“The world sees a great and ongoing injustice. They want a just Israel. They see an Israel that occupies and is clearly unjust, and they believe they should do something. We should thank them for this from the bottom of our hearts.” Gideon Levy, 2006
FACES OF COURAGE: being part ‘of that.’
Last night I walked down through the rain to All Souls Unitarian Church on Lexington Avenue and 80th street for talks headlined by a woman who was a participant in the recent humanitarian efforts to Gaza. The murderous results of that flotilla of ships trying to enter the port of Gaza are by now well known. Much has been written and said (and screamed and argued) about this in the media and among fellow citizens. Emotions ran high. For simply re-posting groups like Jewish Voice For Peace I was ‘cautioned’ by some who feel they have the right to judge others, that they know best about the reality of the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Others were ranting about the Palestinians, how they aren’t even a real people; that the name is an aberration of Philistines. In the past I have gone to pro-Palestinian demonstrations that, despite the horrors the people of Gaza endure, were upbeat demonstrations relatively free of the kind of hatred aimed at them from the anti-protesters on the sidelines.
So, I wanted to hear for myself what someone who actually was involved had to say. I was surprised to see a woman my age, perhaps older; someone who could be a grandmother at home with her gardening, or her books or her grandchildren or whatever unassuming older women do. But Ann Wright had gone to Gaza. She was an ardent anti-war activist; a one-time U.S. Army Colonel who could no longer stand by our military’s involvement in unjust wars. From the press release: “Ann is thoroughly familiar with the situation in Gaza as well, having made three visits to the Gaza Strip in 2009 after the Israeli invasion.”
It was a hastily organized event yet the auditorium of the church, aptly called “Friendship Hall”, was filled to capacity and volunteers were scrambling to add seats all through the talk. I heard an exchange between Ann and friends. One welcomed her and said she was so glad Ann was available to give a talk and Ann responded, “Well, we gotta talk. We surely do.” Another embraced her on the way in and said, “Of course you were there. Where else would you be?”
And she began her talk by saying, “When I heard that word flotilla, I thought, I’ve got to be part of that.” She spoke to a room of mostly older people, men and women in equal numbers. A lot of them wore t-shirts that read WE WILL NOT BE SILENT. I was struck by the noticeable absence of young people, those under say 30 or 40. But I have experienced this before in town hall meetings with the likes of Tom Hayden. The graying heads are much more numerous these days.
Anne was on The Challenger II. For a while the passengers were off loaded to the Turkish ship Mavi Mara because their boat had steering problems. She was on that boat for 36 hours. She got to know families of the 9 people who were murdered by the Israeli soldiers on that ship, one shot execution style in the head and 50 who were wounded.
Back on The Challenger II she told how they were stopped in International waters, 70 miles off the coast of Gaza. She stressed that a bigger ship blocked their path and that, in fact, would have been enough to derail them. But the Zodiacs carrying Israeli soldiers, that had been trailing them, pulled up and boarded their ship at 4:30 in the morning. These were young kids, she said, 18, 19 and 20 and they were clearly scared. Bigger Zodiacs carrying 15-20 armed commandoes boarded the Turkish ship the Mavi Mara. The soldiers lobbed stun grenades, at first, onto the 6-story ship then something called noise grenades to disorient and create fear. Ann reported that where those Israeli soldiers were clearly beaten back with broom handles and pipes ripped from the ship’s railing by a few of the protesters (and which she condemned) what was not shown was the fact that the Captain demanded the protestors cease and the bloodied Israeli soldiers were brought below to First Aid and treated and released.
She described how they were herded into small cabins and searched thoroughly. All electronic devices were taken from them—cameras, cell phones, recording equipment, laptops—and have NOT been returned. Their luggage was searched, torn apart, and dumped into a massive heap. When they thought they were getting their personal luggage back they opened bags to find nothing of their own belongings. They estimate over a million dollars of personal equipment was taken, stolen by the Israeli military
The press were handcuffed like the rest of them she said, with no respect for international law. They are charging Israel with piracy, kidnapping, murder and theft. They were not unaware that what they were doing was controversial. But it was a mission worth taking because it has shown what citizen activism can do. It’s put the Israeli military under great scrutiny. It’s put the disproportionate use of force in perspective: 30 people in 6 years killed by those rockets. It was 24 hours before they had access to their consulate.
The saddest report was that a woman who had closed the eyes of her murdered husband was given no special accommodation as a widow; manhandled like the rest of them.
Ann had another bone to pick with the Israeli government. Prisoners are not to be paraded and photographed and they were. They made a one and a half hour drive to a brand new prison in Barsheba where they were made to sweep it out before they were locked in. Who do they intend to put in those prisons when they were gone she wondered. In answer to their numerous questions regarding their fate, a woman guard had only a one-word response: “Shalib.”
Adam Shapiro followed Ann after a standing ovation for her. He is a co-founder of the Free Gaza movement. He called for a moment of silence for the murdered activists. He then spoke passionately about how this is not about Hamas. It’s about Palestinians. He admitted that true to an old journalist phrase, “If it bleeds, it needs,” and that the actions of the Israeli military brought greater attention to the humanitarian cause. Violence gets the attention. He urged that more Americans get involved because sadly the lives of Palestinians are not worth as much in the press as the lives of Americans and other foreigners. The White House called the murders of the peace activists “regrettable” and the unfortunate words of Helen Thomas “reprehensible.” He said it was critical to have a bigger American contingent in the next flotilla. And there would be a next one, hopefully before the end of the summer. Doubts are being raised about the video and audio released by Israel. He spoke of the propaganda, the fake video footage that have even come from old training exercises. The military thought they had disarmed the ship’s satellite feed but in fact there was a back up second satellite and that footage will be released.
“We have John Stewart on our side,” he laughed, “and we just need to get him on the next boat.”
“We are the international community,” he closed. “We, the people.” I looked around Friendship Hall and thought: “We are the people.”