By Huwaida Arraf*
Last month I led a group of twenty-one human rights workers on a boat from Cyprus to challenge Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. We carried toys, medicine, olive tree saplings, toolkits, a fifty-kilo bag of cement and school supplies on our small converted ferry boat.
At 2 AM on June 30, almost eighteen hours into the 230-mile journey, a colleague awakened me. The Israeli Navy was calling our boat on the VHF radio. “You are navigating towards a blockaded area. You are hereby ordered to change your course. If you do not, we will be forced to use all necessary force to stop you” (watch video below).
Nervous after a previous boat of ours was dangerously rammed at sea in December by the Israeli military, I replied, “Israeli Navy, this is Arion (the registered name of our ship). We are twenty-one unarmed civilians carrying aid for the Palestinian people of Gaza. Any blockade on Gaza is unlawful as you are the occupying force in the territory and are therefore responsible for the well-being of the civilian population there. As our boat, its cargo, and the twenty-one civilians on board do not constitute any kind of threat to Israel or its armed forces, you are obliged to allow us entry. We are proceeding to Gaza. Do not use force against us.”
Shortly thereafter our navigational systems were disabled for nearly four hours as the warnings continued. In their “final” warning to us, the Israeli Navy threatened to open fire. “Israeli Navy, we are unarmed civilians; do not use force against us. Do not shoot.” We did not stop.
We were boarded by force. Before we were separated, I saw Navy forces grabbing my husband, Adam, a filmmaker who has made documentaries from Palestine to Darfur, about the neck. Later, I learned that outside of my view, these government-sanctioned pirates pummeled Adam in order to wrest his videocamera from his grasp.
Though I know it could not have been easy for him, Adam did not fight back. He was a multi-sport athlete in high school, threw out Manny Ramirez stealing second and is one of those rare individuals who bring a football player’s intensity to peace work. But like the rest of us, Adam insists on using nonviolent means to resist Israel’s military occupation. And though in his widely hailed Cairo speech President Obama made an implicit call for nonviolence as the means to challenge the Israeli occupation, the Obama administration made no public statement on our behalf — nor did it do so three months ago, when my dear friend Bassem Abu Rahme was killed while nonviolently protesting Israeli expansionism in the West Bank that threatens to destroy his village of Bil’in.
Perhaps we were politically inept. Had we sailed toward Iran to offer assistance to civilian protesters there, we would have been a cause celebre if the Iranian government had arrested us. Iran, however, for all its troubles, is not now under foreign occupation as Palestine is. Yet as I watched the demonstrations in Iran, I could not miss the similarities to Palestine’s nonviolent resistance to Israeli occupation. I cannot count the times I have marched peacefully, waving a flag and demanding freedom for my people — with only my voice and my presence as my weapons. And sadly, the number of friends I have lost — killed by Israeli forces as, like Neda Agha-Soltan in Iran, they nonviolently demonstrated for freedom — is becoming too great a pain in my heart.
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My colleagues and I invested time and energy in this difficult journey and put our lives at risk because for too long the international community has been complicit in Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people. For too long, diplomats and world leaders have paid lip service to Palestinian human rights. For too long, the Palestinian people have been told to wait — wait in the checkpoint line, wait on the peace process, wait to have your rights recognized, wait for freedom.
Students I met on a recent successful voyage to Gaza certainly did not want to wait to be slowly suffocated and drained of their dreams. So desperate were they to escape their confinement in Gaza to obtain higher education abroad that they asked us to drop them in international waters and they would swim the rest of the way to Cyprus. This was youthful madness, but indicative of how trapped people in Gaza are today.
I was born in the blanket of freedom of the United States. My parents immigrated here, knowing that I could not be free in my homeland. But today I use my freedom to struggle as a Palestinian for my friends and relatives who endure the yokes of occupation, oppression, discrimination, exile, internment and apartheid.
Most Palestinians in the occupied territories have not lived a day free of Israel’s occupation, and Palestinian citizens of Israel continue to live as a discriminated-against minority. Just the other day, Israel’s housing minister, Ariel Atias, declared, “We can all be bleeding hearts, but I think it is unsuitable [for Jews and Palestinians] to live together [in Israel].
This is the Israel the United States funds with billions each year. Under the leadership of President Obama–or any American president, for that matter–support for this sort of raw bigotry makes no sense and is antithetical to our most cherished principles. Yet when Israeli leaders utter such contemptible language it is ignored. When Israeli soldiers fire lethal weapons at unarmed, peaceful protesters it is too often ignored. When Israeli naval boats become pirate ships — boarding a vessel that poses them no threat, arresting and beating American citizens–it is ignored.
It is ignored and Israel continues to enjoy the patronage of the United States and to present itself as a moral beacon for the world. But my generation finds racist language like that of Atias’–and the actions that result from such outdated thinking–abhorrent.
We find it unacceptable that Palestinians continue to be asked to wait, to improve our self-government and to be patient as we build ourselves toward the same rights that people elsewhere take for granted. With the fourth Palestinian generation born into refugee camps, with a new generation in Gaza being raised poorer and more desperate than the last, with my land being carved and sliced and walled for the exclusive benefit of one ethno-religious group, I say we cannot wait.
The question facing the world now must no longer be about where to squeeze a Palestinian state. The only relevant question is how to advance the immediate freedom of ten million Palestinians. There can be no more waiting, no more prevaricating, no more negotiations on that simple, beautiful human concept–freedom.
We will be free. President Obama can expedite the process by putting pressure on Israel, or he can sideline himself and the process for the next eight years. Sooner or later, however, Israel’s subjugation of us will be overturned. The current situation is untenable. Whether we live in two states or one state with equal rights for all–as in South Africa and, indeed, the United States–we will achieve our freedom. What South Africa was to students in the 1980s, Palestine is fast becoming to younger generations increasingly repulsed by the entrenchment of Israel’s dual system of law, domination of another people and ongoing confinement of 1.5 million Palestinians to a tiny parcel of land in Gaza.
So, yes, this was only one tiny humanitarian boat to Gaza. But Israel’s heavy-handed action shows how much is at stake and how shaky Israel’s grip over another people becomes when the world’s citizens speak out and take action–even as governments fall short.
* Huwaida Arraf, JD, specializes in international human rights and humanitarian law. She is the chairperson of the board of directors of the Free Gaza Movement.