Samuel Hart, a Former U.S. Ambassador, Plans to Participate in Gaza Flotilla
Samuel Hart grew up in Mississippi in the 1930s and '40s, when racial segregation was the law of the land.
By the time the civil rights movement began making significant strides, Hart had left Mississippi, first to serve as an Army officer, then to join the diplomatic corps in 1958.
Which is one of the reasons the retired ambassador decided at age 77 to participate in the upcoming Freedom Flotilla II, which will attempt to carry humanitarian aid past an Israeli blockade to 1.5 million residents of Gaza.
"I wasn't at Selma," said Hart, a Jacksonville resident since 1994. "I wasn't at the March on Washington. ... I see great similarities between this and the civil rights movement. I am pleased to be a part of it."
The Free Palestine Movement, the group with which Hart will travel to take part in the flotilla, supports the two-state solution, he said.
They oppose the Gaza blockade as a violation of international law because they believe it punishes civilians.
"It limits food to a little bit better than starvation levels," Hart said. "It limits building materials. People are left to stew in their misery."
The departure date for the members of Hart's group has been postponed several times. They are expected to leave Sunday, he said.
Hart concedes that many people think the flotilla is a radical provocation in defiance not only of Israel but of the U.S. government, which both oppose the flotilla.
Israel has said that lifting the blockade would allow Gaza to be "flooded with arms and rockets."
The State Department issued an advisory this week warning Americans not to participate and noting that those who do may face arrest, prosecution and deportation.
'I'm Not anti-Israeli'
The New York Daily News, in an editorial this week, argued that flotilla participants "care more about making Israel appear the aggressor than they care about helping Palestinians. And they are willing to derail what limited prospects there are of peace in the Middle East with their attempt to embarrass the Jewish state."
"I have good friends who have taken exception to what I am doing," Hart said.
"I'm not supportive of Hamas and I'm not anti-Israeli. But ending the blockade is not only something that's good for the Palestinians, it's good for Israel as well."
In May 2010, the first Gaza flotilla, which attempted to carry humanitarian aid and construction materials to Gaza, ended in violence.
The Israeli military boarded six ships in international waters and escorted them to an Israeli port. On one ship, clashes broke out and nine members of the flotilla were killed.
Israel instituted the blockade of the Gaza strip in 2006.
"What did the residents of Gaza do to deserve such punishment?" Hart asks in an essay he recently wrote explaining his participation in the flotilla.
"The honest answer is that they voted in a fair election in 2006 for Hamas, a political party which also engages in armed resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory."
After the election, Israel came under rocket fire from Gaza, which killed 13 Israelis over several years. Hart said those attacks were wrong but didn't justify Israel's response in 2009, when it invaded Gaza - 1,300 Palestinians died and Israel tightened the blockade.
In a move some saw as an attempt to pre-empt the flotilla, Israel announced this week that it would allow the building of $100 million worth of new houses and schools in the Gaza Strip. But Israeli officials indicated that they remain determined to prevent the new flotilla, which they called a provocation, from reaching Gaza.
During his 27-year career as a diplomat, Hart served in embassies in Uruguay, Indonesia, Malaysia, Costa Rica, Chile and Israel, as well as spending time in Washington. He ended his career by serving as the Reagan administration's ambassador to Ecuador from 1982 to 1985.
He remembers Israel - where he served from 1977 to 1980 as an economic and commercial counselor, in effect the third-ranking member of the American delegation - as "an exhausting place to live."
"The tension, anxiety and intensity wear you out," Hart said.
The most disastrous event in Israeli history, he believes, was a moment of great triumph for Israel, which won a stunning victory in 1967's Six Day War.
Israel took control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. Its continued presence on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem and its blockade of Gaza have had the effect of aggravating tensions and preventing the institution of the "two-state solution," which was outlined in the 1993 Oslo Accords, Hart said.
In his essay, Hart wrote: "True friends of Israel, which includes myself, want nothing but the best for the people of Israel. But we cannot condone policies which oppress others. An end to that oppression will free not only the victims, but also lift a heavy weight from the shoulders of the oppressors. I am from Mississippi and have seen this happen. Non-violent protest in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King is the best path to peaceful change."
Hart moved to Jacksonville in 1994 with his wife, Jo Ann.
What to expect
He has served as president of the World Affairs Council and taught courses in foreign policy at the University of North Florida.
He said if he were in charge of Israeli policy, he'd "let the ship dock and it would be a non-event" ignored by the media. But he doesn't expect that to happen.
"If I had a bet, I'll spend some jail time," he said.