|The flotilla constitutes a provocation, a declaration to Israel that it does not own every aspect of Palestinian existence and that Palestinians too have international supporters [REUTERS]|
I left Gaza just as word began to circulate of attempts by various governments – the United States, Greece, Cyprus, and even UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon – to prevent or at least delay the departure of the boats participating in the latest Gaza flotilla. Staring out into the mid-night darkness of the Mediterranean Sea on one of Gaza’s beautiful yet rubbish-strewn beaches, it wasn’t hard to imagine the chaos that would soon unfold if, somehow, the ships manage to get close to shore. Given the violence that greeted the last flotilla, few Gazans I know expect the latest flotilla to make it.
Indeed, for Gazans anticipating the arrival of the supplies, and as important the solidarity, that the latest flotilla would bring, the wait seemed until today likely to end no better than the proverbial wait for Godot. The political theatre that will no doubt surround the flotilla’s approach could similarly rival the absurdity of Beckett’s existentialist masterpiece.
Commentators on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have long compared the long wait for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine to Waiting for Godot. But the meaning of the waiting could not be more different.
For Beckett, the waitings constitute a rumination on the meaninglessness of human existence despite all our attempts to fabricate semblances of order and purpose. But the protagonists of Godot are at least free to
construct a meaningful narrative for their lives, if they can muster the will. They have the freedom to embrace choice in the context of the larger meaninglessness of life; indeed, life’s innate purposelessness opens the
very possibility of creating a different future than the one seemingly before you.
But if the Israelis have their way, the endless wait in Gaza, and the cccupied territories more broadly, suggests a very different and more pernicious meaning: We own you. We determine what you can or cannot do, where you can and cannot live and go, who can and cannot be part of your lives. You in fact have no freedom save what we give to you; there is no point to your waiting.
And this waiting has been going on a very long time. The Israeli siege of Gaza that defines life in the enclave today did not begin in 2009 with the invasion. Nor did it begin with the gradual closing in of Gaza at the start of the Oslo peace process.
Geography of occupation
Rather, the occupation has always been defined by an ever-tightening siege, with Palestinians increasingly surrounded and hemmed in by settlements, walls, check points, F-16s, Apaches helicopters and the bullets and bombs that rain down from them. They are confined bypass roads, closed military zones, “parks” and other areas built on the ruins of what was there before. Together the geography of the occupation has always constrained their freedom of movement, their livelihoods, even their dreams of a better future.
In such conditions, “staying human,” as the murdered ISM activist Vittorio Arrigoni famously put it, has became one of the most difficult but important acts of resistance, as one of the primary goals and tactics of the occupation has always been dehumanisation.
In this context, the reason the Gaza flotilla has been treated as such a threat by Israel is not the cargo it carries. There are numerous ways Israel could check to ensure weapons are not being smuggled in while
allowing participants to complete their voyage. Nor is the danger ultimately symbolic, as many argue. Rather, the political and strategic implications of the flotilla are quite real. They symbolise that Palestinians and their international supporters are refusing to play by Israel’s rules, and forcing the Israeli state to reveal the basic, ugly immorality of an occupation that has always presented itself as a necessary if unfortunate act of
In short, the flotilla constitutes a provocation, a declaration to Israel that it does not own every aspect of Palestinian existence and that Palestinians too have their international supporters who, if not as militarily and financially powerful as the US government and the various arms of the Israel lobby, are coming into their own as a force to be reckoned with.
Most important, the Arab uprisings of the last six months have shown Israel what happens when highly repressive regimes show signs of weakness; within days, for seemingly inconsequential reasons, they can lose control of their populations and even collapse. And for Israel, losing power over Palestinians would mean not merely the end of the occupation, but the end of Israel as an ethnocentric Jewish state.
Israel well understands the stakes if the narrative represented by the flotilla were ever to penetrate into global consciousness, which is why it considers the propaganda war surrounding the flotilla and other acts of non-violent resistance, whether protesting land seizures in villages like Bil’in or the growing academic and cultural boycott, to be as big a threat as Palestinian militancy. It is not surprising, then, that it is a master at the game of “hasbara,” or propaganda – literally, in Hebrew, of explaining itself to the outside world.
Flotilla on the way? Announce you’re letting in a few hundred million dollars in construction materials, so Secretary of State Clinton can faithfully echo your commitment as a justification for opposing the flotilla, while her assistants salute the “established and efficient” mechanisms for getting supplies into Gaza.
Talk of continued siege? Put up a website, such as “Gaza Flotilla 101” with pretty pictures of well-stocked markets filled with smiling children (not like any market I’ve seen in Gaza, but who cares?) and descriptions of how rapidly Gaza’s economy is growing. Add a heavy dose of revelations about how how badly Hamas persecutes Christians and anyone else who doesn’t follow their directives and you’ve created just enough confusion to allow the average American to move on, leaving Israel to do whatever it wants without fear of too much protest.
Name your boat the “Audacity of Hope” and the Israelis will warn you of “dangerous consequences” for approaching Gaza’s territorial waters – which, we shouldn’t forget, have recently been discovered to contain significant petroleum reserves. Israel is safe in the knowledge that the US government will threaten you with imprisonment (if you survive the journey) for “attempting to conspiring to deliver material support or other resources to or for the benefit of a designated foreign terrorist organisation”.
