On June 5, I was headed to Gaza aboard the MV Rachel Corrie—a ship named for a young American activist who was bulldozed to death by the Israeli army in 2003. We were part of the Freedom Flotilla, on a mission to deliver humanitarian aid across the blockade imposed by the Israeli government.
Just days earlier, we had heard via satellite phone that Israeli commandos had boarded six ships, including the Turkish MV Mavi Marmara, in international water. Commandos killed nine passengers of the MV Mavi Marmara and injured many others.
As the seventh ship of the Freedom Flotilla, we now found ourselves in a frighteningly similar scenario.
The 19 crew and activists aboard the MV Rachel Corrie heard that 35 heavily armed Israeli commandos were now preparing to board our ship. We sat down on the deck to await their arrival. Some of us wondered whether we would face the same fate as our colleagues aboard the Mavi Marmara.
The killing of unarmed civilians was devastating news to us all. They were not terrorists—they were human beings. Like me, they believed that Gaza should no longer be a place of suffering and isolation for its inhabitants.
And like me, and all of the other activists aboard the Freedom Flotilla, they believed in peace. In the 1970s people told me that peace would not come to Northern Ireland, just as they now tell me that peace is not possible in Israel and Palestine. I lost my niece and two nephews and my sister to the violence in Ireland, and it breaks my heart to see the same fate fall upon so many Israeli and Palestinian families. I have hope and believe that peace will come to Palestine and Israel because I have met so many people there on the ground working to make it happen.
And, just as it brought peace to Northern Ireland, nonviolent resistance will bring peace to this war torn region. That is why I keep coming back to Gaza, much to the Israeli government’s dismay. The last time I attempted to deliver humanitarian aid, in June 2009, I was detained for one week.
On this trip, the world was watching. Many, myself included, believed the tragic events of May 31 would finally open the world’s eyes to the even greater tragedy— the collective punishment of 1.5 million Palestinians.
Israel’s violations of international law are well documented by the United Nations and many independent human rights bodies. Even so, the violations continue under the guise of national security, as does the policy of isolating Gaza to weaken Hamas. It is a policy that clearly is not working. Instead, it has turned Gaza into what has rightly been described as the largest open-air prison in the world. The blockade that Israel has imposed on Gaza for the past three years has only punished innocent Palestinians. Lack of access to medical supplies and hospital treatments leads to a loss of life. Bright and eager students are unable to accept spots offered at international universities. Families are unable to rebuild homes destroyed during Israel’s crushing assault on Gaza that killed over 1,400 people in the winter of 2008 and 2009.
And Hamas, Israel’s intended target and the elected representative of the Palestinian people, grows stronger.
It is about time that we open our eyes. After the attacks on the Freedom Flotilla ships, an Israeli military commission found “no failure” on the part of the commandos who killed unarmed civilians. In fact, the commission went so far as to praise their efforts.
Meanwhile, Israel has made it clear that it will not cooperate with, or take part in, any panel that seeks to interrogate Israeli soldiers. The result? Investigators from the United Nations Human Rights Council have been refused entry into Israel and a separate inquiry set up by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is moving forward with a watered-down mandate—to “examine and identify the facts, circumstances and context of the incident…to recommend ways to avoid similar confrontations in the future.”
Such a response cannot stand. The international community must finally stop allowing Israel to disregard international law and human rights. The siege on Gaza has now been partially lifted. This shows what international pressure can achieve, but it is not enough.
It is time to choose peace. It is time for world leaders and the international community to join together and call on Israel to lift the siege of Gaza completely, to end the occupation of Palestine, and to allow the Palestinian people their right to self-determination.