former Israeli air force pilot turned peace activist who is now a crew member on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla’s U.S.-flagged ship, The Audacity of Hope.
Democracy Now! producer reporting from Athens, Greece, where he is covering the Audacity of Hope’s journey, part of the Second Freedom Flotilla to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza.
In addition to fears of ship sabotage and threats from the Israeli military, the U.S. citizens trying to sail to Gaza aboard U.S.-flagged ship “The Audacity of Hope” in the humanitarian flotilla are dealing with another challenge: their own government. The U.S. Department of State has warned U.S. passengers they could face "fines and incarceration" for taking part in the flotilla, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears to have given Israel the green light to use force. Last week, Clinton said the flotilla would be "[provoking] actions by entering into Israeli waters and creating a situation in which the Israelis have the right to defend themselves." The threat of violence comes just one year after Israeli forces killed nine passengers in the first flotilla to Gaza after storming their ship. The passengers aboard the U.S. ship this year are a diverse group — parents, grandparents, young people, lawyers, doctors, nurses, social workers and peace activists. They include a Jewish survivor of the Nazi Holocaust, 87-year old Hedy Epstein; and the acclaimed writer, poet and activist Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Color Purple." As The Audacity of Hope prepares to depart from Greece, Democracy Now! producers Aaron Maté and Hany Massoud spoke to crew member and former Israeli air force pilot, Yonatan Shapira, about the Israeli-U.S. effort to thwart the ship’s journey. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: In addition to fears of sabotage and threats from the Israeli military, the U.S. citizens trying to sail to Gaza aboard The Audacity of Hope are dealing with another challenge: their own government. The U.S. State Department has warned American passengers they could face "fines and incarceration" for taking part in the flotilla, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears to have given Israel the green light to use force. Last week, Clinton said the flotilla would be, quote, "[provoking] actions by entering into Israeli waters and creating a situation in which the Israelis have the right to defend themselves."
The threat of violence comes just one year after the Israeli forces killed nine passengers in the first flotilla to Gaza after storming their ship. The passengers aboard the U.S. ship this year are a diverse bunch—parents, grandparents, young people, lawyers, doctors, nurses, social workers, peace activists. They include a Jewish survivor of the Nazi Holocaust, 87-year-old Hedy Epstein, and the acclaimed writer, poet and activist Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Color Purple.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, as The Audacity of Hope prepares to depart from Greece, Democracy Now! producers Aaron Maté and Hany Massoud spoke to crew member and former Israeli air force pilot Yonatan Shapira about the Israeli-U.S. effort to thwart the ship’s journey.
AARON MATÉ: I wanted to get your response to some of the statements from Israeli officials, one saying they have intelligence showing that extremists who have infiltrated the flotilla, quote, "will use violence directly against our soldiers." There’s been talk also of another official said that they think flotilla members are planning on using sulfuric acids against Israeli troops. What’s your response?
YONATAN SHAPIRA: It’s just ridiculous to the point that you can just laugh. All of the participants of the flotilla, and on our boat especially, signed declarations of nonviolence. None of us is planning whatsoever to attack any of the soldiers. We are committed to nonviolence, and these are just more and more lies of the Israeli propaganda machine. And people in 2011, that are still buying into this propaganda, are not connected to reality. And mostly, these things, in my opinion, are directed in order to brainwash the Israeli public in order to justify any kind of harm that they are going to do to us. If someone is preparing a chemical and different other kind of weapons against someone, it’s the Israeli army against us, it’s not us against them.
Our power, our advantage is our nonviolent message, our international message of peace, justice and equality. Their weapon is the chemical and the tear gas, the water cannon, the bullets, rubber-coated or not rubber-coated. We are with the message of peace and justice and nonviolence, and they are coming with violence. And the way they try to turn it upside down is just making them look even more ridiculous.
AARON MATÉ: Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak says that if activists are sensitive to human suffering, they should turn their efforts to free Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in Gaza. IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz said that people in Gaza are now living, quote, "a comfortable lifestyle."
