As I read the myriad of reactions to the Gaza Freedom Flotilla tragedy last Sunday, I'm struck by one recurring theme: the sense of astonishment that these activists responded to the Israeli Navy with violence.
In other words, they didn't act according to the script. They didn't behave like proper practitioners of civil disobedience. The implication: if they had responded like the non-violent activists they were purported to be, this whole tragedy could well have been avoided.
There's only problem with this calculus: non-violent Palestinian protests have actually been ongoing throughout the Occupied Territories for years - and the Israeli military has been responding to them with much the same kind of brutality that was used against the passengers of the Mavi Marmara.
A sampling of some incidents over the past year:
- In March, 2009, Tristan Anderson, an American activist with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) was shot in the head with a tear-gas canister during a non-violent protest, sustaining massive brain injuries.
- Bassem Ibrahim Abu-Rahma, a popular non-violent activist in Bilin, was killed when he was hit in the chest by a tear gas canister during a protest in April 2009.
- In June 2009 35 year-old Aqel Sadeq Dar Srour was shot in the chest and killed when he tried to assist Mohammad Misleh Mousa, a teenager who was shot by an Israeli soldier during a non-violent demonstration in Ni'lin. Mohammad was permanently paralyzed as a result of his injury.
- This past April, Imad Rizka was critically injured when he was shot in the head with a tear gas canister during a non-violent protest in Bi'lin
- Last Monday, Emily Henochowicz, a 21 year American ISM activist lost her eye when she was shot in the face with a tear gas canister during a peaceful protest of the flotilla incident at the Qalandiya checkpoint in the West Bank.
These are not merely isolated incidents. Indeed, they are part of a concerted Israeli military policy to crush the grassroots non-violent movements by means of lethal force, mass arrests, and detentions. As Israeli activist Jonathan Pollak observed this past December:
Over the past six months, 31 Bil'in residents have been arrested, including almost all the members of the Popular Committee that organizes the demonstrations. A similar tactic is being used against protesters in the neighboring village of Ni'ilin, which is losing over half of its land to Israel's wall and settlements. Over the past eighteen months, 89 Ni'ilin residents have been arrested.
Israeli lawyer Gaby Lasky, who represents many of Bil'in and Ni'ilin's detainees, was informed by Israel's military prosecutors that the army had decided to end demonstrations against the Wall, and that it intends to use legal procedures to do so.
The Israeli army also recently resumed the use of 22 caliber sniper fire for dispersing demonstrations, though use of the weapon for crowd control purposes was specifically forbidden in 2001 by the Israeli army's legal arm. Following the killing of unarmed demonstrator Aqel Srour in Ni'ilin last June, Brigadier General Avichai Mandelblit, the Israeli army's Judge Advocate General, reiterated the ban on the use of .22 caliber bullets against demonstrators, to no effect. In addition to Srour, since the beginning of 2009, 28 unarmed demonstrators were injured by live ammunition sniper fire in Ni'ilin alone.
Few are likely aware that non-violent protest has been ongoing within the Gaza Strip itself long before the flotilla set sail. American journalist Ashley Bates, who blogs from Gaza, has written extensively about Gaza's "Local Initiative Against the Buffer Zone" - a non-violent campaign organized by Gazan Saber Al-Zaaneen:
In July of 2008, Apache helicopters dropped fliers warning Palestinians that they were not permitted to go within 300 meters of the border. Mr. Zaaneen knew that Israeli soldiers had shot at people and destroyed farms and houses within one kilometer of the border. Feeling that Israel would continue encroaching unless Palestinians resisted, he began organizing non-violent direct actions in the buffer zones, such as accompanying farmers as they tended their fields and searching for bodies of Palestinians killed by Israeli troops and left to rot....
People of all political stripes are welcome at his demonstrations, which now occur five days per week at border areas across Gaza...Every demonstrator must not bring weapons and must commit to non-violence. "I don't resist because I want to die," he said. "I resist because I want freedom, land, education, opportunities, no occupation. This is the message of our movement. We want the whole world to know why the Palestinian people resist."
Last April, Ms. Bates reported that Hind Al-Akra, a 22 year old female protester was seriously injured when she was shot in the abdomen and seriously injured during a Buffer Zone protest. At the time, Ms. Bates wrote "it seems only a matter of time before one of the protesters gets killed." Just five days later, her prediction came true: a protester named Ahmad Salem Deeb was shot by Israeli troops and died of blood loss shortly afterwards.
Immediately following the flotilla tragedy, Ms. Bates cited this telling observation by an ISM worker in Gaza:
I'm surprised that Israel would go this far with internationals...The reality is that they are doing this sort of thing every day with Palestinians--farmers and fishermen are killed every day.
We will likely be debating what exactly occurred aboard the Mavi Marmara for some time to come. In the meantime, similar tragedies are occurring throughout the Occupied Territories on a virtually daily basis.
They are no less worthy of our attention.