Early Monday, Israeli navy commandos attacked a flotilla of humanitarian aid destined for the occupied Gaza Strip in international waters. The ships were carrying 10,000 tons of humanitarian supplies that are banned from Gaza under Israel's directives, including toys, wheelchairs, athletic equipment and medicines.
The multinational aid convoy to Gaza included a former U.S. ambassador, a U.S. Navy veteran and 10 other U.S. citizens. The Memorial Day massacre left nine people dead and dozens more injured.
The Freedom Flotilla comprised six ships and carried hundreds of civilian "adversaries," as an Israeli naval lieutenant speaking to Army Radio put it, from more than 40 countries. They had come together to challenge Israel's asphyxiating siege of the occupied Gaza Strip.
This is a siege against 1.6 million stateless people — approximately half of them under 18 — who are largely refugees of the 1948 war. They are being blockaded by land, by air and by sea and granted only the right to remain silent in the face of such unfathomable oppression. It is a situation unprecedented in modern history.
This is a siege that has prevented my children and me from visiting Gaza, my home, for more than three years, though I am a Palestinian national.
This is a siege that killed 19-year-old Gaza resident Fidaa Talal Hijjy, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease in 2007 and was unable to travel to get the bone marrow transplant she so desperately needed.
This is a siege that prevents children's books from reaching Gaza City's largest library, forcing them to resort to smuggling books —yes, smuggling — via Gaza's intricate network of tunnels. A siege that we as American taxpayers support with our involuntary contribution of roughly $500 annually for each man, woman and child in Israel.
Recent statistics from an umbrella of aid organizations are sobering: 70 percent of Gaza's population survives on under $1 a day, and nearly half the population is unemployed. Two-thirds of the population is food insecure, and an equal percentage of babies are anemic. And all this is happening largely in the dark, quite literally: After fuel restrictions, there are now up to 12-hour rotating electricity outages.
These figures are not the result of a natural disaster. They were created through careful planning of a purposeful and sustained policy of punishment. Contrary to what U.S. and Israeli envoys to the U.N. have said, mechanisms to deliver aid to Gaza are a sham. Imports are less than 1 percent of what they were before, and allowable exports are nearly zero. More importantly, Israel crafts a weekly list of hundreds of items it forbids from the Gaza Strip. As congressman Keith Ellison discovered on a fact-finding trip to Gaza last year, this list at times included lentils and pasta.
As the occupying power, Israel is obliged to ensure the free and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief to Gaza without advancing political objectives. Instead, Israel, with the support of the Middle East Quartet (the U.S., the U.N., the European Union and Russia) and the complicity and complacency of many regional and foreign governments, has been deliberately withholding basic necessities in what one Israeli government advisor referred to as the "Gaza diet."
"It's like an appointment with a dietitian. The Palestinians will get a lot thinner but won't die," explained Dov Weisglass, a spokesman for former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
But in the end, this siege has never been merely about food, as shocking as the statistics may be. Gaza cannot be read as merely a humanitarian case. It is about creating a situation of fear, insecurity, exhaustion and hopelessness where Palestinians become willing collaborators in their own imprisonment.
The bottom line is this: This attack on the aid flotilla was an act of piracy. It happened in international waters. Israel's siege of Gaza, and its backing by the international community, is a form collective punishment that most legal scholars consider illegal, and an extension of a much longer, ongoing closure of the occupied territory going on for over a decade.
Israel continues to illegally occupy the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, denying Palestinians their rights and statehood. It has continued to control Gaza's borders, airspace, people and population registry, while absolving itself of any legal responsibility, even after it supposedly disengaged from the territory in 2005.
So long as Israel continues to be allowed to act with impunity on the world stage, to remain unaccountable for its actions, to receive unrestricted flows of money with no strings attached (more than any country on earth) from the United States, such massacres will sadly repeat themselves.
Just last week, the U.S. Congress approved, 410-4, a request from the Obama administration for additional military aid to Israel amounting to $205 million.
When governments fail to act, then the people must. It is time for all Americans to stand united in the face of morally repugnant and illegal actions of the Israeli government, as they did in the face of apartheid in South Africa.
Laila El-Haddad, a resident of Columbia, is a Palestinian journalist and blogger from the Gaza Strip. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org and her blog is http://www.gazamom.com.