WASHINGTON - A fundraising campaign is currently underway in the United States to finance the purchase of an American ship in an effort to break the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip in the early autumn. The ship is to be named after U.S. President Barack Obama's book "The Audacity of Hope."
If that isn't enough to stir the ghosts of the 2008 American presidential election, one of the prominent figures to support the initiative is Columbia University history professor Rashid Khalidi, a well-known critic of Israel whose friendship with the American president from their days together in Chicago engendered criticism of Obama.
An email being circulated by pro-Palestinian activists in the U.S. said the goal of the fundraising campaign is to raise at least $370,000 next month to obtain possession of a ship that could accommodate between 40 and 60 people and for operational expenses. The e-mail said the ship will join a flotilla of other vessels from Europe, Canada, India, South Africa and the Middle East in an additional attempt to break the Israeli naval blockade.
Right-wing Internet-based blog columnists immediately seized on the involvement of Khalidi, whom they portrayed as a friend of Obama who was supporting Hamas. Khalidi said he does not know what the ship will ultimately be named, but said the White House should not be embarrassed by the name "The Audacity of Hope" and should instead call for Israel's naval blockade of the Hamas-controlled territory to be lifted.
Khalidi, who was born in the U.S. and the son of a Palestinian refugee, told Haaretz that although he will participate in the fundraising event for the ship, he will not be sailing in it himself. In a reference to the Israel Defense Forces, he added: "Given the national-religious hierarchy which determines what the IDF can do to whom, the fact that the ship is American will make it harder to deal with it as the Mavi Marmara was dealt with."
The Mavi Marmara was boarded by the Israel Navy at the end of May while part of a flotilla attempting to run the blockade. Nine people on board the ship were killed in the confrontation with naval commandos.
Khalidi said he visited relatives in the Gaza Strip a number of years ago. He characterized the blockade as a measure "imposed on a population of 1. 5 million people who are effectively imprisoned, and most of whom are deprived of living a normal life."
When asked by Haaretz if he was aware of the proposed name of the ship and whether the choice of name was appropriate, Khalidi said: "I am not one of the organizers of this effort, and had no knowledge that this name had been chosen. If the name is a problem for the [Obama] administration, it can simply insist publicly that Israel lift the siege. That of course would require it to respond to the systematic mendacity of those in Congress and elsewhere who support the siege. It is shameful that the U.S. and Egyptian governments are complicit in this indefensible siege."
Khalidi said the fact that the ship is American would bring attention to the Gaza issue, which had begun to have an impact on American public opinion.
"This has not been the result of the ineffective efforts of the two feeble Palestinian 'authorities', nor has it mainly been the result of the work of activists, important though this has been," he said.
"It has primarily been a natural response to the actions of successive Israeli governments. These actions have appeared more and more unjustifiable to growing segments of US public opinion - the only place largely impervious to this change has been the US Congress. This is especially the case among younger people, who can detect the deception and chicanery which are an essential part of 'selling' such rotten goods as occupation, discrimination, and attacks on civilians. It is also visible in widening sectors of the American Jewish community."
Israel's blockade of Gaza was punishing civilians while having little effect on the Hamas administration, Khalidi said.
"The siege is not imposed on the Hamas government, or on a 'terrorist entity', as the Israeli government describes the entire Gaza Strip: it is imposed on a population of 1.5 million people, who are effectively imprisoned, and most of whom are deprived of living a normal life. Moreover, it hardly affects that government, as has been amply reported by Haaretz, the NY Times and other organs not known for their sympathy for Hamas."
This for of collective punishment could constitute a war crime, he said.
"This is collective punishment of a civilian population, pure and simple - as Dov Weisglass cynically said, the Gazans would be "put on a diet". That is potentially a war crime. Most of Gaza's population, being children, did not vote for Hamas or anyone else. Any human being of any political orientation should oppose this siege".
Nor does Khalidi have any faith in current peace talks between the Netanyahu administration and the Palestinians.
"Negotiations between the most extreme Israeli government in decades and a Palestinian authority operating without a national consensus are unlikely to resolve the outstanding issues," he said.
"Doing so would require accepting international law as the basis for a settlement, and abandoning the bankrupt "peace process" approach and the flagrant American bias in favor of Israel's policies that have significantly worsened the situation over the past two decades. If the new flotilla helps to end the blockade of Gaza, and perhaps helps to bring the two Palestinian authorities to understand how much damage the continuation of the division between them, and between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, is doing to the Palestinian cause, it will have been a good thing."