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Israel: The Freedom Flotilla – PR Stunt or Humanitarian Act?

Nine ships sailing from various destinations, including Ireland, Turkey and Greece, are headed towards the Gaza Strip with the goal of breaking the Israeli maritime blockade on the Gaza Strip. The so-called Freedom Flotilla is carrying around 750 activists, including diplomats and journalists, as well as about 10,000 tons of supplies. If they don't turn back, IDF navy commandos plan to block the ships. Israel has vowed to prevent the ships from docking in Gaza, offering instead to send the aid through its own crossings after carrying-out security checks.

Carlos Latuff's cartoon on Israel's blockade of Gaza

I will attempt to break down the reactions and posts I've seen coming from the Hebrew blogosphere into what seem to be three main arguments:

1. There is no humanitarian problem in the Gaza Strip
2. The flotilla is a provocative trick to capture media around the world
3. The flotilla includes questionable participants (“terrorists”?)

I will also describe some of Israel's formal and informal reactions to this event. As the matter is complex from many angles, if you have more insight to offer, please don't hesitate to add it to the comments section at the bottom of this post.

“There is no humanitarian problem in Gaza”

In a recent interview Col. Moshe Levy (IDF) said “the humanitarian situation in Gaza is stable – there is no lack in food or any other items, except those that fuel the terrorist movement and strengthens Hamas.” Since the beginning of the year, Israel transferred 260,000 tons of humanitarian aid – Every day some 100 trucks enter Gaza with vital materials. Israel let some 6,000 Palestinians into Israel to receive medical treatments in Israel and Jordan. There is no taxation on food or medicine. Additionally, Israel is enabling the UNRWA bring in cement for construction projects that they oversee.

Here is some information on humanitarian aid to Gaza over the past year and a half, posted by the MFA. And from the IDF blog, an overview of the regulations on what is allowed in and out of the Gaza strip.

Alternatively, here's a snarky piece by Larry Derfner focusing on the Israeli Foreign Ministry statements about the nonexistent humanitarian crisis in Gaza and questions the idyllic image that they have been trying to paint.

The Gaza Gateway blog questions the Israeli claim about the “magnificent” situation in Gaza:

if there is such prosperity, then how exactly is the closure policy promoting Israel’s goal to weaken the Hamas government? For example, if the economic situation in Gaza is so magnificent, as stated in the cynical message distributed by the Government Press Office yesterday – why does another public statement by the State of Israel proudly declare that 738,000 tons of humanitarian aid were transferred to the Gaza Strip last year? How, the reader might also ask, are these statements of prosperity compatible with the contradictory information frequently released by international organizations ?

Is it not true that 80% of Gaza’s population is supported by international aid organizations? Is it not true that the unemployment rate in Gaza is around 35%? And, how is the decisive statement that “Israel has taken measures to support trade and commerce” consistent with the sweeping ban imposed by Israel for the past three years on the entry of raw materials to industrial plants and factories in the Gaza Strip? Indeed, the ban is perpetuating a situation in which over 90% of industrial establishments are closed or are operating at less than 10% of capacity. Does the fact that Israel prevents the entry of margarine in large containers designed for the production of foodstuffs in Gaza, while it allows the entry of margarine in small packages (made in Israel) promote the economy in Gaza?

In a recent blog post, Ido Landau wonders if there are still Israelis who truly believe that the siege will help release Gilad Shalit:

I'd like to know if there exists an Israeli citizen that doesn't know a three year old piece of information – that the price to release Gilad Shalit is the price that was initially set; a price that will not change even after the fourth, fifth or sixth year? That the solution against qassam missiles and the terrorist attack attempts is, simply, opening the borders?

The Israeli siege on Gaza, caused a 60% deterioration in nutritional insecurity for senior homes. Almost half of the agricultural land in the Gaza strip cannot be used as a result from the destruction of operation “cast lead” or from being within the security belt. The fishing industry is paralyzed due to the ban on entering deep sea (the Gazans smuggle fish via tunnels). This means the collapse of the agricultural sector in the Gaza strip.
If you're interested to read about the humanitarian situation, I recommend you read the following report (published by OCHA). Otherwise, all that we know comes from IDF via ynet.

A video interview posted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs outlines the reasons why a naval blockade exists, and claims its legitimacy under international law:

The reason why there is a naval blockade is the Hamas regime – weapons are smuggled into Gaza by various means. One of these routes is the sea. Under international law, a maritime blockade is recognized as a legitimate tool be used at a time of international conflict. Israel is in a state of arms conflict with Hamas. Israel has hoped that the disengagement plan would form as a springboard to the creation of a dialog. Unfortunately we know that hasn't been the case. In response to attacks on its civilians, Israel imposed economic sanctions on the regime

under international humanitarian laws a state that is imposing economic sanctions does not need to provide non vital goods; goods that will give Hamas military or economic advantage are not transferred. For example, concrete is no allowed to be transferred. Israel supplies on a daily basis vital humanitarian goods – baby formula, meat, dairy products. Million tons of goods have been transferred to the Gaza strip.

