July 2, 2011
Freedom Flotilla II: New Beginning, Same End
After a series of military blunders isolated Israel to its weakest point in decades, its second attempt to stop a Gaza-bound flotilla appears to be proceeding better than the last. Wielding a fortified combination of political, legal and unconventional warfare, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indefinitely stalled the 10-ship armada in Athens and reduced its vessels by two without firing a shot. Israeli policymakers must be cautiously pleased with their results, an improvement upon the bloody Freedom Flotilla raid that left nine activists dead and dozens injured.
"I wish to thank the many world leaders who expressed themselves and acted against this provocation flotilla, including the US, Europe, the UN secretary general and the prime minister of Greece,” Netanyahu said at a graduating ceremony for Israel Air Force pilots. “Hamas is a cruel enemy who maliciously harms our people and children and holds Gilad Shalit captive against all humane standards.”
Privately embarrassed by a disastrous boarding of the Turkish MV Mavi Marmara, IDF officials wasted no time drawing up plans for the next flotilla. Initial measures have succeeded in pushing the battle away from Israel's coast while still keeping out of international waters. Yet the apparent success of political pressure, commandos and the straw man of Hamas’s arms smuggling is headed towards a familiar outcome. While Israel is clearly trying to rip the pariah label off of its back, crippling the second Freedom Flotilla will amount to another Pyrrhic victory. Coupled with a lack of effort during negotiations with the Palestinians, tyrannizing international activists has merely reaffirmed Israel’s obstruction on the world stage.
Israeli officials have generally avoided responsibility through non-denial denial. Netanyahu himself, when he isn’t busy praising Western governments for their cooperation, vowed to stop the flotilla at all costs. However his spokesman, Mark Regev, argued, “There are those who routinely blame Israel for every calamity, and of course they’re not always right.” Because so many other governments have the agenda and politico-military capabilities to maintain Gaza’s blockade. Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor chose a similar but unique response to belittle Israel’s foes.
“They think they live in a James Bond movie,” he told reporters. “They should come out of the film world and start getting real... This is not Hollywood, and Israel is not the bad guy. We are not surprised that the rule they live by is that if anything goes wrong, accuse Israel. This was an Israeli-bash fest since day one, and that it continues that way does not surprise anyone.”
No, Israeli agents have never killed a Hamas leader by helicopter, poisoned another in the ear or stolen foreign identities to raid a Dubai hotel. Palmor is right - movies were modeled after real clandestine operations, not the other way around.
Israel’s systematic hounding of the international flotilla has demilitarized a page out of Operation Wrath of God. To international activists the episode must be feeling like a miniature Odyssey, an obstacle course of political, legal, naval and information hazards. After a “seaworthy” complaint was lodged by an Israeli front group against the U.S.-organized Audacity of Hope, the Swedish-Greek-Norwegian Giuliano discovered that its propeller and engine had been sabotaged from underwater. The Irish MV Saoirse was sabotaged in identical fashion in Göcek, Turkey, forcing activists to drop all pretense of Israel’s innocence. Suspicious fisherman have shown up in the wrong places and some activists were reportedly robbed.
In the meantime Israel’s government has launched a blistering (but largely unsuccessful) propaganda campaign to degrade the flotilla’s credibility: trained by Hamas fundraiser Amin Abu Rashid, its ships are carrying arms for Hamas and chemical weapons for IDF soldiers - and won’t let homosexuals on board. At the highest level, Israel and its Western arms have squeezed a cash-strapped Greek government to keep the flotilla in port.
Israel’s infiltration of Piraeus led many activists to believe that, until the flotilla can be formed and launched immediately, a safer position lies at sea. The Audacity of Hope tested this logic on Friday and was met with the full extension of Israel’s reach. Jane Hirschmann, one of the American group's organizers, told of how a Greek vessel first appeared and ordered them to return to Athens. Their reason: “it would be safer there.” When the captain refused on the grounds that the port was more dangerous, “a second coast guard ship came by with six armed commandos who wore masks and pointed guns at our passengers and said they had to turn around so the captain thought for the safety of the passengers they must return."
Some Israeli and U.S. commentators have already declared this feat a victory.
While their tactics will win admiration inside their camp, supporters have dwindled over the last five years to 2011’s low-point. To those on the right side of the Arab Spring, Israel and America’s thuggish tactics and political coercion represent the state oppression under revolt in the Middle East and Africa. Rigging boats to destroy themselves and the evidence along with it, mysterious plain-clothed “civilians,” financial extortion, smear campaigns - these methods won’t regain broad international support in time for UN meetings in September. Nor will a growing portion of the U.S. public enjoy being dragged into another of Israel’s schemes, which is exactly why U.S. organizers are targeting their homeland.
White House and State Department officials have joined in on Israel's denial, saying only that “these flotillas are a bad idea, and there’s other ways to get this kind of assistance to the people of Gaza.” Hirschmann countered by telling reporters, "The people in Gaza are not free so what we’re hoping is that the public around the world will see what’s happening, that the US and Israeli government have outsourced the occupation and dragged Greece into enforcing it."
The Freedom Flotilla II has nothing to do with immediate aid or weapons smuggling. Some of the boats, such as The Audacity of Hope, claim that letters are their only cargo. The Freedom Flotilla explicitly stated in a June 18th press release, “Our goal is to lift the illegal siege, completely and permanently and freedom for the Palestinian people.” Its objective is to shine a ray of light into Gaza, to breach the fear barrier as well as the physical barrier, and to do so under maximum international exposure. Israel is so obsessed with Hamas that it hasn’t fully utilized its only sustainable weapon against the group: a sincere effort to reach an equitable two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Instead Netanyahu wiped out all traces of goodwill after President Barack Obama attempted to reconnect with the Muslim world (the timing and rhetoric of Obama's "Moment of Opportunity" were admittedly naive). Since the two assumed office at the hip, Netanyahu has demanded much while ceding and explaining little to the Palestinians. He would be lucky if 20% trusted him to negotiate in good faith. Now he claims that future vessels are Israel’s primary concern, a legitimate argument rendered hollow by the sheer inhumanity of Gaza’s blockade.
"If there were no humanitarian crisis, if there weren't a crisis in almost every aspect of live in Gaza there would be no need for the flotilla,” said Chris Gunness, spokesman for United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). "If there were no blockade, there'd be no need for the flotilla. 95 percent of all water in Gaza is undrinkable, 40 percent of all disease is water-borne... 45.2 percent of the labor force is unemployed, 80 percent aid dependency, a tripling of the abject poor since the start of the blockade. Let's get rid of this blockade and there would be no need for a flotilla."
How far would negotiations progress with the Palestinians if Netanyahu expended the same energy as when plotting designs to thwart international activists? What could be achieved in Gaza if he wasn’t preoccupied with a future siege against the UN? Of course Palestinian leadership deserves its share of blame for the political deadlock, but accusing Hamas for every misdeed in Palestine is too easy. As easy as “blaming Israel.”
In the end Netanyahu’s response to the Freedom Flotilla II is nothing more than a bad sequel.