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volume 9
july 2006

Abie Nathan's hunger strike of 1978


  Remembering the Voice of Peace (18)
by Hans Knot
  In the summer of 1978 Abie Nathan started a hunger strike, announcing not to consume any food until Israel's Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, at least made some attempts towards peace in the Middle East. Nathan prolonged his his hunger strike to its 45th day, when he was brought into the Knesset in a wheelchair and was asked to stop his fast. Hans Knot here tells us more about this episode in the history of the Voice of Peace.
1 Left: On the way to the Parliaments building

A death fast for Israeli Peace. In the summer of 1978 the Voice of Peace as well as Abie Nathan made headlines in many newspapers all around the world. Several radio and television crews took the trip to Israel for special reports on the fast period for Peace. "Death fast for Israeli Peace," headed the pages of the "Daily Telegraph" of June 26th: "Mr. Abie Nathan's Voice of Peace pirate broadcasting ship went off the air in the Mediterranean yesterday and sailed into Ashdod harbour as the 50-year old self-styled leader for Peace with Egypt began his 42nd day of broadcasting. He said he intended to continue to fast "until I die or the Israeli Government changes it's peace policy.""

From Israel, deejay Don Stevens reported to the Monitor Magazine on June 2nd: "The latest news here is that Abie Nathan has started a fast for Peace and he announced he will not consume food until the Prime Minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, makes some attempt towards Peace, or until Mr. Begin writes a letter of similar sentiment to Abie. Abie wrote to Mr. Begin sixteen days ago and requested that the Prime Minister reassure him that all possible efforts to Peace are being pursued and that the Government of Israel will do all they can to secure Peace. Abie wants the reply from the Prime Minister, and to add extra weight to his argument he immediately went on fast for Peace on May 14th. He's diet being only prune juice (to keep the bowels from blocking) and water. So far the government and the Prime Minister have still not responded to Abie's letter, so it is left to Abie to carry on with the fast and hope that something happens soon before he wasted away completely."

  Part of Abie's campaign to attract public attention was to organise a series of group sessions in one of Tel Aviv largest parks every afternoon between 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. where members of the public could sit down on the grass to meet Abie and talk with him about his fast. This also gave the public a chance to discuss with Abie about his plans for Peace and allowed them an opportunity to see how one man could suffer so much for a very real cause. Needless to say, many people at these afternoon sessions were trying to persuade Abie to stop his fast and to use other methods of securing a Government commitment to an early Peace initiative.
  Don Stevens in June 1978: "Abie has not been prepared to change his plan to fast until the bitter end. The radio station is playing a full part in all of this by frequently promoting the afternoon group sessions in the park, and by broadcasting phone-in shows of the public and Abie getting together via the telephone and debating the whole question of Peace in the Middle East. Certainly it is a possibility that if the Government do not reply to Abie's letter and his verbal requests by radio for a move to Peace then it is likely that he will die from lack of food, as his intention is that he will not eat or drink until such a letter or promise is sent to him."
2 Right: Abe on hunger strike

An appeal to the Government. As I wrote earlier many newspapers and radio and television stations around the world paid attention but also the Israel Broadcasting Authority took a great interest in the ensuing events, and it is from reports carried by the Short Wave stations in Jerusalem that Ronald C "Buster" Pearson could make a transcript on Friday June 23rd 1978: "In the 40th day of his hunger strike against the Israel Government's settlements policy, Israeli Peace crusader Abie Nathan, announced that he is closing down his floating radio station, the Voice of Peace. To find out more about Abie's plans, reporter Jack Castinelle called him on ship earlier this evening," the interview continued.

JC: This evening you're closing down the broadcasts of the Peace Ship. What do you feel it has accomplished in all this time it has been on the air?

Abie: I think the biggest accomplishment is the realization of the project, the very fact that we were able to create such a station on international waters and stay that long and survive. This in itself was an accomplishment. Second, we would see, I think, a lot of madness will come, throughout the whole region once we stop broadcasting. We had a very important audience; we had more than half a million people listening to us all the time and I think we have tried to reach out to a lot of people. In the realm of human understanding and communication. Man hasn't even begun, so what we try to do is we try to communicate between one and another. It's a long road — I think we have just started it in whatever we have done up to this date.

