Lessons from the Freedom Flotilla II: How Israel Continues to Lose the Propaganda War on Gaza

Lessons from the Freedom Flotilla II: How Israel Continues to Lose the Propaganda War on Gaza

Activists board the American ship the Audacity of Hope

The results of the latest attempt to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza will cause a major shift in how the world perceives the Israeli occupation, says Gabriel Schivone.  Schivone, a 27 year-old student from Arizona, was one of about fifty passengers aboard the Audacity of Hope, an American boat participating in the Free Gaza movement’s Freedom Flotilla II.  The flotilla was the tenth attempt to deliver largely symbolic humanitarian aid to the population of the Gaza Strip, which has been under a blockade by Israel and its allies since 2007.  Israel claims the blockade is meant stop arms shipments, but human rights organizations have labeled the blockade an illegal and inhumane form of collective punishment for the 1.7 million inhabitants of Gaza.

The Free Gaza movement brings together participants from dozens of countries, including elected government officials, Nobel laureates, authors and journalists, in an attempt to “lift the illegal siege, completely and permanently”.  Its first few voyages were successful in breaching the blockade, but since then they have been thwarted by interception by Israeli forces, arrests and deportation, and on one occasion a deadly commando raid.  

The Freedom Flotilla II, composed of ten ships and more than 300 participants, unlike previous flotillas, met a premature end: the American and Canadian ships waylaid by Greek authorities, two others sabotaged in port, and the rest threatened by Greek maritime authorities into not sailing.  One ship, the French Dignite / Al Karama managed to approach Gaza only to be stopped by the Israeli navy.

The flotilla draws strength from its diversity, as civil society representatives from dozens of countries confront Israeli policy.  The last flotilla, which ended in the deaths of a number of activists, earned Israel the world’s condemnation, but many of those countries have backtracked this time.  Even Turkey, which lost a number of citizens in the Israeli attack on a Turkish-flagged ship last year, joined the European chorus in discouraging the latest flotilla, and importantly, laying blame for the action’s outcome upon the activists and not Israel.  

“The contracting powers of the Geneva Conventions were complicit previously only by silence or arms sales,” Schivone says, “but now world governments were pointing themselves out...extending the blockade to their own shores”.  He says the gap between civil society and governments is widening, and it is becoming more difficult for the Israeli occupation to retain its facade of legitimacy.

Schivone says a series of “increasingly insane actions” on the part of Israel pushed him to look into the issue and support the Palestinian movement for freedom.  He says he had a number of friends during the 2006 Lebanon war, both inside Israel, the West Bank, and Lebanon that impacted his view of the conflict.

Although a number of seasoned peace activists are still helping organize the latest challenge to the occupation, young activists such as Schivone are responsible for many of Israel’s headaches.  Groups such as the International Solidarity Movement send young internationals to Palestine to work on non-violent actions on the ground with locals.  Activists receive initial training in their home countries, and travel to Palestine without disclosing their real intent to Israeli authorities, eventually linking up with networks on the ground that channel them towards meeting the needs of Palestinian-led groups.  A number of these young activists have been seriously injured or killed by the Israeli military during their actions.

Missy Lane, 32, from Washington DC was another participant in the flotilla.  She began following the occupation in 2002, and visited the West Bank in 2005, prompted by the Apartheid Wall being contracted there by Israel.  She says the flotilla was important because of its potential for international attention, and she became involved because “confronting the blockade is the most significant act that we can take” in the movement for Palestine.

Steven Fake, a 28 year-old activist from New Orleans, also cites the potential international impact of the flotilla for his participation in it.  Fake became active around the occupation issue during the Second Intifada, organizing actions to draw attention to events such as the brutal Israeli attack on the Jenin refugee camp in 2002.  “Palestine was an issue that was very obvious US citizens should focus on, “ he explains, “because it [Israel] received so much US support.”  Howard Zinn, the late historian, and Noam Chomsky were major influences for Fake.

Schivone says it is “ridiculous to pretend that many of us don’t have issues that we choose for some reason of interest to us...me personally I’m not Amnesty International, so I can’t be everywhere.”