Explaining US support
The stakes are indeed quite high for Israel. But why is the United States so supportive of not merely just the siege of Gaza, but Israel’s willingness to kill American citizens to stop a peace flotilla (one of the activists killed in the last flotilla by Israeli forces was an American, but the Obama administration did not offer the slightest protest)?
Quite simply, the US has almost as much invested in Israel’s full control over Palestinian territory as does the Jewish state. More than any of America’s Arab allies, Israel is the linchpin of the entire US strategic/military system in the region.
A radical change in Israel, its transformation from a militarised, occupation society toward a full democracy – which is precisely what the flotilla aims to help bring about – would pose a mortal danger to US dominance of the region.
Why else would Clinton all but signal that Israel can injure and even kill more Americans with impunity, and that those who support Palestinian rights and non-violent resistance can be subject to secret monitoring by the FBI, and to arrest and prosecution?
This process mirrors the criminalisation of peaceful resistance in Israel, and is even been copied in Europe, where pro-Palestinian activists have been brought up on charges of anti-Semitism in France merely for
broadcasting programs in support of the BDS movement.
The flotilla is among the most important international responses to the siege of Gaza. Another increasingly important strategy is the cultural and academic boycott of Israel, which first gained significant international
currency in the wake of the 2009 invasion. The idea of artists and academics boycotting Israel is among the most contentious strategies of the non-violent resistance against the occupation precisely because the act of collaboration defines the professional life of so many artists and scholars, who see joint work not merely as standing above politics, but as helping to break down political boundaries.
I will discuss the increasingly vitriolic debate surrounding the academic and cultural boycott of Israel more in an upcoming column. Here I will point out merely that the idea of art or science has, or should, remain above the political fray is ludicrous. Both have always been highly politicised, and attempting to neuter them almost always produces bad art or science.
What musician or social scientist would presently go to Libya, Syria or Bahrain to work with government sponsored colleagues while these states engage in such oppression against their citizens? And how would colleagues react if she did? Who would have supported collaborating with Serbian institutions in the mid-1990s, or with official Chinese institutions in Tibet today?
But as long as Israel can portray itself as essentially an essentially “western” and thus “civilised” country, it’s somehow okay to collaborate with institutions and individuals that enable the occupation at many levels. Artists who would never imagine themselves playing Sun City under apartheid, or any number of repressive regimes today, will perform in Tel Aviv without a second’s thought.
Changing the debate
Palestinians refuse to accept these arguments anymore. After two decades of a “peace industry” that has demanded Palestinians work with and through Israelis and accept a discourse of peace that has born only bitter fruit as the price of obtaining funds or support from the West, Palestinians at the grass roots level and their supporters (including a growing number of Israeli Jews, it needs to be pointed out) have had enough, and have retaken control of the methods and language and discourse of resistance.
The boycott movement is, like the flotilla, a direct provocation and a refusal to accept Israel’s terms of reference for discussing or even negotiating around the conflict, or compromise on core principles to reach
a solution, as happened at the very start of Oslo with disastrous results. What the movement reflects is a rights-based rather than solution-oriented discourse, precisely because Palestinians have little hope for a
negotiated solution in the near future without a radical change in the balance of power between the two sides.
However improbable as it might presently seem, strategies such as the flotilla, the BDS movement and other forms of militant non-violent resistance do have a chance for defeating the strategy of violence and large-scale imprisonment that has long defined Israeli rule in the Occupied Territories. Just as I write these lines, Haaretz newspaper is reporting that the IDF has admitted that it has “no way to stop mass non-violent protests in the West Bank”. And mass here means merely several thousand protesters, nothing like the hundreds of thousands of people necessary to bring down Ben Ali and Mubarak.
According to one IDF official: “A non-violent protest of 4,000 people or more, even if they only march to a checkpoint or a settlement, and especially if the Palestinian police do not deter them, will be
unstoppable.” We could similarly imagine the impossibility of stopping the next flotilla if it grows to dozens of boats, or even hundreds.
When coupled with former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s warning that if Palestinians give up the two-state idea and simply demand Israeli passports, Israel will have no choice but to choose between rank apartheid and becoming a true non-sectarian democracy, the way forward to achieving real peace, justice and democracy becomes clear.
For me, the most part of this whole scenario is precisely that despite – or better, because of – its level of militancy and uncompromising politics, efforts like the Gaza flotilla and boycott movements are actually bringing together Israelis and Palestinians in solidarity and comradeship, and as important, producing innovative art and scholarship, that are hard for outsiders to imagine.
The fact is, once you leave your narrow ethnocentric identity beyond, the possibility of building alliances, trust and even deep friendships across the divides of religion and nation becomes strikingly clear. It is what allows well-known Jewish Israeli director Udi Aloni to work with Palestinian actors on a production of Waiting for Godot, and Jews and other non-Palestinians to play a crucial role in the Gaza flotilla or the movements to protect Palestinian lands in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
By working together without compromise and for a common goal of full democracy, Palestinians and their supporters from Israel and beyond are in fact taking the revolutionary spirit of the last half year to the next
level. However improbable it might seem today, their success will go a long way toward ensuring the long term survival of the still tenuous revolutions that today surround Israel/Palestine from every direction.
Mark Levine is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine and author, most recently, of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House 2008) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.