Following my post about my plans to participate in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in opposition to the blockade of Gaza, "Why We Must Sail to Gaza," David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, responded by challenging me to answer his concerns about Hamas and Israeli security.
Of course, I welcome the opportunity to respond to David's concerns, and I thank David for giving me the opportunity to do so. Moving the focus of attention from the arena of violence to the arena of engagement and dialogue -- that's a key component of what nonviolent resistance is all about.
The overall thrust of David's piece appears to be that Hamas is a monster, and therefore whatever the Israeli government does -- including the blockade of Gaza -- which is claimed to be "in defense against Hamas," is justified.
The logic of the argument that the blockade of Gaza is automatically justified by the threat of violence to Israel from Hamas should be familiar to Americans. It's essentially the same logic that the Bush-Cheney Administration used in justifying its decisions to torture detainees -- ignore the Geneva Conventions and the right of habeas corpus, and invade Iraq after 9/11: your concerns about human rights and international law are very pretty. But now we are facing a terrible enemy, so your pretty concerns about human rights and international law are no longer relevant.
A year ago, peace and solidarity activists tried to break the blockade of Gaza with an international flotilla of ships. They failed, in the sense that the Israeli government attacked the flotilla, took control of the ships, and brought the ships to Israel. They succeeded, in the sense that the flotilla and the Israeli attack brought attention to the Israeli-US-Egyptian siege of Gaza, dramatically increasing political pressure on the three governments, leading to a partial easing of the siege.
Now an even larger flotilla, with the participation of more ships and more activists from more countries - including, crucially, the U.S. ship Audacity of Hope - is preparing to set sail in June.
And - God willing - when the Audacity of Hope sets sail, I will be on it.
It is our hope and expectation that the Israeli government, after all the negative publicity it received for its attack on last year's flotilla, will allow our ships to pass to Gaza unimpeded. It is our hope and expectation that the Obama Administration will pressure the government of Israel not to attack us, especially with a U.S. boat with well-known American peace activists on board participating in the flotilla.
Leading Israeli politicians have claimed that Israel's conduct has been vindicated, distorting Justice Goldstone's op-ed so comprehensively that Amnesty International excoriated the Israeli spin as being "based on a deliberate misinterpretation of Justice Goldstone's comments". Meanwhile in Congress, every bill, letter, and press statement on the subject has parroted the very same narrative that Israel has been absolved of all allegations of wrong-doing in the wake of Justice Goldstone's op-ed.
With all the ballyhoo about the alleged "existential" conflict between Israel and Iran, you might think that the news that Iran is trying to send an aid boat to Gaza, in the wake of the Israeli military attack on the Turkish aid boat that killed eight Turks and an American, would occasion a great wailing and gnashing of teeth in the American media. But the American reaction so far seems rather muted, and Iranian government officials, who in the past have at times seemed followers of the Saddam Hussein school of propaganda ("you will be buried in the sand while your wives sleep with rich Arabs,") now seem more loyal to the Maz Jobrani school ("I am Persian, like the cat. Meow!")
Iran's Fars news agency also reported that top Iranian officials will allow two other ships to leave, but its navy will not escort them.
"Maj. Gen. Salami, deputy commander IRGC (Islamic Revolution Guard Corps), discussing the humanitarian aid ships to Gaza, said that protecting these ships is not on the agenda of the IRGC," Fars said.
You may have heard that the IRGC has a force called the "Qods Brigade." It's a provocative name - Qods is the Arabic name of Jerusalem. Imagine if, during the struggle against apartheid, the government of Angola had an elite fighting force called the "Johannesburg Brigade." Presumably some white South Africans might have regarded that as provocative.
Brave words. And yet: now that the Iranian aid ship could clearly use a bit of protection - if it truly intends to sail to Gaza, as opposed to just claiming that it will do so - the bravely-named "Qods Brigade" apparently has other business to attend to.
Until quite recently, it seemed that Turkey had a clearly defined role in the Middle East, from the standpoint of U.S. policy. They were the "good Muslims," who were part of NATO, who contributed troops to U.S. wars, and who had good relations with Israel.
In the past few weeks, therefore, some Americans may have been startled to see the government of Turkey seemingly playing a very different role. First, together with Brazil, Turkey negotiated a nuclear fuel swap agreement with Iran to defuse the standoff over Iran's nuclear program and forestall a controversial U.S./Israeli push for new sanctions against Iran at the U.N. Although the deal was very similar to one proposed by the Obama Administration - and Brazil and Turkey had a letter from Obama encouraging them to press forward with the deal - Obama Administration officials dismissed the deal, and far from being grateful to Turkey and Brazil, made a show of being angry. But instead of being chastened, Turkey and Brazil insisted their deal was good - invoking their letter from Obama to demonstrate their case - and insisted that the U.S. should pursue it.
In the past few weeks, Turkey and Brazil have elbowed their way to the Big Table of international diplomacy: first by negotiating a nuclear fuel swap agreement to try to push the US back towards diplomatic efforts to resolve its conflict with Iran, and then - in the case of Turkey - by its support of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla's efforts to break the Israeli-Egyptian-US siege of Gaza's civilian population - efforts that continue today as the Irish-flagged Rachel Corrie proceeds towards Gaza, amid silence - not enough protest, apparently - from the Obama Administration.
