A Soft-voiced Portrayal of Suffering in Gaza

Friday evening (October 8) I attended a lecture at Portland State University (Portland, Oregon) sponsored by SUPER (Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights) and delivered by Kenneth O’Keefe, a colorful and passionate activist brandishing two advocacies unpopular in today’s Mainstream America: Palestine and Hawaii, both as free, independent nations.

But more than a conference or lecture, the cozy gathering of 60-70 attendees made it seem as a solidarity-rehearsal of a left wing choir. And Ken O’Keefe was there with his baton, both preaching to and directing a friendly and unquestioning audience.

I had looked forward to seeing and hearing this celebrity whose name I associated with the incident last May – incident which became an international PR disaster for Israel – of the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” and the nine passengers aboard the MV Mavi Marmara who lost their lives; also, as one of the human shields during the Iraq invasion (2003).

The two-hour session, which included the habitual period for Q&A at the end, turned out to be more of a presentation of O’Keefe’s personal struggle – some might add, and self-glorification – and less of an exposé of the suffering of 1.5 million people living in a 139 square miles narrow cage blockaded by air, land and sea just because the governments of Israel, the US and the EU, all great advocates of democracy, had ironically concluded that the Palestinians populating the Gaza Strip had not quite voted the “right way” in the 2006 parliamentary elections. Only a few phrases adding up to roughly 1 percent of the total presentation time, had a direct correlation with the inhumane suffering of Palestinians living in Gaza, the other 99 percent, unfortunately, did not.

Not that the evening lacked interest or color. Ken O’Keefe, an American ex-marine turned activist de rigueur and citizen of the world, was articulate and charismatic within the context of his audience… masculinity and bravado, and a few tattoos, served him well. But at the end of the day, the Palestinian cause would have gained manifold if the audience had been larger and politically diverse, and Mr. O’Keefe had divested the lecture of much of his personal exploits, replacing them with a call to arms, and a call to hearts, on behalf of a people who’ve been suffering so much pain, anguish and deprivation during these past three years.

There is so much to be said to American audiences, things that the corporate media either overlooks or dares not say. And these are the audiences that need to be targeted to get a modicum of sympathy for a just cause; and no cause today is in greater need of justice than the lifting, not just the easing, of the Gaza blockade. This is but the latest chapter in what Palestinians refer to as “Nakba,” a term denoting an event which brought about catastrophe; a word that describes, or rather implies, the great suffering caused by Israel’s founding. [Efforts are presently underway in the Knesset to punish Arab groups inside Israel that mourn the Nakba.]

Of late we have a Quartet making judgments and offering advice on the Middle East: the UN, the US, the EU and Russia, with Tony Blair as its apparent spokesman. The decision by Israel in June (post-Flotilla fiasco) to ease restrictions by allowing foodstuffs and household items has been hailed by this Quartet as a good start; however, Hamas’ leadership seems quite right in saying that this act is really intended to “beautify” the blockade and mislead public opinion. But to the US, Hamas is a terrorist organization, just as Mandela’s ANC (African National Congress) was before it took the reins of South Africa from the white minority in 1994.

The blockade of Gaza is not simply an illegal collective form of punishment on a civilian population. The criticality of this situation is exacerbated because of two all-important factors which makes this crime achieve the stature of a mega-crime: (1) its strict enforcement by Israel’s military, together with the cooperation of Egypt’s government – afraid one would guess of losing $2 billion annually in US aid if it doesn’t cooperate with Israel in implementing the blockade along its border with Gaza; and (2) Gaza being a small enclave in both size and population, way too small to have a minimal degree of economic self-sufficiency, and where 80 percent of its population is aid-dependent.

Americans need to be told that Israel’s blockade has succeeded not only in devastating an economy which was already fragile, but in masterfully keeping a people alive… but, alas, just at the portals of starvation.

Israel may maintain that what they have is a security blockade, citing that in the past year (through May 2010) not one Israeli had died victim of Gaza-associated terrorism, but the reality indicates that it is a political blockade with an ongoing economic warfare which has decimated Gaza’s economy. Bottom line: since the establishment of the blockade half of the agricultural land has become inaccessible or out of production; much of its manufacturing has shut its doors, with unemployment estimated at 40 percent; and the restriction placed on fishermen to stay within 3 nautical miles (nothing but depleted shoals), instead of the previous 20, has placed 90 percent of Gaza’s 4,000 fishermen in the poorhouse with monthly incomes in the 50 to 190 US dollars.

The injustice of the blockade and its inhumane consequences, that’s what needs to be transmitted to Americans regardless where they stand in the political spectrum. And, unfortunately, preaching solely to those who are already converts to the cause is a totally inefficient and ineffective way. That, and the use of improper boycotts/sanctions, will have the totally opposite effect. The global BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) against Israeli products will only work in specific situations that show a net positive after a careful scrutiny of the game plan. It can also have a counterproductive outcome.

In this case, PSU students (SUPER group) have targeted New Seasons Market, a small grocery chain dealing mostly with organically-grown local products, a progressive firm in the treatment of customers and employees (a staff of 1,500 will soon participate in the company’s profits via a unique ownership plan), for a boycott… just because they carry a few products from Israel which represent a negligible share of its sales. A sad and tremendous mistake by well-meaning young people with their hearts in the right place!

Going back to Ken O’Keefe: Salve, O’Keefe, we salute your quest for social justice and accept the leadership you offer us. Nonetheless we ask you to join us paying homage to the real heroes here: the people of Gaza. Use your talent and charisma to tell their story to those who need to hear it… not just progressives who already identify with you.