Friday, June 24, 2011

Notes on the Gaza Flotilla

Alice Walker: Why I'm sailing to Gaza

Our boat, The Audacity of Hope, will be carrying letters to the people of Gaza. Letters expressing solidarity and love. That is all its cargo will consist of. If the Israeli military attacks us, it will be as if they attacked the mailman. This should go down hilariously in the annals of history. But if they insist on attacking us, wounding us, even murdering us, as they did some of the activists in the last flotilla, Freedom Flotilla I, what is to be done?

There is a scene in the movie "Gandhi" that is very moving to me: it is when the unarmed Indian protesters line up to confront the armed forces of the British Empire. The soldiers beat them unmercifully, but the Indians, their broken and dead lifted tenderly out of the fray, keep coming.
Unexpectedly, I find myself being moved by some of Alice Walker's words here - in particular, her memory of the non-violent Indian protests against the British Empire. If Palestinians had been able to act like this decades ago, there might now be a Palestinian state.

When I lived in Israel from 1987-1989 (I was a visiting graduate student at the Hebrew University), I went to many demonstrations against the occupation and in favor of negotiations between Israel and the PLO. (At that point it was illegal for Israelis to meet with representatives of the PLO, so this was a radical demand). My second year, I got involved with a group called "The 21st year of the occupation." A good friend of mine was involved, and I decided to join as well in supporting them in non-violent civil disobedience against the occupation. [For a glimpse at what it felt like to be involved with Israeli anti-occupation groups during the late 1980s, during the first intifada, see an article by Milton Viorst in Mother Jones, December 1988 - on Google Books].

Before I came to Israel in 1987, I had been part of a group in Boston called "Pledge of Resistance," which was a nationwide group founded to protest against the policies of the U.S. government in central America, in particular against the threat of a U.S. invasion of Nicaragua. We trained in tactics of civil disobedience, and those involved pledged either to engage in civil disobedience (which could lead to arrest) or to support those doing the civil disobedience. I chose to be a supporter - I was afraid of being arrested. There was one big protest that I remember taking place at the Federal Building in downtown Boston, where people blocked the doors of the building and were arrested en masse - about 500 as I recall. Several friends of mine were arrested, and I remember going to the bail hearing later in the day. Those who refused to identify themselves (including my friends) were kept in jail for a couple of days until they were released.

The "21st year of the occupation" had similar actions in mind - public civil disobedience, with certain people risking arrest, and others watching out for them and supporting them. As in the U.S., my choice was support, not to risk arrest - especially since I was living in a foreign country. I went early one morning in Jerusalem to a training session in civil disobedience along with another friend.

The first and as it happened only action of the "21st year" that I took part in was an aborted attempt in May, 1989, to visit a Palestinian family in Qalqiliya, on the West Bank - one of the sons of the family had been arrested and was accused of being a terrorist, and in response the IDF was going to seal off one of the rooms of the house (this was a common punishment at that time - I don't know if the IDF continues to do this). The group's intention was not to engage in civil disobedience - no one planned to get arrested. Our goal was to express support for the family.

We set off for Qalqiliya and at the entrance of the city we were halted by the local IDF commander, who told us that we were forbidden to enter a "closed military zone." A foreign film crew was waiting outside the city, presumably to film us. We turned around, and some people left (including Dedi Zucker, a member of the Israeli Knesset then and a founder of B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights group). Instead of going back to Jerusalem, however, we sneaked into Qalqiliya by going through the orchards around the city (something impossible to do now, because the city is surrounded by the separation wall, an apt name in this case). We ended up in a main square of the city, and asked some passersby how to get to the street of the family we were going to visit. We started in that direction, and then an IDF patrol came upon us and asked what we were doing. They then ordered us to leave. Since the group had decided not to engage in civil disobedience, we started to walk out of the city. There were a number of local Palestinian residents watching us, and one of the men of the group decided to give them the "V" sign for solidarity. The soldiers saw the gesture, and went up to him and told him not to do that again, or he would be arrested. He made the sign again, and they started to arrest him. Then another man in the group did the same thing.