But it appears that if Turkey and Brazil want to have effective input at the Big Table, they are going to have to play hardball effectively with the United States: they have to continue to show the U.S. that they have the power to obstruct the U.S. from getting what it wants if the US continues to ignore their concerns.
Former UN Assistant Secretary General Denis Halliday said it was imperative that the Obama administration supported Ireland's call on the Israeli authorities to ensure safe passage for the Irish-flagged Rachel Corrie to carry humanitarian aid to Gaza, the Irish Times reports. Speaking by satellite phone from on board the Rachel Corrie, Halliday called on Irish-Americans to lobby the Obama Administration: "We also feel there is a role for the Irish diaspora here, in the US and elsewhere to lobby politicians over this continued illegal blockade of Gaza, which is causing such hardship to the Palestinian people."
Halliday has some experience with this issue, having resigned from his position as UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq in 1998 over the impact of UN/US sanctions on Iraqi civilians.
The issue of the Gaza blockade has tremendous resonance in Ireland, partly because of Ireland's high degree of engagement in international humanitarian causes - John Ging, head of the UN Relief and Works Agency in Gaza, who had called on the international community to break the siege by sending ships loaded with aid, is also Irish - but also, of course, because the Irish people have some experience with the consequences for civilians of a colonial blockade.
How do you know when someone is serious about pursuing a strategy of nonviolent resistance until victory for justice is achieved?
When they refuse to turn back in the face of state violence. Damn the commandos. Full speed ahead.
The Irish Times reports:
The MV Rachel Corrie is ploughing ahead with its attempt to deliver aid to Gaza despite yesterday's attack by the Israeli navy on Gaza-bound ship the Mavi Marmara.
The cargo ship, which has four Irish nationals and five Malaysians aboard, is due to arrive in Gazan waters tomorrow, a spokeswoman for the Irish Palestine Solidarity Campaign said.
The vessel became separated from the main aid flotilla after being delayed for 48 hours in Cyprus due to logistical reasons.
Nobel laureate Maireád Corrigan-Maguire, former UN assistant secretary general Denis Halliday, and husband and wife Derek and Jenny Graham are the Irish nationals on board.
Speaking from the ship today, Mr Graham said the vessel was carrying educational materials, construction materials and some toys. "Everything aboard has been inspected in Ireland," he said. "We would hope to have safe passage through."
Might the Israeli military attack the Rachel Corrie, as the Israeli military attacked the Mavi Marmara? Would the Obama Administration permit such an Israeli attack on the Rachel Corrie, as the Obama Administration permitted the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara?
Note that in particular, under international law, an Israeli military attack on the Rachel Corrie in international waters would be an attack on the government and people of Ireland, because the Rachel Corrie is an Irish-flagged vessel. As former British Ambassador Craig Murray recently wrote:
Sometimes the Israeli occupation authorities and their allies try to project a "mad dog" image to their opponents: don't bother trying to resist our power, because we are ready to crush you by any means necessary, and no-one who matters to us will care what means we use.
But as the Israeli government reaction to the Gaza Freedom Flotilla shows, it ain't necessarily so.
Al Jazeera reports:
Some Israeli officials see the situation as potentially disastrous in terms of public relations.
"We can't win on this one in terms of PR," Yigal Palmor, a foreign ministry spokesman, said.
"If we let them throw egg at us, we appear stupid with egg on our face. If we try to prevent them by force, we appear as brutes."
You can read every word ever penned or spoken by Gandhi, King, or Thoreau, and you will never find such an eloquent expression of the power of nonviolence as the statement of the spokesman of the Israeli foreign ministry.
In the face of an effective act of nonviolent resistance, the oppressor faces two unappetizing choices: concede ground, thereby undermining the image of absolute power the oppressor wants to project, and therefore encouraging further resistance; or resist with force, thereby projecting the image of "brutes," and therefore encouraging further resistance.
You can see why the Israeli government spokesman would be irritated.
Another great power of an effective mass nonviolent resistance action is when it gives "bystanders" a choice of taking sides - whether they want the opportunity provided by that choice or not.
The government of Cyprus had the opportunity to take a side, and it decided to try to obstruct the flotilla.
Today is the seventh anniversary of the death of Rachel Corrie in Gaza by Israeli government bulldozer, and the anniversary this year comes at an unusually bad time in US-Israel relations - by which I mean, of course, that it comes at an unusually wonderful time in US-Israel relations, one of those rare times in which the US appears to put some real effort into establishing narrower boundaries for Israel's behavior towards the Palestinians.
It's easy for long-time observers to be cynical. We've seen it all before: strong words from the US to Israel followed by abject retreats. And there's something in our collective consciousness that counts false hope a greater danger than false pessimism. The pessimist will be right more often; but the optimist will contribute more to positive social change. Each person has to ask herself which is more important: to be right more often, or to contribute more to positive social change?
It's not every day that the press carries reports that the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, the top military commander of all our armed forces, and the Vice-President of the United States are telling Israel that its treatment of the Palestinians is endangering US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. As Mark Perry notes in the cover story at Foreign Policy, "There are important and powerful lobbies in America.... But no lobby is as important, or as powerful, as the U.S. military."