The Free Gaza Movement
Though he was eventually released, Halper must return to Sderot for a future court hearing. The day he was freed, and by one of those feats of historical synchronicity that happen so rarely, Abie Nathan died. Nathan was a pioneer of the Israel peace movement. Yossi Sarid, one of Israel's leading doves, said it would be hard to imagine such a movement without the example Nathan provided.
Nathan was an Iranian-born Jew who flew in Israel's first air force during the 1948 War of Independence. After flying professionally for El Al, he opened a Tel Aviv restaurant, which became the unofficial headquarters of the local bohemian set. Nathan ran unsuccessfully for the Knesset in 1965. A year later, in a journey that brought Don Quixote to mind, he set off on a flight that would forever change Israel. He rented a small plane and flew to Egypt, where he asked to meet with President Gamal Abdel Nasser in order to talk peace. Nathan figured if governments couldn't act in their citizens' best interests on behalf of peace, then private citizens might have a better change of breaking through the logjam.
Though he never met with Nasser, Nathan did begin a career as a perpetual Israeli dissident and peace activist. In May 1973, a few months before the Yom Kippur War broke out, frustrated by the inability to communicate across national boundaries, he bought a ship with the aid of John Lennon and created Kol Shalom, the pirate radio "voice of peace." It was the first radio station in the Middle East deliberately to seek out an audience of both Israelis and Arabs.
Later, in the 1980s, Nathan openly advocated Israeli talks with the PLO and even went so far as to meet personally with Yasir Arafat. This landed him in prison twice, the longest sentence for eighteen months. Nathan was bitter about the personal price he had to pay for his vision of peaceful coexistence. Though at his death he had been rendered partially paralyzed and mute by repeated strokes, Jeff Halper paid tribute (in Hebrew) to Nathan's outsized contribution to the cause of Israeli citizen activism and its relevance to today:
Abie Nathan met with Arafat and was imprisoned twice. Today the president and prime minister eulogize him. Then [when Nathan met Arafat] the situation was exactly as it is today. Nathan believed that the citizen must act even if he pays a personal price. Had they listened to his voice then [in 1966 when he flew to Egypt], perhaps they would have avoided the occupation, made peace with the Egyptians and prevented thousands of Israeli dead.
In an interview with the Israeli daily Ma'ariv, Halper also noted his philosophical approach to citizen peacemaking, which precisely mirrors Nathan's:
The attempt to break the Gaza siege "could only be mounted by private citizens. Governments with political agendas are not suited to do this. Only after private citizens break down the walls can there be an opening for governments to begin negotiations."
I'm hoping the Nobel committee is watching this episode with interest. I can't think of a more fitting gesture than to award the prize jointly to Israeli and Palestinian peace activists dedicated to ending the occupation by peaceful but forceful means.
Meanwhile, Halper's FGM colleagues left Gaza for their return journey, taking along with them seven Palestinians, including a teenage boy who had lost a leg to an Israeli tank shell. He hoped to get fitted for an artificial leg, a treatment not possible in a Gaza beset with shortages of all manner of medical equipment and medicine due to the Israeli siege.
Once again, the defense ministry argued for forcibly detaining the ships after it left Gaza. But when the foreign ministry pointed out that Israeli sailors would be removing a Palestinian boy in a wheelchair in front of the eyes of the world media, it seemed too high a price to pay. The boats returned without incident to Cyprus.
Trip organizers plan to turn their ships around as soon as possible and return to Gaza. Next time, they will take a more substantial cargo of food and other humanitarian supplies. The Israeli government has pointedly said the first journey did not set a precedent. Which could mean that future trips will not be treated with kid gloves.