Discouragement from Israel and other governments leaves only the most determined activists on deck.
Jerusalem — Earlier this week, as the Greek government continued to prohibit a flotilla of boats bent on breaking Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza from leaving Greek waters, a leader of the Free Gaza movement appeared to let down her guard for a moment.
When a reporter from the Irish Times asked whether the coalition of activist organizations would allow Greece to channel the cargo to Gaza, Greta Berlin, the movement’s co-founder and spokesperson, gave an emphatic “No.”
“This is not about delivering goods but breaking the illegal siege of Gaza. There is no way that the coalition will accept that,” Berlin asserted.
That’s exactly the message Israel and its supporters have been trying to convey in recent months as the first anniversary of the first flotilla debacle drew closer.
Though reluctant to share details, Israeli officials acknowledged they have been working overtime to plead Israel’s case on a national and individual level.
“We have been engaging over the last months with governments and organizations,” Mark Regev, an Israeli government spokesperson, told The Jewish Week.” But to be fair, the reason there is this unanimity against [the flotilla participants] is the acknowledgement that if Israel didn’t have a maritime blockade of Gaza, Iran would be sending weapons” to Hamas.
Regev ticked off the many bodies and governments that have given the new flotilla participants anything from a stern warning to a cold shoulder.
“The governments of Britian, France, Canada, Cyprus, Grece, Italy and Australia have all come out against the flotilla,” Regev said.
Nor have they received “international legitimacy” from the UN Secretary General, the UN Security Council, the European Union and the Group of 27 Council,” Regev added.
The spokesman said that even some NGOs, “like the Turkish Red Crescent,” have gone so far as to acknowledge Israel’s easing of the closure and the fact that they “routinely send supplies through the Gaza crossings.”
By all accounts, these diplomatic efforts to delegitimize the flotilla’s mission have paid off in a significant way for Israel.
On June 24, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said that groups that seek to break Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza “are taking irresponsible and provocative actions that risk the safety of their passengers.”
The statement urged people “not to participate in actions like the planned flotilla,” and noted that “established and efficient mechanisms exist” to bring humanitarian assistance to Gaza.
The spokesperson cited the many weapons and advanced military systems recently seized by Israel and Egyptian officials “bound for terrorist groups in Gaza.”
As if that weren’t enough vindication, members of the Quartet (the U.S., United Nations, European Union and Russia) urged anyone wishing to deliver goods to Gaza to do so “through established channels so that their cargo can be inspected and transferred via established land crossings.”
The statement also recognized that Israel “has legitimate security concerns that must continue to be safeguarded.”
Israel’s efforts to paint the flotilla as a Hamas-backed propaganda machine apparently convinced even some of the participants to literally jump ship.
The Jewlicious website carried an article by Asna El Maroudi, a Dutch journalist and pro-Palestinian activist.
In the article, Maroudi, 26, relates how she begged her boat’s organizers for a list of who would be sailing as well as the source of the trip’s funding. When they failed to provide these things, she left.
“The bottom line is very simple. In a mission such as this one, the activists must be able to fully trust one another, like firefighters entering a burning building. My trust in the organization only diminished the further we progressed,” Maroudi writes.
Another sign that Israel’s PR campaign is having an effect: On the fifth anniversary of the capture of Gilad Shalit, several left-wing Israeli organizations — some explicitly pro-Palestinian — issued a statement calling for Hamas authorities in Gaza to “immediately end the cruel and inhuman treatment of Gilad Shalit.”
Dan Diker, secretary general of the World Jewish Congress, believes the Israeli government, from the prime minister’s office to the ministries of foreign affairs and public diplomacy “did an excellent job under Prime Minister Netanyahu’s leadership.”
Specifically, Diker said, “there seemed to be fuller integration and communication” between the ministries and government offices. “They understood what they were dealing with.”
Although humanitarian aid organizations readily acknowledge that Israel has eased its blockade under pressure from the international community, they insist that life in Gaza remains unbearable.
“The partial easing of the blockade has made very little difference in the lives of ordinary people,” Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA), said in an interview. “A blockade is like being pregnant. Either you have a blockade or you don’t.”
While Gunness did not condone the flotilla outright, he said that “if there was no blockade and not a crisis in just about every area of life in Gaza, there would be no need for the flotilla. We need to build 100 schools; 95 percent of water in Gaza is undrinkable. Millions of liters of raw sewage goes into the sea. Unemployment is over 45 percent. Since the start of the blockade in June 2007, the number of the abject poor coming to UNWRA has gone from 100,000 to 300,000.”
Gunness admitted that even at the blockade’s height, “people were never starving in Gaza. It’s not sub-Saharan Africa. It’s a political crisis by choice.”
The markets are full of food, Gunness acknowledged, but said many Gazans can’t afford it. He said building materials — which Israel permits only for specific projects overseen by aid organizations to prevent them being used for military purposes — have slowed the creation of schools and other vital buildings.
Guy Inbar, spokesman for COGAT, Israel’s Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories, said that 160,000 tons of building supplies slated for 130 projects have been transported into Gaza during the past year.
Dr. Omar Sha’ban, who heads the Gaza office of the World Health Organization (WHO), said the flow of medical supplies has increased in the past year.
“There is an easing but not a total opening. Drugs are coming in but not all the medical equipment that has been requested. It takes an average of six months to bring an X-ray machine into Gaza.”
Sha’ban said that Egypt’s opening of the Rafah border between it and Egypt on May 28 is enabling only about 500-or-so Gazans to leave the territory.
While acknowledging “some positive changes” in the flow of goods into Gaza, Tania Hary, director of international relations for Gisha, an organization that challenges Israeli limitations on Palestinian mobility, said the restrictions that prevent people and exports from leaving Gaza are primarily harming civilians.
“Students are still barred from traveling between Gaza and the West Bank and just two trucks a day on average leave Gaza.”
In contrast, Israel approves between 80 to 90 percent of all medical applications from Gazans seeking medical care outside the strip, Sha’ban said. Those who do not receive permits now have the option of exiting via Egypt.
Sha’ban, who did not comment on the flotilla, dreams of the day when Gazans will no longer need to rely on foreign aid. A whopping 80 percent are dependent, according to UNWRA.
“The unemployment and poverty rates are extremely high. Yes, there is food and soda here but how a father brings the food to his family is the problem. There is just no dignity,” Sha’ban said.
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