Last month I led a group of twenty-one human rights workers on a boat from Cyprus to challenge Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. We carried toys, medicine, olive tree saplings, toolkits, a fifty-kilo bag of cement and school supplies on our small converted ferry boat.
At 2 am on June 30, almost eighteen hours into the 230-mile journey, a colleague awakened me. The Israeli Navy was calling our boat on the VHF radio. “You are navigating towards a blockaded area. You are hereby ordered to change your course. If you do not, we will be forced to use all necessary force to stop you.”
Nervous after a previous boat of ours was dangerously rammed at sea in December by the Israeli military, I replied, “Israeli Navy, this is Arion (the registered name of our ship). We are twenty-one unarmed civilians carrying aid for the Palestinian people of Gaza. Any blockade on Gaza is unlawful as you are the occupying force in the territory and are therefore responsible for the well-being of the civilian population there. As our boat, its cargo, and the twenty-one civilians on board do not constitute any kind of threat to Israel or its armed forces, you are obliged to allow us entry. We are proceeding to Gaza. Do not use force against us.”
Shortly thereafter our navigational systems were disabled for nearly four hours as the warnings continued. In their “final” warning to us, the Israeli Navy threatened to open fire. “Israeli Navy, we are unarmed civilians; do not use force against us. Do not shoot.” We did not stop.
We were boarded by force. Before we were separated, I saw Navy forces grabbing my husband, Adam, a filmmaker who has made documentaries from Palestine to Darfur, about the neck. Later, I learned that outside of my view, these government-sanctioned pirates pummeled Adam in order to wrest his videocamera from his grasp.
Though I know it could not have been easy for him, Adam did not fight back. He was a multi-sport athlete in high school, threw out Manny Ramirez stealing second and is one of those rare individuals who bring a football player’s intensity to peace work. But like the rest of us, Adam insists on using nonviolent means to resist Israel’s military occupation. And though in his widely hailed Cairo speech President Obama made an implicit call for nonviolence as the means to challenge the Israeli occupation, the Obama administration made no public statement on our behalf–nor did it do so three months ago, when my dear friend Bassem Abu Rahme was killed while nonviolently protesting Israeli expansionism in the West Bank that threatens to destroy his village of Bil’in.
Perhaps we were politically inept. Had we sailed toward Iran to offer assistance to civilian protesters there, we would have been a cause célèbre if the Iranian government had arrested us. Iran, however, for all its troubles, is not now under foreign occupation as Palestine is. Yet as I watched the demonstrations in Iran, I could not miss the similarities to Palestine’s nonviolent resistance to Israeli occupation. I cannot count the times I have marched peacefully, waving a flag and demanding freedom for my people–with only my voice and my presence as my weapons. And sadly, the number of friends I have lost–killed by Israeli forces as, like Neda Agha-Soltan in Iran, they nonviolently demonstrated for freedom–is becoming too great a pain in my heart.