule of law and human rights is the only recipe for a better world, it is incumbent upon us to join the flotilla’s call to lift the siege. Civilians cannot be the object of military and political attacks, as is the case in Gaza (which the Goldstone Report roundly criticized), nor can they be collectively punished for the policies of their political leaders. The very idea that people can be brought to their knees and forced to accept being permanently controlled and dominated, which is the thrust of Israeli policy, is both unconscionable and counter-productive. As the situation in Gaza shows, it has only stiffened resistance to the Occupation.
And then there is the urgency of addressing the humanitarian situation in Gaza, the flotilla’s second message. In a policy frightening reminiscent of other dark regimes in which Jews suffered from controlled malnutrition, our government has imposed a regime of “counting calories” on the Gaza population – imposing a “minimal dietary regime” on a million and a half people who receive as little as 850 calories a day, less than half the recommended daily intake. (Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s Chief of Staff, made a joke out of this. “It’s like a meeting with a dietitian,” he said. “We need to make the Palestinians lose weight, but not to starve to death.”) Instant coffee, fresh meat, rice, beans, spices, honey, chocolate, jam, bananas, coriander and pasta, among many others, are considered by Israel “luxury foods” for Palestinians. All this might be funny if it weren’t for the fact that, according to the World Health Organization, more than 10% of Gazan children suffer from chronic malnutrition. Two-thirds of the Gazan population face hunger on a daily basis.
Gaza is today an unreconstructed war-zone. Israel long ago destroyed the sewage system, so that people have drowned in periodic floods of sewage that have engulfed whole communities. Raw sewage flowing into the Mediterranean has polluted the only waters in which Palestinians are allowed to fish – the Israeli navy fires on fishermen who attempt to reach cleaner waters more than three miles out. Having destroyed Gaza’s only power station, much of the area suffers from blackouts, and Israel prevents adequate amounts of fuel from entering, with severe effects on hospitals. Gazans also have nowhere to live. More than 2,400 homes were destroyed in the invasion of last year and Israel, by prohibiting the import of raw materials, has prevented their being rebuilt. Thus the flotilla is bringing to Gaza 10,000 tons of humanitarian materials: temporary shelters, playgrounds for children, cement, steel and other construction materials, medical equipment and medicines and school supplies – a drop in the bucket of which is actually needed. The list alone is an indictment of our policies.
We Israeli Jews live in a managed information environment in which reality is carefully framed for us. Our government’s explanation for everything it does is “security,” and we accept that almost without question. But we have to understand a basic fact of life: four million Palestinians live under a cruel Occupation that we have nurtured for the past 43 years and which has deprived them of their fundamental rights (such as electing their own political leaders), robbed them of their land and homes (Israeli governments have demolished some 24,000 Palestinian homes in the Occupied Territories since 1967), reduced them to impoverishment and has led, in the case of Gaza, to their literal imprisonment.
Why do I have to repeat facts that seem so self-evident, that everyone knows? Because, though every informed person abroad knows these things, we Israeli Jews don’t – and we don’t care. Most Israelis know far less about what our government is doing in our name, in Gaza and elsewhere in the Occupied Territories, than the activists on the Free Gaza ships. We seldom if ever use the term “occupation” in our everyday speech (in fact, our government denied the very existence of an occupation), and we minimize the impact that our settlements, our separate roads, the Wall, hundreds of checkpoints and other facets of the Occupation have upon the political process, which we no longer believe in. Living in a prosperous “bubble,” we do not see Palestinian suffering, only ourselves as “victims.” (And so our Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman characterizes the Gaza flotillas as “violent propaganda” against Israel, as if we have nothing to do with conditions of life in Gaza or the very fact of occupation.) But this is not reality. For the Palestinians there is no minimizing their suffering or their yearning for freedom. Why, with our history, is it so difficult for us to understand resistance to oppression?
And so the third message of the flotilla is directed towards us: Take responsibility for your government’s policies! When I entered Gaza on the first Free Gaza boats in August, 2008, I issued an appeal to the Israeli public to stand in solidarity with us. I argued that ordinary people have often played key roles in history, particularly in situations like this where world governments, who should end the siege, shirk their responsibilities. We must resist the self-serving and disempowering statements of our political leaders who would have us believe that there is no solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, that there is “no partner for peace,” that we are doomed to perpetual war and, therefore, we must become permanent oppressors. The Palestinians are not our enemies; our own political leaders are. The very fact that I, an Israeli Jew, was welcomed by the people of Gaza makes that very point, and it is the message they asked me to convey to you. But they also insist on their rights: self-determination.
We of the Israeli peace camp refuse to be enemies with our Palestinian neighbors. We recognize that as the infinitely stronger party in the conflict, we Israelis must accept responsibility for our failed and oppressive policies.
In the meantime, the flotilla to Gaza has already succeeded. If the Israeli government allows the ships into Gaza, the power of the will have prevailed once more. If it chooses to stop the flotilla, it will only highlight the existence of the illegal and inhumane siege and bolster international efforts to end it. In both cases Israel loses the battle for legitimacy in the international community. This is the beauty of non-violent direct action. It is only a matter of time before it will be forced to relinquish control over the Palestinians and their lands.
Let us, Israeli Jews who aspire to become an integral part of this region rather than a foreign implant at war with its inhabitants, begin to take our fate in our own hands. We must side with the people of Gaza and the activists on the boats against the unjust and immoral policies of our own government. This is what the good people of the flotilla are trying to tell us, what people all over the world are trying to tell us: unless we take responsibility for our actions and end this terrible conflict with the Palestinians, we will not remain here. And unless we find a way to a just peace rather than stand on the side of occupation, oppression and injustice, we may delay that day by force, but our society will not survive. For our sakes as well as the people of Gaza, let us, the Israeli Jewish public, board the boats to end the siege of Gaza.