Yonatan Shapira’s testimony from the Jewish Boat to Gaza
Yonatan Shapira, 26 September 2010
The course is 120. Another 200 miles to the port in Cyprus and the automatic pilot in the boat, which is supposed to maintain the course, refuses to work and leaves me with the unending task of maintaining the course on a turbulent sea with no sign of land from horizon to horizon. In another half hour, Itamar, my brother, who is also a “refusenik,” will relieve me at the wheel, after him Bruce and then Glyn will take their shifts. If everything goes according to plan, we will reach Famagusta at midday on Saturday, and there we will pick up the rest of the passengers, who together with us, as strange as it may seem, will try to break the blockade of Gaza.
For some weeks already we have been making our way east, from the Greek island on which the yacht was bought, from north of the Peloponnese through the Corinthian Canal, the Cycladic islands. Already we have experienced just about every kind of mishap in the book: the engines overheated on us and died, the wheel suddenly became detached, the anchor got stuck, the sail tore, a storm, and more. What we have not yet experienced is the uniqueness, the wondrousness and the strong arm of the IDF – the most moral army in the world, for those who forgot.
Warships have not yet intercepted us, they have not lowered commandos on us from helicopters and snipers have not yet shot at us. Those challenges are still before us and we will experience them together with the passengers, among them Holocaust survivors, a bereaved father  and others.
The southwest wind is getting a little stronger and the compass is vacillating between 120 and 130. I glance at the GPS and see that I am veering slightly to the left. Well, if the automatic pilot were working I could simply sit, watch the waves and write undisturbed.
Seven years ago on the eve of Rosh Hashana we published what the media called “the pilots’ letter.” In that declaration we announced to the whole nation (yes, we wore flight-suits and were interviewed in the press and on television) that we would refuse to take part in the crimes of the Occupation.
Ten days after that, on the eve of Yom Kippur, we were invited for a talk with the Commander of the Air Force. After he outlined to me his racial theory (in the form of a scale of value of blood, from the Israelis on the top down to the Palestinians at the bottom) he informed me that I was dismissed and that I was no longer a pilot in the Israeli Air Force. Many things have happened since then. Many boats have crossed the Corinthian Canal, many demonstrations and arrests, but mainly, many children have been murdered in Gaza. I remember Arik, a close childhood friend and a combat pilot, who hesitated over whether to sign and to refuse but in the end sincerely informed me that he did not want to give up his wonderful toy, the F-16. At first he still had a little shame about the comfortable choice he had made. Secretly he supported me and admitted that he did not have courage. Seven years passed and today he is still an operational pilot in the reserves, a leader of attack formations in his combat wing and on his hands or wings is the boiling blood of tens of innocent Palestinians and Lebanese, maybe more. The traces of morality that he had are gone now and today Arik will bomb any place at any time, wherever they tell him. That is the beauty of routine. In the end everything looks normal to you: an ordinary man, kind and polite and a good father to his daughters, turns into a mass murderer. I was not a bomber pilot. I flew Blackhawks that are used mainly for rescue missions and to transport personnel. One argument we heard from those who disagreed with us, and especially people from my wing, three members of which signed the letter, was that none of us was asked personally to shoot or to bomb or to assassinate. We replied to that argument by saying that it was not necessary to commit murder in order to say that it is forbidden to commit murder, and that it is easy to say “I just held the stick while the other pilot launched the missile.”
Years passed and the events of the flotilla and the murderous attack on the Mavi Marmara came and proved that the connection between my wing and the murder of civilians is in fact a lot more direct. It was the unit in which I served and the helicopters that I flew that carried out the pirate operation and lowered the commandos onto the deck. It is quite likely that the very people who flew on that night had been pupils of mine or pilots who flew with me in the past.
What does a Blackhawk pilot think and feel when he is hovering over a civilian ship far from the Israel’s territorial waters? What is he thinking when he instructs the soldiers to descend in the middle of the night onto a ship that is transporting supplies of humanitarian aid, bags of cement and dozens of journalists?
Mainly he is thinking about how to maintain a stable hover and not to lose visual contact with the other helicopters and the ship below him. He listens and gives orders on the helicopter’s internal communication system and maybe he also feels a little fear; after all, hovering over a vessel on the open sea, and at night, is no simple task of aviation.
And maybe he thinks about a few other things. Maybe he has a certain political outlook and maybe not, but what is certain is what he is not thinking about … a pilot who is hovering over a civilian aid ship on the open sea is not thinking that somebody among the people below him is intending to shoot him or that they are in possession of firearms – otherwise he would not have approached the spot! If he is not conducting a necessary rescue operation, it is absolutely counter to army regulations; that means that they knew beyond any doubt that nobody on the Mavi Marmara was armed. He knows that they are civilians who were set on expressing protest and identification with the million and a half civilians of besieged Gaza; but he apparently does not think about the fact that when masked armed pirates pounce on you in the middle of the night it is legitimate for you to resist the hijacking (even if it is tactically and strategically pointless).
To all who have doubts about the issue, I warmly recommend that you try to imagine that you are in the middle of the sea on a dark night and suddenly giant black helicopters are hovering low over you with a deafening noise and from them, like masked burglars wearing black, descend armed hoodlums, and warships are approaching you from every direction, and they are all shooting stun grenades at you and other things that you cannot identify, due to the noise and the darkness.
