The exercise of power is determined by thousands of interactions between the world of the powerful and that of the powerless, all the more so because these worlds are never divided by a sharp line: everyone has a small part of himself in both - Vaclav Havel
The organization in Gaza ready to welcome us is the Palestinian International Campaign to end the siege on Gaza directed by Gaza psychiatrist Dr. Eyad El-Serraj. I couldn’t help but be excited especially when a message came over satellite phone that they awaited us and prayed for our safe arrival. The response I received to this invite from folks at home goes like this,” Are you crazy? You looked forward? Hamas would have killed you immediately." This culture of hate must end before all is lost and the earth becomes a vast desert without life. To witness these hateful, ignorant comments tests our strength and resolve to push on and to not get caught in needing to defend that for which there is no defense.
We were 4 passengers, Rami, Edith, Reuven and myself. Rami and Reuven are Israeli citizens. Our captain Glyn , a British citizen and long time activists sailed our little boat under a British flag. Our crew were Israeli heroes. Itamar and Jonatan Shapira, 2 stupendous men, former air force pilots who said no to bombing and killing. Also 2 photojournalists also on board whose cameras and photos were conviscated. Rami had told me he and his his wife Nurit’s daughter Smadar (means blossom of the flower,) and sister of Elik, was murdered by a suicide bomber in a mall when she was 14 years old. Imagine this family has joined hands with Palestinian families who also grieve as they stand arm in arm together in solidarity. These are the true patriots who together are one in their humanity.
Our group had gathered in North Cyprus, the town of Kyrenia, for one week as we waited for news that the Irene had found a safe port. I had flown to London and stayed with one of the organizers and his wife. Everthing was kept completely silent so that we would not be intercepted by the Israeli secret police. The need for secrecy was nerve wracking but it worked. Two days later, we flew to Turkish Cyprus where we would in one weeks time begin our journey to Gaza.
I cannot tell you what it has meant for me to be on this little 1970 catarmaran about 36 feet long, together in solidarity with these activists. We were one in our longing to reach Gaza. If they were to kidnap the boat, they would have to navigate it themselves.The promise of non violence from our passengers and crew filled me with strength and great courage. We would not incite the pirates.
On the Irene that fateful Tues morning, the weather was beautiful as the sun reflected a mirage of gold on the Mediterranean. It was the day we would have reached Gaza and we were now close to 20 miles from shore but still in International waters. At 9 AM we sighted warships on the horizon moving towards us. Soon we could see the guns and war paraphernalia on board. It was all so surreal. Surely this was not really happening? I felt I was watching a war movie. Several smaller frigates moved too close to us, one in the front, back and on both sides sides. What act of insanity could this be? For a moment I imagined myself escaping, our small boat of tired Jews surrounded by the Nazi navy but I moved quickly away from this thought. Instead, try to imagine in the same space as the warships, a fleet of 4 or 5 pleasure sail boats gliding along as if nothing was happening. It was ludicrous to see pleasure sail boats n the same waters as the warships. Did they feel protected from the enemy “terrorists” on the small sailboat, by the big Navy fleet? Keep in mind we were a tiny unarmed boat dressed with wonderful flags including the Palestinian flag and dozens of names of potential passengers surrounded by doves sewn by Edith.
All I could think of is why are these warships coming to board our little catamaran with 9 Jews mostly in their 60’s 70’s and 80’s? How did it come to this, Jew against Jew? What insanity brought these soldiers dressed to the gill with high boots, tasers, guns, helmets and gloves with their fingers uncovered to take over our boat, in essence to kidnap us? One soldier tire down and ripped apart our beautiful flags while we huddled close together, hands linked and sang “we shall overcome.” Although the Israeli press described the kidnapping of our boat as without incident, it was anything but that. We were one in our stance of passive resistance and non violence. It was crazy as they boarded in large numbers. One had to see this to believe it as a few of them kicked Glyn until he fell as he held onto the wheel. It was all so brutal, so completely unnecessary, insane. They ceased to be human as they dragged Itamar to their frigate, tied his hands and kicked him as he lay flat on his back, his hands tied. Jonatan was by then trying to quiet 82 year old Reuven who lost it when his harmonica’s fell to the floor where they were about to be stepped on. Reuven with a pacemaker inside him became agitated and screamed at the scary looking steely faced soldiers that they should be ashamed of themselves. Luckily we rescued the harmonicas but at that moment I knew if the Mavi murders had not happened, they could have shot Reuven or any one of us. Instead restraint had most likely been ordered. Then we heard a scream. These military robots, 3 or 4 of them had knocked Yonatan onto the ground, pulled away his life jacket and tasered him in his heart. His cry like a wounded animal is something I will not forget. Unconscious, they dragged him onto the frigate.I saw first hand the dehumanization and the brutality. They picked on 2 true heroes of Israel and I suspect targeted them to hurt them. Since Glyn had made sure the engines would not work, we were towed to Ashdod at a speed of 10 knots, twice as fast as this boat was able to do for we had sailed no faster than 5 knots. We thought the boat could break in two and sat anxiously in our life vests. But this wonderful boat held out for us.
