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Enough is enough. How have we reached a point in politics where lies are the norm, and populations can’t be heard through the media machinations bent on keeping the disinformation afloat?

Today I realized that being a “terrorist” is maybe a good thing. Many thanks to the lovely ladies of the Lebanese aid flotilla who are the latest group of civilians attempting to bust open Israel’s illegal economic blockade of the Gaza Strip.

I was sitting in my summer-rental in Beirut this morning, enjoying a leisurely Sunday and surfing the web to catch up on some news when I came across a despicable commentary piece by Ben Cohen, a run-of-the-mill propagandist at the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

Right here on the Huffington Post, Cohen launched into a diatribe against the latest aid flotilla headed for Gaza – this time an all-female ship called the “Mariam” which is named after the Virgin Mary and boasts a crew of Lebanese ladies and foreign nationals from the Arab world, US, Canada, France, Serbia, Holland, Finland and other countries. With zero evidence whatsoever, Cohen tries to malign this humanitarian effort by linking the flotilla and its participants to Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah:

“This flotilla is being organized by Yasser Kashlak, a Palestinian businessman based in Lebanon. Kashlak is known for his ties to terror groups, having shared the platform at a January “pro-resistance” conference in Beirut with representatives of Hezbollah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Syrian Ba’ath Party and the Iranian Vice-President, Reza Mir Tajeddini. Kashlak insists that his flotilla is an independent initiative, but Al Manar, Hezbollah’s broadcasting arm, disagrees, noting that the voyage was announced less than a day after Nasrallah appealed for more flotillas to head for Gaza. The assertion of no connection with Hezbollah is further undermined by the presence of Samar Hajj, the wife of a former Lebanese General jailed for his part in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.”

 

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Samar Hajj

 

The article – ostensibly about the flotilla – uses every trick in the substandard-journalism book to connect individuals and groups by mashing together tidbits of information to suggest a coherent linkage. Have an Arab-sounding name? Palestinian is better. Have a beard? Headscarf? Good. I can make you into a terrorist in 24 hours or less. 

We saw how the original Freedom Flotilla, in the hands of the Israeli media-spinning machine, turned into a ship of Islamic terrorists in a nanosecond. Funny then how quickly the Israelis expedited the release of 600+ terrorists in custody.

The international outrage over Israel’s deadly attack on a civilian ship ensured that Tel Aviv took it easy with the next aid ship – the Rachel Corrie, named after the American girl who was deliberately run over by an Israeli bulldozer while she was peacefully protesting the demolition of Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip. The Israelis could hardly afford to kill Rachel Corrie twice.

But now Israel has a bit of a problem. There are still many flotillas being planned, and they cannot afford for these non-violent humanitarian missions to de facto overturn their military decrees. Right or wrong, Israel must protect its Gazan siege at any cost, otherwise its every ruling suddenly becomes open to protest and international opinion. That’s no way to run a military state.
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So this next boat is making them rub their hands with glee. It is Lebanese in origin. Easy target – they’re Arabs, have Arab sounding names, therefore the association-game will be put into play once more. Rashid Khalidi – you ain’t seen nothing yet.

And, apparently, mainstream Jewish-American groups like the AJC are happy to drive that point home. These are not women, they are terrorists, Cohen extrapolates. They know some terrorists, they have been in the same room as some terrorists, they eat the same food as the terrorists…therefore they are terrorists.

Firstly, let me point out that the Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah is not considered a terrorist organization by any other nation than Israel, the US and Canada. Hezbollah has been in a coalition with the largest Christian political party in Lebanon for the past four years – not a fact you will readily read in the US media. They are a mainstream political party, ran in democratic elections last June and have two ministers serving in the Lebanese cabinet.

Now, let’s not get mired in this – it is Cohen’s intention, after all, to have us discussing a Hezbollah connection with this flotilla. Just like the Lebanese-origin Miss USA – a Shiite no less – had to endure when she recently became the first Muslim-American to take that crown.

So here I am in Beirut at the start of my summer research trip in the Middle East. Great little coincidence. I picked up the phone and – lo and behold – the flotilla gals were having an organizational meeting at a hotel just down the road from me.
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Lovely ladies they were. In the hubbub, I had the chance to meet and chat with a few. Firstly, they are all calling themselves Mariam, “Mary” in Arabic. They are lawyers, architects, doctors, journalists, graphic designers, students, professors, human rights activists and school teachers. Some are full-time moms too.

A few were tearing up after the obviously empassioned speech by main organizer Samar Hajj – who Cohen insinuates is a terrorist. Samar is a dynamic lady – dramatic arm gestures, twinkly eyes, a cigarette-induced gravelly voice you can hear down the hallway along with the clip-clop of her heels on the marble floor. She is on a mission and you just don’t mess with ladies like this.

I don’t speak Arabic, but I know that girl vibe thing. Most of these ladies had not met each other before today, but by meeting’s end, there were high-fives, group hugs, laughter and some tears. They know there is a risk involved with this flotilla mission, and many have children. They are not interested in “martydom” in the least.

A 24-year-old American “Mariam” from Michigan who is married to a Lebanese man and is six months pregnant with her first child, excitedly told me that she had just decided to join yesterday. She had thought about how great it would be to break the blockade of Gaza and then “I just bumped into the opportunity.”

Asked whether she worried about her pregnant state, she told me she instantly agreed to join, but then “between me and myself I thought…am I scared? Am I not scared? What about the baby? But then I decided regardless of whether I’m scared or not, this has to be done. People’s lives must mean something – Palestinians in Gaza need and deserve the same life that I have, my baby has, my president has.”

When asked what her husband thought of her decision, she said he wanted to go too and joked that he would sneak on board. The quick-witted mother-to-be deadpanned: “I told him not to embarrass me.”

There will be a female medical doctor on board, but just in case, a handsome young Red Cross worker was brought into Sunday’s meeting to show the ladies how to tie a tourniquet, staunch a wound and stabilize a broken limb. The wide-eyed audience listened intently and rushed to give him a scarf here, a ribbon there, when he searched for some material to demonstrate.

Samar Hajj – Cohen’s terrorist – had this to say: “We are not a political party. We are not Hezbollah, we are not Muslim, we are not Christian. We are women and we have all become Mariam today.”
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On the potential dangers ahead she says: “Look, how Israel deals with humans – all of us women reject this force, aggressiveness, injustice.” If there was a Jewish population in the same situation as Gaza we would stand with them and do the same thing. If they want to stop us by force, it is their problem because we have no weapons – no axes, knives and sticks, no guns. We just come armed with our belief in justice and freedom.”

She continued: “Come meet us, see us. We are not terrorists. What we know is to cook, work, have babies. No, we are not going to fight the Israelis. We will just turn the other cheek.”

I asked her about Tel Aviv’s threat to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on Friday that Israel would “use all necessary means” to prevent this ladies-only ship from breaching the blockade. Delivered by Israel’s female UN ambassador Gabriela Shalev, no less.

Samar insisted that any and all international agencies are welcome on board the ship to search and investigate to their heart’s content, but warned Israel “not to make the biggest mistake in your history. This is the Mariam. It is the Virgin Mary and therefore a blessed vessel.”

The theme continues. Five American Roman Catholic nuns are en route to join the flotilla from their convent in Oregon, and the word on the street is that the Israeli government has asked the Vatican not to allow the nuns on board.

That is worrying. It makes me think that Israel is planning some kind of definitive action – something to stop all the flotillas once and for all. Each one of these ships, brimming with civilians from all corners of the globe, threatens to bust through Israel’s siege – not just of Gaza, but all of Palestine.

Sometimes it occurs to me that Israel sits atop nothing more than a stack of playing cards, each card a myth spun by the Jewish state: “this was a swamp and we made it into a garden” or “Palestinians sacrifice their children willingly” or “they want to drive us into the sea.”

Together these cards make a veritable fortress. But start picking away at the myths and the whole enterprise comes tumbling down. What happens when one ship breaks through the blockade and nothing happens except the “bearded” men, the “shackled” women and the “expendable” children of Gaza run forward, grinning widely, tears running down those toughened “terrorist” cheeks, thanking “Allah” for the blessings of the brave humanitarians on board the ship that broke their four-year siege, even if only for a day?

That’s a foundation card that falls.

And so Israel and its American supporters will do anything to prop up these myths. Even calling a bunch of really amazing ladies “terrorists” to potentially pave the way for their untimely but necessary demise.

First published on the Huffington Post, June 21, 2010

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