Psst! Guess What? Do You Know?
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Hundreds of activists are on their way to the blockaded Gaza strip via a "flotilla" of boats carrying humanitarian and reconstruction supplies, which are badly lacking in the impoverished Palestinian territory.
Israel has promised to intercept the good-willed boats and arrest and deport the activists. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has exerted great effort in the past few days to convince onlookers to this confrontation on the high seas that the activists carrying humanitarian goods are terrorist sympathizers, and that everything is just fine and dandy in the Gaza Strip. The ministry has portrayed Israel (the country enforcing the blockade of Gaza's ports) as a benevolent victim, who despite the threat from Gaza's Hamas government is still caring for the civilian population.
There comes a point when an oppressive regime's propaganda crosses a threshold from mere lies to utter lunacy so extreme, in fact, that objective onlookers find it almost comical. This point came yesterday when the Government Press Office disseminated a link to a Gaza restaurant which appears to be luxurious. So what Israel is essentially saying is: "There you have it. There is a website for a restaurant with cloth napkins in Gaza. How can there be any problems?"
The reality is, of course, that the situation in Gaza is very dire. A slew of reports from human rights organizations attest to the hardships faced by most Palestinians in Gaza. In the densely populated strip where 80 percent of the population are refugees, a similar percentage relies on international aid organizations for daily sustenance. That number was only ten percent a decade ago. That's how bad things have become. Malnutrition in children has reached ten percent and critical medicines are not available, according to the World Health Organization.
But no one is starving to death in Gaza--at least not suddenly. A tunnel industry has evolved and become the main supplier for most goods. That's all part of the plan. Israel seeks to squeeze the strip to the point of near catastrophe, bad enough to make people suffer, but just short of having to take responsibility for it. It's a form of torture kind of like water-boarding under the Bush administration: the objective is to bring the subject to the edge and break his will, but not kill him (lest they be charged with murder). But just because Gaza's civilian population has managed to keep its collective head above water doesn't mean things should be this way.
Like life in most prisons, if you "know a guy," anything is available for a price. Generators, for example, are in high demand because of the shortages of electricity. The shortages are due to the destruction of Gaza's only power plant in 2006 by Israeli jets. Since then, Israel has never permitted the full reconstruction of the power plant, forcing perpetual dependence of Gaza on Israel and Egypt, who take an eye-dropper approach to supplying Gaza with electricity. But even though generators smuggled through Gaza's tunnels provide some light, there is also a dark and often unheard downside that comes with them: explosions and fires. Several reports in the past few years of civilians being killed or maimed from overworked and exploding generators have become common. These are just some of the siege-related causalities we do not hear about.
The 10,000 tons of supplies aboard the Gaza aid ships are a drop in the bucket for what Gaza really needs. Israel's spokesmen have pointed out that they have permitted the entry of supplies in the past and argued that the aid boats are unnecessary. The reality is that aid which Israel does permit into Gaza is purchased by Palestinians, vetted and often rejected or held up for months. Israel has calculated the precise minimum necessary caloric intake for Palestinians in Gaza, and has often rejected things like pasta, lentils and coffee. So it's easy to understand why international humanitarian organizations and the activists aboard the aid boats are not about to trust the welfare of Gaza's civilians to Israel's benevolence.
The aid boats will have a far greater impact, however, than the 10,000 tons of aid they are bringing to Gaza. The aid boats compel us to have this discussion, a discussion that Israel desperately wants to avoid at a time when its international reputation has never been lower.
Hundreds of unarmed civilians carrying humanitarian aid are approaching a blockaded piece of land where 1.5 million civilians suffer from a life of uncertainty and despair, and Israel is going to stop them. While much of the focus on the Israeli-Palestinian issue has been on the settlements, the failed peace process and the long-awaited restart of talks about talks, Gaza has been forgotten. To their credit, the few hundred non-violent activists-turned-sailors have found a way to maximize their power as individuals to force one of the world's most powerful regimes into a corner. Whether the boats make it to Gaza or not, this is a tremendous victory for civil society in international affairs.
Headlines and stories covering this confrontation at sea will shift the focus back to Gaza, even if only for a few hours. For Israel, Gaza is the tortured and famished step-child it locks in the basement when visitors arrive, and the activists on these boats seek to expose what Israel is doing in the strip: imposing a draconian siege to collectively punish civilians for political aims.
