International activists from a dozen countries are trying to break Israel's blockade on the Gaza Strip, just a little over a year after a Gaza-bound aid flotilla ended in a fatal confrontation with Israeli naval commandos.
The participants should have already set sail. But the US boat at least is being held up in Athens on what activists say are spurious charges amid a broader Israeli push to thwart a repeat of last year's events.
This flotilla is attempting to reach Gaza in a dramatically changed regional context from May 2010, before the uprisings collectively known as the Arab Spring. With the chance for real democratic change in Israeli neighbors like Egypt, organizers are hoping to press home their argument that the Palestinian residents of Gaza are as deserving of basic freedoms as any of their neighbors.
"It's even more relevant this year," says Robert Naiman, a US activist waiting to board in Athens. "There’s a revolution of popular expectations and we’re playing out on a stage in which governments in the region feel more pressure to respond to public opinion."
"After the last flotilla, a Hamas legislator said it 'did more than 10,000 rockets to change things.' That shows we're reaching people," continues Mr. Naiman, who is bringing Arabic translations of "The Montgomery Story," a 1958 comic book about Martin Luther King Jr., nonviolent resistance, and the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott.
Naiman says he hopes the flotilla will show Palestinians that nonviolent struggle can work and to bolster nascent grass-roots Palestinian movements that have sought, with some success, to use nonviolent protests and passive resistance to press their demands.
"Never in the past 25 years has there been anything like this political moment, where half of Palestinian society is poised to go [toward nonviolence], and that’s exciting to me," says Naiman, giving a rough estimate of the Palestinian mood. "The more nonviolence works, the more they will adopt it. That’s why there’s so much excitement about the flotilla."
Israel lobbying to stall flotilla
Last year's flotilla symbolically sought to break Israel's economic siege of the Gaza Strip, which includes a naval blockade. Gaza's port has been shut since 2006, and goods flow almost exclusively through a border crossing tightly controlled by Israel, leading to shortages of fuel, medicine, and construction materials in the territory.
But that flotilla was stopped by an Israeli assault that killed nine activists (one with American citizenship) in international waters, sparking international condemnation that led Israeli to ease, though not lift, its blockade of the impoverished Palestinian territory.
This year, Israel has been furiously lobbying foreign governments and the United Nations to try to prevent boats from sailing. It has issued threats stating that all means will be used to stop the ships from reaching Gaza. The Government Press Office even warned that any journalists on board could – along with activists – be barred from the country for 10 years, although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office later said that the press would be exempt.
IHH, the Turkish Islamic charity group that organized the flagship Mavi Marmara's participation last year, elected to sit this year's protest out, citing technical difficulties and an urgent need for humanitarian aid in Syria and Libya, where popular uprisings are confronting entrenched dictatorships.
But political pressure likely played a part. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, no doubt concerned about a further decline in an already deteriorating Israeli relationship at a time when the region is in turmoil, warned against participation this year – as did UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
US ship dubbed 'Audacity of Hope'
The United States, too, has been working to reduce the size of the flotilla, issuing a strongly worded statement saying it won't be able to provide consular services in Gaza or on the high sea and that the "Government of Israel has announced its intention to seek ten-year travel bans to Israel for anyone participating in an attempt to enter Gaza by sea."
A group of about 50 US activists and their boat, the Audacity of Hope (the name borrowed from President Obama's memoir and a wry criticism of his administration's support for Israel), are currently bottled up in Athens. They say they've been delayed by a frivolous complaint about the seaworthiness of their vessel from an Israeli law firm.
"The Greek government is under a lot of pressure; they’ve resorted to a couple of sneaky little tactics to delay us," says retired Col. Ann Wright, a former US diplomat and leader of a US contingent that also includes Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker and Hedy Epstein, an 85-year-old American who fled Nazi Germany as a 14-year-old and whose parents were murdered in the Holocaust. About a quarter of the participants are American Jews, says Wright.
Wright says at first, the complaint that the boat was unsafe, made June 23, came from an unclear source.
"The name didn't make sense; there was only a first name on the complaint," she says. This morning, Israeli Army Radio reported that it was made by an Israeli law clinic, she says. The organizers have been waiting since the 23rd for an inspection to be made. "This is a delaying tactic to keep us out. We're eager to be inspected, so they can come on board and ensure that we have no weapons, that everything is in order."
Those on the US boat and all the other participants say they're committed to nonviolence, and any resistance if they're boarded when they near Gaza will be passive.
Does blockade help or hurt Israel's security?
Ron Prosor, Israel's ambassador to the UN, wrote a letter to the body last week implying that the activists are seeking to provoke violence.
"The goal of the flotilla is not to give humanitarian aid but to provoke and aid a radical political agenda," Mr. Prosor wrote. The Israeli government has insisted that additional aid isn't needed for Gaza. "The UN, for example, transfers aid to Gaza on a daily basis through the acceptable ways," he wrote.
But though it is called an aid flotilla, with modest supplies on board some ships, the organizers say the real intent of the action is to draw attention to the blockade of Gaza itself, which they say stifles Gaza's economic life. Gaza's fishing industry has also collapsed due to limits on how far local boats can go offshore. The US boat isn't bringing aid at all, but rather letters of solidarity from US groups and citizens.
"If people are talking about the blockade, we win," says Naiman. "The humanitarian cost, the illegality – spotlighting that is part of our purpose. If they let us through, we can show that we came through and life will go on. The Israeli policy is based on the premise that 'life on earth will end if we let a boat through.' Up until June of 2010, they said we need all these restrictions to stay safe. But miraculously, they lifted some restrictions after the last flotilla and life went on as normal."
"This is about the use of force and the collective punishment of 1.5 million people" in Gaza, says Wright. "I certainly understand the Israeli government's concerns for its own national security … but sometimes their policies jeopardize their national security, rather than enhance it."
"When you pen up 1.5 million people, don’t let them control any aspect of their lives, and bomb them a lot, you’re going to create a proportion of people that will lash out at you," she says, also acknowledging that Gaza militants have launched countless rocket attacks on southern Israeli towns. "Not that I condone any of the rockets that have been fired from Gaza. Every human life killed by them is horrible ... but I would say 99.99 percent of people I talk to in Gaza abhor that use of missiles, and it doesn’t do anything for their nonviolent struggle.”