YONATAN SHAPIRA: Listening to these things that were said by the Minister of Defense and the Chief of Staff in Israel is like listening to what the commander of the ghetto in Germany or in the apartheid South Africa would say about the life of the blacks or the Jews in these ghettos. So, I would invite Ehud Barak to really see what is it to live in Gaza. I think, in his ivory tower and comfortable life, he is completely disconnected of the reality, the reality of the children of Gaza, the reality of one-and-a-half million people that are daily, day and night, being oppressed by his army, by the soldiers that he sends to kill, to shoot.
Gaza, if someone doesn’t know, is like an open-air prison, and whoever is walking just in so-and-so distance from the fence is being shot. It’s called the death zone. So if you are just a person that, you know—with a mental problem or just lost your way, and you get too close to the fence, you get shot to death. And this thing happened to my great grandmother and grandfather that were killed in Germany in ’42. So I see it as an obligation of me as an Israeli and as a Jew to help steer the wheel of this boat into Gaza in order to challenge these war criminals and to send this message to the Palestinian people, to the Palestinian children in Gaza and the rest of the world, that they are not alone and we support them, and one day, one day, they will be free.
And I do it also as an ex-military person, that finally, after too many years, but finally, I did it in 2003, eight years ago. I refused. And that’s what I expect my former fellows in the squadron where I used to serve. I used to serve in a Black Hawk squadron, the same squadron that participated in the massacre on the Mavi Marmara a year ago. And my message to these pilots in this specific squadron is, if you want to be honest with yourself, if you want to be able look into the eyes of your children in 10 and 20 years from now, refuse to be part of this illegal blockade. Refuse to obey these illegal orders to arrest us, to board our boats, to shoot us. It’s up to them if this illegal operation is going to happen. And this is a direct call to these pilots to refuse their orders. Don’t take off from these air force bases. I was once one of you. I learned to fly with you. Some of you were my students. And now I call them to refuse these orders. It’s completely illegal. They should go on to the website of, for example, the U.S. boat—it’s UStoGaza.org—and see all of us. Each one of us has a one-minute statement of who is he, where is he from, why do they do that. We have Jewish Americans, we have women, we have men, we have representatives from the whole American society. And I want them to watch video after video, and then go and tell their commanders that they are not going to participate in this illegal operation.
AARON MATÉ: Now, Yonatan this is not your first attempt to reach Gaza by sea. You were part of the Jewish boat to Gaza that was raided last year. Now, you were attacked when this happened. Can you tell us what happened to you?
YONATAN SHAPIRA: Yeah, in short, we were, of course, nonviolent. We had nine people on board. One of them was a Holocaust survivor, is 82 years old. One of them was a 60-years-old bereaved father that lost his daughter in a suicide attack. And me and my brother and other Jewish activists, we were hugging each other and singing "We Shall Overcome" and some song in Hebrew, and the Holocaust survivor, Reuven, was playing his harmonica while the navy raided our boat.
Later, they had a press release that the whole raid happened nonviolently on behalf of the passengers and of the army, but it’s completely a lie. When they came to my brother, they choked him and handcuffed him and took him to another boat. And when they came to me, while I was hugging my friend, the 60-years-old bereaved father, Rami Elhanan, they pulled aside my life jacket and put the electric taser gun close to my heart and fired it. And I remember looking at the eyes of this officer—I think he was a captain or a major or something like that—and I didn’t even resist, you know? We are so committed to nonviolence that I didn’t even move the electric gun aside.
But it has to be mentioned, if I was a Muslim or a Palestinian or a Turk, they might have just shot us to death. But since we were Jews, and, you know, I was Israeli, we got the treatment of electric gun. But just a few days before, they shot to death two Palestinian fishermen that got too close to the three-mile or three-kilometer zone that they decided that they are not allowed to. So, this time we are coming again with the same message of hope, of nonviolence, and I expect these soldiers, these officers, these pilots, to refuse to be part of this crime.
AMY GOODMAN: Former Israeli air force pilot Yonatan Shapira on The Audacity of Hope, the U.S.-flagged ship that about 50 passengers are hoping to sail to Gaza.