By Ramzi Kysia
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
- Desmond Tutu
We live in an era defined by its brutality. Our challenge is whether to accept this - or to take the risks necessary to transform our world commons in beloved community.
A year ago this August, forty-four ordinary people from seventeen different countries sailed to Gaza in two, small wooden boats. We did what the world would not do - we broke through the siege of Gaza. Over the last year the Free Gaza Movement has organized seven more voyages, successfully arriving to Gaza on five separate occasions. Ours remain the only international ships to reach the Gaza Strip in over forty-two years.
In the Middle-East, the struggle for justice is an uncertain endeavour in the best of times. On all sides human rights workers are beset with difficulties and distress. The Arab states are tyrannies, their peoples subject to secret police, arbitrary arrest, torture, and oppression. Within their societies, the Arab world is equally fractured by ethnic and class tensions, poverty, and political stagnation. From the outside, from the West, the Middle-East faces both open and covert acts of intimidation, intervention, economic destabilization, and even war, invasion, and mass killings.
Standing astride all these troubles, blocking near every attempt at progress in the region are the twin colossi of big oil and Israel. Seldom have a people been cursed with burdens more bitter, more devastating, and seemingly more intransigent than have the Arabs with oil and Israel.
Nowhere is this truer today than in Gaza. In 1999, British Gas discovered huge natural gas fields, worth billions of dollars, in Palestinian territorial waters off the coast of Gaza. Israel has already built a horizontal pipeline to siphon off gas from at least one of these fields. If there is an unspoken reason for the siege of Gaza - this is it.
Israel maintains effective control of all points of entry and exit to Gaza, as well as de facto control of Gaza’s revenues and economy. As such, and despite the closure of settlements in Gaza in 2005, Israel remains an occupying power in Gaza as in the rest of Palestine. As an occupying power, Israel is responsible for the well-being of the people it occupies and cannot legally impose a blockade, particularly one the collectively punishes the entire population of Gaza. These are clear crimes and the Israeli government and military should be prosecuted for them.
For the last three and a half years the Israeli siege has become increasingly ruthless. Less than twenty percent of normal trade is allowed into Gaza today. The siege has caused the local economy to collapse, leading to steep increases in unemployment, poverty and childhood malnutrition rates.
Because of Israel’s siege there is little fuel to run Gaza’s power plant - so electricity is scarce and intermittent. Without electricity, water and sanitation systems do not function. On March 27, 2008 two elderly women in their 70s, a teenage girl, and two babies were killed by a flood of sewage in Umm Naser. Last year alone, well over 16 billion litres of raw sewage had to be dumped in the sea, turning the Mediterranean into a toilet and creating a public health disaster.
Gaza is a tiny coastal plain, barely twenty-five miles long by four to seven miles wide. It does not have the ability to independently support the one and a half million human beings who live in one of the most densely populated places on the planet. Two-thirds of Gaza’s people are refugees, driven out of historical Palestine during Israel’s founding war in 1948. Over half the population are children.
Israel has a long history of violence against Palestinian children. A few examples: In December 2004, the IDF shot and killed seven-year old Rana Siyam. Earlier that year, nine-year old Raghda Alassar was shot and killed in her school while she was taking an English test. Thirteen-year old Iman al-Hams was shot seventeen times by the IDF as she was walking home after class in Gaza. An Israeli captain went up to her corpse and shot her again in the head – "dead-checking" the schoolgirl. The IDF prosecuted him, but not for murder. He was charged with "illegal use of his weapon," and - despite admitting that he emptied his entire magazine into a little girl - he was found "not guilty."
Over the summer of 2006, the IDF killed three-year old Bara Habib, three-year old Rajaa Abu Shaban, six-year old Rawan Hajjah, nine-year old Aya Salmeya, and over thirty-five other children just in Gaza alone. On January 16th, 2007, the IDF killed ten-year old Abir Aramin, the daughter of a Palestinian peace activist, as she was walking home from school. These are only a handful of cases. The Israeli human rights organization B'tselem estimates that over 900 Palestinian children were killed by the Israeli military between 2000 and 2008.
Israel has already recreated the worst aspects of the Warsaw Ghetto in Gaza - transforming this small strip of land into the world’s largest open-air prison, and the humanitarian condition of the one and a half million men, women, and children illegally incarcerated in Gaza is now at its worst point in the last forty-two years of Israeli occupation.
