News of Israel’s brutal attack on a flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian aid into Gaza seems to have moved even this generally apathetic world. As the reactions of global leaders, activists, lawyers, journalists, academics and other public figures saturate the media, hope builds that growing political pressure will have the effect of ending, at long last, Israel’s inhumane blockade of Gaza.
The events of last week also present us with an opportunity to pause and to reflect upon why this attack -in particular- has captured our imaginations more powerfully than previous instances of Israeli aggression.
In search of answers, I decided to talk to everyday Muslim Americans about the events of last week, asking each of them how they felt about the recent flotilla attack and what, if any hope, the event held for a better future. I interviewed this diverse group of New Yorkers over a period of two days, and my accounts include the voices of a shop clerk, a business owner, wait-staff, an immigration lawyer, a photographer, a retired journalist, bankers, engineers, and a number of students.
What I learned in listening to their narratives is that the flotilla attack – which has largely been produced by the media as a critical moment of rupture – is for many Muslim Americans, an event that indicates not rupture, but continuity: the continuity of Israeli brutality and injustice, and the continuity of Palestinian despair.
As Adil – one of the men I interviewed- astutely observed, a critical response to longstanding Israeli aggression seems to have been possible in this case, because the citizens of another nation were attacked, injured and killed. In so noting, Adil’s sentiments gesture towards the sad realization that recognition of the violence that Palestinians face on a daily basis, is contingent upon violence being enacted upon the bodies of non-Palestinians. Perhaps this is the reason why the Israeli attack of Gaza in 2008, which resulted in the deaths of over 1400 Palestinians in a mere 22 days, failed to produce the breadth and scale of international response that the flotilla attack is currently receiving.
The meta-questions embedded in Adil’s sentiments are worth pondering: Why is it that some events produce an outcome of historical rupture while others fail to have the same effect? Why do the deaths of certain kinds of people compel us to speak and take action while the deaths of ‘others’ some only to induce silence and inaction?
Some of the answers to these questions can be found in the sentiments of the men and women that I interviewed:
Yassine (waiter): Israel doesn’t respect the law. That’s the bottom line. This is just one scene in a long movie, and there is no end to this movie. Never. You know this. There’s no end.
Miriam (waitress): I feel sorry for the Palestinians. They really are alone. The Israeli government has the solution to this issue, but they choose not to fix it. It’s always going to be this way. I have no hope. The problem is that Palestine is alone. Everyone else…..all of us, are just talking. Israel has power and the Palestinians have nothing. Palestine is like Guantanamo Bay. I feel like its never going to be over…..in fact it is over.
Mohammad (engineer): Israelis think that they have the divine right to Israel, and that Palestinians should not be there. This attack is just an example of the Israeli strategy in Palestine – to take over by force, with the non-stop killing of men and women and children and babies. It’s ugly…like no one can imagine.
Adil (student): What makes me angry is that it has to come to this for governments around the world to take note of an issue that has such a long and horrendous history! As long as it was just Palestinians dying, everybody was silent. Now activists and citizens of other countries have been killed and it’s an atrocity? It’s unbelievable that global condemnation only comes now, and to be honest, it is too little too late. Until the United States government stops supporting a state whose very existence is a violation of international law, a state that ruthlessly enacts killings….really enacts genocide, nothing can ever change. The root of the problem is not Israel…Israel does not act alone….it acts with the support, economic and political, of the United States, and unfortunately this country does not consider the plight of Palestinians to be in line with its domestic and international interests. You ask me about hope….what hope is there in the face of this reality?
Mustafa (business owner): This is simple. The ships were on international waters and the Israelis attacked a fleet of ships carrying humanitarian aid on international waters. What kind of animals stop, shoot and injure people on a ship carrying humanitarian aid? This is not about religion, it’s about humanity. People need food, clean water and shelter and Israel is trying to stand in the way of this. Until the Israeli government, which is a fascist government, is toppled…there can be no hope. The sham is that the activists were attacking the Israeli soldiers, but with what, water bottles and metal sticks and kitchen knives against what…. guns? Just like the children in Palestine that fight against tanks with slingshots and stones? The irony is that these people, who have suffered under the fascism of Hitler, are now acting like fascists with Palestinians.
