On May 31st of this year, a flotilla of ships carrying people from 37 different countries set out from Turkey toward Gaza. Their aim: to break the Gaza blockade and deliver aid to Palestinians. Among those on board the flotilla's largest ship, the MV Mavi Marmara, was Ken O'Keefe, a peace activist and business owner. The flotilla didn't make it into Gaza. Israeli Defense Forces boarded the ship in international waters, resulting in nine deaths and numerous injuries when the people on board the Marmara resisted arrest.
O'Keefe's path to activism and to being on board that ship was a circuitous one. He served as a Marine in the 1991 Gulf War, and for the first year of his service was a "model marine" who believed that his country was the greatest on earth. After he spoke out about an abuse of power that his superiors were engaging in, however, he got what he says was his "first taste of injustice." O'Keefe's platoon sergeant began to make his life miserable, punishing the platoon in order to punish him, effectively making O'Keefe fearful for his safety.
After being discharged, O'Keefe began changing his view of America and renounced his citizenship. He also reorganized his beliefs about the world. He went on to found a scuba diving company in Hawaii called Deep Ecology. While in Hawaii, he became involved in the Lawful Hawaiian government and helped author two laws, including a policy of non-violence for Hawaii, and another outlawing weapons of mass destruction in the state.
Currently O'Keefe is organizing a second flotilla to Gaza for 2011 as part of his Aloha Palestine business, a European Union-based company that aims to establish lawful trade with Gaza by transporting cargo and passengers to and from the region.
You were on the ship MV Mavi Marmara when it was boarded by the Israeli Defense Forces in international waters. Can you give a brief history about how you got to be on board this ship and what its official aim was? I was traveling to further the agenda of my business, Aloha Palestine. I had business meetings set up in Gaza to establish trading partners, and that was the context in which I got on the ship. Aloha Palestine is an effort to set up trade with Gaza. A lot of people are focused on aid, but what really needs to happen is that the blockade needs to end and trade needs to be established, so that people can get the things required for them to rebuild factories and get people back to work. They need raw materials; they need to be able to export, and to actually have an economy.
The flotilla's official mission was to bring aid into Gaza and to challenge the illegality of the blockade. The aid that we can bring by sea into Gaza now is limited; it's not enough to supply the Palestinians with everything they need. The real objective is to ultimately break the blockade.
What happened when the boat was boarded by the IDF? [Israeli forces] arrived around 3:40 a.m. and immediately began firing percussion grenades, smoke bombs, tear gas, paintball gun rounds and live rounds. Within the first five minutes of the ten or twelve Zodiacs (small military boats) coming to the side of the ship, helicopters came and shot one of the ship's photographers, who was holding a camera. It has been well established that he wasn't holding any weapon. He was shot right between the eyes and killed instantly.
Ultimately it turned into a combat situation, and we didn't have combat weapons. Very quickly people were getting shot and we were defending the ship. We were defending the ship as if we were defending our family, our family in this case being the Palestinian people in Gaza, and in particular 800,000 children in Gaza who are being collectively punished behind an illegal blockade.
The Israelis have said that we had some weapons, and implied that we shot at some of the commandos, but there's been no evidence provided of that. I myself know, having been party to disarming two of the commandos and taking a nine millimeter pistol off of one of them, that if we had wanted to kill the Israelis, we could have.
Do you think that this occurrence could be a wake-up call to Israel's actions? For example, the U.N. recently issued a report about the illegality of what Israel did in this case. There are a few significant changes that have resulted from this incident. One is that the Rafah crossing is now partially open. This means that Palestinians in Gaza who require urgent medical care are able to get out and receive it.
The European Union has also condemned the blockade as illegal and has said it must end. The E.U. had done nothing previous to this point.
The U.S. has been supporting Israeli policy 100 percent and has never even questioned it, but Barack Obama infamously said that the blockade is "unsustainable." You just never heard words like that before the flotilla incident.
What are your views on the United States' attempts to broker Israel/Palestine peace? What would your plans be to further a just and equitable solution to the conflict? I see the United States government as completely disingenuous; they lost all credibility long ago, before Barack Obama. The whole peace process is a farce. Even if the Palestinians accept it, it's never implemented.
A two-state solution would be the second disaster for the Palestinians. They would be allocated a fraction of original Palestine, while settlements continue to be built, and with no right of return being honored.
The so-called peace talks that are happening right now are a disgrace. [Palestinian leader] Mahoud Abbas does not have the sanction of the people, he does not have an elected position and he is negotiating in a way that completely dishonors the democratic process of Palestine, and any agreement he makes is invalid.
If we really want any negotiation to take place, [we have to recognize that] the last democratic government in Palestine is Hamas, and whether we like it or not, that is their choice. If we say we believe in democracy, we have to honor the choice of the people.
It's my hope that the Palestinians are able to demand new elections so that a new democratic government can be elected that has the sanction of the Palestinian people. It can then negotiate peace in a way that's backed by democratic, popular support.
