On a second level of Orwellian distortion, a somewhat more subtle, but no less insidious case against the Flotilla has been put forward. The daily existence of the entrapped, impoverished, and mentally and physically debilitated Gazans have been widely depicted by Israeli propagandists as if they were enjoying a glitzy pleasure kingdom that benefits its 1.6 million inhabitants. No less a journalistic personality than Ethan Bronner, long a skilled Israeli apologist in the American setting, opens a front page story in the New York Times (June 28, 2011), with the following absurdly glowing description of the situation in Gaza: “Two luxury hotels are opening in Gaza this month. Thousands of new cars are plying the roads. A second shopping mall—with escalators imported from Israel—will open next month. Hundreds of homes and two dozen schools are about to go up. A Hamas-run farm where Jewish settlements once stood is producing enough fruit that Israeli imports are tapering off.” What makes this travesty on conditions in Gaza newsworthy is not these good things that are supposedly happening, but its relevance to the Israeli contention that the humanitarian rationale for the flotilla mission is fatuous and unnecessary because the life of the Gazans, despite appearances to the contrary, is going along in sprightly fashion despite the barbed wire and prison walls that enclose Gaza. It comes as no surprise that Bronner immediately connects his puff opening about conditions in Gaza with the Israeli anti-flotilla campaign: “As pro-Palestinian activists prepare to set sail aboard a flotilla aimed at maintaining an international spotlight on Gaza and pressure on Israel, the isolated Palestinian coastal enclave is experiencing its first real period of economic growth since the siege they are protesting began in 2007.”
Later on in the story, presumably to avoid losing all credibility as an objective reporter in that deceptive New York Times style, Bronner acknowledges some of the darker sides of life in Gaza, but in a manner that does little to challenge the dominant message of his article: since there is no genuine humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the real motivations of Flotilla organizers must be either to delegitimize Israel or to mount an irresponsible challenge to the country’s reasonable security measures. It is a portrayal that is echoed by the assertion by the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), Benny Gantz, who has the temerity to assert that the people of Gaza are enjoying a ‘comfortable lifestyle.’ Ehud Barak, the Minister of Defense, joins the chorus with his suggestion that if the flotilla activists were sincere in their humanitarian commitment they would forget about the people of Gaza and turn their attention a genuine humanitarian challenge: arranging the release of the sole Israeli prisoner, Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas. Of course, Barak is silent about the several thousand Palestinians, including numerous children, being held by Israel, sometimes for years, in detention under harsh conditions.
A first level of response to such distortions is to point to the authoritative and highly data-based report released last month by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) on the economic conditions in Gaza with special attention to labor. Among its highlights is the disclosure that the unemployment rate in Gaza has climbed to 45.2%, which appears to be the highest in the world. This alarming figure was coupled with a 7.9% decline in the purchasing power of average monthly wages for those Palestinians during the last half of 2010 lucky enough to have a job. There has been an alarming overall decline of 34.5% in the purchasing power of workers for the period since 2006. It is further estimated that 300,000 Gazans now subsist on less than $1 per day.
And this is not all. 95% of the water supply in Gaza is unsafe for human consumption, the electricity is insufficient for the needs of the population, causing frequent blackouts. Worse still, the health system is near collapse, with no supply of many vital medicines, and most other medicines in Gaza are not reliable because they are being held beyond their expiration dates. There are numerous recent reports of curtailed services in Gaza hospitals, cancelled surgeries and closures because of the absence of essential medical supplies. And perhaps, most crippling of all, no exports of any kind from Gaza have been allowed during the entire period of the blockade and siege. This means that most Gazans have become almost totally dependent on UN handouts and the machinations of black marketers just to subsist.
But the material conditions of deprivation do not begin to describe the ordeal endured by the Gazan population. To be entrapped in such an impoverished and crowded areas for a few days would be a hardship, but to be denied entry or exit over a period of four years is a crime, a distinct humanitarian disaster even if Gaza was indeed the Switzerland of the Middle East that Israeli leaders are seeking to have the world believe. Additionally, Israel uses violence across its borders at times and places of its choosing, killing and wounding many, and terrifying the entire Gazan population. The debris of the 2008-09 massive attacks has mostly not been cleared, nor have many of the destroyed homes and buildings been reconstructed.
To view this cumulative set of conditions as other than a severe humanitarian crisis, intensified by an illegal blockade, is grotesque. It is compounded by another Orwellian maneuver. The American Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, had the temerity to say a few days ago that “it’s not helpful for there to be flotillas that try to provoke actions by entering into Israeli waters and creating a situation in which Israelis have a right to defend themselves.” Should we not ask ‘who is provoking whom?’ Are Israelis defending themselves or insulating their criminality in Gaza from a peaceful and entirely appropriate challenge, especially considering the passivity of governments and the UN that have allowed this particular humanitarian catastrophe to go on and on? Since when does a sovereign state have a right of self-defense against peace activists and humanitarian aid workers? At the very least should not Clinton have implored the new Egyptian leadership to open and expand the Rafah Crossing to allow Gazans a reliable means of exit and entry?
Shining through the darkness of this experience of obstructing Flotilla II is the raw nerve of the illegitimacy of Israeli occupation policy. Neither the Flotilla movement nor the somewhat complementary BDS campaign are questioning the legitimacy of Israel as such, but they are challenging the unyielding and expansionist Zionist leadership that denies not only the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people living under occupation, but also the rights of the 5-7 million Palestinians living in refugee camps or in exile and the rights of the 1.5 million Palestinians that have been subject to a range of discriminations ever since the establishment of Israel in 1948. A just and sustainable peace for both peoples requires an acknowledgement and implementation of these rights. Such rights are truly inalienable, and do not lapse because of their long suppression. This is ultimately what the Flotilla II encounter is really about, and this is also why Israel finds it so dangerous.