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