The sun has just set on the horizon. It is 18:52 hours.
I am trying to think about what will happen to us in a few more days near the coast of Gaza, within or outside the territorial waters. It apparently makes no difference when you are above the law and can shoot, hijack, rob, occupy and humiliate without anyone imposing any limits.
We are in the small boat of Jews for Justice for Palestinians.
We do not intend to fight the IDF, even though we have every right to do so. We chose non-violence as a tactic and as a strategy but we do not intend to give up easily until the moment they arrest and handcuff a Holocaust survivor and the bereaved father, right down to the last passenger on the boat.
The colours of the sunset are getting more and more dark and deep. Gold, pink and orange with light-blue stripes between the burning clouds. Now Bruce, on the wheel, is continuing to maintain a course of 120 with the two engines along with the mainsail and the foresail which add another half-knot to the speed. Itamar is practicing his guitar and Glyn is preparing supper. It seems like the clouds of fried onion are not only filling the yacht (and making it a little hard to breathe) but the whole Mediterranean Sea. Looks like I’ll skip supper.
Chief of Staff Ashkenazi told the Israeli commission of inquiry that investigated the flotilla events, that his conclusion from the events is – “more snipers” … yes – yes, that’s his conclusion from the murder on the Mavi Marmara, more snipers!
My conclusion was a bit different from that of a person who in the foreseeable future will be put on trial at the international court for war crimes. My conclusion was I had to join the next boat that set out for Gaza, and what could be more fitting than a Jewish organization from Europe that is struggling for human rights and peace.
I contacted the organizers and offered my services as skipper. Apparently seamanship was the most fitting of all the trades I learned in high school, and now I have the opportunity to implement what I learned, not only for pleasure but for an important and symbolic action with an organization that decided to invest a great deal of money, hours of deliberation, planning and endless preparations for one objective, to break the blockade of Gaza.
Yesterday evening on the island of Kastelorizo, during last-minute preparation of the boat, we opened the foresail on a large space near the pier and wrote on it in black in Arabic and Hebrew: “Yahud min ajl al-‘adala lil-filastiniyin” – the name of the organization – Jews for Justice for Palestinians.
The Arabic course I took in the summer helped me not get confused in writing the curved letters and Itamar, who stood above me and by the light by the public pier guided me up, down, left and right, so that the writing will look good and clear when we raise the sail upon our departure from Cyprus and as we approach the shores of Gaza.
Another long night-watch on the wheel followed. The sea was relatively calm, but a moderate tailwind insisted on bringing the exhaust from the engines directly to the cockpit, which strengthened my determination to skip supper and to contend with the feeling of light nausea by watching the horizon, maintaining a course of 125 and mainly by singing, again and again, the songs that sound most beautiful when one is on a boat in the middle of the sea: “if the darkness has fallen and I have no star … light a rose of fire on the mast of my boat, mother …” 
At 6:12 in the morning, as we approach Cyprus, with the first rays of light, Itamar at the wheel, Bruce and Glyn are sleeping and I am on the prow trying to breathe air clean of the smoke of the engines and trying to snooze, suddenly a medium-sized boat passes us. It passed quite close to us and looked strange. It circled us from the north and moved off to the west and looked like a small warship. Maybe we are already a little paranoid and maybe not and maybe it was just a vessel of the Turkish coast guard; in any case, we began to think and to imagine to ourselves what our encounter with the Israeli navy will be like when we approach the coast of Gaza, what each of us will do, how we will take care of the passengers and how we will react if the navy’s Dabur patrol boat (as in previous incidents) attacks us and rams our little boat. We decided to write in Hebrew and English a declaration that we will read on the radio on the nautical emergency channel when elements of the navy or the air force approach us. This is what we wrote:
We are a boat of the European Jewish organization Jews for Justice for Palestinians
We are on our way to Gaza
We are not armed and we believe in non-violence
And we are determined to proceed to the port of Gaza
You are imposing an illegal blockade on occupied Gaza
These are international waters and we do not recognize your authority here
There are activists of all ages on this boat
Among us are Holocaust survivors, bereaved parents and Israelis who refuse to reconcile themselves to the illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories
We are unarmed peace activists who believe in non-violence and we are determined to proceed on our way to the port of Gaza
We appeal to you, officers and soldiers of the IDF, to refuse and not to obey your commanders’ illegal orders
For your information, the blockade of Gaza is illegal under international law and therefore you are running the risk of being put on trial at the international court for war crimes
The blockade and the occupation are inhumane and counter to universal morality and the values of Judaism
Use your consciences!
Do not say “I was only following orders”!
Remember the painful history of our people!
Refuse to enforce the blockade!
Refuse the Occupation!
1. In this context, “bereaved” is understood to refer to an Israeli who has lost a loved one as a result of war or terrorism in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict – trans.
2. From the Israeli song “Zemer ahava la-yam” – “Love song for the sea.” Lyrics: Raphael Eliaz, music: Sasha Argov – trans.
Translated from Hebrew by George Malent