But there are darker histories waiting to be reborn. The simple and terrifying truth is that Israel is pushing the world on a path towards genocide. We are all en route to the slow-drip destruction of the Palestinian people. This reality must be forcefully confronted and fully overcome before it’s too late.
It's now been more than six months since the end of Israel's latest assault on the Gaza Strip, which led to the killing of over 1,400 Palestinians, and the people of Gaza are still living in rubble. Israel's hermetic closure has created a man-made and deliberately-sustained humanitarian catastrophe. The continuing failure of the international community to enforce its own laws and protect the people of Gaza demands that we as private citizens directly intervene to take action commensurate with the crisis. We must act because our governments refuse to do so.
Regardless of Israeli threats or intimidation, Free Gaza volunteers intend to continue sailing unarmed boats to Gaza. Now more than ever – we need the people of the world to join with us.
The siege of Gaza only serves to strengthen authoritarian structures on all sides of this conflict, entrenching centralized control, rallying people against a common enemy. The isolation of Gaza reinforces a belief that the world has forgotten Palestine, and little cares how Palestinians are forced to live or even whether they live or die.
In contrast, civil resistance and citizens’ action movements are not only aimed against the injustices that we face - they are also strategies for social change. Nonviolent resistance empowers everyone with the knowledge that any among us can reach out, organize, and act to change the entire world. Time and again, history demonstrates that even the greatest of tyrannies can crumble to the ground when confronted with an organized and determined resistance.
Join us, whether in whole or in part. Join the Free Gaza Movement, the International Solidarity Movement, and the BDS Movement. Join us and other campaigns in the struggle for justice for Palestine. We need volunteers to do research and writing, web updates, translation, graphic design, local organizing in their communities, and much more.
Become part of the resistance.
We are often told that resistance is either unwarranted or impossible. Liberal apologists for Israel, such as Thomas Friedman, are constantly demanding that Palestinians lay down their arms, all the while exhorting Israelis to pick them up in ever increasing acts of violence and degradation.
When faced with violence in our world, our elites tell us that we have two - and only two - choices: capitulate to the violence, or go to war. Of course, which of these two choices is the right and proper course of action depends on who you are. Faced with Palestinian violence, Israelis must, rightly and properly, go to war. Faced with Israeli violence, Palestinians must, rightly and properly, capitulate. In Tel Aviv and Washington D.C. this is called “moral clarity:” the supposed necessity of pursuing Israeli security through deliberately creating massive insecurity among Palestinians. This is lunacy.
But even mainstream “peace” movements in the West try to delegitimize resistance by calling on both Palestinians and Israelis to renounce overt acts of violence, equating Palestinians who commit suicide bombings with Israelis who send F-16s, D9 military bulldozers, and Apache attack helicopters to level entire neighborhoods.
The problem is that the usually random and individual acts of violence by Palestinians against Israelis are not equal to the myriad structural oppressions and cruelties imposed on Palestinians through Israeli government policies. No Palestinian fighter jets bomb Israeli cities - because Palestine has no fighter jets. No Palestinian bulldozers demolish Israeli homes - because Palestine has no military bulldozers. No Palestinian soldiers invade Israeli neighbourhoods, terrorizing the populace - because there is no Palestinian army. The conflict in Palestine is a war of Israeli state terror against a largely unarmed and defenceless civilian population.
Even immoral and self-defeating acts of violence against Israeli civilians (such as some suicide bombings are) cannot be equated with the daily humiliations, terror, and death that Israel inflicts on Palestinians by deliberate policy. Contrary to its presentation in the mainstream media, this conflict is neither a righteous war against evil Arab terrorists, nor a religious or ethnic dispute between two opposing and equally self-justified groups of people. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is the struggle of two irreconcilable and unequal causes: the struggle of an oppressed people for freedom, justice, and self-determination against their oppressors’ struggle to maintain (and even expand) their domination. Under these circumstances resistance is not only a right - it's a moral imperative.
This is not to say that any and all acts of resistance are acceptable. Clearly they are not. But it grows tedious to continually hear well-meaning, but otherwise clueless, Westerners try to equate the two sides of this conflict. I am past tired of hearing white people passively whine, or shrilly demand, “Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?”
