If you haven’t yet noticed, Israel is seriously concerned about the group of international peace activists aiming to break the military blockade of the Gaza Strip. The Israeli government has leveled a wide range of unsubstantiated charges against the activists with the second annual Freedom Flotilla, accusing them of vague ties to Hamas, latent anti-Semitism and warning that sulfuric acid was being stored for malicious use against Israeli soldiers (the latter claim has since been retracted). A Youtube video was also released late last month featuring a gay rights activist named “Marc” who’s newfound interest in pro-Palestinian politics—“I was picturing a cross between Ché Guevara and Mother Teresa with a kufiyeh”—was purportedly rebuffed by groups affiliated with the Flotilla (the video was quickly exposed as a hoax). The general thrust of these messages goes something like this: the Flotilla activists are nothing but a bunch of anti-Semitic Hamas supporters intent on provoking Israel into a violent confrontation—and they’re homophobic to boot! Not since the vilification of Judge Richard Goldstone has so much misinformation and good old-fashioned propaganda been promulgated by official Israeli channels. So why is Israel so concerned? Quite simply, the Freedom Flotilla movement is the best kind of non-violent political activism: it can’t lose.Since the emergence of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Israel has fretted over the looming possibility of a Palestinian version of these events. The IDF recently expressed concerns that “if we are to face protests similar to those in Egypt or Tunisia, we will not be able to do a thing.” It would be “unstoppable”. Neither does the wider context bode well for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Egypt’s supporting role in the blockade of Gaza has effectively ended under the interim military regime and the Rafah crossing has been open for limited travel; the killing of unarmed protestors by Israeli forces during the recent Nakba and Naksa Day demonstrations resulted in overwhelming international condemnation; the Palestinian Authority is planning to unilaterally appeal for the recognition of statehood at the United Nations General Assembly this September (a potential “diplomatic-political tsunami” according to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak); and to top it all off, the Freedom Flotilla has the audacity to openly challenge Israeli supremacy in Palestinian coastal waters.
Like the American Freedom Riders of 1960s, the genius of the Freedom Flotilla as a form of political activism lies in its ability to undermine an institutionalized structure of violence regardless of the outcome. Essentially, it can’t lose. That’s not to deny that the risks can be harrowing for those involved. Israel rammed an earlier activist boat in 2008, nearly causing it to sink, and its violent reaction to last summer’s Flotilla resulted in the deaths of nine activists at the hands of Israeli commandos. Both incidents occurred in international water. So it’s very unlikely that Israel will allow the ships participating in this year’s Flotilla to enter Palestinian waters. Responding in this way, with or without violence, simply exposes the hollowness of Israel’s claim to no longer occupy the Gaza Strip, as it has insisted since 2005, and the Flotilla comes away with a minor victory.
Of course, this year’s Freedom Flotilla may not even get that far. Two ships have already been mysteriously sabotaged by unknown persons. On Friday, after the Greek government issued a ban on sea travel to Gaza, Greek commandos forcibly prevented the American ship from leaving port (they managed to do it without killing anyone). The ship’s captain is apparently been held in detention. It now appears likely that the Greek government will bury the effort in bureaucratic red tape over the coming weeks, either blocking them altogether or forestalling the mission indefinitely as they’re forced to undergo inspection after pointless inspection. But even if Greece is willing to temporarily distract some of the attention from Israel in this way, it still directs the world’s attention to what Amnesty International and OXFAM call the “humanitarian implosion” Israel has caused in Gaza.
We should not forget that Israel eased the blockade ever so slightly following the tragic events last summer. However minimal, that was a direct result of the Freedom Flotilla’s engagement. Today, the concatenation of events conspiring against Israel’s occupation may be reaching a crucial moment. The international community (with the notable exception of the United States) is finally showing signs of impatience with the world’s longest ongoing military occupation and the regions popular, democratic uprisings are likely to have repercussion for years to come. It’s at times like this when organized non-violent resistance, conducted both by Palestinians in the occupied territories and by international activists, becomes a powerful tool with which to challenge Israeli state violence.
Should the Flotilla ever succeed in leaving Greece, the Israeli government will be faced with a narrow range of choices: it can opt to repeat last year’s events and shoot the activists; it can covertly sabotage their ships, preventing them from leaving port to begin with (which may already have happened); it can vilify the activists and portray them as evil or somehow implicated in terrorism; or it can simply allow them to reach their destination in victory. In short, Israel can’t really win whatever it does.
Israeli spokespersons have consistently argued that the Freedom Flotilla is less about delivering humanitarian goods than it is about confronting and challenging the 44 year old occupation. Uh, yeah… and that’s exactly why the Flotilla is such an effective form of political activism.