In Oct. 2012 I was the only North American in an international crew from Finland, Sweden, Norway, Spain, Italy, Greece and Israel on the Estelle, a 53-metre three-masted sailing vessel, sailing under the Finnish flag, which we hoped would be able to get to Gaza. In this way we would symbolically break the illegal and inhuman blockade that the Israelis have imposed on Gaza in the name of “security.” After all, what security threat could an unarmed sailing vessel, crewed by people committed to non-violence, pose to the fourth most powerful military in the world? But the Israelis regarded us with more panic than the English did when faced by the Spanish Armada. They even appealed to the United Nations to stop us.
We had a load of humanitarian supplies for the besieged people of Gaza, but this was only symbolic. What Gaza needed and needs was not international charity but the ability to once again take part in international trade. The Israeli blockade has been choking the economy and the people of Gaza to death. So, in addition to bringing some token supplies, we were also bringing a message of hope, telling the people of Gaza that they were not forgotten. The enthusiastic support of thousands of people who greeted the Estelle as it made its journey from Sweden, with stops in France, Spain and Italy, showed that indeed the ordinary people of the world supported the people of Gaza and other Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
Silence means consent
In addition, we hoped that our voyage would encourage governments around the world to speak out against the Israeli blockade. I had no hope that the Harper government would do this—I may be naïve, but I'm not stupid—but, as a former MP for the New Democratic Party, I did hope that my presence on the boat would encourage some members of the current NDP caucus to speak up. Members of the Canadian Boat to Gaza team, including my wife, Eva, were writing to members of more than one political party asking them to speak out about Gaza and to endorse the Estelle. They were met by a deafening silence. At one point I sent a message, via Eva, to our son Paul Manly to forward to the NDP caucus. “Does the NDP support the blockade of Gaza? Silence means consent.” Tweeting this to the caucus for me is one of Paul's more serious crimes.
While we were still in international waters we were overtaken, surrounded by a fleet of Israeli gunboats and boarded by members of the Israel Defense Forces wearing black balaclavas so they could not be identified. They took down the Finnish flag and hoisted the Israeli flag, which seems to have replaced the skull and crossbones as the universal flag of piracy. During our non-violent resistance, 11 members of the crew were tasered, including two seniors and one person who was tasered five times, before being dragged to the afterdeck, where all of us sat in the hot sun for 10 and a half hours while the boat was towed into the Israeli port of Ashdod. Luckily I was not tasered.
After three different interrogation sessions—which I found gruelling although they were non-violent and comparatively mild as such sessions go—we were taken to a detention centre, where we spent the next three days. Again, as prison experiences go, ours was short and mild. We had blankets, foam mattresses and bunk beds; we were able to visit with each other during meal times, and the food was roughly comparable to that which I have experienced in Canadian hospitals.
Eva and our family had the most harrowing part of the experience since they had no news of where I was, what was happening, or how my health was standing up. They knew about the horrendous experiences, including nine deaths, of the Mavi Marmara crew, as well as the nasty jail time of those on the Tahrir. It was in this context that Paul spoke out in the media, and wrote press releases and an article for rabble.ca.
Why my son spoke out
After speaking with our own MP, Jean Crowder, and NDP Foreign Affairs Critic Paul Dewar, and hearing that they could not or would not speak out publicly about the Estelle’s illegal seizure in international waters and my imprisonment, Paul wrote to the NDP caucus about its continuing silence and being “whipped and muzzled” on this issue. He repeated the assertion that the caucus was whipped and muzzled in an interview with Peter O’Neil. This single instance of public criticism of the NDP leader and caucus came when he had still not heard of my well-being, and was at a point of complete frustration and feeling like the party had abandoned both its principles and his father. These are Paul’s sins. (One caucus member, after Paul apologized, said that if it had been their father they would have reacted in exactly the same way.)
Although the Israeli authorities pushed those aboard the Estelle to sign a document saying we had entered Israel illegally, none of us agreed to do so, following the advice of our excellent Israeli lawyer, Gabbi Laski. Later the authorities brought us a different document, which we did sign; this one simply gave Israel the right to deport us immediately instead of waiting the legally required three days in case we wanted to appeal—which I certainly didn't.