Summaya (banker): It’s clear that Israel is in a lot of trouble. The question is, will it be enough trouble? No amount of wrongdoing on the part of Israel ever seems to matter, so a big part of me just thinks this a temporary reaction. Everyone will forget about it in a few weeks. Don’t get me wrong….. I hope that this is the beginning of something big, that the tide will finally turn, but after everything that has happened in Gaza, I’ve lost hope in the idea of a better future for Palestinians.
Ayesha (retired journalist): I was angry for a while. I’m still angry. How can something like this happen? If someone had done this to the United States, the response would have been war. What are we being told? To be patient and wait for the facts to be uncovered?! What facts? Whose facts? The recordings that were taken by eyewitnesses on board have been destroyed or confiscated by the Israelis. What will we wait for? For Israel to make up more stories about how a ship attempting to break the Gaza blockade was committing an act of terrorism? Unbelievable! I had friends on that flotilla and they didn’t even release the names of the activists who were killed and injured for such a long time. Did anyone care about the families and friends of the dead and injured? Nobody will call this a terrorist act. Why? Because only Muslims are terrorists.
Hanif (banker): I think something positive will come of this. Already we see how the world is responding. Finally, people have realized that Israel is not always right. After centuries of injustice, the moment has come to demand change and justice for Palestinians. It’s sad to think that people had to die for this moment to come. Very sad. But imagine the debt we will owe the dead if this moment leads to Israeli accountability. Today I read that the South African government has asked their ambassador in Israel to return. It is a powerful statement that a former apartheid state is now recognizing Israel as an apartheid state. There is more hope today than last week, and I hope that there will be more in the days to come. A steady and strong flow of pressure is the key. We need to protest everywhere, write to government officials, take all action possible and pray for Palestinians and the brave people on those ships. Everything matters.
Ali (lawyer): Nothing will change. I have no hope and I have no opinions left about anything. Write that.
Hanan (photograher): The attack is wrong, but this is nothing new. Why should it make a difference when nobody cares about Muslims. It doesn’t matter when we die, or our children are killed. No, we are still terrorists …that’s all. That’s why we don’t matter. Nothing that we do can change this stamp… this label. They have decided this is who we are. I am an American, but I am still a terrorist. The problem is the same in Israel, they treat us like terrorists there too…like strangers in our own land, and tell us that they have the right to treat us like that because Israel is the birth-right of the Jews?! Where is the justice in this?
Maryam (student): I’m a student of political science, and I have to say that this event has definitely changed people’s opinion of Israel. Even at school, the Jewish student groups protested with us, stood beside us during vigils for the dead. I just hope that this sad event will have some good conclusion, and that the United States will finally see that it is not in their best interest to alienate themselves further by supporting every Israeli action. I’m not saying that the Palestinians are always right, but we are not always wrong either. That’s the point. If there is injustice, it should be acknowledged.
Mohammad (shop clerk): What they did is completely wrong. The blockade is wrong. It’s against human rights, and it’s time for the Muslim world to wake up and do something about this problem. Of course there is hope, because it’s wrong, and when there is something that is wrong, it has to be solved…sooner or later it has to be fixed. You cannot trap a whole population and take away their rights forever. The Palestinians have to live, like anybody else. They need a future for their kids, and the Israeli’s have to let the Palestinians decide their own future. They don’t have to impose their policies on Palestinians. They voted for Hamas, so leave them. Personally, I don’t like what Hamas does, but there is a reason why the Palestinians now believe that an extremist leadership is necessary! We say in America….democracy….so what, when democracy does not have the result that Israel and the United States want, it’s not democracy anymore? What nonsense! Israel stole Palestinian land and is still stealing it bit by bit, but it is still Palestinian land. It has to stop. When you push someone to a corner, and you push, you push, you push…..eventually something will explode. That’s what happened with the ship, something has exploded……only this time, it’s not Muslims causing the explosion…it’s Israel. This is the beginning of a new movement. Hopefully starting from the Muslim people and not just governments. Muslims are fed up of seeing their brothers and sisters being treated like non-humans.
Mike (engineer): It’s like screaming in a jungle….nobody is there to hear your voice.