And now we were towed to Ashdod. It was brutally hot as we were herded from the boat into a courtyard. To get there each of us had to be pulled up a steep stone wall one by one. I noticed someone had pulled away a ladder which would have been less humiliating and easier for us. During our individually performed searches, all cameras, computers and cell phones were confiscated. I soon found myself in a well guarded van with tightly closed shades as we had become prisoners that had been arrested. I was happy to see Edith in the van. Her clothes were still wet from partial flooding on our boat while being towed at such a rapid speed. Despite the heat, she was shivering. I did not know then where the rest of us were. Edith and I were taken to Holon, about an hours drive on the outskirts of Tel Aviv while loud music roared in our ears. All we could say to one another was to acknowledge Israel as a state of collective mental illness.
Virginia Tilley (@ Mondoweiss) With 25 years of experience under my belt analysing the Middle East conflict, and as a close observer of US foreign policy with a pragmatic attitude toward its realist exigencies, I have never seen anything as destructive, humiliating and ruinously conceived as the “incentive” package now being offered by the US to Israel for a 3-month settlement freeze. It is our country’s foreign policy nadir: a deal is so damaging to US interests that it is hard to find words for it. What can be said plainly is that US citizens – yes, even those jaded, tired, embittered, disillusioned folks who have watched this stuff for too long – have to rise up and move fast to stop this, in the name of our country’s future. Let us briefly consider just what’s being proposed here. Israel has been asked (asked!) to freeze illegal settlement construction in the West Bank for a lousy three months in the interests of the so-called peace process. This brief hiatus is purely cosmetic. Jewish settlements in this occupied territory have been steadily and deliberately eradicating taking over East Jerusalem and the West Bank for over 40 years. The whole full-bore settlement construction programme makes open nonsense of partition now, as well as the putative “peace process”, by “eating the pizza”. But Israel has refused even a short-term freeze. And the US, egg all over its face, is being reduced to bribing the Israelis with a mind-boggling package of incentives – $3 BILLION in military hardware, equivalent to Israel’s annual automatic US package – just for three months of a partial freeze on construction, after which construction will continue unabated. Israel’s refusal to freeze settlements even temporarily should surprise no one: the enigma is rather that anyone still finds that refusal confusing. Israel’s strategy for annexing the West Bank is recorded in Israeli government maps and settlement Master Plans dating back decades. For reasons too complicated to summarise here, deep divisions in Israeli society and politics make changing that policy effectively impossible at this late hour, as it is entrenched in Israeli doctrine, politics, policy and practice at levels so deep that the State’s very survival is implicated in it. The entire Israeli government, from the Agriculture Ministry to the World Zionist Organisation, is fully involved in and committed to building the West Bank settlements. But no one in the White House seems to have told President Obama this. He has already been deeply humiliated in world eyes when he insisted that Israel freeze settlement construction and Israel (predictably) gave him the diplomatic finger. Ever since that debacle, he has looked like a tin man in Middle East politics. Many wondered – first when, then whether – the US might find some spine with Israel over a situation so obviously damaging to the country’s image and interests. But Obama’s language about the settlements lately has been mealy stuff about “unhelpful” and “both sides”. As billions of tax dollars sink into the Afghan morass and US soldiers are shot down in ditches, the US superpower can’t get Israel to do diddly to help out and isn’t willing even to try. On the contrary, the US is committed to helping Israel do the opposite of what it urgently needs and what its own rhetoric asks for. Normally, of course, the US would just strong-arm the Palestinians. But the Palestinian Authority is down to its last thong of dignity and even this is ready to snap. It can’t participate in a peace process that’s so openly idiotic. Politically, and despite the partial economic benefits that appointed Prime Minister Fayyad has brought to a narrow sector of Palestinian society in the West Bank, the PA is on the brink of implosion. Looking too much like a stringed puppet dancing in an empty diplomatic theatre, “negotiating” for a territory vanishing day by day, Mr. Abbas confronts a level of shame that even hard-core PA cronies have to consider soberly. For years, he has cultivated the image of a much-abused Palestinian patriot on the brink of resignation, enduring endless insults from Israel and the US only to do his best by the Palestinian people. But that always dubious story is crumbling to reveal a sordid truth: whatever its individual members’ intentions, the PA is effectively a cluster of native clients sucking up funds and graces from enemy patrons who are happy to pay a self-serving indigenous elite to keep the native masses quiet. This classic colonial deal can be sustained only as long as the Palestinian people as a whole are not smacked