Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
The Freedom Flotilla was a six-boat, six-organisation, multi-million dollar effort catalysed by the Free Gaza Movement and beefed up by key coalition partner the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH). Seven hundred passengers, including 30 parliamentarians and 100 journalists, carried 10,000 tons of forbidden humanitarian relief to the besieged Gaza strip. Their goal was to break the blockade from the bottom up. Now that the dust has settled, what has been the political impact of this unprecedented direct action? With nine men dead, dozens hospitalised and everyone jailed and deported, was the flotilla worth it?
When firebrand Israeli advocate Lea Tsemel was allowed 20 minutes to interview more than 100 flotilla activists being held in Ela Women’s Prison in Be’er Sheva, she entered and declared: ‘You have no idea what is going on out there. You have changed the world. Israel is finished.’
Nato member Turkey demanded an emergency session of the UN security council and got it. Ecuador, South Africa and Nicaragua joined Turkey in recalling their ambassadors from Israel. World leaders, including foreign secretaries Hilary Clinton, Bernard Kouchner and William Hague, called Israel’s blockade ‘unsustainable’. Protests erupted from Jakarta to Johannesburg. The Swedish dockers’ union launched a blockade of Israeli goods.
At the same time, a coalition of 60 international lawyers launched lawsuits against Israel for breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention, including wilful killing, inhuman treatment, wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, unlawful deportation or transfer, unlawful confinement, taking of hostages and extensive appropriation of property. Further boat efforts were launched in Canada, India, Belgium, South Africa and Australia, including a German-British organised Jewish boat. The global media buzzed with soundbites from across the political spectrum. Gaza and Palestine were back in people’s living rooms.
New space in the US
According to the International Solidarity Movement co-founder and Free Gaza board member Adam Shapiro, the flotilla has created new political space in the US: ‘The public did start questioning why Gaza is under such restrictions and overall there is more support for Gaza and changing the situation there. More and more folks are coming into the movement, including more Turkish-Americans. Additionally, there is now a campaign in the US to get a boat to join the next flotilla, which was really not viable before.’
At least a dozen Americans, including former US army colonel Ann Wright, were aboard the flotilla; and Free Gaza’s Challenger 1 and 2 boats were both legally American territory, flying the US flag. Since the attack, US activists from the flotilla, including Wright and lawyer Fatima Mohammadi, have been touring the US as part of the US Ship to Gaza effort. This is raising money and awareness in a campaign comprising more than 70 US peace and justice organisations to get The Audacity of Hope, as yet un-purchased, to Gaza.
Ramzi Kysia, a Lebanese-American writer and Free Gaza board member based in Washington, is organising for the US boat effort: ‘Prior to the attack, the flotilla received very little press coverage in the US. After the attack, we received more coverage than I’ve ever seen before for any single “activist” action. But we weren’t prepared or logistically able to work the media to our advantage.’
Neither Kysia nor Shapiro think the flotilla attack was an immediate game-changer. Kysia says: ‘I’m not sure the event by itself resulted in any more support within the general public for Palestine, but it certainly helped in planting seeds and adding to the general unease that many folks already felt. Long term, the most positive result may be in invigorating and motivating existing activists and organisations on the pro-justice side.’
The Jewish Boat to Gaza project, however, certainly has attracted more funding and support since the flotilla, according to Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JfJfP). ‘We have reinforced our coalitions with Jewish peace and justice groups in Europe and America who are supporting us financially and we are also working far more closely with many solidarity movements,’ says Diana Neslen of JfJfP.
The Jewish Boat to Gaza project was originally a Judische Stimmer (the Germany-based Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East) initiative inspired by the first Free Gaza missions but has now broadened into a coalition sponsored by a federation of European and American Jewish peace groups.
One of the most concrete examples of success, aside from media agenda-setting and coalition-building, was an actual concession from Israel in easing the blockade. Although the move was criticised by the Freedom Flotilla coalition as ‘cosmetic’, Israel was forced to admit that elements of the blockade were unjustified.
Egypt also opened the Rafah border with Gaza, reporting that it had allowed as many as 65,253 Palestinians to cross in a period of 83 days. All aid was given to the UN to distribute inside Gaza. According to Akram al Sattari, project manager at Wafa Rehabilitation Hospital in Gaza, ‘Many essential electronic apparatuses we lacked before have now been delivered, and if you look at everyday commodities on the markets, you can now pretty much buy anything – if you have the money. But, the most important things we still lack are building materials. We still cannot reconstruct.’
Wafa Hospital itself was bombed with white phosphorous and eight tank shells during Operation Cast Lead in January 2009. The UN estimates some 20,000 people still remain homeless and most of the 4,000 levelled homes, 18 destroyed schools and thousands more public buildings, including factories and ministries, have yet to be rebuilt.
