Last week, newly arrived in Athens as part of the U.S. Boat to Gaza project, our team of activists gathered for nonviolence training. We are here to sail to Gaza, in defiance of an Israeli naval blockade, in our ship, The Audacity of Hope. Our team and nine other ships’ crews from countries around the world want Israel to end its lethal blockade of Gaza by letting our crews through to shore to meet with Gazans. The U.S. ship will bring over 3,000 letters of support to a population suffering its fifth continuous decade of de facto occupation, now in the form of a military blockade controlling Gaza’s sea and sky, punctuated by frequent deadly military incursions, that has starved Gaza’s economy and people to the exact level of cruelty considered acceptable to the domestic population of our own United States, Israel’s staunchest ally.
The international flotilla last year was brutally attacked and the Turkish ship fired on from the air, with a cherry-picked video clip of the resulting panic presented to the world to justify nine deaths, one of a United States citizen, most of them execution-style killings. So it’s essential, albeit a bit bizarre, to plan for how we will respond to military assaults. Israeli news reports say that their naval commandos are preparing to use attack dogs and snipers to board the boats. In the past, they have used water cannons, Taser guns, stink bombs, sound bombs, stun guns, tear gas, and pepper spray against flotilla passengers. I’ve tried to make a mental list of plausible responses: remove glasses, don life jacket, affix clip line (which might prevent sliding off the deck), carry a half onion to offset effect of tear gas, remember to breathe.
Israel Defense Forces are reportedly training for a fierce assault intended to “secure” each boat in the Freedom Flotilla 2. As passengers specifically on the U.S. boat, we may be spared the most violent responses, although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has not ruled out such violent responses and has preemptively certified that any response we may “provoke” (in sailing from international waters to a coastline that is not part of Israel) is an expression of Israel’s “right to defend themselves.” Israel says it is prepared for a number of scenarios, ranging “from no violence” (which it knows full well to expect) to “extreme violence.” We are preparing ourselves not to panic and to practice disciplined nonviolence whatever scenario Israel decides to enact.
If they overcome our boat swiftly, they will presumably handcuff us and possibly hood us before commandeering our ship toward an Israeli port, removing us from the ship, jailing us, and (judging from their past actions) deporting us. I don’t know what country I would be deported to, but I would eventually return to my home city of Chicago and to a safety I cannot share with the desperate people of Gaza, or friends from throughout this region so troubled by war, much of it instigated by my own country.
The slogan of our flotilla is “Stay Human.” It’s advice that exposure to violence, real or imagined, always tempts us to forget. Young friends I have met in Afghanistan, faced with a pervasive, everyday precariousness I cannot easily imagine, have expressed this idea in a YouTube video that utterly takes my breath away. They ask Gazan youth to hold on to hope and the capacity for childlike joy: “To friends in Gaza: don’t stay angry for too long. Stay together, and love from us in Afghanistan!”
My fellow passenger John Barber recently visited Gaza, and this morning he told me a harrowing story of a Gazan family, that of a farmer named Nasr, living near the Gaza-Israel buffer zone. The first attack took place in June 2010. To quote John’s Web site: “the Israeli army attacked the family home while the children were playing outside.… Nasr’s wife, Naama, was in the front yard when a tank 500 meters from the home fired shells packed with nails at the home. Nasr’s wife, torn to ribbons, bled to death in the yard when ambulances were not permitted down the narrow dirt road to his home.” Ambulance stoppages are a frequent punitive measure used against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
“After the second attack,” which occurred in April 2011, “Nasr’s family moved to a house in the village, near to the cemetery where his wife was buried. One night, around midnight, Nasr woke to find his children gone. He went outside and found them at their mother’s grave.” The next day he took them away from that village and back to their land, to try and put the past behind them, and await a future they can barely hope will be kind.
I hope that our ship will make it to Gaza. I hope Johnny Barber can again visit Nasr, and that I can visit the family and the trapped young men who sheltered me during the final days of the crushing December 2008 Operation Cast Lead bombardment. I hope that our ship will make it out of dock—acting on an “anonymous complaint,” the government here has demanded an inspection of several days before they will allow our (entirely seaworthy) ship to sail. With its world-headline-producing economic troubles, Greece seems incredibly vulnerable to the intense pressure that the Israeli and U.S. governments seem openly prepared to exert. We hope that neither economic nor political blackmail will succeed at stopping our ship from leaving the spot near Athens where it is waiting to receive us.
“Please don’t lose the human capacity for happiness.” My Afghan friends in the video urge us to stay human. Ali, who speaks in the video, has been harassed by Afghan security forces since becoming active with the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers. So has his family. Other of his companions have faced death threats, interrogation, arson, and theft. Their persistence encourages and guides me, and I struggle to let their persistence urge me on, because staying human is also about doing what is right.
I think of Nasr’s children watching their mother die, and I think that if they’re going to stay human then I and my countrymen ought to help. We have to become more human than we’ve so far managed to be: We have to make sacrifices to stop the crimes that are ultimately being committed in our names. In different ways, we have to risk the consequences of being where we need to be when we need to be there. We have to stand up to injustice and with the victims of injustice and rely on our opponents to find their humanity in time, given enough examples of what it can look like. When we find ourselves, against all odds, staying human, that example surprises us and helps sustain us in hope for the power of humanity. We hope we will be allowed through to Gaza, we hope that the siege will be lifted, and we hope that in this time when humankind can so little afford the nightmares of greed and ignorance that rend the Middle East and that render our leaders incapable of uniting to address ever more desperate, ever more frightening global crises, we as a species, one with no assurance of its perpetual survival, will somehow find some way to stay human.