By Susan Schwartz, TMO
During mid summer the attention of the world was once again focused on Gaza, often referred to as the worldâ€™s largest outdoor prison. Humanitarians had organized a flotilla to sail to Gaza from Mediterranean ports on the anniversary of last yearâ€™s attempt – an attempt which resulted in the death of nine people as Israel committed a barbaric act of piracy against the Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara.
The Los Angeles area was privileged to hear two first hand accounts of this yearâ€™s flotilla thanks to a presentation titled: â€œEyewitness Account of the Gaza Flotillaâ€ held this past weekend. Featured speakers were Yonatan Shapira and Mary Hughes Thompson. Mr. Shapira is from Israel and is a former Israeli IDF pilot. He is a Refusenik, a member of Boycott from Within, and a co founder of Combatants for Peace.
Ms Thompson is a veteran peace activist and a co founder of the Free Gaza Movement. She was on board one of the two ships that sailed simultaneously into the port of Gaza to break the decades long blockade in the late summer of 2008.
The event was one in a series of conversations about the Middle East and was sponsored by Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP); the Levantine Cultural Center; LA Jews for Peace (LAJP); Friends of Sabeel; Women in Black LA (WIBLA), and BDSLA.
Mr. Shapira began by giving his background as a child growing up in a privileged position in Israel, the son of a high ranking Air Force officer. He told the audience that the squad which dropped Israeli soldiers onto the Mavi Marmara in 2010 was his squad. He told of being disillusioned by Israeli targeted assassination attempts which killed innocent civilians, including children.
He addressed the audience and asked if there were persons present who held a point of view different than his. Two people raised their hands. â€œI want to hear what you have to say after the presentationâ€ said Mr. Shapira
Mr Shapira said that he was on the American Gaza bound ship, The Audacity of Hope. He and others arrived in Athens at the end of June and immediately began training in non violent resistance.The ship was not permitted to leave Athens because of bogus claims that the vessel was not seaworthy. There were representatives of the press on board including CNN, the New York Times, and the Nation. Thanks to the heavy hand of Israeli and American pressure on the government of Greece, the voyage was aborted. The ship was confiscated, and attorneys are still working for its release.
Mr. Shapira had been on a small â€œJewish vesselâ€ which tried to sail to Gaza shortly after the incident of Israeli piracy on the Mavi Marmara. The vessel carried harmonicas and was stopped by the Israeli navy.
Israel claimed that the vessel carried dual use items.
Mr. Shapira said that even if the voyage to the port of Gaza had been successful, success cannot truly be declared until Gaza is free.
Ms Thompson told briefly of her work with the people of Palestine. She chose to take the Canadian boat, Tahrir because of ties that she has to Canada. At first she had planned to skip the voyage but then thought of all the brave people who were going, and she felt she had to make another statement for her cause – the cause of Palestine. She rendezvoused with the Tahrir on the island of Crete where she also underwent training in nonviolent resistance. Israeli journalist Amira Hass was on board the Tahrir.
Ms Thompson spoke of the support of the Greek people for their cause. The Greek navy insisted on seeing every detail of paperwork. They declared the boat un seaworthy because, among other things, the beds were too narrow, and the air conditioning did not work. When the handwriting was on the wall, the passengers found five men on board who were familiar with maritime engineering. The captain of the Tahrir was a Greek citizen and left the boat fearing arrest. He first instructed the five men in the techniques they would need to sail the vessel. Then the ship took off. Two people got into kayaks to create interference. The boat was physically prevented from sailing far, and soon the Tahrir were boarded. The boarding party found the wheel house empty and when the passengers were asked who the captain was, everyone raised his or her hand.
Ms Thompson mentioned the large amount of goods confiscated by Israel from the vessels of the first flotilla – cell phones, cameras, computers and other equipment. This material was never returned. This information brought a gasp from the audience.
â€œI never thought of thatâ€ said one woman â€œthat adds the element of theft.â€
Ms Thompson and Mr. Shapira agreed that the publicity the flotilla received and the light that was shown on Gaza and the conditions of the Gazans under the boot of Israel, rendered the mission of the Flotilla II at least partially successful. When non violence is a tactic, then the value of public opinion becomes increasingly valuable.
A lively question and answer session followed.