Preparations for a potential confrontation between Israeli naval forces and a humanitarian flotilla headed for Gaza intensified on Thursday.
Israel, adamant that the pro-Palestinian activists would not be permitted to break its naval blockade of Gaza, constructed several massive tents intended to hold the activists at its main southern seaport. The activists rejected calls to abort their mission and vowed to press on as Hamas prepared a Gaza port for their arrival.
One of Israel’s main concerns, an Israeli army spokesperson said on Thursday, was that the eight-ship flotilla could smuggle militants or weapons into the Hamas-run territory.
Flotilla organizers are adamant they have no connections to the Islamists, and there is no evidence that either weapons or foreign fighters were ferried in by similar convoys in the past few years. But if the activists make it to Gaza, they are unlikely to be able to side-step the increasingly repressive and cash-strapped Hamas government in their attempts to get aid to the civilian population.
“Every time aid like this comes from abroad, it goes through Hamas, everybody knows that,” says Gaza-based Palestinian political analyst Talal Okal. “They want to show that they dominate everything, and that everything in Gaza passes under their eyes. So, if these boats arrive, Hamas will receive it [the aid] and distribute it how they want, to their supporters and according to their policies.”
How Hamas commandeered previous aid deliveries
The flotilla, carrying more than 700 international activists and some 10,000 tons in humanitarian, medical, and construction supplies, hopes to break Israel’s three-year blockade by reaching Gaza sometime over the weekend. Israel has vowed to prevent the ships from docking in Gaza, offering instead to send the aid through its own crossings after carrying-out security checks.
Israel sealed its borders with Gaza after Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist organization, seized power there in 2007.
Palestinians living in Gaza say Hamas has sought to bring more and more under its control in Gaza in recent months, raiding the offices of human rights organizations and embarking on an extremely unpopular, territory-wide taxation campaign as it grapples with serious cash shortages. Hamas also keeps a eye on – and, in some cases, completely controls – the goods that come through the smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.
Mr. Okal says the most stark example of Hamas aid cronyism was when Hamas individuals and supporters were seen driving ambulances brought for Gaza’s hospitals by British parliamentarian George Galloway’s “Viva Palestina” convoy in January.
Cement, wheelchairs, notebook paper
But Greta Berlin, a spokeswoman for the Free Gaza Movement, says her organization has “nothing to do with the government” in Gaza, and that aid and supplies are earmarked for local NGOs and hospitals ahead of time. The California-based organization that began sending the first aid flotillas to Gaza in 2008 and is one of five organizations sponsoring the current one.
The current flotilla, Ms. Berlin says, is carrying crucial things like cement, water purification systems, notebook paper, and wheelchairs – items Israel admittedly does not allow into Gaza.
“Hamas will benefit from the aid, but it won’t strengthen them in a dangerous way,” Mr. Okal says. “People in Gaza appreciate these humanitarian activities because they show international opinion is moving toward solidarity with the Palestinians. It doesn’t matter what they bring, it’s political.”