Gaza flotilla activists determined as ever despite Greek setback 5Jul11 July 6, 2011
by Jack ShenkerÂ Â -Â Â The Guardian -Â Â 5 July 2011
Many late-night forms of entertainment attract the crowds to Gouvia beach. The Elvis impersonators and happy hour cocktail offers are long-running staples; political agitation and naval blockades are not. For the past week, however, visitors have witnessed a strange addition to Corfu’s budget-holiday mecca: dozens of pro-Palestinian activists, huddled together around outdoor tables and debating intensely while British stag parties and groups of Slovenian teenagers in togas stumble drunkenly past.
It is perhaps the unlikeliest of backdrops to a diplomatic row that has drawn in Ban Ki-moon, Hillary Clinton and some of the Middle East‘s most entrenched political foes. But it is from here in Gouvia that this month’s “freedom flotilla” hoped to defy the diktats of government and break Israel‘s siege of Gaza, after similar attempts in Athens were thwarted by the Greek authorities.
On Tuesday that dream, for now at least, came to an end.
“They can keep us here and break our boats, but they cannot break our spirits,” announced Rotterdam council member Nourdin El Ouali from the deck of the Stefano Chiarini, an old 1950s minesweeper now festooned with peace flags. He was speaking after it emerged that the requisite paperwork for departure had not come through, and that most of the passengers were unwilling to risk flouting the law by setting off regardless. “We are not sailing today but one day we will sail, with more ships, more passengers and more determination than ever before to bring aid and freedom to the people of Gaza,” El Ouali added.
Amid the drama of ships breaking out of port and racing coastguard vessels to the high seas, and in the thick of mutual mud-slinging between the Israeli government and flotilla organisers â the former accusing activists of receiving funding from jihadists, the latter claiming that Israeli operatives risked human lives by sabotaging their boats â the realities of life in Gaza, supposedly the very thing lying at the heart of this whole affair, have sometimes felt forgotten.
Since Israel began blockading the Palestinian territory in June 2007 in response to Hamas taking power, numerous aid organisations have concluded that the quality of life for 1.6 million people trapped within has sharply declined, regularly precipitating a humanitarian crisis and potentially amounting to the collective punishment of a population â an act deemed illegal under international law. Israel believes the blockade is necessary to stop weapons being smuggling into the territory.
Last year Israel partially eased its restrictions on the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, largely as a response to the international outcry that accompanied its violent raid on the Turkish vessel the Mavi Marmara, which left nine people dead.
But in a report released only three months ago the UN concluded that this shift in policy “did not result in a significant improvement in people’s livelihoods”, highlighting the fact that 52% of the Gazan families still suffer from food insecurity and that unemployment levels in the territory remain among the highest in the world. David Cameron has labelled Gaza an open-air “prison camp”, and even the Greek government â which over the past week sanctioned the armed commandeering of American and Canadian ships in an effort to stop the flotilla â says publicly that the Israeli blockade must end.
It’s this chasm between the stated opposition of most world leaders to Israel’s tight grip over Gaza and their almost universal condemnation of a group of boats aiming to peacefully break it that has got activists in Corfu shaking their heads in frustration â and rethinking what their mission stands for in the context of a much broader struggle.
“Most states ignore civil society: they don’t take it seriously as a political player,” says Ewa Jasiewicz, a British-Polish campaigner who had been planning to sail to Gaza from Corfu.
“What the flotilla does is actually bring civil society into a space where states have to deal with us. Our actions are exposing the lack of adherence to international law among nation states supporting the siege, and through that we can show that it’s only grassroots movements and people power from below that has an impact on changing policy. We’re exposing the inertia and complicity of governments and really undermining the idea that we’re living in democracies â and that’s especially clear in Greece.”
In the midst of the Arab spring, Jasiewicz’s argument â that direct actions like the flotilla serve to delegitimise not only Israel’s occupation of Palestine but also the wider status quo of power relations in western democracies â is an explosive one, particularly in a country like Greece where the elected government is facing a powerful crisis of legitimacy from below.
According to Palestinian lawmaker Mustafa Barghouti, the flotilla and the extraordinary diplomatic mobilisation against it have revealed the vulnerability of established political elites and the growing momentum for change in the Middle East and beyond. “If you really support the Arab spring, you should support the flotilla,” he recently told national leaders at a meeting of the Socialist International.
Many of those involved in the flotilla believe that this year’s revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, as well as the ongoing battles being waged against autocratic rulers elsewhere in the Arab world, have fundamentally changed the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well. “People have had their stereotypes of Arabs smashed over the past six months, particularly when you see protesters in Sana’a wearing brightly coloured wigs and children resisting armed police in Cairo â you can’t call these people terrorists,” argues Jasiewicz.
“And in TV pictures of these scenes, the Palestinian flag is everywhere. You can’t cut the Palestinian freedom struggle out from the Arab Spring â it’s becoming recognised as a pro-democracy movement, and hence more widely accepted.”
The real intention of the flotilla has always been less about physically transporting humanitarian aid and geared more towards political subversion of the Israeli blockade. At this level the challenge was not so much to set sail â although one small French craft has reached international waters, the only boat in the flotilla to do so â but rather to win the media battle and create an opening for Palestinian voices to be heard. Whether this year’s efforts have helped achieve this will be bitterly contested by both sides for many months to come. The diverse array of activists who travelled to Corfu â from a Dublin-based professional rugby player to a member of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood â all had different metrics of success, differences which often bubbled over during hard-fought disagreements over strategy and tactics.
This motley crew of Corfu campaigners will now go their separate ways â some back home to Holland, Italy, Bosnia and elsewhere, others onto Athens to join continuing protests there by flotilla activists, including hunger strikes and occupations of some national embassies. Meanwhile the Stefano Chiarini will carry on bobbing among the pleasure yachts and the local ferries, waiting for the next attempt to voyage on to Gazan waters.
“The flotilla action is the culmination of decades of anti-occupation struggle,” says Jasiewicz. “It involves activists from civil rights movement backgrounds, anti-capitalist backgrounds, many different social justice movements, and inevitably sometimes those people will view things in different ways. But last year, when we were in prison [following the Israeli interception of a similar flotilla which included the Mavi Marmara] an Israeli lawyer walked in and said ‘you have changed the world’. We haven’t stopped trying to do that.”