  JC: Mr. Nathan, you're now in a very long hunger strike and we hear that you actually bought a plot in the cemetery. Does this mean that you feel that you'll fail to attain the objectives, the aim of your hunger strike?
  Abie: No, I think if my request is to be turned down by the Government of Israel I suggest that you also and other people start buying plots in Israel and the Arab countries because there's going to be a big demand for a lot of funeral plots in all the cemeteries in the area when the next war does come, And I believe that if the talks are failed, if the talks close down, we're certainly going to have a war. I'd rather do it my way than once again wait for another war to come.
  JC: What conditions, in fact, would the Government here in Israel have to fulfil for you to call off your hunger strike?
  Abie: I've just made an appeal to the Government to do something, but Prime Minister Begin himself assured President Sadat in Ismailia that there would be no new settlements created during the talks as long as the doors are open and I've, in fact, appealed to the Prime Minister and the Government to pass a resolution of the same matter that no new settlements will be created as long as the talks go on. If we can't make such a gesture then all the talks of withdrawal and of territories is all a waste of time and nothing is ever going to happen and this will have to go on to a crisis once again."
  At the same day it was mentioned in the headlines of several newspapers worldwide that a delegation of Parliament had visited Abie and that they came out with the announcement that his condition was very poor. And the next day it was announced that the public pressure for Abie to stop his hunger strike was mounting. On his 41st day of the hunger strike it was first Defence Minister Weitzman followed by Minister Shron from Agriculture, who were with Abie. Weitzman reminded Nathan that he was his commander in the air force and that he was ordering him to stop his strike, while Shron told him that there was no reason for the strike since in any case no new settlements were being established. A number of Knesset members then introduced urgent motions of no confidence in line with Nathan's demand that all settlements to be stopped as long as Peace negotiations were going on.
  At 6:30 p.m. on June 24th. Abie closed down his station and, as told above, the ship was taken into the harbour of Ashdod. As there was no captain Tony Allan sailed the ship six miles North to Hertzali and then turned around and sailed to Ashdod close into the shore, with the ship's siren being sounded throughout the journey to call people to come and see as they passed. It took five hours to reach the harbour and the whole time the transmitter of the VOP was emitting just a continuous tape which ran "Give Peace A Chance." It was near Ashdod that a pilot came aboard the ship to dock the ship. Next to Tony Allan Chrispian St. John, Vince Mould, Steve Foster, Mike Galloway, Bruce Sabsay and Bill Bennet were onboard. For them it was time to give the ship, with help from volunteers, a complete repaint.
3 Left: A studio picture taken in the 1980s

A bad example. Wednesday 28th of June Dutch newspapers brought the news that in the Knesset several motions about Abie and his fast for Peace will be on the agenda, including one which was against Abie. In the motion one of the Knesset members wrote that Abie was a bad example for Israel's young people as they could follow fasting too. Abie was brought into the Knesset in a wheelchair to see how the 120 members of the Knesset would debate the motions, which were to be answered by Minister Shostack of the Health Department. Israel Radio reporter Leslie Sutter interviewed Abie Nathan, from which some questions and answers will follow:

L: Will the unprecedented debate on the fate of one man mean that he has now achieved his aim and could stop his fast?

  A: No, I don't. I think I'm also insulted by the fact it is discussing my life and my fast instead of discussing the question of settlements on which base the future of tens of thousands of peoples' lives in our country and in the Arab World. This could be one of the talks that could help bring Peace or war. So why are they talking about my life? It's just to run away from the real issue.
  L: Isn't it a move that all 120 members of the Knesset and the minister for Health will appeal to you to stop this fast? Will this be enough for you to stop your fast?
  A: If I just wanted people to sympathize with me — I don't need sympathy! I'd rather take 120 young people, students, and have their request to stop me fasting than have 120 politicians do so. It's not what I'm after.
  L: Yet the politicians claim that they represent the whole country and that their appeal, therefore, represents the will of the Israeli people.
  A: As soon as the Government comes into power and she has a majority that doesn't give her the right to do whatever she wants just because she has a majority. It's not only the Government; it's the Government, the Opposition, the Far Opposition, Everybody! The reason they don't take it to the vote is because the Opposition is a majority and they feel by taking it to the floor to vote for it they will lose. So they join the whole gang again into the same clique to stop me from fasting. This whole thing is organised by the Prime Minister's Office. I think they organised all the Ministers and asked them all, and even people abroad, they phoned them to ask them to phone me to stop fasting. What I want is them to discuss the issue and to know that the threat to Peace, one of the reasons is the settlements. While the talks are going on they should stop settlements. This is the issue that I want."
4 Right: Abe on hunger strike in Jerusalem 1978

A democratic request. The interview ended with a conclusion from Leslie Sutter: "Meanwhile several Israeli have written to their Prime Minister's Office saying that they cannot go on living unless the Government applies Israeli Law to Judea and Sumaria. The possibility of hunger strikes breaking out in Israeli politics on all sort of issues is worrying several Knesset members. Labour Minister Sarid is due to present a motion on the agenda saying that Parliament did not want a national balance of terror of this kind."