in the face with it. But why does the US care about sustaining this farce? To understand the outlandish military deal now being offered, we have to recognise the whole Middle East “peace process” as a survival pact. The US needs the PA to help keep alive the whole fake story about the PA – Oslo’s “Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority”, supposedly “interim” to full Palestinian independence but actually “interim” to Israel’s final victory – to achieve what it needs to do in Afghanistan. Israel still needs the PA, too, because otherwise Israel will be identified for what it is: an Apartheid state. The Ramallah-PA elite relies on the coloniser’s needs -- indirect rule of the natives – for its very existence. So everyone needs the game a little longer and, if all goes right, it will work out for all of them. The US and Israel assume that when Israel’s eastern border (marked by the Wall plus the Jordan Valley) is finally consolidated, the PA will serve as the “self-government authority” – language straight out of the South African Bantustans, not incidentally – that will keep the natives quiet in assigned “reserves” which may or may not be called a state. The Ramallah PA hopes to land on its feet: a native elite that can enrich itself on sweetheart deals with Israel that it will cultivate by ensuring “security”. Counting on this pact, Israel need contemplate no true change to settlement policy because, token protests aside, the PA will take whatever it can get. No one in the US government really cares where Israel decides to put its borders, so the US government will not insist on any change either. The only concern is keeping up appearances. The short-sightedness of this plan is obvious and sad: it can’t but culminate in Palestinian revolt, Israeli violence, security dilemmas throughout the region and periodic regional upheavals. But then, colonists always assume that colonialism will win out somehow. Even sadder is that the US actually has immense power in this situation and need do very little to deploy it. All it has to do to alter the entire power balance in the Middle East – in the interest of its own desperate situation in Afghanistan and its credibility as a world power – is sit back and abstain in the UN, leaving Israel to face the monumental international opprobrium that is brewing around its multitudinous human rights violations and sins against international security. Instead, the US is now doing the opposite: promising openly to protect Israel from any such blame, however legitimate, and handing over twenty – TWENTY – F35 stealth attack jets, the latest in US military stealth equipment, as well as unnamed satellite intelligence capacity and other cutting-edge technology. And for what? A 3-month token freeze that will end with Israel bouncing back to exactly the same strategy as before, putting the US back in the same impossible situation by February 2011. Of course, it’s unlikely that the US is really doing this. Probably the deal was in the works anyway – maybe to capacitate Israel to strike Iran, in reality or as a threat – and some pro-Israel fanatic in the White House thought it might make slightly better sense to the world if cast as a sweetener to Israel regarding the always-fictive “peace process”. The opposite is true: attaching this colossal military transfer to a 3-month diplomatic nod from Israel makes the US look like a giant on its knees to a local mafia thug, handing over the family jewels (in both senses?) to cover the next short-term protection-racket instalment. It announces to the world that the US has no foreign policy leverage whatever and is reduced to giving away its best goods for the slightest temporary cooperation by a rude ally that claims openly to control its foreign policy. It also announces to the world that we are ready to destabilise the entire planet to plead for the most immaterial of Israel’s diplomatic graces. It indicates an infatuation with Israel so craven as to betray the foundations of our country’s essential interests – to remain a credible power in world affairs. (And let’s not even go into how deeply it abuses and insults the millions of desperate jobless Americans for whom $3 billion in mortgage assistance, education and job training could make all the difference – and whose children are being killed or maimed in Afghanistan as this disgusting deal goes forward to make their lot worse.) I don’t usually speak like this, but this is a matter for US patriots. I don’t mean tea-party dolts, I mean liberal principled citizens people who – even grown cynical after decades of disappointments and disillusionments – still in their hearts really care about the US and what we always believed it was founded to become. And I include people who don’t much care one way or the other about the Middle East. For, although it will indeed be ruinous for the Middle East, and catastrophic for US relations with the Middle East, this crisis isn’t only about the Middle East. We cannot possibly hand over vast first-strike armaments at the tune of $3 billion on the utterly shaming rationale of coaxing an arrogant local power into a minor diplomatic gesture with a dinky 90-day limit. Doing so would mark the end of the US as any kind of sensible player in the world. Virginia Tilley is a professor of political science and international relations and author of The One-State Solution. She lives in Cape Town and can be reached at email@example.com. Thanks to John Haines for circulating her piece first.