Abie Nathan was a dove before his time. The quixotic Jewish fighter pilot pushed for peace in Egypt back in 1966 and launched the "Voice of Peace", (pictured above)-- a pirate radio station on a ship anchored in the middle of the Med, partly financed by Beatle John Lennon. Nathan, born in Iran and raised in Bombay, came to Israel in the country's infancy and was devoted to peaceful dialogue and humanitarian acts around the world. As an anti-war activist, he was in the minority in Israel and was twice sentenced to prison, including 122 days in jail for speaking with Yasser Arafat.
"I feel that I am following in his footsteps," said Jeff Halper, an Israeli professor who was on board one of the two boats that sailed into Gaza port last week to protest the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. The ex-prof was arrested briefly on his return to Israel through Erez crossing, as the peace boats were permitted to leave Gaza and left a handful of humanitarian workers in the Strip while taking one Gazan boy to be fitted with a prosthetic leg in Cyprus, to replace one lost to an IDF tank shell.
"I don't compare myself to Nathan, but I certainly draw from him as an inspiration," Halper added.
Halper made two correlations between Nathan's efforts and his own, the first regarding Nathan's own sea voyage to Gaza in 1972.
"He sailed there in '72 to bring toys to kids in Gaza, and later he organized a summer camp in Ashdod for Israeli kids and kids from Gaza," Halper said. "The second thing is that he said in 1966 that Nasser wanted to talk peace with the Israelis, and no one listened to him. If they had, think of the countless lives that might have been saved and the terrible violence that might have been prevented."
Lawrence Joffe summed up his life in today's Guardian:
To rightwing fellow Israelis, Abie Nathan, who has died aged 81, was a figure of fun, or, worse, a traitor. Nathan did seem an unlikely warrior for peace in the Middle East, but he invariably had the last laugh. When, in 1968, he mooted the idea for an offshore pirate radio station that would spread regional goodwill, sceptics predicted that it would sink, metaphorically if not literally. Instead, the Voice of Peace blasted out pop, political commentaries and celebrity interviews for 21 years.
Many also thought Nathan mad when, in 1977, he sailed through the Suez Canal distributing chocolates and toys to Arab children. By the year's end, though, Nathan and fellow Israelis were negotiating directly with President Sadat. Their meeting presaged Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, and the 1979 bi-national peace treaty.
Israeli security chiefs regarded Nathan as dangerously naive for talking to the Palestine Liberation Organisation's Yasser Arafat in 1989, and he spent nine months in prison in 1991 for his contact with the PLO. Yet within four years, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was shaking hands with Arafat at the White House. Nathan was an entrepreneur, a man with business acumen, an ability to exploit photo opportunities - and a hatred of injustice and suffering.
He was born the third child of observant Jewish parents, in Abadan, which is now in Iran. His Yemeni-born father worked for the Anglo-Iranian oil company (now BP) and later prospered as a linen-trader. At six, Nathan began at a Jesuit boarding school in Bombay. In 1939 his entire family moved to India. When his mother discovered that he adored Catholic icons, she enrolled him at the Jewish Sir Jacob Sassoon school - which imbued Nathan with a love of patriotic Hebrew songs.
Flying was a lifelong obsession. He took his wings with the Royal Air Force in 1945 and two years later had the traumatic experience of transporting Hindu and Muslim refugees between just-partitioned India and Pakistan.
In 1948, after ferrying planes and parts from Czechoslovakia for the nascent Israeli Air Force, Nathan bombarded Galilee villages and the Egyptian army from a converted DC3 transport plane. Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, the future Egyptian president, survived one of his raids. After later visiting several villages, Nathan was shocked at the damage he had caused. He befriended many civilians, including one Arab woman who regularly visited him after his 1996 stroke.
From 1950 to 1959 Nathan worked for Israel's national airline, El Al. He then managed the California, an American-style Tel Aviv restaurant credited with introducing the hamburger to Israel. It was soon a focus for bohemians and the intelligentsia.
Then, in 1966, aboard his 1927 Boeing-Steerman biplane, Shalom One, he flew into Egyptian airspace - and into a new career as a political maverick. He had hoped to present President Nasser with a 60,000-signature peace petition, but although courteously greeted, he was arrested and sent home.
Never short of chutzpah, he then contrived to meet Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Robert Kennedy and the Pope, and demanded their help to end Arab-Israeli hostilities. In 1967, he repeated his one-man invasion of Egypt, and was returned again. This time he spent 40 days in an Israeli prison for "unauthorised contact with the enemy".
Via the California, Nathan had grasped that most young Israelis in the 1960s hankered after a western lifestyle, rather than the austerities of the founding generation. Yet no Middle Eastern radio stations were broadcasting Anglo-American pop and rock. In 1969, Dutch supporters helped him buy a 188ft freighter for a radio station. Three years of further fund-raising culminated with Nathan going on hunger strike to raise the final $40,000.
By 1972 his Voice of Peace, which would be staffed by a mixture of Jewish and Arab Israelis, Filipinos, English, Dutch and Americans, began broadcasting to nearly 30 million listeners in English, French, Hebrew and Arabic. It even urged Israeli and Arab forces to lay down their arms during the 1973 Yom Kippur war. In 1993 Nathan shut the Voice down, convinced that the signing of the Oslo Accords meant peace was on its way.
He was a deeply spiritual man, but not strictly Orthodox - rabbis berated him for broadcasting over the Sabbath and, in 1978, he went on hunger strike against nationalist religious Jews building West Bank and Gaza settlements. He carried a miniature Bible and used the scriptures to explain his leftwing views.
In 1996 he suffered the first of the strokes that ultimately deprived him of speech. He was confined to a residential home and forgotten by many former friends who thought he had died. In lucid moments, he would recall his early days in India, a place that held a special place in his heart. When healthy, he had often revisited the country and found solace in Hindu and Buddhist scriptures. One of his proudest honours was being trustee of the Bangalore-based multi-faith Sarvodaya International Trust for peace.
Nathan never let ill-health or mounting debts curb his zeal. In the late 1960s he raised funds for starving Biafrans and was the first foreign pilot to fly sustenance into the Nigerian war zone; in 1972 he sailed to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua; in 1978 he donated toys and medicines to a Beirut refugee camp. He flew to a Northern Irish peace summit in 1982; visited Ethiopia to publicise the 1984 famine; and in 1991 airlifted aid to Kurdish war refugees in Iraq. Ten years later he spearheaded a team of 14 Israelis and four American Jews who helped alleviate conditions for 300,000 Rwandans stranded in a refugee camp in what was then Zaire. He made mercy dashes to Somalia, Guatemala, flood-stricken Bihar in India, and unsuccessful representations in Moscow for Jewish prisoners of conscience.
On hearing of his death, tributes were paid both by the Israeli president, Shimon Peres and the Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset, Ahmad Tibi. His dreams and sacrifices inspired the Oslo process and Israel's treaties with Jordan and Egypt, say supporters.
Paradoxically, Nathan's example inspired rightwingers in 1978 to moor their own pirate station alongside the Voice of Peace. It was shut down by the government, prompting protests that Nathan had never suffered such ignominy. The Israeli Davar newspaper countered that Nathan had never spread racism, but "preached peace between nations and peoples". Perhaps that should be his epitaph.
In 1951 Nathan's shortlived first marriage ended in divorce, and he separated from his Colombian second wife. His daughter survives him.
· Abie Nathan, philanthropist, activist, pilot and broadcaster, born April 29 1927: died August 27 2008