In August 1982, I led a relief mission to Lebanon in the aftermath of Israel's invasion two months earlier.
What had been cast as a limited incursion to suppress missile attacks along its borders by what were then termed PLO forces and around which Israel mobilized Jewish community support throughout the US and Western Europe, quickly raised serious doubts about the proportionality of Israel's response. The Israeli Air Force destroyed over 45 Syrian MIGs without losing a single Israeli plane; it took out anti-aircraft missile batteries throughout Lebanon and even inside Syria; but it also kept its tanks moving north towards Beirut -- something no Israeli army had ever attempted.
The world's sympathy for Israel's grievances quickly grew negative. In Los Angeles, the daily military briefing by the Israeli Consulate of its biggest Jewish supporters was abruptly cancelled after 5 days of gloating about its military exploits. Even the "big machers" began to express concern about what were apparently ill-defined military and political goals.
With private funds, Operation California (now widely known as Operation USA, an all-private relief group), announced that it would fly the first cargo plane with aid back into Beirut's airport. Before we got there with 40 tons of medical aid, Israeli bombed the civilian airport in Beirut, effectively shutting it down for aid and commercial travel.
We were forced to fly into Larnaca, Cyprus and charter a cross-channel ferry to Beirut, a 16-hour crossing. Our aid effort was widely publicized. There were groups even advocating donating it to the Israeli military inside Lebanon for distribution to occupied areas -- something we angrily rejected.
As we were flying from Los Angeles to Cyprus, the world powers and the UN negotiated a ceasefire which included the evacuation of 14,000 armed PLO fighters from Beirut harbor to Cyprus....with their weapons...and with their immediate transfer from Larnaca airport to a number of Arab countries willing to accept them and fly them out. As we landed our DC-8 cargo jet, it taxied directly into an area of the airport full of armed PLO waiting for a lift to Algeria, Libya and other places granting them refuge.
A senior US official from the US Embassy in Beirut -- not invited by us but out of an excess of concern -- met our plane and lauded our relief effort. Our supplies were to be distributed by the Middle East Council of Churches to Lebanese Christians, Muslims and Palestinians based purely on demonstrated need and without favor.
The Council of Churches had chartered the ferry and all 40 tons of aid were transferred to the docks along with an LA Times reporter, a wire service editorialist and four Operation California staff and volunteers.
Other than a few Lebanese civilians (about 10 people) who paid the captain to come with us, our very large ferry began what was to be an eventful overnight crossing towards a war zone.
What we were not told was that the ferry had carried many of the armed PLO fighters out of Beirut under international protection. Going back to Beirut would not have been considered something in need of protection... but in the early hours of the morning we were stopped at sea by an unmarked Israeli missile boat. Apparently, the Israelis feared the PLO fighters might have left their guns on the boat to be smuggled back into Beirut.
Instead, they ran into a relief mission led by a Jew, with two other American Jews as volunteers, one of whom had serious connections in both the Israeli Government and the American Jewish community. In other words, "witnesses".
I decided that this was an act of piracy and immediately asked the missile boat captain as his armed crew boarded the ferry, "Does your mother know you're a pirate, captain?" At which he said, "You must be a Jew, no one in this region would dare say that to us." I then assured him that our stuff was relief aid and that a senior US Embassy staffer from Lebanon had already viewed the cargo and had a copy of the cargo manifest. He pulled his men and sailed away.
I relive this event 28 years later as the flotilla of six boats with 800 volunteers has just been attacked on the high seas as it neared the coast of Gaza to drop off hundreds of tons of aid. Israel is attempting to justify killing at least nine aid volunteers and injuring and imprisoning dozens more. It says the mission was not authorized by the Israeli government. The attack was on the high seas 75 miles from Gaza.
Having provided aid to 99 countries over 31 years, I can say without hesitation that sending aid to the West Bank/Gaza/Palestine is an extremely difficult thing to do. Not only does the Israeli Government refuse or block most aid, but it has cowed Egypt into doing much the same on Gaza's southern border.
Prospects for peace are nonexistent. All sides have hardened. Israel may have sacrificed its lukewarm relations with Turkey over this; the Obama Administration is held hostage by the election cycle and its unwillingness to break the Washington mold; the Europeans are unlikely to impose sanctions on Israel for its serial misconduct nor criticize Arab states when they, too, support acts of violence.