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The Audacity of Hope: U.S. Peace Activists to Sail to Gaza in Humanitarian Flotilla

by Open-Publishing - Sunday 26 June 2011

Demos-Actions International

Dozens of Americans hope to set sail this week on a U.S.-flagged ship, “The Audacity of Hope,” as part of an international flotilla which aims to challenge Israel’s embargo of the Gaza Strip. Palestinian solidarity activists are setting sail from a number of ports just over a year after Israeli forces killed nine activists on an aid boat called the Mavi Marmara, which was part of the first such international flotilla.

Israel says it will again use force to stop the aid flotilla from reaching Gaza. We speak with passengers of the U.S. boat, New York labor attorney Richard Levy and peace activist Kathy Kelly. Levy says the flotilla’s challenge to Israel’s embargo is legal and that it is the blockade that is illegal. “It’s a violation of the Geneva Accords to occupy a country, as has been done here through the control of all its borders, and then block supplies, block people from moving in and out,” says Levy. [includes rush transcript]

AMY GOODMAN: About 50 Americans are set to sail this week in a U.S.-flagged ship called The Audacity of Hope as part of an international flotilla which aims to challenge Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. Palestinian solidarity activists are setting sail from a number of ports just over a year after Israeli forces killed nine activists on an aid boat called the Mavi Marmara that was part of the first such international flotilla. Organizers say the Mavi Marmara, still undergoing repairs from the Israeli raid, will not be part of the flotilla this year.

DROR FEILER: The fact that the Mavi Marmara will not participate in the Freedom Flotilla 2 means that the misinformation put forward by the Israeli government and its supporters that the flotilla is a so-called Turkish flotilla or an Islamist flotilla effort will be completely exposed. Hundreds of people from around the world are sailing to break the blockade on Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: Israel is vowing to again use armed force to stop the second international aid flotilla from reaching the Gaza Strip. An Israeli navy commander, Rani Ben-Yehuda, warned flotilla organizers to hand over their aid if they want it to reach Gaza.

RANI BEN-YEHUDA: Supplies are getting into Gaza on a daily basis. The reason of the maritime security blockade is to prevent from terrorists and weapons to get into the hands of terrorist organizations in Gaza. And like we said before, I’m saying it again: we are inviting all the organizers of the flotilla to come to Ashdod and to transfer their cargo in the legal way into Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two of the passengers on the U.S. boat, The Audacity of Hope. Richard Levy is senior partner in the law firm Levy Ratner, and Kathy Kelly is co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, a campaign to end U.S. military and economic warfare.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Kathy, why are you going on this trip? You’re leaving. You’re having a news conference at the U.N. today, and then you fly off.

KATHY KELLY: Yeah, Amy, I was in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, and at one point I remember a doctor putting his head in his hands and saying, "For 22 days, the world watched, and no nation intervened." And it’s true that, really, most nations are not significantly intervening to end the suffering of Gazans. But civil society, internationally — and that’s what this flotilla represents — have said, "We will intervene." And I’m very, very excited and pleased to join that grouping.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about, what, roughly a thousand people on 10 ships. Richard Levy, usually you’re representing a union in New York. Why are you going on this voyage?

RICHARD LEVY: Well, I think it’s very, very important that we speak up, and particularly Americans, and in my case, Jews. I think most people are aware that America supports Israel and Israel’s conduct and refused to speak up against Cast Lead and has refused, really openly, to speak up against this terrible blockade that’s affected so many people’s lives. But I also think it’s important for Jewish people — and about 25 percent of the U.S. boat, I believe, are people who identify as Jews — to make it very clear that AIPAC and the right-wing supporters, the uncritical supporters of Israel, are not the only voice of the Jewish people in this country, because, as you know, they have basically silenced our politicians, who seem to believe that they are the only voice.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been in Washington recently?

RICHARD LEVY: Yeah, we were in Washington about three weeks ago or a month ago to meet with the State Department and to tell them very clearly that this is a peaceful mission. There will be no arms on board this boat. This is really an exercise in free speech. This is people, United States citizens, all United States citizens, on a boat sailing to a country with a very dangerous cargo of letters. We will have about 3,000 letters on board from Americans across this country saying to the people of Gaza, "We support you. We understand that you are being maliciously treated and oppressed, and we know your conditions, and we send a message of love."

AMY GOODMAN: You heard the representative of the Israeli military saying, "If you give us the cargo, we’ll get it into Gaza." Kathy Kelly?

KATHY KELLY: It isn’t just a matter of humanitarian cargo being brought into Gaza. It’s a matter of people having been subjected to a state of siege, isolated, 45 percent unemployment, inability to reconstruct after the terrible assaults in Operation Cast Lead, people being trapped, young people not being able to get out to avail themselves of education. There are so many reasons why this siege is wrongful. And so, I think it’s misleading to think that we’re people that are trying to be charitable. We’re people who are trying to say that it’s wrong to impose collective punishment on a civilian population because you want to affect their governance.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Levy, why did the Mavi Marmara actually pull out? I mean, there’s going to be a flotilla, you believe, of about 10 ships. Perhaps a thousand people will be on these ships from countries all over the world, that will somehow meet up to challenge the embargo. But Turkey has pulled out.

RICHARD LEVY: Yeah. Well, there are, as you probably know, different stories floating around. But one thing we do know is that Israel has put enormous diplomatic pressure on countries, many countries — in fact, even on the U.N. They met with Ban Ki-moon, and they asked him to put pressure on various constituent members to stop this flotilla from going forward. One of the countries where we know they put an extreme amount of pressure was Turkey. And whether or not that pressure was the reason why this boat is not sailing is —- I can’t verify, but it certainly is a question of concern. We also know that right now they’re putting pressure on Greece to try and stop any boat leaving from Greece. So -—

AMY GOODMAN: Hadn’t Netanyahu recently visited with Prime Minister Papandreou?

