Esther Cepeda
The Chicago Sun-Times (Opinion)
June 20, 2011 - 12:00am

In a few days, slightly more than a year since a flotilla of ships attempted to breech Israel’s naval blockade to call attention to the plight of the 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, 50 passengers, including three from the Chicago area, will sail to the Gaza Strip on a boat named “The Audacity of Hope.” As part of the second international “freedom flotilla,” they’ll attempt the same feat to deliver humanitarian aid in the form of letters of support and friendship.

If you recall the ruckus last year’s attempt raised, you’ll understand what danger these 50 activists — including Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Color Purple” Alice Walker, author and Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, and Tony-nominated actress Kathy Chalfant — are facing.

The flotilla’s main ship, the Mavi Marmara, was raided, leaving nine humanitarian activists, including one U.S. citizen, dead. The international uproar continues over whether Israeli forces were right to act as they did when boarding the ship.

In the year since that incident, the international and U.S. debate about Middle East politics has been reduced to sound bytes about who is “for” and who is “against” Israel.

“I think when you frame it in terms of this being a human rights issue, of believing the Palestinians have a right to live in dignity without an army imposing restrictions on them, you see we’re not against Israel. We’re really just asking Israel to uphold human rights and international law,” says 22-year-old Logan Square resident Max Suchan, who will be on The Audacity of Hope. He works with Palestine Solidarity Project, a Palestinian-led initiative that organizes unarmed resistance to the occupation.

Suchan told me that one-quarter of the activists setting sail from Greece this week are practicing Jews who, like the other passengers, are critical of Israel’s policies, much as many Americans are critical of some U.S. foreign policies.

Robert Naiman, policy director of Just Foreign Policy, a U.S. foreign policy reform organization, told me that though politics are inextricably linked with this voyage that he’ll be on, “our main concern is simply to raise the profile of the blockade and increase pressure on the U.S. to end the blockade.”

Naiman, an Elmhurst native and current resident of Champaign-Urbana, told me the focus is firmly on “the 1.5 million Gazans who can’t travel, freely work, study or access medical care. They’re prevented from exporting goods, from importing medical supplies; farmers are prevented farming land and fishermen from fishing.”

“As far as being accused of being anti-Israel, we just reject the idea the blockade is premised on: that it’s an economic warfare against Hamas,” Naiman said, referring to the political party that governs the Gaza Strip and is widely recognized as a terrorist organization. “But to believe that all these restrictions on Palestinians are justified you have to erase any distinction between Hamas and the 1.5 million human beings who have nothing to do with Hamas but are living under restrictions.”

Nobel Peace Prize nominee Kathy Kelly, a lifelong Chicagoan and current Andersonville resident, told me she wants the American people, and Chicagoans, to take ownership of our collective role in the Gaza Strip residents’ plight.

“Many people aren’t aware of the very definite connection between the U.S. and Israel’s capacity both to impose the siege and back it up with formidable weapons,” Kelly told me as she prepared for the passage. “Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, Caterpillar — these are major companies selling huge weapons systems to the Israeli government and that’s why it takes the stance of no negotiation with Hamas. The U.S. gives the Israeli military $3 billion in foreign military aid every year and the people in Gaza have the right to ask the U.S. ‘How can you keep doing this?’ ”

Those questions will surely come back to the forefront in the coming days. The Audacity of Hope’s passengers are set to arrive in Greece Tuesday and set sail a few days later. No one knows how they’ll fare in the Mediterranean Sea. Israeli military forces have vowed to let no ships cross into Gaza, but one thing is certain: Chicago and the whole world will be watching.


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