Strange enough, after this emotional interview, Abie went into Knesset and all kind of members spoke to him and asked him to stop his fast, which was already in the 45th day. Late in the evening of the same day Dutch Press Office ANP announced that the whole Knesset had appealed to Abie and the Peace Fighter had decided to stop his fasting period. In the Monitor archive I found back a second interview with Abie by Leslie — transmitted a day after the first one — with partly different opinions from Nathan: "On the one hand I am disappointed because in the way it wasn't my life that was important because when I tried to risk my life it was to save other peoples' lives . At the same time, that disappointment I have to put aside because I cannot treat lightly the requests and the response of the Knesset, which is to me is the seat of our democracy in this country. With the appeals from friends everywhere and from all the parties involved to make that appeal, while I'm reluctant, I still have a lot of joy in the belief that I should continue all the time in the same faith that I started many years ago. And so I have decided to stop my fast. I'll continue with strength until sometime I can help build some bridges between our people and our neighbours."

  Abie didn't went to hospital as he felt mentally strong as ever before, and physically he thought to recover soon. At the end of the interview Abie was asked what he would have for dinner after fasting such a long time and he responded with: "As a matter of fact I don't know. I would like to invite everybody on the air to my restaurant and we'll all have a drink together. There'll be a good glass of orange juice and this is what I shall start drinking and I hope you will all drink together with me to drink to Life and to Peace."
  And the next Friday, June 30th, it seemed at 8 o'clock in the evening, as nothing had happened as The Voice of Peace came on the air again. Just a few days later Abie was making headlines again as he began in his programme, as well as in the press, an appeal to collect medical supplies and toys to take to Beirut, where at the time heavy fighting was taking place. A good collection of items including an ambulance, musical instruments and sweets was quickly assembled in Ashdod and plans were made to leave with the Peace Ship the anchorage on July 19th, load it up with the supplies and sail down the coast to deliver them to the people of Lebanon. However the trip was cancelled on the advice of the International Red Cross who told Abie it was too dangerous to go to Beirut and also that he wouldn't be allowed to enter the harbour by the Lebanon authorities.
5 Left: Studio door

Sailing to Beirut. Abie, at the end, thought that the Red Cross made too many hassles and decided to go to Beirut. On August 7th 1978 the trip was made to Ashdod, where in just one day of activity all the supplies were taken aboard the Peace Ship and on the 8th accompanied by newspaper journalists and two television crews the sailing to Beirut started. Robbie Owen remembers: "It was from 9:00 p.m. that the Voice of Peace stopped taking the Hebrew News on the hour as well all announcements in Hebrew were stopped. In stead of that it was non-stop Arabic music as well as announcements in which the intentions of taking only supplies to the harbour were mentioned."

Around 10:00 a.m. the next day, August 9th, the Peace Ship anchored about 3 kilometres from the coast in the Bay of Beirut. As often Abie had arranged everything very good as a Lebanese television crew came alongside the ship there as well as people from the BBC and UPI. They were not allowed to climb aboard but were given to chance to interview Abie. Next a Syrian gunboat of the "Peace Keeping Force" came alongside and the people from the VOP were ordered to go back into International Waters and wait for a word of permission to enter the harbour. As he didn't want to get in problems the captain of the Peace Ship was asked to follow the order and as soon as the ship was in International Water the station came back on the air.

  The next day, when daylight appeared after a dark night, the ship was somewhere 40 miles North of Beirut. As the water was so deep no good anchorage was found, so the ship just drifted. When the captain saw this the engines were again started. Around 5:00 p.m. August 10th, the ship was back a mile off Beirut. The next day Abie and his crew were still ignored by the Lebanon authorities. Three days later, as still no answer was got from the Lebanon authorities, everyone on board the Peace Ship was depressed. So Abie decided that the supplies would have to be off-loaded in Cyprus and at 3:00 p.m. the anchor was raised and Beirut left behind for the harbour of Larnaca. It took 24 hours to get there to get the supplies ashore."
  August 15th several newspapers brought the news and Dutch newspaper Telegraaf quoted the "Jerusalem Post" that the ship had entered Larnaca and brought happiness to the people there. But also Nathan himself spoke out: "I'm finished doing favours and I'm tired forcing assistance on people who don't want it. From now on, only when somebody asks for help we will give it." In a big refugee camp near Larnaca the toys, the ambulance, other aid material as well as musical instruments and candies were given away. During the evening programme "Tonight" on BFBS Cyprus interviews were heard with Crispian St John, Kenny Page, Malcolm Barry and Robert Owen. On August 16th the Peace Ship returned off the Israeli coast and another chapter of the Voice of Peace story ended.
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