Israeli supreme court constantly reviews the transport of humanitarian goods into Gaza and makes sure that Israel is meeting its obligations under international law.

The flotilla is carrying goods including cement. The building materials are meant to be used for the construction of some 20 homes which were destroyed in the war Israel-Gaza war of January 2009. The “free gaza” movement argues that even though many countries agreed to help rebuild and can provide 4 billion dollars, this hasn't happened since Israel is set on blocking the entrance of building materials into the Gaza strip.

the flotilla is a provocative PR stunt

The notion that the “freedom flotilla” is a publicity stunt is widely adopted within Israeli media (and probably even within the activists themselves). An interesting perspective is Turkey's role in the evolution of this story. Turkey, whose relations with Israel have soured since the Gaza invasion in 2008-2009, has played a key role in the flotilla campaign, organized by IHH, a Turkish humanitarian organization, among others.

In his post, Ze'ev Kam claims that Palestinian aid that doesn't include a public humiliation of Israel doesn't interest anyone, and is especially angered at the Turkish government for supporting this move:

אתם יודעים מה, אמרו בישראל. יאללה. ניגש מתאם הפעולות בשטחים לשגריר הטורקי בישראל והציע לו שישראל תעביר בעצמה את כל הציוד ההומניטרי לרצועה. רק בלי משט. בדרך הרגילה. במילים אחרות, בואו נשאיר בצד את מסע היח”צנות ואת מנועי הקיטור של האוניות ופשוט נדאג שהסיוע יגיע לעזה. ואפילו בדרך מהירה יותר. הטורקים אמרו לא.

You know what? Israel said – Yalla. The Israel chief coordinator for operations in the territories approached the Turkish ambassador to Israel and proposed that Israel will transfer all the humanitarian materials into the Gaza strip. Just not through water. In the usual route. In other words, leaving the PR-ified journey and the steam engines aside, and simply making sure that the goods reach Gaza. Even faster.
The Turkish said no.

The flotilla is connected to radical entities (links to potential terrorists?)

On their public facing blog, Israeli Defense Forces claim that top level Islamic extremists are linked to the Gaza flotilla:

According to a report by the Intelligence & Terrorism Information Center, senior Islamic extremists attended the launching ceremony in Istanbul of a boat participating in the flotilla. Among the participants were Mahmad Tzoalha and Sahar Albirawi, both top Hamas terrorists who today operate in Great Britain, and Hamam Said, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan.

Bolant Yilderim, the chairman of the IHH, a Turkish based pro-Palestinian organization that is spearheading the Gaza flotilla, delivered a radical speech at the ceremony to the applause of Turkish politicians and radical Islamic activists. “Israel behaves like Hitler did towards the Jews. Hitler built concentration camps in Germany, and today the Zionist entity is building concentration camps in Palestine,” said Chairman Yilderim.

Here's an excerpt from a post published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs titled “Maritime Huzpa in Memory of Rachel Corrie” about the ISM's (International Solidarity Movement) operation:

ISM is an organization that approves the Palestinian right for “legitimate armed resistance”. Their “successes” include the prevention of IDF from destroying factories that produce bombs, and tunnels used for smuggling weapons, in addition to helping, encouraging and protecting terrorists. In addition to their support of terrorists, ISM encourages uncautious confrontational resistance for its international crew of volunteers. In 2002, in the midst of a violent takeover on the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem by Palestinian terrorists, ISM members joined in as human shields. In the same year, Rachel Corrie found her death, and Mike's place – a popular Tel Aviv bar – was bombed by two suicide attackers who “sipped tea” with ISM members just 5 days prior to the attack.

ISM's behavior is typical to that of such extreme activists. While they claim that they support human rights, they often show little to no sensitivity to human life. ISM was more interested in protecting illegal structures than the lives of its international volunteers. The volunteers on the boats are all political instruments, in FGM's (Free Gaza Movement) control. How can we provide legitimacy to NGO's that do not respect their volunteer's lives?

I'm still trying to find out more information on Mahmad Tzoalha and Saha Albirawi. If you see something out there, please post here.

Israelis reactions and public outreach

1. Apparently a large group of Israelis led by Guy Bechor are set to embark on a counter-journey to intercept the Flotilla crew. Following is an extract from Moti Sagron's post describing of what their agenda should be:

Even with Hamas's actions, we were offering peace. Israel's problem is not with the Gaza residents, but with Hamas. Therefore, if you identify with the residents, and not Hamas, we will help you transport all wanted humanitarian material. Israel already does this routinely. The residents of Gaza receive hundreds of supply trucks every week, in addition to fuel and electricity. However, as long as Hamas is a racist organization, fascist and antisemite, resisting peace and calling for a Jihad towards building an Islamist dictatorship, and as long as Hamas controls the Gaza strip, there is no solution other than fighting them.

2. Gilad Shalit's family offered to support the international flotilla to Gaza if its participants would demand that Hamas permit various organizations to visit the kidnapped Israeli soldier and allow him to receive packages. Members of the campaign for Shalit's release said the organizers of the international aid mission to Gaza declined the offer.

3. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been apparently hounding people on Twitter, says Sherine Tadros:

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been spreading the fact that the Flotilla is invited to unload its cargo in the Ashdod port:

Again, this is a complex story, with a whole slew of perspectives. I tried to represent some of the Israeli opinions which you would typically not see or hear. Please let me know if there are any important or unique voices that I've missed.

We'll certainly be watching the events as they unfold here at Global Voices Online.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSI3koQ1Oh4 michal

    The flotilla is missing the entire point!

    If there are human rights violations in GAZA, and if there is a humanitarian crisis, HAMAS is to blame:
    HAMAS has been declared by the UN and amnesty as a terrorist organization,
    HAMAS constantly violates civilian and human rights of the palestiniam population.

    TRUE FREEDOM FOR GAZA = FREE GAZA FROM HAMAS

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSI3koQ1Oh4

    • LonJon

      If HAMAS is a terrorist entity, then the whole process of democracy in GAZA is a sham! GAZA should be left to rot for its inhabitants collaborated with terrorists. But then who will profit — Zionist entity??

      That is why Zionist keeping a tight lid on GAZA socio-politico-economically??
      Just a land-grabbing scheme to me.

      Rgds.

  • Lammers

    @michal

    The occupation of the West Bank and (in the past) the Gaza Strip is illegal according to the UN as well…

    Israel is deliberately choking the Gaza Strip, making life miserable and hopeless for the inhabitants, hoping that (parts of) Hamas will become more radical. Israel can then point at Hamas and the Gaza Strip and say: See, I told you, they’re all terrorists.

    Luckily they need a certain degree of international support for this strategy to be successfull. And this international support, both among western governments as within the population, is dwindling very fast. I would say that the majority of Europeans nowadays see the Israelis as agressors and not, as in the past, as the almost defenceless western people that Europeans can identify with, who are surrounded by non-western semi-barbarians and/or terrorists. Those days are over for good. It’s about time Israel realizes it.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSI3koQ1Oh4 michal

    you’ve got it all wrong…
    Israel does not support HAMAS in any manner, what Israel wants is for HAMAS to disappear and make place for the more peacefull voices to stand out.
    Israel suffers from hamas continuos rocket atacks on civilians, and does anything it can do to stop those attacks.
    Obama himself said that if he lived in the southern parts of Israel – he would do anything in his power to stop the rockets, and that Israel has every right to defend itself against HAMAS.
    Israel tried to leave the GAZA strip a few times.
    currently there are no israeli settelments in the GAZA strip,
    but since rocket attacks keep on coming – israel has no way to leave gaza at this time.

  • nacho

    for the beginning: I’m not an hamas-supporter, nor an antisemit. but what is happening here is the turning of an area into something like an open-air-prison. sending food in there helps to keep the palestinians alive, but does not over them any possibility to life a independent and self-determind life.
    on the other hand -please correct me, if I am wrong- the last thing I know is that the hamas was elected democraticly. this doesn’t make them an organisation I would support, but we have to accept the fact, that they are the official voice of the people in Gaza, so the only way to peace is to negotiate with them.

    • michal

      you’re right – israel has to talk with HAMAS in order to acheive peace.
      However – Israel cannot ignore the fact that this is a terrorist organization that rules the GAZA strip in a tottalitarian manner: HAMAS assasins their opposers, they make sure that only those close to them receive the aid, and they were also the ones to plan the flotilla, including the violence.

  • Andrew D

    Many of the people on board with the floatilla have now paid with their lives. I think we can safely say this was not a stunt.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGMCfYQschE flotilla

    eople act out of humanitarian motive not go to ship with firearms, clubs, and knives!

    \Peace activists\ were attacked with clubs, knives, and firearms Israeli soldiers! This is not peace This is violence!

    \Peace activists\ were stab Israeli soldiers until the soldiers were forced to defend themselves!

    What country would allow such attackers to infiltrate her country?
    Ships were active terrorists from Hezbollah.

  • ema

    @flotilla..
    I think you should browse further for information..youtube may helps you perhaps the real condition on those vessels. I don’t think full arms of Israelis need to fight harder till caused of 19 death…

    May us be granted with human sense, if not so much please just a little bit…regardless what religions we standing for..

  • Deborah

    Score another disastrous p.r. moment for Bibi and his thug administration as well as the worms of humanity who are trying to defend the murder in international waters.

  • mac

    this had nothing to do with aid, just world media stunt. They were offered to bring in aid overland, but that would have not gotten the confrontation they wanted. Look at the videos, they attacked immediately with a great fury…what were the soldiers supposed to do? You say they shouldn’t have been there, what about the activist? They were supposed to be there? bringing aid in by the sea? they knew and wanted a confrontation.
    They got exactly what they deserved. This plan of gathering sympathetic support for Muslim causes from westerners is their goal…please don’t fall for this propaganda. Israel did just what it had to do and the same as any other country under the same circumstances!

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