I regret that Paul's political career has become a casualty to his concern for me. I think he would have been a great and effective MP—far more so than I ever managed to be. I also deeply regret that the NDP itself has become a casualty to a false friendship with Israel. True friends speak the truth. Instead people like Harper (unfortunately found in every party) continue to support the current Israeli government as its human rights abuses, its violence and its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory drag it ever deeper into the mire of apartheid and racism.
Today’s NDP has lost its voice and its direction
To criticize the Netanyahu government for its illegality and wrongdoing is not anti-Semitic any more than criticizing the Harper government is anti-Canadian or criticizing a whipped and muzzled caucus is anti-NDP. Today's NDP, seeking to avoid controversial decisions, has not only lost its voice but also its direction. As the recent Ontario elections and federal by-elections show, if people want a liberal government they will vote for the real thing. And if New Democrats want politically progressive representation—who are they to vote for?
Canadians expect a government that is open and accountable, but how can they get that from a party that hides behind a cloak of secrecy that it falsely calls “confidentiality.” The NDP will not even send the rejected candidate the reasons in writing for his rejection. Paul Manly did nothing criminal or against published NDP policy. Confidentiality in this process should be to protect the candidates, who were required to submit a vast amount of personal information; it should not be used to give party officials carte blanche over who can put their names forward for nomination and not give any reasons for rejecting them. This leaves the NDP open to charges that it has secret policies that it is not telling the public. Refusing to tell candidates why they were rejected is sadly reminiscent, in its lack of due process, of the practice of authoritarian governments arresting and imprisoning people without formal charges and without giving them an opportunity to face their accusers. This is not worthy of the NDP.
In the meantime Israel's inhuman blockade of Gaza continues, and the Palestinian people continue to suffer. Using the excuse of the reprehensible murder of three young Israelis, the Netanyahu government has taken the even more reprehensible action of punishing an entire nation.
Nurit Peled-Elhanen is the daughter of an Israeli general who later became a peace activist, and mother of Elik, a former IDF member who was on board the Estelle. She knows firsthand the tragedy of Israeli-Palestinian violence since her own daughter was killed by a suicide bomber; however, she refused to blame this on the Palestinians but rather saw it as the result of the oppressive Israeli occupation. With respect to the recent murders, she said, “The blame for the murder of the three Jewish boys and for the murder of … Palestinian children should be placed where it belongs: on the hands of the Israeli racist regime of occupation, apartheid and sociocide.”
The majority of Palestinians and a significant minority of Israelis continue to look for non-violent ways to end the occupation and oppression. We in Canada can join with others around the world in support for them by taking part in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israeli goods made in occupied Palestinian territory.
In face of destruction, we need a spirit of sumud
We can also support Gaza's Ark, a solidarity project whose vessel was targeted and destroyed by Israeli shelling of the Gaza seaport several days ago. This project was spearheaded by the Canadian Boat to Gaza team and other international groups. Palestinian workers were refurbishing an old fish boat to carry trade goods from Gaza to the outside world—thus challenging the blockade from within.
With Israel's vicious assault on the Palestinian people of Gaza, killing more than 172 at last count and destroying homes and public buildings, it seems like a small thing that Gaza's Ark was also targeted and burned. Canadians and other international supporters who have contributed time and money towards this project feel a pang of loss, and while they know that the burning of Gaza's Ark was deliberate, they also know that its destruction was infinitesimal when seen in the context of the death and destruction caused by Israel's assault on the Palestinian people. The Arabic word sumud describes the Palestinian response to this assault; along with mourning and a great sense of bereavement, Palestinians have a deep commitment to carry on, to persevere and not to be defeated. This is sumud. It is time for all who support freedom, peace and justice for the Palestinians to share in this spirit of sumud and to continue the struggle. An important part of that struggle is to push the NDP and others to stand up for these values they claim to hold.
The Palestinian people of Gaza and the West Bank are not giving up their struggle in spite of horrendous odds. Canadians who support peace, freedom and justice must not give up either—in spite of the complicity, silence and cowardice of our political parties and their leaders.