The flotilla and the siege – resistance and complicity

While the second flotilla to Gaza prepared to set sail this week under the motto ‘Stay Human,’ Europe moved a step closer to full participation in the Israeli oppression of Palestinians

Thursday, 7 July, 2011 - 12:17
London, UK

Despite widespread Greek support for the Palestinian cause, the Greek government bent to intense pressure from various quarters and declared that the flotilla's boats were forbidden to leave for Gaza. On Monday afternoon Greek coastguards boarded the ‘Tahrir’, a Canadian boat bound for Gaza, and forced it back to port.

It seems the second flotilla to Gaza tried to set sail a few days too late. As hundreds of passengers from 40 countries were loading their cargo onto the ‘Stay Human’ flotilla, a narrow majority of the Greek parliament voted ‘Yes’ for austerity measures and for a bailout by an EU-IMF loan.

For a short moment, Greece had been the only country that might have had reason enough to defy the almost unconditional support offered by the EU and the US to Israel and its policies in the occupied Palestinian territory . But the approval of the bailout program robbed Greece's passionate street protests of their sting, and rendered Greek public opinion regarding its own economy - as well as regarding Palestinians - powerless.

On Sunday, they had forced the US boat the Audacity of Hope back to the Greek mainland half an hour after it had set sail, citing faulty paperwork, and arrested its captain and some of its protesting passengers. By Monday evening Israeli outlets reported that a third boat, the Louise Michel, had been prevented from setting sail.

The bloody results of last year's debacle, in which a violent Israeli raid on 31 May 2010 left nine unarmed civilians dead and dozens injured aboard a flotilla heading to break the closure of Gaza, caused deep shock among the European public. In the initial days after the raid, EU officials recorded confused responses, condemned the violence and supported calls for a UN investigation into the events. But the report published by a fact-finding team appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva was largely disregarded, and a long-awaited second report by the UN's more powerful organs in New York is yet to be published. Early hopes for accountability have faded, in a manner echoing the fate of the Goldstone Report, which offered a map to accountability for Israel's 2008-2009 attack on the Gaza Strip, but is now mired in paperwork and roundly discredited by Israel and the US.

Since last year's deadly events, although several attempts have been made to send similar boats across the Mediterranean, no EU member state has allowed any boat to leave its ports for Gaza. This time round, as a large and well-organised flotilla prepared to set sail and Israel threatened to greet it with violent force, western officials made their position quite clear in advance.

On 22 June the US State Department issued a travel warning telling US citizens to avoid any attempt to reach Gaza by sea. Those who chose to participate in a flotilla would risk arrest, prosecution, deportation and a possible 10-year travel ban by Israel, and attempts to land in Gaza may violate US laws, the statement said.

The UK issued a similar travel warning as early as 13 June, advising 'against any attempt to enter Gaza by sea, breaching the restrictions imposed by the Israeli navy, 'because of the risks involved'. 'Our ability to provide consular assistance in Gaza is also extremely limited', added the statement.

On 24 June Hillary Clinton said the flotilla was not “useful or helpful or productive to the people of Gaza.” She blamed any suffering that residents of Gaza experience on their government. “The United States is a very generous donor to the Palestinian people who are unfortunately the victims of the decisions made over the past years by Hamas,” she said.

On the same day, all 27 EU countries in Brussels signed a statement saying: "Humanitarian assistance … [to Gaza] should be in accordance with the relevant framework and decisions of the UN and should take care not to endanger human lives."

On 2 July the Quartet followed up with a claim that conditions in Gaza were much improved. Regarding the flotilla, its statement read: “The Quartet regrets the injury and deaths caused by the 2010 flotilla, urges restraint and calls on all Governments concerned to use their influence to discourage additional flotillas, which risk the safety of their participants and carry the potential for escalation. '

This united position bore fruit. On Sunday, Israeli authorities breathed a sigh of relief as activists were rounded up by Greek coastguards. They also released details of just how close Israeli-Greek ties had recently become – the result of diplomatic overtures made by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to Greece's Papandreou over the past year and a half. On Monday, Israeli media revealed for the first time that a two-week joint Israeli-Greek air-force drill had been completed that day, and reported details of an urgent dispatch of teargas grenades sent from Israel to help quell Greece's restive streets.

It is not only Israel, the EU and the US that have invested so much time and effort in preventing this non-violent citizens' protest. Turkey, whose relations with Israel reached an all-time low after the killing of nine of its citizens last year, has recently adopted a more placatory tone. It seems Turkey is not yet ready to forego its strategic military alliance with Israel.

Last September, when the Jewish Boat to Gaza sought a friendly port to set sail from, the only solution it found was a clandestine voyage from Turkish-occupied north Cyprus. The passengers told the coastguards that they were tourists on a cruise; and the bemused Turkish officials at Famagusta looked the other way as Reuters, AP and AFP congregated around the tiny boat, and let it go. Evidently, the deaths of Turkish citizens just four months before still rankled.

In January this year Turkish-Israeli relations still seemed very tense as the Turkish government released a scathing report on the flotilla raid, and was set to press the UN to condemn Israel roundly in its report.

Since then, however, these demands have seemingly dwindled as Israel has signalled a wish to repair relations by agreeing with Turkey on a joint statement that would replace the UN report. Negotiations now revolve around a minimal request for a symbolic public apology from Binyamin Netanyahu in return for the rehabilitation of the alliance. Even this request is not expected to be met, however.

In the run up to the current flotilla, Turkish government interests ultimately led to the withdrawal of IHH, the organisation that had organised a large part of the previous flotilla, and whose volunteers had been killed. When asked for the reason, a Turkish diplomatic source indicated the Turkish flotilla element was blocked for the sake of bilateral relations. "We do not want another crisis with the Israelis at this point," the contact said.

Lebanon, susceptible to pressure from many quarters, banned all voyages to Gaza as early as June 2010. Israeli outlet Haaretz reported that the Israeli government had used diplomatic pressure to prevent the departure of at least one vessel, carrying 50 to 70 Lebanese women and food aid, by exerting indirect pressure via the UN, United States, France, Spain, Germany - and even the Vatican (the ship was expected to include some Catholic nuns).

As for Egypt - the Arab Spring had led some to believe that policy change was in the air. Egypt's interim Foreign Minister Nabil El Araby (elected this week to chair the Arab League) spoke brave words regarding a re-examination of the Israeli-Egyptian relationship and vowed not to participate in the oppression of Palestinians for the sake of relations with Israel.

But a promise made by Egypt's transitional authorities in late May to open the Rafah Crossing into Gaza 'permanently' is yet to be fulfilled, and in the same month, a Malaysian ship bearing pipes for Gaza's sewage infrastructure was barred from reaching Egyptian ports. After encountering warning shots from Israeli coastguards, the Malaysian ship was kept waiting off the Egyptian coast while Egyptian authorities refused to allow it to transport its goods to Gaza via Rafah crossing and insisted that it run the gauntlet of seeking permission to pass them through Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom crossing instead. The ship was obliged to abort its mission.

From the humanitarian to the political

While Israel's PR bodies spread propaganda regarding improved conditions in Gaza, Israeli watchdog Gisha has other information. The prohibition on commercial imports and exports and the denial of free movement of people are still in place. At least 83% of Gaza's factories are either closed or working at a capacity of 50% or less. No export has been allowed out of Gaza via its crossings into Israel since May this year.

Since Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in August 2005, goods and construction materials have not been permitted to pass via Rafah Crossing, either, except for occasional sporadic humanitarian assistance. Rafah remained mostly closed to people from June 2007 to June 2010. Even after the recent partial easing of procedures only two-thirds of the number of people who used to pass monthly are now allowed passage. There is a waiting list of over 10,000 people.

International media outlets have largely adopted the Israeli argument according to which the 'humanitarian' and the 'political' aspects of the flotilla are pitted against each other in a stark dichotomy. The two concepts are hard to separate, however, and there is an ongoing dialectic between the two.

Security claims notwithstanding, Israeli officials have admitted that the closure imposed on the Gaza Strip is in essence a punitive political measure. Therefore the response cannot be anything but deeply political.

A ‘humanitarian’ flotilla bringing ‘aid’ to Gaza can appeal to many more than just those who recognize the imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians. It speaks to basic perceptions of human value and dignity, and answers a simple wish to help when faced with human distress. It is this potentially universal appeal to the public that the Israeli government has sought to undermine by deploying all its resources to counter the 'myth' of a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip and asking its allies to stop the flotilla from setting sail, at any cost.

On the surface, it would seem that these immense efforts have paid off. All the world's governments were convinced , apparently, that the flotilla was a bad idea. Each did its bit in trying to prevent another widely-reported incident on the high seas. Perhaps they feared that such an event might anger an already restive public in certain parts of the EU and the Middle East.

But such a massive mobilisation against an obviously peaceful flotilla can also be self-defeating. The juxtaposition of armed soldiers and unarmed civilians will always raise questions. Israel and its allies may have stopped the flotilla and the aid it was carrying – but did they foil its message?

The flotilla offers not only concrete aid but also a clear message of protest against the political aspects of the siege. According to this message, it is not only commerce and sustenance that are blocked by the Israeli closure. It is also the voice of the people of Gaza. The flotilla sought to amplify that silenced voice, and to uphold the equal human value of Palestinians.

By pitting itself against the conceptual and physical barriers that enclose the Palestinians and exclude the outside world the flotilla exposed itself to attack; but it also exposed the barrier for the arbitrary and violent thing that it is.

The flotilla's motto, 'Stay Human' - the simplest of messages - was a quote from Italian journalist and activist Vittorio Arrigoni, who was murdered last April by Palestinians in Gaza. One of its boats was named 'Juliano' after Jewish-Palestinian activist Juliano Mer-Khamis, also murdered by a Palestinian in Jenin refugee camp the same month.

This choice of names is no coincidence. The flotilla reminds the world of the humanity of Palestinians and at the same time exhorts the international public, the people of the Arab countries, Israelis and Palestinians to guard their own humanity - to stay human and to stay citizens of the world, despite the interests and manipulations of the governments that abuse them.

Miri Weingarten is an Israeli human rights activist and Director of JNews – Alternative Jewish Perspectives on Israel-Palestine.This piece is cross-posted on openDemocracy.

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