The Israeli government’s siege of the Gaza Strip stretches back to 2005, and it has been rigorously enforced since the Israeli military offensive of late 2008 and early 2009, which left more than 1,400 people dead and 14,000 homes damaged or destroyed. Israel argues its military offensive and tightening of the siege are a response to Palestinian rocket fire, ordered by a Hamas government whose legitimacy it does not recognize. However, as leading watchdogs such as Human Rights Watch have repeatedly documented, the Israeli military response has been overwhelmingly disproportionate.
The ongoing siege does nothing to target Palestinian militants but instead violates international norms by holding all responsible for the actions of a few. A report published by Amnesty International, Oxfam, Save the Children, and CARE stated that, “The humanitarian crisis [in Gaza] is a direct result of ongoing collective punishment of ordinary men, women and children and is illegal under international law.”
As a result of the siege, civilians in Gaza, including children and other innocent bystanders who are caught in the middle of this conflict, do not have clean water to drink because authorities cannot rebuild water treatment plants destroyed by the Israeli attacks. Air strikes that damaged basic civilian infrastructure, coupled with curtailed imports, have left many in Gaza without the food and medicine needed to lead healthy lives.
Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), who has visited Gaza on repeated occasions since the Israeli military offensive, has stated, “The personal stories of children being killed in their homes or schools, entire families wiped out, and relief workers prevented from evacuating the wounded are heart wrenching — what went on here, and what is continuing to go on, is shocking and troubling beyond words.”
Those of us taking this voyage are of course concerned for our safety. In the past, some boats attempting to bring much needed supplies to Gazans have been violently harassed by Israeli forces. On Dec. 30, 2008, the vessel Dignity was carrying volunteer surgeons and three tons of medical supplies when it was attacked without warning by an Israeli naval ship, which rammed the boat three times in international waters roughly 90 miles from Gaza’s coast. Passengers and crew feared for their lives as their boat quickly took on water and Israeli troops threatened to open fire.
I am joining the effort, nonetheless, because I believe resolutely non-violent actions that call attention to the blockade are vital in educating the public about what is taking place. Simply put, there is no decent justification for preventing shipments of humanitarian aid from reaching a people in crisis.
Despite President Barack Obama’s recent highly publicized disagreement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the fact remains that the U.S. is still an active supporter of and the top military donor to the Israeli government. Our lawmakers have tremendous sway in demanding that humanitarian channels to Gaza be opened, that people receive food and medical supplies and that Israel make a more concerted effort to protect innocent civilians. While the Obama administration has at times pressured Israel’s government to lift the blockade, as with a May 2009 diplomatic note objecting to the policy, it has not followed up on its politely worded statements with resolute attempts to force change.
While I have been moved to put aside my daily obligations in order to join the humanitarian voyage, I recognize that many people do not have the ability of doing this. Fortunately, not everyone has to board a ship to make a meaningful contribution to addressing the crisis in Gaza. We simply have to demand that our elected officials step forward to protest Israel’s shameful violation of human rights.