Michael Jansen
The Jordan Times (Opinion)
June 23, 2011 - 12:00am

Boats participating in the latest international flotilla to challenge Israel’s siege and blockade of Gaza are set to gather in the eastern Mediterranean next week and attempt to make the passage to the strip in spite of threats from the Israeli navy to block the way.

A second “Freedom Flotilla” was inevitable after the May 2010 attack by Israeli commandos that slew nine Turkish activists on the Mavi Marmara, an Istanbul ferry taking part in the first flotilla. The ferry will, however, not be involved in the latest effort. Its owner, a Turkish charitable organisation, the IHH, claims that it has mechanical problems and cannot sail, but has let it be known that under extreme pressure, the Turkish government refused granting the necessary permit to embark on the journey.

The absence of the Mavi Marmara could, however, be a blessing, as those who oppose the effort cannot continue to argue that the flotilla has been organised by IHH, which has wrongly been accused of being a fundamentalist movement involved with “terrorists”.

The worst that can honestly be said about passengers and crew from the other 20-odd nations participating in the voyage is that they are “pro-Palestinian activists” pursuing a course of action that Israel and its allies want to halt.

Nevertheless, in April, Israel accused flotilla organisers of being involved with Hamas, dubbed a “terrorist organisation” by Israel and the US.

In addition to putting pressure on countries where ships taking part in the flotilla are registered or based and on insurance companies covering the boats, novel means have been used to prevent the voyage. Activists, particularly those on the US vessel, the Audacity of Hope, have even been threatened with legal action by Dr Alan Bauer, a Harvard-graduated biologist who was injured in a 2002 bombing in Jerusalem has filed a civil suit in New York under a US law that provides for criminal and civil penalties for anyone preparing a vessel intending hostilities against a foreign state with which the US has peaceful relations.

Bauer has also sent a letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder, asking that the Justice Department investigate and prosecute those involved, particularly the 36 US citizens set to sail on board the Audacity of Hope, named for one of President Barack Obama’s biographical books.

More than a quarter of the US citizens on this boat are Jewish. One of the organisers, Ann Wright, a retired colonel from the US army reserves, told the Israeli liberal daily Haaretz: “I believe that it is the responsibility of citizens to act when our governments fail to protect human rights - in this case, the Palestinians’ [human rights].”

Most other participants share her view.

Why does the flotilla upset Israel so greatly?

Israel’s naval chief and a variety of politicians argue that the flotilla “delegitimises” Israel. But it is very difficult to see how. Israel is a sovereign state, established in 1948-49 and admitted to the UN in 1949. Israel is recognised by a majority of the world’s governments and has the firm backing of the Western powers, particularly the US.

Furthermore, the Free Gaza movement made several successful voyages to Gaza during the second half of 2008. The arrival of the first mission, involving the Free Gaza and the Liberty, two small Greek boats, was a spectacular success. Thousands of cheering, flag-waving Gazans were in the strip’s fishing port to meet the boats and scores of television teams recorded their arrival which was broadcast live round the world.

Gazans thought this blockade-busting effort would bring an end to their isolation. However, the blockade remains in place and Gaza is still isolated.

The second voyage was low profile and the movement might have ended its campaign but for the fact that Israeli naval vessels rammed the yacht making a subsequent passage and halted all others. The Israeli attack on the Turkish boat in the first flotilla was a spectacular public relations disaster for the Netanyahu government. Therefore, flotillas, as such, do not “delegitimise Israel”. This is an exaggeration. Instead, boats-for-Gaza make a statement about the lack of legitimacy of Israel’s five-year-old siege and blockade of Gaza, which can be considered “collective punishment” of the strip’s entire population of 1.5 million because Gaza is ruled by Hamas, a movement Israel and its supporters consider an enemy.

Gazans themselves have no choice of ruler. Although Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature in the January 2006 election, the movement never took power at national level. Its chief rival, Fateh, refused to accept the result of the election and boycotted Hamas. Although a national unity government was formed under Saudi auspices in 2007, it was short-lived because of Israeli and US opposition. Fateh then tried and failed to stage a coup against Hamas in Gaza, but Fateh’s fighters were defeated in six days of street fighting, its forces were routed, and left Gaza in charge of Hamas. This is hardly a reason to punish all Gazans.

Why, then, does the flotilla incense Israel? Simply, Israel - which is used to getting its way - does not like to be challenged or confronted on any issue. This is especially true of Israel under the rightwing government formed by Benjamin Netanyahu who twice risked alienating Obama by refusing to freeze or curb Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This would have persuaded Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that Israel was serious about negotiating the emergence of a viable Palestinian state. Netanyahu, however, opted for settlements rather than negotiations, and scuppered Obama’s attempt to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

This humiliated Obama and exposed him as weak, upsetting Arabs and Muslims who believed he might make a serious attempt to adopt an even-handed policy on the Palestinian/Arab-Israeli conflict.

Israel also believes there could be wider implications if it does not halt the flotilla and fears the domino effect if it fails to get its way on this one issue. Although Israel commands total loyalty from the US Congress - as Netanyahu’s triumphant address to a recent joint session demonstrated - Israel still feels it could lose its purchase on the US, its sole friend. Israel is also nervous about Obama who, it believes, might retaliate - somehow - against it for humiliating him on the settlement freeze issue.


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