On the heels of the Great March of Return in Gaza, when Israeli soldiers killed 112 Palestinian protesters and wounded thousands more, a four-ship Freedom Flotilla will set sail for Gaza this month from a port in the Mediterranean Sea. Although it is an act of piracy for Israel to confiscate ships in international waters, the Israeli military will most likely do just that. The very first Freedom Flotilla boats traveled to Gaza in 2008, and four managed to get there – the first international boats to do so in over 40 years. Since then, however, the Israelis have intercepted every boat. But the heroic attempts to reach Gaza, year after year, draw international attention to the siege and the plight of the Palestinians who live there.
Representing the United States on the 2018 international flotilla will be Joe Meadors. Why is this 71-year-old retired accountant risking his life to show solidarity with the people of Gaza? We talked to Joe from his home in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Can you give us some background about yourself?
I have had a lifelong interest in the Middle East. I lived there as a child, when my father had a job with the Saudi oil company Aramco. After graduating from middle school there, I went back to the states. I enrolled in Oklahoma State University, but dropped out and joined the Navy. I was on active duty from 1966-1969 and in the inactive reserve until 1972. From 1980-1989 I worked for Aramco as an accountant and lived in Saudi Arabia. My wife was with me, but after she went back to school in Corpus Christi, Texas, we moved back to the states. I have been living in Corpus Christi, Texas since then, working as an accountant until I retired seven years ago.
How did you get involved around Palestine?
I had heard about the oppression of Palestinians when I was growing up in Saudi Arabia because we had Palestinian friends. They were forced to flee their homes during the Nakba (Catastrophe) in 1948, when some 700,000 Palestinians were displaced by the Israelis. But my personal connection happened in 1967, when I was directly attacked by the Israeli military.
Yes, it seems like a defining moment in your life was when the Navy boat you were on, the USS Liberty, was attacked. Can you tell us about that?
I was Navy signalman on the USS Liberty, which was an electronic intelligence-gathering ship. We were cruising international waters off the Egyptian coast during what became known as the Israeli-Arab Six Day War. Suddenly, without provocation, we found ourselves under attack from Israeli planes and torpedo boats. They mowed us down, even machine gunning our life rafts and jamming our radios so we couldn’t call for help. When the attack was over, 34 of our sailors were dead and over 170 wounded.
The Israelis insisted it was an accident, that they had mistaken us for an old Egyptian tramp steamer. They apologized and paid $6 million in compensation. But none of us believed their story. Our ship was prominently flying an American flag and an Israeli aircraft had been flying over us the whole morning. They clearly knew who we were. We have been demanding an investigation for decades now, meeting with various administrations and members of congress. But we never succeeded.
The best explanation I have heard is that the Israelis wanted to invade the Golan Heights, which belonged to Syria, and didn’t want the US government to know about it until after the fact. Whatever the case, we deserve to know what happened and why. Some say we should give up after all these years. I say there is no statute of limitations on war crimes, and the Israelis should still be held accountable. That’s why we continue to speak at conventions, such as the gatherings of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, although we’ve been banned from the Legion because they don’t want anyone to talk bad about Israel. They don’t want to deal with the lobbyists from AIPAC, who consider us anti-Semitic simply because we want answers.
So how did you hook up with the Freedom Flotillas?
I had read about this group’s efforts to deliver humanitarian supplies to Gaza, and that one of the participants in the 2010 flotilla was going to be former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. I sent her an email asking if she could get me an invitation to participate, which she did. I got a call from one of the organizers on a Wednesday; a few days later I was on a plane to meet them in Europe.
What was your experience like in 2010?
There were six ships that time. I was a passenger on the Greek ship, the Sfedoni. There were about two dozen people on my ship, coming from all over the world. We left from a port in Athens. After a few days of sailing, we were on the high seas about 66 miles off the coast of Gaza, clearly conducting legal activities in international waters, when a few dozen Israeli soldiers jumped onboard, their faces covered with balaclavas, and took over the ship. They used tasers and kicked some of the people who were trying to protect the captain. We were put on planes and deported.
But the real tragedy happened on the big ship in our flotilla, the Mavi Marmara. The Israelis took over that ship violently, opening fire and killing nine Turks and one Turkish-American. It was a horrible tragedy, but once again, the Israelis were never held accountable.
After such a traumatic experience, why would you ever agree to go on another flotilla a year later, and then again in 2015? What does your wife say?
My wife is sympathetic but of course she worries about me. She asks why it has to be me. I tell her, “If not me, then who?” In any case, in both 2011 and 2015, our boats were not allowed to leave the ports in Athens and Crete because of the pressure the Israeli government put on the Greek government.
How are you feeling about your upcoming trip?
This trip is happening right after the protests called the Great March of Return, when so many people in Gaza were killed and wounded because they were demanding the right to return to the villages they were forced to flee in 1948. The Great March of Return is part of a 70-year struggle for the Palestinians’ right to live in the ancestral lands their families left behind.
It is so sad that they are still protesting for this basic right and that the international community has done nothing to help them after so many years. Even worse, the US government facilitates the Israeli siege of Gaza by giving billions of dollars to the Israeli military every year.
The people are living in Gaza under miserable conditions. They have no ability to enter or leave their little strip of land. There are no airports, trains, buses, or ships to take people in and out. Medicines are in short supply. They only have electricity a few hours a day, so they swelter in the heat and freeze in the cold. Living under such extreme conditions, can you blame them for protesting? Then when they protest, they are gunned down for demanding to live with dignity. The Israelis claim they have to right to shoot peaceful protesters to protect their border. But I ask, “What is the Israeli border?” They have never defined it.
What do you hope to achieve on this trip?
I want to show the people of Gaza that we care, that we are willing to put our lives on the line for them. We are willing to face the risks that they face every day.
I hope we make it to Gaza but even if we don’t, our effort will inspire the people there and help bring world attention to their cause.
Medea Benjamin is the founder of CODEPINK and Global Exchange and the author of nine books, including the recently released Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection. Her new book is Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic.