NEW YORK // A group of US activists is raising money to send a ship to break the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip that is named after President Barack Obama's political autobiography, The Audacity of Hope. Rashid Khalidi, a prominent Palestinian-American academic whose friendship with Mr Obama became a campaign issue in 2009, is one of the many intellectuals and campaigners who have signed an online petition in support.
"Since I am not one of the organisers of this effort, I had nothing to do with choosing the name [of the ship]," he said in an email to The National. "If it causes any embarrassment for the US administration, they need only dissociate themselves from the siege and blockade and publicly and forcefully urge Israel, and Egypt, to end it immediately." Jane Hirschmann, one of the organisers behind the campaign, said more than a third of the US$370,000 (Dh1.36million) needed to fund the ship had been raised online at a website, UStoGaza.org.
The ship with 40 to 60 people on board was scheduled to join a "flotilla of boats from Europe, Canada, India, South Africa and parts of the Middle East due to set sail in September/October of this year. We picked the name The Audacity of Hope because it takes a lot of courage to stand up and that's what the people of Gaza and the West Bank have been doing," said Ms Hirschmann, a member of the Jews Say No group. "We want to put pressure on Obama because people in this country feel that justice has to be done and it's our duty to do something, it's not a provocation."
Nine people were killed in May when the Israeli navy boarded the Mavi Marmara, a ship carrying activists and aid from Turkey to Gaza. "In the aftermath of the Gaza freedom flotilla massacre and increased worldwide scrutiny of Israel's blockade of Gaza, the Israeli government has mounted a huge public relations campaign spreading the lie that by letting a few more items into Gaza, the blockade has been lifted," said the website. "This is not the reality. Gaza is still under siege..."
Mr Khalidi's signature on the petition has made him again the target of right-wing bloggers. During the presidential campaign, it was revealed Mr Obama had credited the Columbia University academic with educating him about the Middle East. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, and Sarah Palin, his running mate, were quick to attack Mr Khalidi, who was called a "terrorist professor" by the right-wing media. There were subsequent reports that Mr McCain had helped to finance a research institute co-founded by Mr Khalidi in the West Bank.
Mr Khalidi said the planned voyage to Gaza was further proof of the failure of Israeli propaganda among young Americans, who he said were more questioning of Israeli actions since the 2006 Lebanon war, the 2008 to 2009 Gaza war and the "flotilla fiasco" of earlier this year. "The important exceptions to this changing situation are the American political class and much of the media and other elites, who still live in a parallel reality, rigorously policed by the Israel lobby," said the modern Arab studies professor, who has also been critical of Arab leadership in the Middle East.
"Thus, until there is a popular movement in the US representing this growing trend [of greater questioning of Israel], one should expect little change in US policy. The activism around the Gaza flotilla and, more generally, in opposition to the occupation, and the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, are all signs that there is the potential for such a movement." Mr Khalidi, who first knew Mr Obama when they were professors at the University of Chicago more than a decade ago, urged the US administration to publicly disown the siege and blockade of Gaza, which have "only been possible because of the complicity and support of two US administrations".
He called the siege "utterly ineffective" and "a major public relations liability for Israel, although it is popular with the large jingoistic segment of the Israeli, and American, political class and public, who are addicted to the use of force." Gaza was described as a "prison camp" by David Cameron, the British prime minister, during a speech in Turkey on Tuesday. "Let me be clear: the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla was completely unacceptable. And I have told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu we will expect the Israeli inquiry to be swift, transparent and rigorous," he said. "Let me be also clear that the situation in Gaza has to change. Humanitarian goods and people must flow in both directions. Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp."
Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, castigated the US media and authorities in a recent column for ignoring the death of one of the activists in the Gaza flotilla, Furkan Dogan, who was a US citizen. "... A chill descends when you have the combination of Israeli commandos doing the firing, an American with a foreign-sounding Muslim name, and the frenzied pre-emptive arguments of Israel and those among its US supporters who will brook no criticism of the Jewish state," wrote Mr Cohen.