Schermerhorn to set sail for Gaza again

NOTE: The Islands’ Sounder does not normally cover international geopolitical issues. In the event that a local resident is involved in such affairs, the Sounder attempts to present the larger context of said resident’s actions as evenly as possible, citing mainstream sources for reference. The Sounder is not able to publish letters to the editor focused on international affairs.

At age 81, he’s going again.

This time David Schermerhorn may face snipers and dogs as the Israeli military stops the ships from reaching Gaza.

“I don’t know that we’ll get in this time, but I’ll assure you that we’re going to go again and again until we get in,” he said.

Towards the end of June Schermerhorn will set sail for Gaza aboard a 100-foot converted ferryboat called the Audacity of Hope, along with about 50 other Americans. They will accompany a flotilla of some dozen boats from 22 different countries, and the passengers say they’ll be unarmed. Among the organizations represented by the trip is the organization Free Gaza, which, since 2008, has traveled nine times to Gaza by sea and entered successfully five times.

The voyage is part of a continuing international attempt to break Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza. It will be Schermerhorn’s sixth trip to the area. Last year the flotilla was boarded by Israeli Defense Forces; IDF commandos killed nine people aboard a Turkish ship when they resisted the boarding with knives and sticks. Schermerhorn was captured and held in an Israeli prison for a few days before being released.

“I think there is a very real possibility of [being imprisoned again], Schermerhorn told the Sounder. “But we’re all prepared to do it, and that’s that. It’s the attack dogs – that’s a new wrinkle that’s just so hideous – .”

The situation in Gaza

The Gaza strip lies along the Mediterranean coast between Israel and Egypt. A blockade has been in place since 2007, when Islamic resistance movement Hamas came to power in Gaza. Hamas has refused to accept conditions set by Middle East peacemakers the Unites States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. Israel has strictly limited the movement of goods and people into and out of the fenced-off region.

Schermerhorn sees the trip as a way to fight for Palestinian human rights: the region’s 1.7 million people, over half of them under 18, cannot leave the area even to visit relatives in the West Bank, and civilians continue to be wounded or killed during the ongoing violence between Israel and Hamas.

I’ve been interested since the ’67 war,” said Schermerhorn. “I followed with increasing concern about the plight of the Palestinians.” He said that about 15 years ago he spoke with an American doctor involved in the West Bank.

I asked him, ‘What can I as a non-doctor, non-teacher, bring to the table?’ He said, ‘You can bring hope – you can bring realization to the Palestinians that they are not forgotten.’ So I looked for a way to go there and demonstrate support.”

Most recent incidents: this March Palestinian family members were killed and wounded when an Israeli tank fired into Gaza toward a source of rocket fire; in April Hamas fired an anti-tank missile at an almost-empty Israeli schoolbus, killing a child.

The New York Times says “plenty of goods” are available, but Gaza’s economy is “devastated,” with unemployment at 40 to 45 percent. Gaza needs 50,000 housing units and dozens of schools to alleviate overcrowding. Israel has eased its blockade this year, and has agreed to allow construction projects in Gaza under the close supervision of international agencies. Last week it allowed a United Nations agency to bring building materials for 1,200 new housing units and 18 new schools.

A May International Red Cross report said Gaza’s people are “unable to live a normal and dignified life,” unable to travel to the West Bank to work or visit family, and that healthcare, water and sanitation facilities are strained to near-breaking. The Red Cross has called for Israel to lift the blockade.

Israeli consulate says

Daniel Morgan, director of public affairs at the consulate general of Israel to the Pacific Northwest, told the Sounder the current situation in Gaza “is a direct result of the terrorist organization Hamas’ rule there – which focuses on harming Israel rather than providing better lives for Gaza’s citizens.”

Morgan said that prior to the deadly confrontation with the last May’s flotilla, Israel offered for the flotilla to dock in either Ashdod or Egypt to download supplies and supervise their transport to Gaza; both offers were refused.

“Israel does not seek any confrontation with the flotilla or its passengers, and has offered many peaceful alternatives for the flotilla passengers to transfer their supplies into Gaza,” Morgan said. “However, if those offers are refused, we will use the necessary means to enforce the maritime blockade on Gaza – which is considered legal under international law – and is necessary to prevent weapons from being smuggled to the terrorist organization Hamas, and then used against innocent Israeli civilians.”

Just this March, the Jerusalem Post announced the IDF had seized a cargo vessel, Victoria, that was carrying 50 tons of mortar shells and missiles from Syria.

“Though the flotilla passengers say they are non-violent, the actions by some on the last flotilla were clearly violent, and we are concerned that some elements in this flotilla seek to provoke Israel into a confrontation,” Morgan said. “The flotilla passengers’ objective was – and still is – clearly more about provoking a confrontation with Israel by seeking to undermine a policy that is in place to protect our citizens from being attacked, than it was about providing ‘aid’ to Gaza.”

A UN report on the 2010 flotilla incident released last September said Israel’s interception of the flotilla was illegal, and described the experiences of many of the people aboard the ships.

Last month the UN called on “all nations” to discourage their people from participating in the flotilla; it also cautioned Israel to “avoid any violent incident.”

A June 3 Jerusalem Post article, “How Israel will deal with the next flotilla,” said the Israeli Defense Force will enforce the blockade using snipers “to neutralize violent protestors” and dogs from its canine unit. It also said video of unfolding events will be transmitted to the world in “real time.”

Schermerhorn expects he won’t return home until July. While not opposed to the trip, “My wife is concerned and apprehensive until I come back,” he said. “I’d be safer on Orcas I guess, but that’s not where the action is.”

The passengers and crew plan to set sail from Athens the third week of June. More information about the US passengers is online at http://ustogaza.org/passengers-on-the-audacity-of-hope/.

To follow the US boat on Twitter, visit http://twitter.com/usboattogaza.