Israel’s siege on Gaza essentially consists of one thing – surrounding the territory and controlling all exit and entry points. Logically, to break the siege you enter or exit the territory against Israel’s will. Exiting without permission is not an option, so on came the boats...
In theory it’s a simple, perhaps even genius idea. It started shortly after the siege began – back then Israel sporadically let in small boats carrying aid. Israel let them in because they had more to lose by stopping them than by allowing through a few lefty activists (and the odd politician) carrying a gratuitous amount of aid.
But the boats got bigger, and so too did the problem. Israel then decided the ships were a “security risk” and began intercepting them at sea to prevent them docking in Gaza. For many within the Israeli military, the mistake was made years ago when the boats were first allowed in – had they been stopped from the start, perhaps the blockade-busting boat idea would not have taken off and they wouldn’t be in the mess they’re in now.
What happened onboard the Mavi Marmara on May 31 was nothing short of disastrous for Israel – it’s public image got a battering and its illogical policy of blocking food and supplies to people in Gaza was exposed. What was onboard that ship – wheelchairs and children’s books- revealed just how nonsensical and downright cruel the blockade was. Even Israel’s masters of spin struggled to explain why notepads were a security risk to the state.
The Foreign Ministry has been busy doing damage control from the botched flotilla raid. It’s almost there, but it's made very clear to the security establishment another boat blunder will throw away all its efforts. That puts the military in a bit of a predicament, because riding on the tail winds of the Mavi Marmara, is a summer boat (and convoy) intifada.
Following the raid on the flotilla, new aid convoys are already in the works. The European Campaign to End the Siege of Gaza is organising a "Freedom Flotilla 2", due to set sail for Gaza next month. It’s said to consist of more ships than the first one and as many as 4,000 activists. An aid ship from Lebanon has been much delayed but organisers are still adament to get to Gaza. A Jordanian overland convoy also began its journey to the Strip this week.
What a difference a boat makes….
But apart from calling attention to the plight of Gazans, and making us all sudden maritime experts able to track down every ship in the Mediterranean with the click of a button – what difference will more ships make? In the weeks that followed the deadly raid on the Mavi Marmara, Israel announced it was “easing” the Gaza siege. What that actually meant was they were increasing the amount of food and supplies being let into the Strip via the land crossings they control and clarifying their policy on what is allowed in.
As the situation in Gaza is so desperate, even that was seen as quite an achievement.
But it’s worth considering it was a move in the works well before the Mavi Marmara set sail. Many months ago the Egyptians began building an underground wall that will effectively cut off the smuggling tunnels that run between Gaza and Egypt. If that wall was completed before the “ease” it would, quite simply, have starved Gaza. People there rely almost solely on the tunnels not just for food and cigaretters but for fuel, generators and other essentials. Israel was not going to allow 1.7 million people to starve on live TV. In short, something had to give before the wall was completed.
Consider too that one of the “gestures” the US was reportedly pressuring Israel to make to entice the Palestinian Authority to indirect peace talks (which the PA eventually agreed to in an apparent U-turn) was an easing of the Gaza siege. I’m not saying the flotilla had no impact on the decision to ease the siege, but it may have been more of a catalyst than an instigator.
Ship vs siege: Fair fight?
The real success of the flotilla should be seen within a wider context. It has become the beacon of a non-violent form of resisting Israel’s occupation that is making huge strides.
The current boycott movement in the West Bank is attracting attention – it’s an embarrassment for Israel casting a shadow over the democratic, moral state it purports to be with many comparing this boycott to the divestment policy against South Africa during apartheid in the 1980s.
Events onboard the Marmara ended in bloodshed and violence but the theory behind the flotilla was logical and peaceful. Israel is a highly militarized state. Dealing with violence is what it knows how to do best. An Israeli soldier confronted by a man holding a gun moving towards him knows exactly what to do. But swap that gun for a banner saying ‘Free Gaza’ and the soldier will panic. He was trained for combat not crowd control.
And that’s why whether it’s a ship, a boat, a truck or a plane, both the success and the danger of this movement lies in the way it plays so simply to Israel’s weakest point.