Saturday, August 30, 2008

A real-life Biggles who flew for peace

I MIGHT as well confess.I did not take a great deal
of notice of Abie Nathan, who has just died at 81.
Now that he has gone, I think I should have done.
We - meaning Lefties like myself -should have done.
But of course flying off in your plane to see Nasser,
and going on to set up a pirate radio station for peace,
they are magnifique, but not in our text books, are they?

Forty years ago, socialists were variously thrilling over
the Sorbonne, or if more serious, about Renault and Sud Aviation;
or marching to the chant of "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh"
with a brief diversion to consider Prague.
Some discovered the Palestinian problem,
-the year of the Tet Offensive also saw the battle of Karameh.
They even acquired keffyehs along with their posters of Che.

That was the year that Abie Nathan,an enterprising fellow who
had flown bombing raids in the Israeli war of independence
(the Palestinians' Nakba, then worked for El Al, before managing
a trendy Tel Aviv burger restaurant, came up with the idea of an
offshore radio station that would feed young Israeli and Arab
appetites for Western-style pop music while spreading peace
and goodwill. Few people thought the idea would ever sail,
let alone stay afloat amid the political and violent storms.
In the event Abe's peace ship lasted for 21 years.
That's longer than many political parties, and a lot
longer than your conventional statesman's Middle East
"peace initiative".

Born in Abadan, where his Yemeni-born father worked
for Anglo-Iranian (now BP),Abie was educated in Mumbai,
where his family moved in 1939. He joined the RAF and
learned to fly, then in 1947 with partition he found
himself flying refugees to and from India and Pakistan.
The following year, without perhaps having had time to
think about that experience, he was in another conflict,
ferrying planes and spare parts from Czechoslovakia
for the new Israeli air force, before going on to bombing
Flying a converted DC3 Dakota he bombed Egyptian troops,
and Palestinian villages in Galilee In later years
he went back to some of these villages, and saw the
damage, and perhaps more unusually, managed to
make friends with some of the people who remained.
Lasting friends. One woman kept up visiting him
after he suffered a stroke in 1996.

It was in 1966 that Abe Nathan flew a 1927
Boeing-Steerman biplane to Egypt, this time
not to bomb but to try and present President
Nasser with a 60,000-signature peace petition.
The Egyptians treated him courteously, but sent
him home. Abe managed to meet various
international figures whom he thought might help,
then in 1967, the year of the Six Day War, he tried
flying to Egypt again.
This time when he was returned he spent 40 days
in an Israeli prison for "unauthorised contact
with the enemy".

He did not give up.
In 1972 his peace ship began broadcasting
to millions of listeners throughout the Middle East,
and in 1977, he sailed through the Suez Canal
distributing chocolates and toys to Arab children.
It seemed a naive if good-natured idea, but led to meetings
with President Sadat which presaged Sadat's visit to Jerusalem.

Abe Nathan knew there must be more to peace
than distributing sweets or talking to presidents.
In 1978 he went on hunger strike to protest
religious Zionists entrenching themselves in West Bank
and Gaza settlements,and in 1989 he met with Yasser Arafat.
He spent nine months in prison in 1991 for his contacts
with the PLO. Within four years Prime Minister
Yitzhak Rabin was shaking hands with Arafat at the
White House, though true, Rabin himself was to pay a
heavy price for that handshake.

As little as I knew about Abe Nathan's one-man peace efforts
for the Middle East, still less did I know of his other
activities, such as flying aid into Nigeria during the Biafran war,
taking help to Nicaragua after an earthquake, donating medicines to
a Beirut refugee camp, airlifting aid to Kurdish refugees in Iraq,
helping Somalis and Rwandans, and going to Moscow to intercede
for Jewish prisoners. Whatever we make of his politics in
theoretical terms, in practice Abe seems to have outflown Biggles,
but as a humanitarian hero for real!

In 1993 the peace "pirate" packed up his broadcasting, hoping as many
of us did that the Oslo peace talks, whatever their limited first fruits,
would be the beginning of the peace he had sought. In 1996 he suffered
the first of the strokes that ultimately deprived him of speech, and was
confined to a rest home. When he could he spoke of his childhood in India.
What he would make of the present Middle East situation I don't know.
I suspect that Abe the peace pilot and voyager would have saluted those
who took their boats into Gaza this month in a bid to end the blockade.

I dare say the kind of politicians who jailed Abe Nathan before will be
paying tribute to him now, even holding him up as a shining example
of Israel's wish for peace, though not endorsing such initiatives.
Even as Shimon Peres was praising Abe, security police were questioning
Jeff Halper, of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, about
his part in the Gaza expedition.

I also know that Abe Nathan's bold missions and peace broadcasts
did not solve the Israel-Palestine conflict, and that two boats
carrying a symbolic aid cargo have not ended the siege and misery
in the Gaza Strip. But then nor have more conventional efforts,
whether those of so-called statesmen (assuming for the sake of
argument that they do want a peaceful solution, even in their own terms),
or of those of us going on marches and passing resolutions.
We need a mass movement, but sometimes we also need bold deeds
and exemplary actions, and a few people who are not afraid to be
called "meshuggeh" when they dare to carry them out.

Thanks to Lawrence Joffe in the Guardian
for the information about Abie Nathan in his obituary:

And here is what Gush Shalom said in their weekly ad in Ha'aretz:


Abie Nathan -

Courageous peace activist,
Conducted a hunger strike
Against the settlements
Almost to death,
Went twice to jail
For meeting Yasser Arafat,
Planned his actions alone,
Took on himself the responsibility,
Paid the full price,
And was loved by the masses.

May his memory live on!

Gush Shalom, the peace bloc:

Jeff Halper's
organisation ICAHD:

Free Gaza, organisers of the boats:

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