RICHARD LEVY: Yes, yes. And I’m sure this was on the agenda. It’s kind of remarkable how — how much visibility this has had in the offices of the leadership of Israel, because they have been very, very active and very forceful in trying to stop this flotilla from going forward, which really is an exercise in trying to stop a peaceful demonstration. I guess the so-called Arab Spring doesn’t extend to actions that involve Israel, where we support peaceful, democratic demonstrations. This one, I guess, falls outside that sphere of support.

AMY GOODMAN: Kathy Kelly, can you talk about who’s on your ship alone, about 50 people — Alice Walker, the well-known writer, author of Color Purple, Ray McGovern, former CIA top briefer for President George H.W. Bush when he was vice president at the time — who else?

KATHY KELLY: Well, I’ve certainly been impressed with the work of Ann Wright. She’s criss-crossed the country since having been involved with previous efforts to enter Gaza, and has entered Gaza in the past, along with Medea Benjamin. And there’s been a tremendous effort on the part of many organizers.

AMY GOODMAN: Ann Wright, the colonel, who quit over the wars, and Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink.

KATHY KELLY: That’s right. And then, from Illinois, where I’m from, Robert Naiman, who coordinates Just Foreign Policy. Hedy Epstein, who has repeatedly gone over to Gaza, and her parents had been killed during the Holocaust. I think the makeup of people on the ship represents a broad sector of the U.S. peace movement. One of my close friends, just graduated from Beloit College, Max Suchan, he’ll also be on the boat. But we want the focus to be on people in Gaza. We’re very, very conscious of how people in Gaza have been subjected to privation, to an inability to move on with their lives. You’ve got a younger generation that’s never known anything other than being trapped inside of a punitive situation. So the focus should most especially be on our Gazan friends.

AMY GOODMAN: And Richard Levy, you’re a lawyer. What is the legality of this challenge?

RICHARD LEVY: Well, I think the challenge is completely legal. The blockade, I think, is completely illegal. You know, it’s a violation of the Geneva Accords to occupy a country, as has been done here through the control of all its borders, and then block supplies, block people from moving in and out. In Gaza, it’s meant food. It’s meant medical care. It’s meant educational opportunities. It’s meant, of course, as Kathy said, the rebuilding of a country that was smashed by Israelis using a lot of U.S. weaponry.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s happened with the previous attempts? For example, a few weeks ago a Malaysian boat, the Israeli military shot across the bow?

RICHARD LEVY: Yeah, the Malaysian boat, also carrying very dangerous material — in this case, it was sewer pipe, because the Israelis had bombed out a sewage treatment plant in Gaza, and the Malaysians were attempting to bring materials to help fix that situation, because the water in Gaza is not drinkable in almost any part of the country. What the Israelis did in that case was they did fire across the bow. They froze — basically froze the boat in its place in the Mediterranean and kept it there for days until there was really an issue of food and water running out, and so on and so forth. And finally, the boat was allowed to move forward into Egypt. But it demonstrates just the willful, what can I say, nastiness. I mean, why would you not allow sewage pipe to fix a broken sewage treatment plant into a country? Why would you do it?

AMY GOODMAN: But it also says that it’s dangerous to do this. Why are you going?

RICHARD LEVY: Well, I guess maybe there’s some denial, you know, about the possibilities of danger. But really, I think it’s just essential that people speak up. I mean, we sometimes look for a model in the folks who went on the Freedom Rides, the people who have stepped forward in a lot of situations and said someone has to challenge this. And if there were legal means to do it, if I could do it in a courtroom, I would do it in a courtroom. But I don’t think those means are available.

AMY GOODMAN: Israel has — says it’s imposed the blockade to prevent weapon smuggling into Gaza and that benign goods are welcome, as long as they’re offloaded in an Israeli port for inspection.

RICHARD LEVY: Yeah, well, you know, it’s just not true. All of the boats, as far as I know — and certainly the U.S. boat — has made it clear that it will cause an inspection to be done before it leaves port. It will not be carrying anything of any danger to Israel. That can be verified at any time by any international body or any neutral body. This boat is carrying, as I said, enough food for the people on board and thousands and thousands of letters from Americans to the people of Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Kathy Kelly, you’ve been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize twice. You have been in dangerous situations repeatedly, putting your body on the front line in Iraq, in Afghanistan. This clearly is a very difficult situation. Why are you doing this again?

KATHY KELLY: You know, youngsters that I’ve gotten to know in Afghanistan asked me to wear this blue scarf and to bring many blue scarves with me. And I asked them, "Why the color blue?" And they said, "Well, because there’s one blue sky above us." People really are interdependent, and I think this boat is a representation of that. And it’s so appropriate for people from the U.S., because it’s the U.S. that has supplied Israel with so many weapons, that if you were to construct a tunnel to accommodate the weaponry that we’ve supplied, it would have to be the size of the Grand Canyon.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we are going to continue to follow The Audacity of Hope. And the name, The Audacity of Hope, Richard?

RICHARD LEVY: Well, I think it’s a name that we all know, but really it’s to express the idea of hope. It’s to say to the people of Gaza, who have asked us to join this mission, there is hope, and we will help support your hope.

AMY GOODMAN: New York labor lawyer Richard Levy and Kathy Kelly, peace activist, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence.