x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

A legitimate risk to challenge blockade

As "Freedom Flotilla II" sets sail for Gaza in the coming days, it is clear that Israel fears peaceful confrontation far more than armed conflict.

Neither side seems willing to step away from a confrontation. Activists plan to sail to the Gaza Strip in the coming days in a bid to break the four-year-old naval blockade. On the other hand, Israel's government has ordered its security forces to stop the ships - with "minimal friction" according to a statement released yesterday.

We have seen examples of the IDF's idea of restraint before. The stakes are high for this "Freedom Flotilla II" after last year's bloodshed on the MV Mavi Marmara, when Israeli forces killed nine pro-Gaza activists.

That led to a foreign relations nightmare for Israel and its most serious rupture in diplomatic relations with Turkey. But the point of another flotilla cannot be to provoke a lethal reaction. In part, the goal is to deliver provisions to Gazans who are being deprived of basic necessities; as important, it is a symbolic rejection of Israel's unjust, inhumane blockade.

Although we have seen what Israel may do in response, this is a risk worth taking. It has become clear that international opinion is a far more effective lever on Israel's behaviour than lobbying in the halls of the US Congress or failed violent resistance strategies.

Both the United States and the United Nations have opposed this new flotilla - while both have signally failed to offer an alternative plan to relieve Gaza. Israel and its allies have tried to depict challenges to the blockade as attacks on Israel itself. They are not. The blockade of the Gaza Strip, as long as it is maintained, also disgraces Israel with every injustice perpetrated against the Palestinians.

In any fair evaluation - almost anywhere outside of Israel or the United States - those basic truths are clear. And the international activist effort is a welcome affirmation. "We are going to sail," said the Swedish author Henning Mankell yesterday. "If they will try to physically stop us we will come again and again and again."

What is imperative is that this challenge of the blockade be a peaceful one. In recent months we have seen governments in the Middle East meet peaceful protest with violence - to their own detriment. The Israeli government is not an exception.

The strength of its opposition shows that Israel feels threatened, not by force of arms, but by shipments of food and peaceful protest.