ON WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 2, two ships quietly departed from the port of Fethiye in south-western Turkey en route to Gaza. Of the 27 passengers aboard the MV Saoirse and the Tahrir, 14 were Irish citizens.
The main aim of the mission, dubbed Freedom Waves to Gaza, was to show solidarity with the ordinary people of Gaza who have lost their basic freedoms as a result of a blockade imposed by Israel. While the Tahrir carried $30,000 worth of much-needed medical aid, our intention was not to bring “charity” to helpless victims, but to peacefully uphold the right of the Palestinian people to unimpeded access to international waters and air space, in accordance with international law and all United Nations resolutions. Our mission was thus above all symbolic: an affirmation of the proposition that the Palestinians of Gaza are entitled to the same fundamental human rights as other citizens around the world enjoy.
At 10:58 am (Irish time) on Friday, November 4th, those of us based in the shore team office in Dublin received an urgent call from the MV Saoirse informing us that Israeli warships were rapidly approaching. The call was abruptly cut off, and we were unable to re-establish communication. We subsequently learned that the boat was violently and dangerously boarded in international waters, and its passengers taken against their will to an Israeli prison.
Given the obvious risks involved, why did 27 people on two small boats voluntarily undertake this latest journey to Gaza? The Israeli government has suggested that they were troublemakers and publicity-seekers. The truth, however, is very different.
‘Gazans are in an open-air prison’
On September 30th, 46 civil society organisations in Gaza – among them organisations representing teachers, health service workers, women and children – issued an urgent call to “people of conscience worldwide” to sail to Gaza to highlight “the inhumanity of keeping of 1.5 million Gazans in an open-air prison.” They wrote: “the illegal closure of the Gaza Strip must end…do not forget that the blockade and the suffering continue in Gaza.”
We in the Irish Ship to Gaza campaign are part of a broad-based movement of concerned citizens seeking to respond to this call for international solidarity in the face of continuing inaction by our governments. In so doing we are inspired by a long history of non-violent, direct action against injustice, from Gandhi’s methods of non-violent resistance to British colonial rule in India to the American civil rights movement.
We are also inspired by contemporary popular movements, from the Arab Spring to the “Occupy” protest camps currently spreading around the world, in which large numbers of ordinary people have joined together to reclaim democratic control over the conditions of their existence.
Democracy, in this sense of the word, is not simply a system of electing a government, or the name of a particular set of political institutions. As the root meaning of the word – joining demos (the people) with kratia (power) – suggests, it refers to a state of affairs in which the people are empowered.
‘How is Israel’s security enhanced by this situation?’
Israel’s policy of collective punishment of Gaza’s 1.6 million people, half of whom are children under the age of 16, flies in the face of such democratic aspirations. As Robert Naiman has recently observed: because of political decisions taken by a small number of politicians in Tel Aviv, Palestinians in Gaza are prevented from exporting their goods, travelling freely, farming their land, fishing their waters or importing construction materials to rebuild their homes and schools and hospitals following Israel’s savage aerial bombardment of the territory in December 2008.
As ever, the justification given is Israeli state “security”. But it is unclear how the security of people living in Israel is enhanced by creating a situation in which, according to Amnesty International, four out of five Gazans depend on external aid to survive.
This response also begs the question of Palestinian security and well-being. Every nation, and this includes the Palestinian nation, has the right to defend itself. But this does not give license to a state to subjugate a neighbouring populace or illegally occupy its territory, impose embargoes on access to humanitarian aid and ignore an abundance of United Nations resolutions without sanction.
International law is very clear on this point. The Israeli government cites the recently published Palmer Report to support its view that the blockade of Gaza is legal. But this was a political report written by and for politicians, one moreover which acknowledges that it was “not asked to make determinations of the legal issues” associated with the blockade.
‘We understand many Israelis’ fear’
Those charged with making such legal determinations have reached very different conclusions. In September 2010, the comprehensive and authoritative UN Human Rights Council Inquiry Report concluded that the Israeli blockade of Gaza is illegal, its policies there a form of collective punishment, and its interception of the first Freedom Flotilla both illegal and unjustified. The illegality of the blockade has been re-affirmed by numerous international law experts and a wide range of human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Most recently, on September 13th of this year, a group of five UN Special Rapporteurs for Human Rights declared that “the blockade of Gaza continues to violate international law.”
We in Irish Ship to Gaza understand and appreciate the fear many Israelis have that unless they are strong and absolutely secure, those who wish to do them harm will perpetrate a second Holocaust. But as history has shown time and time again, the pursuit of absolute security is illusory. It also exacts a terrible price: in the case of Palestine, the dispossession and subjugation of the Palestinian people, in excess of 6400 Palestinians killed by Israeli troops and more than 500 Israeli civilians and military personnel killed by Palestinians since September 2000, and the inexorable militarisation and brutalisation of Israeli society.
There is another way. It follows a path well-trodden by peacemakers, and illuminated by an enduring tradition of social justice to which the Jewish people have contributed so much. It begins with an immediate end to an illegal, immoral and indiscriminate maritime blockade the scope of which extends well beyond any genuine security concerns.
As waves of popular democratic revolution sweep the globe, Israel must either acknowledge the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Palestinian people or find itself increasingly isolated and ultimately engulfed.
Laurence Davis is a coordinator of and spokesperson for the Irish Ship to Gaza campaign.