Maryland peace activist sees Gaza blockade easing

A Maryland peace activist aboard the pro-Palestinian flotilla raided by Israeli commandos expressed guarded optimism Wednesday that the deadly episode would force Israel to relax its years-old blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli government "may have made a gross mistake," Edward L. Peck, a retired U.S. diplomat who lives in Chevy Chase, said in a telephone interview. "And so, this could lead to an improved situation for the people" of Gaza.

"It's a horrible thing that happened to those Turks who died" in the Israeli attack. "We had people on our ship who were beaten and maltreated," said Peck. "No one in his or her right mind should want anything bad to happen to a single Israeli, but bad things are happening and will happen because of what is going on in Palestine and Gaza and what isn't going on in Palestine and Gaza."

Monday's commando assault is believed to have cost the lives of at least nine activists. As a result, Israel is facing intensified international demands to ease its blockade of Gaza, which was designed to pressure the Hamas government.

Peck, who is in his early 80s, traveled aboard a Greek vessel, part of the so-called Freedom Flotilla. He returned home after being deported by Israel.

He was not on the boat on which the fatalities occurred. He said overreactions by Israeli soldiers boarding his ship resulted in minor injuries to nine passengers.

"The people didn't want to be boarded," he said. "We tried to resist passively, which the Israeli people were not prepared to accept." He said an American activist, Joe Meadors of Texas, was hit with a paintball fired by the commandos.

Peck was taken into Israeli custody and placed aboard a flight to the United States.

Peck said he joined the flotilla to support the Palestinians, not Hamas, which opposes peace talks with Israel and is regarded by Israel as a terrorist organization. But he credited Hamas with winning "a free and fair election" in Gaza in 2006, when Peck served as an election observer.

He was among 12 Americans aboard the six-ship flotilla, according to Jonathan Slevin, a spokesman for the California-based Free Palestine Movement and Peck's brother-in-law.

Now a private foreign policy consultant, Peck was a diplomat for more than 30 years, including service as chief of the U.S. mission in Baghdad during the Carter administration. He also was coordinator of covert intelligence programs at the State Department and deputy director of a White House anti-terrorism task force under President Ronald Reagan.

The Marylander was an outspoken critic of President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq and endorsed Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004.

He became an unlikely participant in the 2008 presidential contest after Barack Obama's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., adapted Peck's comments from a Fox News interview for a post-9/11 sermon attacking U.S. foreign policy. Video of Wright "damning" America, and other controversial remarks, led Obama to break with the minister and quit his church.

paul.west@baltsun.com

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