When Israel declared that it had left Gaza in 2005, the official line was that a piece of Palestine was evacuated by the Israelis and left to create their own future. When Gaza’s residents chose Hamas to lead (though more for practical reasons that ideological ones), that was simply too much independence to bear. A crippling blockade of Gaza began that sought to limit the flow of arms and assistance to Hamas, but in reality – and with intermittent help from Egypt – created the world’s largest open air prison.
Unfortunately, the media quickly forgot about the plight of Gaza, even though human rights observers noted the deteriorating condition of its people under strict external controls by Israel. Aid agencies have long argued that poverty was worsening and the health of its 1.4 million residents was at risk (29 died last year waiting for treatment in Israel or elsewhere).
The Gaza war of 2008 – which cost 13 Israeli lives and well over 1,500 Gazan ones – did not change this perception in the media. Because the overwhelming perception was that of Israel facing an existential threat from crude missiles being lobbed over the border, Israel was able to get away with a “self-defense” media strategy. If only, the logic goes, the Palestinians would resort to non-violent means to get their message across.
Shortly after that war, Palestinian supporters did just that. By sending unarmed ships with supplies towards Gaza, often with high profile personalities (Cherie Blair’s sister Lauren was an early participant) and wide publicity forced Israeli authorities to blink. As many as five convoys of aid were allowed to dock in Gaza as the prospect of subduing them by force was seen by many in Israel as a PR disaster waiting to happen.
Arguments by Israel on maintaining the blockade border on the absurd, claiming that goods are not in short supply but also highlighting resurgent smuggling operations across Gaza’s border with Egypt. One of these scenarios certainly would not dictate the other. “The Gaza blockade… did not weaken Hamas,” said one Israel commentator recently. “Yet it did present Israel’s security establishment in a ridiculous light. Nobody was able to explain why cilantro, or up until recently clothes, were considered a security threat banned from the Strip.”
Emboldened by such successes, anti-blockade activists continued to press harder. As the largest flotilla found its way to Gaza last week – the cargo ships loaded with 10,000 tons of much-needed supplies and staffed with 800 determined (and non-violent) crew of activists, politicians, and media – there was increasing anxiety in Israel’s diplomatic and military circles. Israel had offered to transport some of the goods into Gaza if the flotilla was directed to Israel where the good would be unloaded and inspected. Distrusting Israel’s intentions, the flotilla carried on and early reports suggest that Israeli commandos boarded a number of ships, killing as many as 16.
Israel’s miltary claims it was met with “live fire and light weaponry including knives and clubs,” responding with “riot dispersal means, including live fire.” The activists claim otherwise, that they “never thought there would be any violence” and had repeatedly stated its non-violent intentions. But despite a tendency to claim self defense in its military actions, Israel will have a hard time convincing other governments that sending armed commandos onto ships – surprising the crews by doing so in international waters – would not have triggered a justified self defense (if Israel’s reports are true) by those onboard, however futile that may be. The disproportionate use of guns to knives will surely trigger memories of the rocks-to-tanks imagery of the first Intifada that won the Palestinians greatest PR victories on the world stage to date.
Also complicating matters is the large presence by Turkish citizens (and de facto sponsorship by their government). As a Muslim nation with military ties to the Jewish state, Turkey has long been a strategic asset for Israel. With Turkey’s patience running out in diplomatic circles (or in response to their own population), Israel will find itself with fewer friends in its corner and a burgeoning Boycott-Divest-Sanction movement. Coupled with recent controversies dealing with nuclear weapons cooperation with apartheid-era South Africa and Israel’s increasing political radicalization, it is unlikely that the tide will turn back soon.
With this action, Israel has succumbed to its instinct to collectively punish. In the process, it has punished itself. Likewise, after years of stumbling on strategies to counter the Israeli blockade, Palestine’s non-violent activists have created a strategy that confounds Israel’s conventional wisdom of playing for time and pursuing a war of attrition. Despite the outcome of the current flotilla, it appears certain that this tactic will be repeated again and again, in larger numbers and covered by even more sophisticated media.
Palestine’s first intifada has found its first true successor. With it comes the possibility of real change, fairness, and justice for Palestinians – as long as the strategy can be maintained and amplified.
Zahed Amanullah is Executive Editor of altmuslim.com