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Canadians Abroad: Kevin Neish, Human Shield

June 1, 2010

As naval battles go, the interception of six ships of the “Freedom Flotilla” by the Israeli Defense Forces off the coast of Gaza wasn’t much to write home about. The most dramatic action took place on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, which Israeli naval commandos boarded from helicopters in international waters. Someone called Daphna Baram noted in the Guardian that she had once been invited to join the flotilla, but had declined partly because she had been “somewhat horrified by the idea of spending a lot of time on a ship with a bunch of Kumbaya-singing hippies”. In the event, the “hippies” on the Mavi Marmara gave a surprisingly good account of themselves, reportedly inflicting “serious head injuries” on one commando before the others responded with live fire. They killed at least nine of the activists and wounded many more, ending all resistance.

The hundreds of people aboard the six ships were a motley crew of activists from many different countries, accompanied by journalists and a smattering of notable figures including the Swedish writer Henning Mankell and the Northern Irish peace activist (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Máiread Corrigan-Maguire. Some have already been voluntarily deported, but most remain in custody “in detention centres across Israel”.

In the middle of all this are three Canadians, although the only one whose identity has emerged is Kevin Neish of Victoria. Neish, 53, is a veteran activist who was aboard a Freedom Flotilla ship called the Challenger II. Before setting out, he described his role in the Flotilla as that of a human shield, and was rather matter-of-fact about what that might entail as he explained to a University of Victoria radio station what might happen if the ships were raided:

“I can’t really say about much as to how we’re going to react – well, basically it’s a human shield, it’s non-violently getting in the way. And they’ll have to deal with me getting in the way non-violently.” [The IDF must have been shaking in their boots when they heard that dire threat.]

I’m sure Neish made a worthy obstruction, but neither his “non-violently getting in the way” nor the more spirited resistance aboard the Mavi Marmara was sufficient to fend off the Israelis and get the Flotilla’s 10,000 tonnes of aid into Gaza. One reading of events would be that the organisers of the Flotilla (a group called Free Gaza) always knew things would turn out like this, and simply wanted to create an incident to draw attention to Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip and present the world with yet another example of what could be spun as Israeli brutality.

A couple of further details are consistent with this interpretation: the Israelis say that they allow 15,000 tonnes of aid into the Gaza Strip every week, and that they would have also been willing to “transfer humanitarian aid” on the Flotilla’s behalf. That makes the Flotilla’s cargo sound like a drop in the bucket, and a drop that could have reached its destination in any case if the Flotilla had been willing to cooperate with Israel.

However, I think there’s actually a bit more to the story. For one thing, Free Gaza has been sending ships to Gaza in defiance of the blockade since 2008, and the Israelis have allowed some of them to get through. The organisers may have hoped that the IDF would be reluctant to interfere with an operation as large and well-publicised as the Freedom Flotilla. Also, discussing aid only in terms of tonnage obscures the fact that Israel’s blockade allows some individual commodities into the Gaza Strip while prohibiting or severely limiting others. In particular, building materials are hard to obtain in Gaza, and the Freedom Flotilla made a point of carrying cement and prefabricated homes. Both would probably have been very welcome in Gaza, and it’s not at all clear that Israel would have delivered them. This makes the Flotilla seem a bit more serious, and less theatrical.

Accordingly, I don’t really blame Kevin Neish for taking his place aboard the Challenger II. I don’t share the idealism, or whatever you want to call it, that led him to take to sea to fight perceived oppression on the other side of the world, but I can respect people who have strong convictions and the courage to act on them. However, it’s too soon to tell what effect the interception of the Flotilla will have on the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict, although Israel seems to be attracting a fair bit of opprobrium over the incident – especially from Turkey, a country it can ill afford to alienate further. Canada, for the moment, is clearly giving Israel the benefit of the doubt.

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