With respect, just because some people have chosen to remain ignorant of the long and deep history of Palestinian nonviolent resistance - from the 1936 Boycott to Bil’in today - does not mean that it does not exist. The Free Gaza Movement struggles in solidarity with an already vibrant Palestinian civil resistance.
Similarly, the other criticism of resistance - that it is futile - is equally mistaken. There is a widespread delusion among many that Israel and the Israeli lobby are simply too powerful to be challenged, let alone defeated. This is not the case.
On June 30th 2009 Israeli Occupation Forces forcibly boarded one of our boats, the SPIRIT OF HUMANITY, and kidnapped 21 human rights workers and journalists who were on their way to deliver much needed humanitarian and reconstruction supplies to besieged Gaza, including Nobel peace prize laureate Mairead Maguire and former U.S. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. They were held in jail for a week before being deported.
Though we were stopped on this particular voyage, it was not a “failure.” In the month after our boat was hijacked, over 100,000 news stories, essays, blog entries, action alerts, and radio and television segments were made on Israel’s violent response to our mission. It’s true that the ordeal of our 21 volunteers pales in comparison to the 11,000 Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli prisons. The seizure of our small cargo of 3 tons of medical aid and reconstruction kits is insignificant in light of the $4 billion (USD) of aid promised to Gaza - aid that has not and will not be delivered because of the Israeli blockade.
But that too misses the point. By choosing to violently confront and kidnap unarmed human rights workers on a mission of mercy, Israel publicly demonstrated both the illegality and the absurdity of the Gaza siege. The siege is abjectly not about “security.” No one could possibly have believed that our small boat was a physical threat to Israel,
This public demonstration of the siege’s illegality resulted in record action at the governmental level as well. Both the Irish and Greek governments formally intervened to protect their citizens and property. Despite having no diplomatic relationship and refusing to recognize the legitimacy of Israel's government - the King of Bahrain personally & successfully intervened to force Israel to immediately release the five Bahraini human rights workers kidnapped from the SPIRIT. The British parliament held a formal debate on the issue, and even the U.S. State Department was forced to hold a national conference call on for family and friends of the kidnap victims, as well as for Arab-American civil rights groups.
This was unprecedented, but it’s not enough.
The Free Gaza Movement started our small part in this struggle in 2006. We began on hope alone. Many thought it couldn’t be done, yet we did it. We broke through the Israeli blockade. We will sail again, and we are absolutely determined to reach the Gaza Strip on our next voyage. We intend to non-violently escalate our response. By sending a cargo ship, we will escalate the challenge to the blockade by bringing in significant amounts of banned reconstruction materials. By sending more boats on our next mission, we will significantly escalate the logistical difficulties Israel faces should they decide to violently attack us again. By sending even more parliamentarians, dignitaries, journalists, and human rights workers to accompany the boats, we will significantly escalate the political difficulties Israel faces should they decide to violently attack us again.
The journey to Gaza is dangerous. The Israeli navy rammed our flagship, the Dignity, when we attempted to deliver medical supplies to Gaza during their vicious assault in December/January. In June, they hijacked our small boat and kidnapped everyone on board. Israel has even threatened to open fire on our unarmed ships, rather than allow us to deliver humanitarian and reconstruction supplies to the people of Gaza.
But the risks we take on our voyages are insignificant compared to the risks imposed every day upon the people of Gaza.
The purpose of nonviolent direct action and civil resistance is to take risks - to put ourselves “in the way” of injustice. We take these risks well aware of what the possible consequences may be. We do so because the consequences of doing nothing are so much worse. Any time we allow ourselves to be bullied, every time we pass by an evil and ignore it - we lower our standards and allow our world to be made that much harsher and unjust for us all.
Israel can threaten our boats and passengers - we will keep coming. Israel can illegally disrupt our communications and navigation systems - we will keep coming. Israel can open fire around our boats, or attempt to ram and sink them. Israel can choose to forcibly board and highjack our boats, and abduct our volunteers.
It doesn’t matter. We will keep coming. Armed only with the love of justice, and in the rite of resistance - we will go to Gaza again and again and again, until this siege is forever shattered and the people of Gaza have free access to the rest of the world.
Ramzi Kysia is an Arab-American essayist and an organizer with the Free Gaza Movement. If you would like to support these efforts, please visit www.FreeGaza.org, or email donations[at]freegaza.org. If you would like to volunteer with Free Gaza, please send an email to volunteer[at]freegaza.org