I think the only real solution is similar to what happened in South Africa. If the South Africans had accepted a fraction of original South Africa and allowed an apartheid, racist regime to continue, the conflict between the black South Africans and the white South Africans would still be happening. And perhaps Nelson Mandela would still be in jail for refusing to renounce violence under such a brutal power structure. But, in the end, apartheid was dismantled, due largely to international pressure and boycotts.
The only viable solution for the Israel/Palestine conflict is a non-secular one-state solution that honors the right of return, dismantles all settlements and tears down the wall.
Going back to your business, Aloha Palestine, how far along are you in this project, and are you optimistic about its success? I'm currently working on a flotilla with many fantastic people for next year, and Aloha Palestine will be one element of a larger flotilla.
Aloha Palestine is important in that when we send the ship under the banner of trade, it creates a whole different set of circumstances for Israel.
Israel currently says that aid workers can come through Ashdod or Egypt, but in truth, they don't allow in the materials necessary for rebuilding Gaza. Many non-threatening items are still barred. This whole situation of people living as a charitable dependency is not viable.
Aloha Palestine throws in a different angle. If Israel were to stop a lawful trade ship based in the E.U. they would be violating the trade agreements between themselves and the E.U. (specifically the Barcelona Declaration and the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership). These things provide for free trade and shared prosperity. If Israel stops a ship like this, that's what effectively is called an import/export ban.
This is important because the Israelis are doing a lot of business with the E.U. (about 25 billion Euros a year). Also, if the E.U. doesn't protect a company doing lawful trade, then it will go from tacitly consenting to an illegal blockade to actively participating in an illegal blockade.
Why did you renounce your U.S. citizenship? I renounced my citizenship because I realized sometime in my mid-twenties that I had been lied to. I believed that America was the greatest nation on earth and that it was the protector of freedom and democracy. As I learned alternative views of history, I become aware that the U.S. had crushed numerous democratic movements around the world and had installed many brutal dictators including Saddam Hussein, among other things.
Citizenship is a contract, and it has rights and obligations. I don't agree to the obligations, which include paying into a tax system that is being used to commit mass murder around the world. If you see the world the way I do, all people are part of my human family. And that includes Israelis.
You served in the Marine Corps during the 1991 Gulf War and were eventually discharged. How did your experience in the Marines shape your worldview? When I first joined the Marine Corps, I believed that the U.S. was the greatest nation on earth. I believed in the virtuosity of the U.S. Constitution and the need to uphold it. I also believed in leadership by example.
I was a model marine for the first year. I ended up speaking out about something. My leaders were violating their positions of power and were not leading by example. I spoke out openly, and my life went from being a model marine to being, to quote my platoon sergeant, "the biggest piece of shit he'd seen in 17 years." He would punish the platoon and let them know it was because of me, so I had to look over my shoulder a lot.
It was my first real taste of injustice, and I'm forever grateful for that. It made me much more sensitive to other peoples' injustice. Had it not been for this experience, I probably wouldn't be the person I am today.
I was also, along with 600,000 other troops, subjected to human experiments, when the Marines were given experimental drugs. This was done by sanction of the Food and Drug Administration, which gave the military a waiver. They ordered us to take pills and injections that have invariably been linked to Gulf War Syndrome. Many American servicemen have died as a direct result of Gulf War Syndrome, which is linked to these experimental drugs and probably exposure to other chemicals and compounds, including depleted uranium. I was in a region in Iraq where depleted uranium was used, so I very well may have some of that stuff in me.
You led a project, beginning in 2002, to use human shields to prevent the Iraq War. What was the official aim of this project and how would you judge its success in retrospect? The Human Shield Project, at its very best, was actually intended to stop the invasion. I knew, as did many thinking people, that the invasion was a predictable disaster and would cause massive loss of life. The country now has more than a million dead and millions of refugees and orphans. It's an absolute death sentence to stand up and do the right thing in Iraq. The original goal of the project was to stop the invasion, and we failed in that regard.
We had 500 human shields in Iraq at its peak, and there were 100 shields in Baghdad during Shock and Awe. They were deployed at six different sites that were supposed to be protected by the Geneva Convention, including two power plants, two water-treatment facilities and a food-storage site. All of these sites were bombed during the Gulf War, but none of them were bombed in the Iraq War. This meant that there was power and water for people in Baghdad during the worst parts of Shock and Awe. It did make a difference.
Had we succeeded, we would have saved an awful lot of lives, and that includes American life. Never mind the American soldiers who are coming back and committing suicide, becoming drug addicts, beating their wives or becoming homeless because of PTSD. I believe that the greatest way to support your troops is to bring them home.
Is there anything you'd like to add? It's a fallacy to say that those of us who support justice in Palestine are anti-Semitic. The only thing that could be beneficial to the Israeli people is the same thing that would be beneficial to the Palestinian people. Whenever you subject people to injustice, they will resist. There will never be security for Israel under those circumstances. If the Israelis truly want peace, they have to understand the basic principle that Martin Luther King said pretty well, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." There must be justice, first and foremost, and then we can have a chance at establishing peace.