Yousef Munayyer is the Executive Director of the Jerusalem Fund and the Palestine Center
By Joharah Baker for MIFTAH
Sixteen yachts, part of an Israeli flotilla, set sails off the shores of Herzeliya in protest of the three-ship flotilla that left Turkey en route to Gaza on May 22. The Israeli yachts waved huge Israeli flags, pictures equating Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad plastered to the sides. Other boats hosted posters of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Their purpose is to protest and – in the best case scenario – halt the Turkish "freedom flotilla" from arriving at Gaza's shores carrying much needed aid to the people.
The Freedom Flotilla is hardly the first ship to break the siege on Gaza and deliver food, medicines and other basic necessities to the people of Gaza who continue to suffer under the strain of Israel's years-long embargo and siege. And while the activists on board are naturally pro-Palestinian, the act in itself is not politically-motivated. The activists who come from all over the world and from all walks of life, including Israelis themselves, are first and foremost human rights advocates who want nothing more than to protest Israel's inhumane siege on the Strip and bring a small bit of relief to the people.
The Israeli government knows this, but like everything else in this highly-charged country, everything that is anything is quickly interpreted as a political act. Hence, if the activists meet with a Hamas official once they reach Gaza to express their solidarity with the people (not with the movement), this is viewed as treachery and as support for terror. In the past, Israeli journalist Amira Hass and Tony Blair's niece (among other prominent figures) have been a part of these relief convoys traveling to Gaza. Neither of them ever pledged their allegiance to Hamas, nor did they propose any political solutions further than a lifting of the siege. These convoys come to Gaza as humans, trying to help out other human beings in need.
So, what are these Israelis – floating in the Mediterranean – so scared of? Do they really want to bar medicines, baby formula or notebooks from reaching Gaza homes? This is a situation similar to the backlash generated by the PA's declaration to boycott settlement products. Why is Israel so up in arms? It's not like the Palestinians said they would burn down factories or torch settlement homes or anything. The world says settlements are illegal, not just the Palestinians. Most Israelis are not even big fans of settlements, basically because they take up too much tax money and manpower to defend, not to mention the bad rap they give Israel on the international scene. So why the frenzy surrounding the boycott? Some Israelis are calling for a halt to proximity talks, some say Israel should close its ports to exports coming into the Palestinian territories and some are calling for a withholding of revenue funds due to the PA. The term "economic terror" even came up in reference to Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad's plan. In response to an article about the boycott, which explicitly explains that the products to be boycotted are those made in illegal Jewish settlements and not Israeli products per se, one comment hailing from Canada read, "I will be now looking for settlement products so I can buy them and promote them. Thank you for putting this to my attention, your hate will backfire !!!"
Hate? Isn't the fact that settlements are illegally built on usurped Palestinian land and plunder Palestinian water and other natural resources while its residents harass neighboring Palestinians much more of a "hate campaign" than the boycott?
Besides, boycotts are a trademark of occupied peoples. They are nonviolent and effective and they push a fair agenda. Boycotts were popular in South Africa under the Apartheid regime and African-Americans carried out the famed Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 to protest US laws of segregation against blacks and whites. Hence, Israel knows boycotting settlement products is fair game just like it knows bringing in humanitarian aid to the Gazans is an act of humanity. However, their fear lies in the underbelly of their very existence: a deep-seated fear that such acts will delegitimize Israel as a democratic state and a civilized nation among nations. When shiploads of food for children, medicine, blankets and books is banned entry into Gaza, the world will hopefully look twice and question what can only be described as Israel's crime against humanity in the Gaza Strip. When the Palestinians and other peoples of conscience throughout the world boycott products made in Jewish settlements, not only will it hurt these illegal colonies' economy, it will bring this very important issue to the attention of nations and peoples. For that reason, Israel reacts to such moves of nonviolent resistance with such ferocity. The boycott reminds people that Israel has repeatedly shunned international resolutions by refusing to dismantle settlements and has angered even the United States by continuing to expand them. While the Freedom Flotilla may be carrying just a fraction of the aid the people of Gaza so desperately need, it is not just about that. It is about the publicity and the exposure of an inhumane siege on 1.5 million people, most of whom are not involved in the politics of Hamas or the PA. And so Israel and many Israelis resist and fight back and try their best to delegitimize Palestinian efforts instead.
If one looks at the issue from this angle, it makes sense why Israel is so afraid. It should be worried that one day it will have to pay for its crimes. And if these baby steps bring us Palestinians to that ultimate goal, then let's promote this fear factor as much as we can.
Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Department at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.