What if they had a Gaza flotilla and no one noticed?
A group of activists slipped out of a Cyprus port yesterday, launching the latest in a series of Gaza flotillas. But with speculation that Israel is considering attacking Iran, and Palestinian maneuvers for statehood at the UN, it's not likely to get much attention.
The last Gaza flotilla ended in a diplomatic and tactical victory for Israel. A combination of diplomatic pressure on Greece and apparent sabotage of some of the boats last July grounded the last effort, which activists say was designed to draw attention to Israel's economic blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Now two vessels with 27 activists aboard are steaming toward Gaza on the same mission. Their preparations were low-key this time to avoid being bottled up in port, and the group only announced their intentions once they reached international waters off the coast of Cyprus, their departure point.
The activists are mostly Irish, American, and Canadian, with a few Palestinians and other nationalities. They say they're carrying some medical supplies, as well as letters of support for Palestinian independence. Organizers of the July flotilla acknowledged that the aid they were carrying was mostly symbolic, and their real objective is to draw attention to the controls on movements of goods and people that Israel imposes on Gaza.
But a lot has happened since July. While the last flotilla – the first since eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American were killed when Israeli commandos seized a boat attempting to reach Gaza in 2010 – attracted intense international attention, this go around it's being treated as something of an afterthought.
Since then, the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas has been pursuing recognition of Palestine at the United Nation's, with considerable success to this point. Though a General Assembly vote on full membership remains stalled, this week UN cultural agency UNESCO voted Palestine a full member, over the objections of the US, Israel, and 12 other nations. Meanwhile, the war drums over Iran's nuclear program have been growing louder in Jerusalem,
Today, the front pages of Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post are filled with coverage of rumors that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking the authority to potentially launch an airstike on Iran's nuclear facilities, and the fallout of Palestine's entry into UNESCO, which saw Israel follow the United States in cutting its funding of the agency today (in Israel's case just $2 million, compared to the $80 million the US was scheduled to provide the agency this year).
"Flotilla" news is buried inside. That's not entirely surprising. This effort is tiny compared to the last one, which originally had 9 boats signed up, over 500 activists, and participants included novelist Alice Walker and a Holocaust survivor. A repeat of the violence of 2010 is vanishingly unlikely, and such symbolic efforts lose force over time, as the public grows used to them.
To be sure, Israel isn't ignoring the effort. Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, an IDF spokeswomen, took to twitter to pour scorn on the effort yesterday. "Everyday approx. 300 trucks full of supplies enter Gaza. What can 2 tiny yachts contribute?????," she wrote, using the hashtag "provocatilla" (for "provocative flotilla"). "A law is a law. The maritime security blockade is legal according to Palmer committee, appointed by UN."
Though Israel doesn't generally recognize UN declarations of what is or is not illegal (consider the UN's position on West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements), what she's referring to in this case is a legal opinion that says Israel's blockade of Gaza is a justifiable security measure. While some Israeli politicians have acknowledged that the blockade acts as a form of collective punishment, its main function, Israel says, is to keep weapons out of the hands of Hamas and other militants in the Gaza strip.
For now, the boats are in calm international waters. They should near the Gaza coast late tonight or perhaps early Friday morning, Israel has promised to intercept the boats. But this time, expect a blip of interest, not the deluge of press coverage from July.