Reuven Kaminer, in his book "The Politics of Protest: the Israeli peace movement and the intifada" (1996) writes of this moment (p. 129): "It seems that everything was going to end quietly when one of the protestors flashed a 'V' sign to the local residents (later, the 'V' sign became the basis for the charge that the 27 had incited the local population to rebellion....)." The IDF charged later that we yelled "להמשיך באינתיפדה" - "continue the intifada" - but this was an invention to support the charge of incitement to rebellion. Kaminer continues, "The officers were incensed and began arresting; first, several men in the group, and then all the women who refused to abandon them." (Women were the majority of the group). Kaminer then writes, "In a matter of minutes, 27 demonstrators were being held in the local police station and a chain of events was set in motion which forced the 27 to remain in prison for five full days."

I was not one of them. At the last minute, as I was about to get into one of the police trucks, one of the leaders of the "21st year" shouted out - "You don't have to get arrested if you don't want to be." I didn't want to, and dropped off the back of the truck with two other people who also didn't want to get arrested. The soldiers told us to leave the city, and we started to walk out the main entrance. Fortunately for us, the film crew was still there, and they gave us a ride to the bus station in Kfar Saba, the closest Israeli city to Qalqiliya. When we got to Jerusalem I went home and called the office of Dedi Zucker to let him know what happened.

As Kaminer reports, those arrested spent five days in jail before being released. I went to the court at least a couple of times as a supporter during hearings for the arrested protestors, bringing clothing to my arrested friend. They were eventually brought to trial in the fall of 1989, but charges were dismissed because it turned out that the order the IDF commander was holding for a "closed military zone" had never been signed.

The feeling I was left with after the whole incident was over (including court hearings, publicity, demonstrations, etc.) was that the members of the "21st year" simply weren't prepared to engage in civil disobedience both because they/we didn't really understand what civil disobedience was, nor the possible consequences to ourselves of it. Did the two men who flashed "V" signs know that they were doing something that could provoke the soldiers to arrest them? They certainly displayed no awareness of this risk. The group members in Qalqiliya were not prepared to get arrested - in fact, after the soldiers ordered us all to leave the city, we had a short discussion on whether to engage in civil disobedience, and decided that we had not come with that purpose. As Kaminer points out in his book, a number of the arrested women were mothers with children at home who did not want to risk a stay in jail. Those arrested were not prepared for conditions in the jails, nor for the (initial) seriousness of the legal charges against them.

Compared with those who risked their liberty and their lives in the American civil rights movement, we were rank amateurs. For example, the people who were involved in the 1960 sit-ins that desegregated lunch counters in the South (for example Diana Nash in Nashville) prepared themselves physically, spiritually, and psychologically for their non-violent struggle. From the Wikipedia article about Diana Nash:
After experiencing such shocking discriminatory events, Nash decided to search for a way to challenge segregation, Nash began attending civil disobedience workshops led by Rev. James Lawson.[2] James Lawson had studied Mahatma Gandhi's techniques of nonviolent direct action and passive resistance while studying in India.[9] By the end of her first semester at Fisk, she had become one of Lawson's most devoted disciples. Although originally a reluctant participant in non-violence, Nash emerged as a leader due to her well-spoken, composed manner when speaking to the authorities and to the press.
I don't know if a strong religious faith is necessary for effective civil disobedience, but I think that it helps a great deal in standing up to the difficult circumstances that participants may have to confront. Thorough training in how to remain non-violent when faced with a violent reaction is an absolute necessity. Our group had neither of these advantages.

Are the members of the Gaza Flotilla really prepared for what may happen to them? Alice Walker talks a good line, but have she and the other Americans on the "Audacity of Hope" trained for how to respond if the IDF decides to board their boat? Are they all really committed to nonviolence? How would they have behaved if they had been on the Mavi Marmara last year? How would they have responded to the IHH activists on the boat who prepared to fight off the IDF commandos? Have the passengers on the boat organized themselves to resist nonviolently? Walker suggests in her essay that all of the responsibility for possible violence is on the shoulders of the IDF - but what if it turns out that some of the passengers do want to resist violently? I hope that the passengers have discussed these issues thoroughly. While I don't support the flotilla, I have no desire to see the passengers injured or killed - and both the passengers on the boats and the IDF have a responsibility to make sure that there is no violence.

1 comment:

  1. I initially read this abbreviated version of Alice Walker's essay; then I read the longer version on her blog. I was quite moved by the short version; the long version was harder for me to read and raise more feelings of defensiveness in me.

    You ask good questions about whether Alice Walker and the other participants on the Audacity of Hope are prepared to respond nonviolently to a possible boarding by IDF forces. I hope and pray that this story ends peacefully.