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Gaza flotillas have made a difference

Pressure exerted by the campaign has forced real changes, something the international community could not deliver through 'established channels'

Image Credit: Reuters
Flotilla activists demonstrate onboard the French "Louise Michel" boat at a marina in the port of Piraeus near Athens July 4, 2011. The Dignite, also from France, has set sail for Gaza.
Gulf News

As ships continue preparing to depart for Gaza from Greece and as the Greek government continues to serve as the Israeli ‘call centre’ for outsourcing the blockade of 1.6 million Palestinians in Gaza, the myth continues to perpetuate that ‘established channels’ should be used to reach Gaza. 

Governments remain comfortable and unchallenged in maintaining a position that the situation in Gaza is untenable, that the blockade must end and that the blockade is illegal on the one hand and that by pursuing these established channels these same governments serve only to reinforce and legitimise the blockade.

It seems only the Palestinian people in Gaza must seek their freedom through established humanitarian channels that rely on the whim of their oppressor and the occasional glance of attention from the international community.  Being born in Gaza is being born into a life sentence of living in a virtual cage, without fundamental human rights.

The flotilla effort, initiated by the Free Gaza Movement in 2008 when it sailed small fishing ships to Gaza and successfully reached the port of Gaza, is not about humanitarian aid. It is about Palestinian freedom and their rights to access the world as any other people. 

And despite the chorus of “the flotilla is not necessary”, reality on the ground shows that it non-violent direct action that has been the only effective power to make change in the lives of Palestinians. 

The pressure applied by the flotilla effort has led to three main changes — in terms of the policy of the siege applied by Israel to Gaza; in terms of the media coverage and public attention to the crime scene that is Gaza; and in terms of compelling governments and institutions to take a position on the blockade.

Israeli policy

After Freedom Flotilla I, Israel came under enormous pressure worldwide, both popular and official.  As a result, within a number of days, Israel went from defending its policy of limiting items and goods allowed into Gaza to a list of between 70 and 80 items, chosen randomly and without any justification, to completely reversing track and creating a list of only banned items and having to justify why each item was listed. 

While this is far from the success the flotilla was aiming for and certainly did not mean an end to the blockade, it was the first time in three years that any change was made.  Even after US Congressmen visited Gaza and complained about the lack of basic food items being permitted into Gaza, Israel barely paid attention.

In the media arena, and shaping public opinion, the flotilla put Gaza back in the spotlight, not just for a short 24-hour news cycle, but for over a month.  Journalists based in Israel/Palestine who had accepted the Israeli government’s decision to bar and limit their access to Gaza, were clamouring to get into Gaza and reported the reality on the ground. 

Mainstream journalists from the US, Canada and Europe quickly adopted the language of the flotilla, referring to Gaza as an ‘open-air prison’ and showing the reality of the impact of the blockade on all aspects of Palestinian society in Gaza.  Furthermore, the flotilla put activists on an even level with Israeli diplomats and spokespersons in news programmes, talk shows and on op-ed pages of newspapers.

Untenable situation

The pressure of the flotilla also caused government leaders, UN officials and international organisations to take firm positions for the first time regarding the illegality of and need to end the blockade.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and presidents and prime ministers from around the world made statements against the blockade and even US President Barack Obama called the situation in Gaza ‘untenable’. 

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (not yet campaigning for a second term) condemned the Israeli violence. The UN Security Council also condemned the violence by Israel, and even US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was forced to support the Council’s position.

And, in a significant legal development, the International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent (ICRC), issued a determination two weeks after the flotilla that Israel’s blockade of Gaza constituted collective punishment and therefore was illegal according to international law.

With this year’s flotilla, Israel has out-sourced the blockade to Greece, in an effort to stop it without having to incur the wrath of the international community. But even this year, the concrete results of the flotilla are evident. In an effort to address the growing attention, once again, to the situation in Gaza, in early June Israel permitted reconstruction material into Gaza for 1,200 homes and 18 schools for the first time since the blockade was enacted. 

A few days prior to that Israel increased the number of trucks of humanitarian aid permitted into Gaza, though that number remained below the number permitted prior to the enactment of the blockade and well below the daily needs of the population of Gaza. Again, due to flotilla pressure, real changes on the ground, something the international community could not deliver through ‘established channels’.

Freedom, however, cannot be delivered through ‘established channels’ and that is the core mission of the flotilla effort. The other major development over the last year that has directly impacted the lives of Palestinians in Gaza (though also insufficient) has been the opening of the Rafah crossing in a limited capacity.

The opening of the crossing occurred only after the Egyptian people rose up and removed Hosni Mubarak and his regime. Their movement for freedom included solidarity with Palestinians and thus the pressure to open Rafah.  Egyptians did not seek freedom and reform through ‘established channels’, which were corrupted and useless.

And the international community did not have the hubris to suggest that Egyptians (or Tunisians or Yemenis or Libyans or Syrians) accept some limited quantities of approved items of aid instead of fundamental freedom and human rights.

Only Palestinian demands are discarded.  And it is only the flotilla efforts and other forms of non-violent direct action — from protests in the West Bank against the Wall to Boycott, Divestment and sanctions efforts in the West against Israeli Apartheid — that is making these demands heard, understood and able to generate real change.

Our message to the international community: join us in our quest for freedom, and join the tide of history. 

Adam Shapiro is an organiser with the Free Gaza Movement. He is also a documentary filmmaker and human rights defender. He is currently in Greece working on overturning the travel restrictions on the Flotilla.  

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