Getting a seat on a boat in the Freedom Flotilla II was not an easy task: there were hundreds of thousands of applicants and in the end only about a thousand were accepted into the project.  

Israel has developed a sophisticated narrative for its blockade.  It says the Hamas leadership in Gaza would like to wipe it off the map and has no desire for peaceful coexistence with the Jewish state.  Gaza’s population, it says, does not face any shortages and in fact Israeli-controlled rations and hundreds of secret tunnels with Egypt provide for a thriving local economy.  And the thousands of internationals trying to get there?  They are composed of Islamists, anti-Semites, and Hamas sympathizers, a “hate flotilla” having nothing to do with the welfare of Gazans.  If the organizers were serious about sending aid to Gaza, Israel says, they could easily give it to Israel for inspection and be assured of its delivery.

Fake likens the Israeli offer to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak telling those in Tahrir Square they should go through official channels to implement their reforms.  “Clearly that is not acceptable because the official channels are not sufficient and are not legitimate and the blockade is not legitimate.  It is collective punishment, a war-crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention.”  Simply letting in some donations to Gaza, he continues,  is “a drop in the bucket for humanitarian aid...a bandage on something that is illegitimate to being with.  The Gazan people have the right to freedom within their own borders and to control their own borders...so providing food or medical aid is not sufficient.”  

Israeli officials have repeatedly said they are only keeping the Gazans “on a diet”, and carefully monitoring the caloric intake of each inhabitant to ensure they do not starve.  But Fake, Lane, and Schivone agree the flotilla was not meant to deliver humanitarian aid.  “Being kept on the brink of starvation is not providing ‘necessary aid’ to the people that are inside, “ says Lane.

Fake calls the Israeli blockade “the planned destruction of an economy.”  Much of the world has gone through an economic meltdown since 2008, he explains, “but unlike the rest of the world, the situation in Gaza is deliberate and planned: 80% of the people there depend on daily aid.”  He says there has been plenty of propaganda about the availability of food in Gaza recently, “If you happen to be wealthy, then you can find some of these things, but most people are not...so its a very deliberate policy to keep Gazans on aid and charity to provide them with enough so they don’t starve to death, but to otherwise keep them totally helpless, and that needs to change.”

Lane laughs when asked if she is an activist that believes in a Palestine "from the river to the sea", a reference to those that would like Israel off the map entirely.  She says the idea behind the flotilla is to “challenge the blockade itself, to challenge the ‘proper channels’ because they are not valid themselves.”

After being screened by a thorough application process, the flotilla participants received extensive training on how to deal with commando raids at sea.  Activists would take turns dressing as commandos and storm into rooms full of other activists, pushing them and trying to get them used to the possibility of being boarded at sea.  Ships were often checked by third parties for weapons and objects that might seem threatening to Israeli commandos.  

Schivone says the Israeli propaganda calling the activists violent extremists worked in the activists’ favor, as it confused the general public.  “I thought these people are supposed to eat babies and foam at the mouth, “ he says, describing the thoughts of a typical news watcher, “they are just like me, they are just like regular people, they are mothers, teachers, sons and daughters, there’s something not right.”

For Schivone, the situation in the Gaza Strip is unique today, as it persists despite being subjected to the condemnation of a wide array of international bodies and respected personalities such as Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Jimmy Carter.  “This is a little tract of land,” he explains, “where 1.7 million people are crammed into it and bombed at the whim of Israel, the occupying power, with weapons and equipment that comes from the US.”  

By all indications, movements such as Free Gaza are only gaining strength.  Shortly after the Freedom Flotilla II was stopped, a separate “flytilla” movement attempted to land hundreds of passengers at Ben Gurian Airport in Tel Aviv to bring attention to the difficulty of travelling to the West Bank.  A convoy of aid travelling by land from South Africa to Gaza is currently in Sudan, and the Free Gaza movement is already planning its next attempt to break the blockade by sea.  Schivone, Lane, and Fake all say they hope to be on the next flotilla, and are already helping organize a flotilla of youth activists that will make stops throughout the Mediterranean, drawing on the energy of the Arab Spring and emerging European leftist movements before departing for Gaza.