It is expected that at the end of June, Freedom Flotilla 2 will set sail for Gaza carrying various forms of humanitarian aid, including medical, educational, and construction materials. This second flotilla will consist of 15 ships, including the Mavi Marmara sailing from Istanbul, but also vessels departing from several European countries, and carrying as many as 1,500 humanitarian activists as passengers. If these plans are carried out, as seems likely, it means that the second flotilla will be about double the size of the first that was so violently and unlawfully intercepted by Israeli commandos in international waters on May 31, 2010, resulting in nine deaths on the Turkish lead ship.
Since that shocking incident of a year ago, the Arab Spring is transforming the regional atmosphere, but it has not ended the blockade of Gaza, or the suffering inflicted on the Gazan population over the four-year period of coerced confinement. Such imprisonment of an occupied people has been punctuated by periodic violence, including the sustained all out Israeli attack for three weeks at the end of 2008 during which even women, children, and the disabled were not allowed to leave the deadly killing fields of Gaza. It is an extraordinary narrative of Israeli cruelty and deafening international silence, a silence broken only by the brave civil society initiatives in recent years that brought both invaluable symbolic relief in the form of empathy and human solidarity, as well as token amounts of substantive assistance in the form of much needed food and medicine. It is true that the new Egypt has opened the Rafah crossing a few days ago (but not fully or unconditionally), allowing several hundred Gazans to leave or return to Gaza on a daily basis. At best, this opening, even if sustained, provides only partial relief. Rafah is not currently equipped to handle goods, and is available only to people and so the blockade of imports and exports continues in force, and may even be intensified as Israel vents its anger over the Fatah/Hamas unity agreement.
As the Greek coordinator of Freedom Flotilla 2, Vangelis Pisias, has expressed the motivation of this new effort to break the blockade: “We will not allow Israel to set up open prisons and concentration camps.” Connecting this Gazan ordeal to the wider regional struggles,” Pisias added, “Palestine is in our heart and could be the symbol of a new era in the region.” Such sentiments reinforce the renewal of Palestinian militancy as exhibited in the recent Nabka and Naksa demonstrations.
A highly credible assessment of the Israeli 2010 attack on Freedom Flotilla 1 by a fact finding mission appointed by the UN Human Rights Council concluded that the Israelis had violated international law in several respects: by using excessive force, by wrongfully attacking humanitarian vessels in international waters, and by an unacceptable claim to be enforcing a blockade that was itself unlawful. Such views have been widely endorsed by a variety of respected sources throughout the international community, although the panel appointed by the UN Secretary General to evaluate the same incident has not yet made public its report, and apparently its conclusions will be unacceptably muted by the need to accommodate its Israeli member.
In light of these surrounding circumstances, including the failure of Israel to live up to its announced promise after the attack in 2010 to lift the blockade, it shocks our moral and legal sensibilities that the UN Secretary General should be using the authority of his office to urge member governments to prevent ships from joining Freedom Flotilla 2. Ban Ki-moon shamelessly does not even balance such a call, purportedly to avoid the recurrence of violence, by at least sending an equivalent message to Israel insisting that the blockade end and demanding that no force be used by Israel in response to humanitarian initiatives of the sort being planned. Instead of protecting those who would act on behalf of unlawful Palestinian victimization, the UN Secretary General disgraces the office, by taking a one-sided stand in support of one of the most flagrant and long lasting instances of injustice that has been allowed to persist in the world. True, his spokesperson tries to soften the impact of such a message by vacuously stating that “the situation in the Gaza Strip must be changed, and Israel must conduct real measures to end the siege.” We must ask why were these thoughts not expressed by the Secretary General himself and directly to Israel? Public relations is part of his job, but it is not a cover for crassly taking the wrong side in the controversy over whether or not Freedom Flotilla 2 is a legitimate humanitarian initiative courageously undertaken by civil society without the slightest credible threat to Israeli security and in the face of Israeli warnings of dire consequences.
Appropriately, and not unexpectedly, the Turkish Government refuses to bow to such abusive pressures, even when backed by the UN at its highest level. Ahmet Davutoglu, the widely respected Turkish Foreign Minister, has said repeatedly in recent weeks when asked about Freedom Flotilla 2, that no democratic government should ever claim the authority to exercise control over the peaceful initiatives of civil society, as represented by NGOs. Davutoglu has been quoted as saying “[N]obody should expect from Turkey…to forget that nine civilians were killed last year…. Therefore we are sending a clear message to all those concerned. The same tragedy should not be repeated again.” Underscoring the unresolved essential issue he asked rhetorically, “[D]o we think that one member state is beyond international law?” Noting that Israel has still not offered an apology to Turkey or compensation to the families of those killed, Davutoglu makes clear that until such reasonable preconditions for diplomatic normalization are met, Israel should not be accepted “to be a partner in the region.”
In the background of this sordid effort to interfere with Freedom Flotilla 2 is the geopolitical muscle of the United States that blindly (and dumbly) backs Israel no matter how outrageous or criminal its behavior. And undoubtedly, this geopolitical pressure helps explain this attempted interference by the UN with a brave and needed humanitarian initiative that deserves to be strongly supported by the UN rather than condemned. Despite the near universal verbal objections of world leaders, including even Ban Ki-moon, to the Israeli blockade, no meaningful action has been yet taken by either governments or the UN. Israel’s undisguised defiance of the requirements of belligerent occupation of Gaza as set forth in the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, and the First Additional Protocol appended thereto in 1977, is an unacknowledged scandal of gigantic proportions.
Liberating Palestine from oppressive occupation and refugee regimes should become a unifying priority for peoples and leaders during this second stage of the Arab Spring. Nothing could do more to manifest the external as well as the internal turn to democracy, constitutional governance, and human rights than displays of solidarity by new and newly reformist governments in Arab countries with this unendurably long Palestinian struggle for justice and sustainable peace. It would also offer the world a contrast with the subservience to Israel recently on display in Washington, highlighted by inviting Benjamin Netanyahu to address an adoring U.S. Congress, a rarity in the country’s treatment of foreign leaders. Its impact was heightened by the pandering speech given by President Obama to AIPAC, the notorious Israeli lobbying organization, at about the same time. It is unprecedented in the history of diplomacy that a leading sovereign state would so jeopardize its own global reputation and sacrifice its values to avoid offending a small allied partner. It is in the American interest, as well as in the interest of the peoples of the Arab world, particularly the Palestinians, to end the conflict.
The United States Government has long discredited itself as an intermediary in the conflict. Its partisanship, driven mainly by domestic politics, represents a costly sacrifice of its own interests, but is also objectionable as lending support to intolerable Israeli policies of apartheid occupation and colonialist expansionism. It is time to shift the locus of diplomatic responsibility for resolving the conflict from Washington to the far more geopolitically trustworthy auspices of Brazil, Turkey, Nordic countries, even possibly Russia or China, and to encourage a more active regional role. If the encouraging recent Fatah/Hamas unity arrangements hold up and move forward, Palestinian representation will be regarded as increasingly credible, and hopefully will actively incorporate elements of the refugee communities in the bordering countries into their diplomacy. It is time for the world to realize, and the Palestinians to highlight, that the conflict is not just about territory (‘land for peace’), or even to ensure an adequate Palestinian presence in Jerusalem, it is most fundamentally about people. Insisting on respect for the moral, legal, and political rights of Palestinian refugees is the litmus test of a people-centered approach to the conflict, and should not be allowed to drift off into peripheral space, as has happened in the past.