Flotillas won’t stop Israel, but they do prove a point
A flotilla of ships carrying international activists and dignitaries attempting to break the Israeli maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip is somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean.
Within the next 48 hours, one boat – a Swedish fishing vessel called the Marianne of Gothenburg – is expected to reach the Gaza coastline or be intercepted by the Israeli navy.
Since the 2010 flotilla, when Israeli commandos attacked the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, killing nine Turkish civilians and one Turkish-American, Palestine activists have sent boats full of civilians to Gaza for the dual purpose of physically breaking Israel’s siege and drawing attention to the continued sea blockade imposed by the Israeli army.
In 2011, I was sent to Greece by an American magazine to cover one of the flotilla boats to Gaza.
One year after the Mavi Marmara incident, which remains a defining point of contention between Turkey and Israel, the 2011 flotilla commanded international media attention. The world wanted to see the lengths Israel would go to defend its blockade.
For its part, the Israeli media relentlessly attacked flotilla participants in the days leading up to its departure, at one point claiming the boats carried chemical weapons.
To add insult to injury, a slew of poorly disguised Israelis regularly visited the boat while in dock, presumably to gather intelligence. In one absurd episode, an Israeli woman in a noticeably uncomfortable wig descended on the boat and informed everyone on board that the dock would be closing for a photography shoot. We were told to leave the boat empty for the afternoon.
What is remarkable about the flotilla is that it elicits such a verbose response from Israel. The stronger Israel becomes on the battlefield, the more panicked it becomes towards flotillas of activists.
Centrist Israeli MP Yair Lapid echoed widely held sentiments on Saturday when he said the flotilla was “a form of provocation against the State of Israel by people who are anything but defenders of human rights”. He went on to label the flotilla participants “terror supporters”.
These sentiments appear outlandish given the near total domination Israel has over the Gaza Strip.
The 2005 withdrawal of Israeli settlers from the Strip allowed the Israeli military to create and implement one of the most sophisticated blockades in history. Using a panopticon-style system, Israel has total control over Gaza’s borders by air, land and sea.
Because there are no more Israeli settlers in the area, the military freely uses heavy artillery, drones and other types of weapons without fear of destroying any Israeli infrastructure.
When it comes to the sea in particular, the Israeli navy allows Gazan fishermen to use only three nautical miles of sea instead of the 20 nautical miles they should have according to the 1993 Oslo Accord.
In the same way that regular non-violent protests in the West Bank against Israel’s separation barrier and the confiscation of Palestinian land to build it has focused attention on the brutality of Israel’s occupation, the flotilla has proven to be one of the most efficient methods of conveying the reality of life in Gaza in a climate that is still largely skewed towards the Israeli perspective on the conflict.
This is why Israel reacts hysterically to boats full of activists. When the flotilla departed from Athens in 2011, Greece was rocked by street protests due to its economic situation. While the Greek protesters were largely supportive of the flotilla’s mission, the Greek government was not.
After a week of departure delays, one senior Greek official told me that the Israeli government was applying economic pressure on Greece to block the flotilla.
The official said Israel was threatening to pull out of a series of critical economic partnerships as well as joint military exercises if Greece allowed the boats to depart for Gaza.
As we set sail from Athens a couple of days later, three boats full of Greek commandos intercepted our vessel and detained the captain. The Israelis had succeeded in pressuring the Greeks to do their dirty work for them, and now the same situation is unfolding again. According to reports, two boats in this year’s flotilla have already been barred by Greek authorities from leaving port.
Aid flotillas are not going to end the blockade of the Gaza Strip but they do remind the people of Gaza that their plight hasn’t gone unnoticed. The flotilla is part of an increasingly clear strategy to highlight Israel’s belligerent behaviour and isolate the country within the international community. The rise in boycotts of Israel demonstrates the fruits of this long-term strategy.
The pressing question is not necessarily the fate of the boats destined for Gaza, but rather how will life on the ground change for Gaza’s 1.8 million inhabitants before the next war?
On Twitter: @ibnezra
Updated: June 28, 2015 04:00 AM