Our Lady of Blockade Busting

In the dearth of US reporting on flotilla activity aimed at Gaza, one item is getting a small amount of attention – if not, in my view, enough.  News reports from the Levant today suggest that the Lebanese flotilla that was delayed indefinitely in June expects to get underway in the next few days.  The two confirmed ships in the flotilla will stop in a third-country port (probably in Turkish Cyprus) before trying to reach Gaza; the ship that is to leave from Beirut has been given the name Maryam,  for Mary the mother of Jesus Christ, and will reportedly carry only women as passengers (presumably the crew is male).  At least half of the 50-some women in the group are Christians, and an unspecified number are nuns.

The make-up of Maryam’s passenger list has no doubt changed a bit since the original reports about it in mid-June, when Maryam was first scheduled to depart.  Some reports from June suggested “several dozen” nuns were among the passengers, but with the total number being between 50 and 60 and half of the women being Muslims, this would have to be an overstatement.  Nevertheless, there continue to be reports of a substantial contingent of Lebanese Maronite Catholic nuns (who are Roman Catholic), and a handful of American Catholic nuns, among the Christians.

I wrote a month ago about the troubling fact that the Patriarch of Antioch, head of the Melkite Greek Catholic church in the Levantine region, was issuing blessings for the Lebanese flotilla.  The Maryam activists are moving ahead full-throttle in this vein, referring to their “weapons” as their “faith in the Virgin” and renaming themselves all “Maryam plus a number” for the duration of the voyage.  It is one thing for people to act in their capacity as concerned (if misguided) citizens; another again for them to act in their capacity as ambassadors of Christ – as the nuns are doing – and invoke blessings in the name of Jesus on what they do.

It’s not clear whether the American nuns on Maryam – there are reportedly as many as five – are members of a recognized canonical order.  This report suggests five nuns from Oregon were to participate; another report from a US activist (cited in my 3 July flotilla update) mentions a nun from Wisconsin.  I haven’t been able to find any information on the order(s) they come from.  They may or may not respond to pointed guidance from the Vatican.

But the Lebanese nuns are Maronites, a denomination of Roman Catholic Christianity.  The indications would suggest that they have the approval of their spiritual authorities – see, for example, the photo in this Haaretz article from June showing the Maronite Archbishop of Sidon in a warm greeting with Samar al-Hajj, the Lebanese activist spearheading the Maryam effort.  (Ms. Al-Hajj, a Maronite Christian, is the wife of General Ali al-Hajj, one-time director-general of Lebanese Internal Security and a longtime suspect – released in 2009 – in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.)  There is enough of an implication that the Church endorses the Maryam initiative for the Vatican to intervene – as Israel’s diplomats have asked it to – particularly given the risks involved in trying to run the maritime blockade.

It has become absurdly clear that there is no humanitarian need to break the maritime blockade of Gaza.  Not only does Israel herself provide goods to Gaza as well as allowing all third-party humanitarian aid to enter Gaza via land: in June and early July, the Netanyahu government lifted the remaining prohibitions on non-military goods.  From an equally practical standpoint, there is no value for cost or efficiency in delivering goods to Gaza by sea.  There is no infrastructure in Gaza’s port, and hence no possibility of delivering bulk cargo efficiently.  As this academic study from 2004 concluded, the cost-effectiveness of delivering cargo to Ashdod and convoying it over land will make it uneconomic to even build up a commercial port infrastructure in Gaza; the only reason to do it would be political.  That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, but it does mean that under any state political conditions, Gazans would pay more for the same goods, for the foreseeable future, if they were delivered to Gaza by sea than if they were convoyed from the port in Ashdod.

The purpose of the flotillas is to break the blockade – imposed to prevent the importation of weapons – not to deliver humanitarian goods.  It is a political objective, not a spiritual one.  In this regard, it’s worth noting what two of the American nuns reportedly did earlier this month, as their days lengthened in Beirut and Maryam waited for the go-ahead to depart.  According to this account by Franklin Lamb, the nuns paid their respects – as part of an “American delegation” – to the deceased Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, spiritual leader of Hezbollah and the cleric who blessed the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1982.  Says Lamb:

They [the American delegation of which the nuns were a part] felt they were the true representatives of their country, not their Embassy, thought by some to be in Lebanon to promote Israel’s agenda, not American interests.

Individuals have a certain right to be ignorant, prejudiced, and foolish, but it is not at all out of line to suggest that the Vatican has a special responsibility to offer better guidance to its faithful.  The “civil disobedience” the Maryam activists have in view has no application for either Christian compassion or social justice; it cannot be justified as an act of Christian love.  It’s about breaking a blockade – one imposed lawfully, by the way, in accordance with the applicable international conventions – so that a terrorist group (Hamas) can more readily import weapons with which to terrorize both Israelis and Gazan Arabs.

The most likely fate of Maryam – and her sister ship, M/V Nagi al-Ali, last reported in Tripoli – is being turned aside and heading for an Egyptian port rather than courting a serious armed response from the IDF.  That’s what went down with the most recent blockade-runner wannabe, Libyan ship M/V Amalthea.  I don’t think there’s real potential for an armed showdown again until the next Turkish flotilla sets out, assuming there is one. (See my previous posts linked above for information on that.)

Nevertheless, the likelihood of a non-dramatic outcome for Maryam doesn’t excuse the Church’s leadership for its apparent hands-off, de facto endorsement of a project that qualifies as not just ill-advised but “a-Christian.”  Like Melkite priest Hilarion Capucci’s gun-running for Fatah in the 1970s, joining a flotilla that proposes to “deliver humanitarian aid” by the least effective method possible, in order to weaken a lawfully-imposed blockade that keeps viciously homicidal weapons out of the hands of terrorists, is quite obviously not what Jesus would do.

Cross-posted at The Optimistic Conservative.