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Threatened and beaten on the way to Gaza

Adam Shapiro | Huffington Post

17 July 2009

I departed Cyprus with 20 others on June 29 in a converted ferry carrying humanitarian provisions intended for Palestinians in Gaza cut off from the world by the Israeli military siege. Our intent was to bring Palestinians toys, medicines, toolkits, olive tree saplings, and one 50-kilo bag of cement while breaking the sea barrier Israel maintains to imprison Palestinians in their coastal territory.

An independent filmmaker, and human rights advocate, I planned to document the trip and life in Gaza.

Approximately half of Gaza’s population is under age 18. These children suffer the consequences of an Israeli imposed economic collapse ostensibly intended to undermine Hamas rule. As with Iraq, the sanctions serve only to devastate a population and decimate civil society.

At 2:00 am on June 30, somewhere off our starboard side, an Israeli warship shone its searchlights at our boat. A voice called on the 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.”

These waters are patrolled unchallenged by the Israeli navy. Our call for help – one previous boat of ours was intentionally rammed by the Israeli navy – to a UN ship we knew to be in radio range went unanswered.

We counted eight Israeli warships and four zodiac boats with boarding parties and divers in hot pursuit. About an hour earlier an F-16 executed fly-overs. This was US-supplied and American taxpayer-subsidized-force all to stop one bag of cement from reaching a ghetto and human-made disaster area.

In a flurry of activity, we were boarded. Those of us with video cameras bore the brunt of the over-zealous navy forces. We were beaten to break our grasp on the video cameras. I have documented events from Afghanistan to Darfur to various locations around the Middle East, but until then I had never been physically attacked on account of my work. Israel’s military censor continues to hold the evidence and I expect never to retrieve it. With the evidence gone, much of the media have treated the event as though it never occurred.

Instead of sailing into Gaza’s bombed and broken port, we were kidnapped at gunpoint, taken to a foreign country, and imprisoned. Instead of delivering toys to children in Azbet Abed Rabbo, where in February I met families living in tents (again) because their homes were left in rubble by Israel’s December-January invasion, we stood at attention for a prison guard to check our cell.
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As other governments spoke up publicly for their citizens, the US government was notably silent.

In his Cairo speech, President Obama asserted, “Palestinians must abandon violence…For centuries,” he continued, “black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights.” He then noted it was peaceful action that had won rights in the United States, South Africa, and elsewhere. Yet how seriously can Palestinians take his exhortation to nonviolence when he allows an ally to kidnap and beat American citizens attempting nonviolently to assist Palestinians in war-ravaged Gaza?

Even President Obama, who seemed so sincere in his Cairo speech, is imprisoned by the status quo of American-Israeli relations that bend American values and interest to the will of a state that is increasingly being labeled internationally with the brand of apartheid. One set of laws for Jews and one set of laws for Palestinians is unacceptable in the 21st century. Washington can only ignore the facts for so long when Israel’s housing minister states, “We can all be bleeding hearts, but I think it is unsuitable [for Jews and Palestinians] to live together [in Israel].”

As for Gaza, Palestinians there are worlds away from hoping for equal rights. Day to day survival is the priority. The International Committee of the Red Cross recently issued a report, “Gaza: 1.5 million people trapped in despair,” in which it details that nothing has been rebuilt that was destroyed during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, over 70% of Gazans live in poverty, and malnutrition is on the rise among the most vulnerable – the children of Gaza. Trauma is a foregone conclusion.

The World Health Organization has reported that one-third of children under five and women of childbearing age are anemic.

In his Cairo speech, President Obama called the present situation facing Palestinians “intolerable,” adding that “just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security.” More recently, President Obama called on Israel to allow in the reconstruction and humanitarian aid that Gaza desperately needs, though he fell far short of calling for the fundamental human rights to movement, education, health and security that all Palestinians deserve.

It is in this context of despair and a complete lack of governmental will to challenge Israel in which a generation of Palestinians is growing up in Gaza worse off than their great grandparents who fled there in 1948. Our small boat tried to break the apathy that permits blockade and siege. We were ordinary civilians, taking a risk on the high seas, confronting the region’s most powerful navy, because despite all the words describing the situation in Gaza, nothing is improving. In fact, after the immediate outcry following Israel’s winter invasion, Israel again started reducing the number of trucks allowed to enter Gaza.

The Berlin Wall did not fall in a day. Consequently, our next ship sails for Palestinian freedom in a month

Adam Shapiro is a human rights advocate and documentary filmmaker. His latest film is “Chronicles of a Refugee.”