Letter From a Naive Peace Activist to an Israeli Naval Officer

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Athens – As a passenger on the upcoming U.S. Boat to Gaza,  I read with interest the account in the June 16 issue of the New York Times of Israeli military preparations to confront the Gaza Freedom Flotilla.

A top naval official told foreign journalists: “We will do anything we have to do to prevent a boat from breaking the blockade.”

On the other hand, the Times reported that Israel’s navy said it will do everything it can to avoid close contact with activists on board the freedom flotilla.

Moreover, the Israeli naval officer conceded he did not believe the flotilla would contain arms. The naval officer further conceded some [sic] on board the ships were peace activists.

But the naval officer asserted these peace activists were naïve because “extremists will set the tone” if Israeli commandos board the ships. He claimed Israel needed to enforce the blockade indiscriminately to defend against weapons imports by future flotillas.

I would like to ask some follow-up questions of my friend in the Israeli navy, who thinks me naïve.

If you concede we are peace activists who are not carrying weapons, what’s the urgency to confront us with force? Why not let us proceed to Gaza unmolested? Does it pass a “straight face test” to claim it would set a terrible precedent binding the Israeli government to let us pass, having conceded we are peace activists who are not carrying weapons?

If you are concerned “extremists will set the tone” if Israeli commandos board the ships, isn’t it wholly within your power to prevent this outcome, by not ordering that Israeli commandos board the ships?

Furthermore, if you concede we are peace activists, doesn’t that mean that you concede that we are not “extremists”? Peace activists aren’t “extremists,” are we?

If you concede we are not “extremists,” but are concerned “extremists will set the tone,” doesn’t that argue against blocking our communications, or arresting and holding us incommunicado, or confiscating our communications equipment, as happened to passengers on the flotilla last year? Again, avoiding the outcome that “extremists will set the tone” is wholly within your power.

When I visited Ramallah in 1986, I heard a story quite relevant to the present impasse. At that time, the display of the Palestinian flag was forbidden in the West Bank. A pattern was established: when Palestinian youths wanted to confront the occupation, they would hoist the Palestinian flag. Soldiers would come to disperse the demonstrators, demonstrators would throw rocks at the soldiers, soldiers would respond with weapons, often with live fire. Often demonstrators would be seriously injured or killed in these confrontations, provoking more demonstrations and more military crackdowns not only on demonstrators, but on the overall population, with curfews, school closings, and so on.

One day, there was a new Israeli military commander for the Ramallah area. I don’t know this commander’s background. But I imagine him older, a reservist perhaps, with a wife and children, maybe even a little bit sympathetic to young Palestinian demonstrators and their desire to be free. This commander tried an experiment: what would happen if, when I get the report that Palestinian youths have hoisted the Palestinian flag, I don’t send any Israeli soldiers there?

What do you think happened? The Palestinian youths would hoist the Palestinian flag, and they would wait for the Israeli soldiers. When the Israeli soldiers never arrived, the demonstrators would get bored, declare victory, and go home. No rocks, no shooting, no violence, no killing, no injuries, no curfew, no schools closed. Of course, there was a downside to this policy: the prohibition on public display of the Palestinian flag was not enforced. But, as it turned out, enforcement of this prohibition was not important to “Israeli security.”

Eventually another commander was rotated in, the new commander was not so enlightened, and “things went back to normal.” The Palestinian flag was hoisted, soldiers came, rocks were thrown, demonstrators were shot.

This story illustrates that Israeli military officers have the opportunity to use good judgment and common sense in evaluating which actions they should take to “promote Israeli security.” Taking extreme actions in response to demands for Palestinian freedom does not make Israel more secure.

The logic of taking extreme actions in response to protest is seductive: if we show we are tough, people will stop resisting us. But to think that this logic will work is, dare I say it, naïve.

What was the result of the Israeli military attack on last year’s flotilla? Did peace activists say, the Israeli military is tough, we better not send any more flotillas? The result was that peace activists said: we should send a larger flotilla of ships.

After the attack on last year’s flotilla and the resulting international outcry against the attack and against the blockade, the Israeli government announced the blockade would be eased, and since then more goods have been let in to Gaza. Exports from Gaza remain largely blocked, restrictions on Gazans’ travel to the West Bank and East Jerusalem for work, study, and medical care remain, imports of construction materials remain largely blocked. Restrictions on Gaza’s farming and fishing remain. Unemployment in Gaza is now among the highest in the world, the UN reports.

But consider those restrictions on Gaza that were eased: either those restrictions were necessary for Israeli security, or they were not.

If those restrictions were necessary for Israeli security, then Israeli government officials endangered Israeli security by removing them, simply because the world was complaining. Will any Israeli official stand up and claim this?

If those restrictions were not necessary for Israeli security, then for years Israeli officials maintained restrictions which were not justified by security concerns, because they wanted to punish the population and could get away with doing so, because international protest was not sufficient.

Their removal shows that Israeli government claims that restrictions on Gaza are necessary for Israel’s security cannot be taken as writ. Organizing flotillas and other forms of international protest against the siege of Gaza is therefore a mitzvah, an obligation. People of conscience around the world have an obligation to organize and support such protests until all restrictions on Gaza not directly related to Israeli security – that is, not directly related to suspected arms shipments to Gaza – are removed. Such protests will continue until they are no longer necessary.

I urge the Israeli naval officer to use his influence not only to oppose an attack on the flotilla, but to support the lifting of the blockade of Gaza.

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