Impact in Palestine
What impact did the flotilla make at the grassroots in Gaza? Mahmoud Abu Rahma of the Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights sees it as having had a unifying effect on Palestinian factions: ‘What was unique with this flotilla was that it unified Palestinians around a cause, something we have not seen much of in the past few years. I was surprised that civil society, ordinary people, but also all the factions and the two governments, made strong statements supporting the flotilla. It was significant that these statements were made before the attack, so they were not out of investing the tragedy for narrow political reasons.’
In the West Bank, Dr Husam Zumlot, of Fatah’s Commission on International Relations, sees the flotilla tactic as a historic success for the Palestinian people as a whole: ‘In the West Bank people responded to the flotilla with excitement and inspiration. The action has brought about some of the most fruitful results in the history of the conflict. The target of the flotilla was not seen as support for Hamas, but solidarity with the people of Gaza and ending the injustice there, and the people of the West Bank were as totally and utterly behind it as the people of Gaza. Even if it does benefit Hamas, so what? It means nothing. If it benefits the people, that is the most important thing.’
The response from the Hamas leadership in Gaza is similar to that of Fatah in the West Bank. Spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told Red Pepper: ‘All Palestinian parties were united in condemning the vicious act against the flotilla, demanding a swift lifting of the unjust blockade, and calling for an international tribunal to look into the matter in support of the flotilla organisers. This means in a way that the flotilla united all Palestinians for a while.’
‘The flotilla succeeded in inciting global resentment against Israel’s occupation,’ Barhoum continues. ‘It further isolated Israel, and played a critical role forcing Israel to ease the siege. The negatives were the human price paid – the fatalities.’
Was Hamas strengthened by the flotilla? ‘Israel, the US, and their allies in the region and outside of it have been accusing whoever calls for a dignified life for the people of Gaza as someone who is going to reinforce Hamas governance in Gaza. The flotilla and all the past attempts to help the people of Gaza were of humanitarian nature. However, at the political level, the flotilla, the Lifeline convoy, and the Miles of Smiles convoy brought some positive change to the community and Hamas government there.’
What about Israel?
The Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev tries to focus on delegitimising the flotilla by association with Islamism: ‘The flotilla was jointly sponsored by the Turkish Islamist organisation IHH and by the Free Gaza Movement. The former is an extremist Islamist group which openly supports Hamas. The Free Gaza Movement claims to be a human rights group, a pro-peace group and a progressive group but nothing could be further from the truth. They have never condemned Hamas’s ongoing and deliberate targeting of innocent Israeli civilians. I think that many in Israel genuinely fail to understand how people who claim to have progressive politics can be apologists for violent reactionary Islamists.’
However, British journalist Rachel Shabi, who is based in the region, says the attack created new space for debate in the Israeli left about boycott, divestment and sanctions, and raised questions for ordinary Israelis about why the international community views their government so differently from the way they do.
‘Within Israel, the incident seemed to widen the growing chasm between the country’s self-image and the way it is perceived overseas,’ says Shabi. ‘Israelis couldn’t really comprehend the force of foreign criticism, or why Israel’s claim that it was acting in self-defence against hostile, weapon-bearing activists was so summarily dismissed overseas. The incident, and international reaction to it, has compounded Israel’s “besieged” narrative – one of being constantly condemned by an international community that doesn’t understand Israel’s predicament and is motivated by undertones of anti-semitism.’
On the other hand, according to Shabi, ‘It has galvanised and empowered Israel’s small, beleaguered activist community – for whom the feeling that their country is rapidly losing the plot was loudly amplified by the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2008-9 and then reinforced by the flotilla raid. Some say they have become more acutely aware that their position as “progressive” is increasingly received as “extremist” and “treacherous” in Israel.’
Internationally, the flotilla attack has strengthened the cultural boycott of Israel. The Pixies, Gorillaz, Faithless, Leftfield and the Klaxons have all since cancelled shows in Israel. According to Yonatan Shapira, an Israeli boycott activist and former air force captain in the unit that dropped the commandos that killed activists on the biggest ship of the flotilla, the Mavi Marmara, ‘Most Israelis are desensitised to images of dead Palestinian children and burnt homes, but the refusal of the Pixies to play Tel Aviv has an impact, this gets them asking questions.’
Overall, the freedom flotilla illuminated the possibility that non-state actors can directly intervene in global issues, becoming players in a game seen as one for state and armed actors only, and change it. It showed grass-roots organisations and radical NGOs asserting and claiming the right to be political in directly challenging Israel and international collusion in the illegal siege and occupation of Palestine, in the process opening up new political space and new alliances that will have a cumulative effect on broadening and emboldening the solidarity movement.
A second international flotilla of up to 12 boats is scheduled to depart in the next six months. See www.freegaza.org for more details. Also see www.jfjfp.com for updates on the Jewish boat to Gaza and www.boycottisrael.info, the Israeli Boycott from Within. Ewa Jasiewicz is a freelance journalist and a co-ordinator of the Free Gaza Movement
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook
‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali
Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.
Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced