Sunday 3 July 2011

Gaza Flotilla is Running Out of Wind

The events of last year's Gaza flotilla left Israel reeling in a public relations disaster. After the IDF intercepted the flotilla to prevent it from entering Gaza and boarded one of the vessels, 9 of the activists were dead and many others (including soldiers of the IDF) were injured. So it has been no surprise that activists have been desperately trying to gather together a follow-up flotilla in the hope that they can again depict Israel as some type of monster in the international press. Despite numerous failed attempts to put together a fleet of ships together over the past year, the activists finally seemed to have succeeded in mustering sufficient support for a flotilla to sail again over the course of this summer. As hundreds of activists are waiting dockside in the Greek port of Piraeus, the flotilla is looking increasingly less likely to get on its way as each day passes.

In the year that has followed the incidents of the 2010 flotilla, much has changed. In the days following the flotilla incident, the Turkish government withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv in a show of anger. Relations between Israel and Turkey went into freefall as military exercises were cancelled and Israeli tourism to Turkey all but evaporated. The reaction by the Turkish government was largely as a result of the support that it provided to the IHH, the main Turkish organisation that backed the flotilla. Now, more than 12 months later, the situation is very different. The report by the UN Secretary-General into the flotilla incident has confirmed that Israel and the IDF acted lawfully in preventing the flotilla from entering Gaza. Despite criticising the IDF for excessive use of force, this report is one of a number of events that have left Turkey isolated internationally. Another contributing factor to its isolation are the events in Syria over the past few months. Turkey has been forced to re-examine its relationship with Syria (and Iran) in light of the Arab spring uprisings. Rather than being in a situation to flex its muscles against Israel, Turkey is suddenly looking again for a way to normalise relations in order to find its way back into the international fold.

Under the circumstances, it came as no surprise when the Turkish government did not jump at the opportunity to support flotilla II. This also meant that the Turkish ports, which were used last year for the fleet to set sail from, had effectively been withdrawn from the flotilla's use. Other governments, most notably Ireland, Cyprus and France, have also come out with statements that withdraw their support from the flotilla. The decision by the flotilla to gather in Greece as an alternative, has proven to be fraught. Greece is going through its worst economic crisis in decades, and general strikes have crippled the country's ports. Not only has it been completely impossible for the flotilla's activities to squeeze a mention in the Greek press, they will need to be very lucky to find a way to set sail from Piraeus at all.

Buoyed by the support offered to its activities by the UN Secretary-General's report, the Israeli government has set about planning its response to the arrival of the next flotilla. The navy has been using its experience of flotilla I to work out a more precise plan of action to prevent flotilla II from nearing the coast of Gaza. There is a much clearer understanding of what may await the navy in the event that the ships reach the edge of Israeli territorial waters, and they have a plan to quietly guide the ships into the Israeli port of Ashdod without any loss of life, injuries or screaming international headlines.

The propaganda war has already begun, with Israeli intelligence announcing that those who are gathering in Greece are not only those with humanitarian objectives on their minds. A number of well-known names who have been involved in pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli activities, have already been identified amongst the participants. Concerns have also been raised about cargo which has been loaded onto some of the ships, and some of it seems to have a militant rather than humanitarian purpose. Israel has been accused of sabotaging two of the vessels by damaging their propellers, and rendering them unable to sail. Unconfirmed reports have suggested that some Israeli lawyers have tied the flotilla up in legal red tape by issuing legal suits against the insurers of the flotilla, and the providers of satellite information to the flotilla's ships. It is hoped that this may result in these providers withdrawing their services from the flotilla, thereby preventing the fleet from being able to sail.

In the latest move, the Greek government has issued a legal order preventing the flotilla ships from leaving Greek ports. One ship that tried to defy the ban was firmly but politely escorted back to port by the Greek coastguard. It seems that it will now take a super-human effor to get this flotilla onto the high seas. The activists have vowed to set sail tomorrow with whichever vessels they can muster together. Even the most optimistic scenario does not show that this flotilla will be any sort of success story.

Perhaps this is the ultimate justice. One has to question the intentions of the 350 activists who finally gathered in Piraeus, after initial estimates that 1,500 would join this flotilla. Conditions in Gaza are far from ideal, but the situation is also not what is presented by the flotilla members. Recently, the deputy director of the Red Cross in Gaza was quoted as saying that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Although many people are dependent upon international aid, the aid is getting to the people who need it. This is in stark contrast to many other parts of the world where needy people are not getting access to the aid. One can, therefore, only assume that these activists have the intention of making a political statement against Israel rather than coming to truly help needy people. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the Israeli government will do all that it can not to allow these people to approach the coast of Gaza. If anybody is to address the real cause of the poverty and misery in Gaza, the protest would be directed at Hamas. For it is Hamas, more than the Israeli government, that truly has the well-being of the citizens of Gaza in their control.

It seems as though the flotilla may be thwarted if it cannot depart within the next two or three days. Mounting frustration on the part of the activists, caused by wasted time and dwindling funds, may ultimately prevent the sailing from going ahead. With the lack of real positive intention on the part of many of the flotilla participants, there will be few people mourning the death of this flotilla. Like any sovereign country, Israel has the right to protect her territorial waters from both the infiltration of weapons that are designed to murder her innocent civilians, and from those who wish to create heroes out of murderers. If this is all about humanitarian aid, Israel has already agreed to pass the humanitarian goods to the people in Gaza. The truth is that this is an attack on Israel hiding behind the guise of humanitarian aid. Under these circumstances, Israel will never allow these vessels near Gaza.

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