Md. Mideast peace activist recounts flotilla ordeal
A retired diplomat from Maryland who was aboard the so-called Freedom Flotilla attacked by Israeli commandos expressed guarded optimism Wednesday that the deadly episode would force Israel to relax its years-old blockade of Gaza.
The Israeli government "may have made a gross mistake," Edward L. Peck said in a telephone interview. "And so, this could lead to an improved situation for the people" of Gaza.
"It's a horrible thing that happened to those Turks who died" in the Israeli attack. "We had people on our ship who were beaten and maltreated," he said. "No one in his or her right mind should want anything bad to happen to a single Israeli, but bad things are happening and will happen because of what is going on in Palestine and Gaza and what isn't going on in Palestine and Gaza."
As a result of its commando assault, believed to have cost the lives of at least nine pro-Palestinian activists, Israel is facing intensified international demands to ease its blockade of Gaza, which had been designed to pressure the Hamas government.
Peck, a former career U.S. foreign service officer who served as ambassador to Mauritania and chief of mission in Iraq, spent four days aboard a Greek ship, one of six vessels that traveled by way of Cyprus before Israeli forces boarded the flotilla in international waters. He returned to his home in the Maryland suburbs of Washington after being deported by Israel.
In the aftermath of the deadly assault, the two sides have been jockeying for advantage in the court of international public opinion by airing dueling videos of the event.
Peck was not on the ship where fatalities occurred. He portrayed the actions of Israeli soldiers who boarded his ship as an overreaction that produced minor injuries for nine of 53 fellow passengers.
"The people didn't want to be boarded," he said. "We tried to resist passively, which the Israeli people were not prepared to accept." A fellow American on the ship, Joe Meadors, a Texas activist, was hit with a paintball fired by the commandos, whose heads were covered with balaclavas, said Peck.
"If somebody were to appear at my door (in Chevy Chase), fully armed, wearing balaclava masks, I'd defend my home," he said. "It's the Israeli commandos that were attacking" a ship in international waters "that didn't want to go to Israel," and the passengers defended themselves with deck chairs and iron pipes, but no guns.
The former diplomat, now in his early 80s, was taken into Israeli custody and eventually placed aboard a flight to New York.
He said his efforts on behalf of the Palestinians were not designed to support Hamas, which opposes peace talks with Israel and is regarded by Israel as a terrorist organization. However, Peck said he was a 2006 election observer in Gaza "when Hamas won a free and fair election."
Peck was among 12 Americans from the U.S.-based Free Palestine Movement aboard the flotilla, according to Jonathan Slevin, a former publisher of the Washington Times who is a spokesman for the El Cerrito, CA organization.
Nearly 700 activists were detained by Israel following the attack and more than 100 have been deported.
Peck said that after he was placed aboard a Continental Airlines jet for the trip back to the U.S., he met with rejection after requesting a drink with his airplane meal.
"I have a sense of humor," he said. "When I had my dinner and I asked for a bottle of red wine, I was told, 'No. You are not allowed alcoholic beverages. You are a threat to national security.'"
Peck is a private foreign-policy consultant. During more than 30 years as a U.S. diplomat, he was posted to Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Mauritania. He was chief of the U.S. mission in Baghdad during the Carter administration. He also served as coordinator of covert intelligence programs at the State Department and was deputy director of the Cabinet Task Force on Terrorism at the White House under President Ronald Reagan.
Peck is a former paratrooper with degrees from the University of California at Los Angeles and George Washington University.
He was an outspoken critic of President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq and endorsed Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004.
The Marylander became an unlikely participant in the 2008 presidential contest after Barack Obama's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, adapted comments made by Peck in a Fox News interview for a post-9/11 sermon attacking U.S. foreign policy. Video of Wright "damning" America, which was followed by other controversial remarks, forced Obama to break with the minister and quit his church.