Just two months ago, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak offered a remarkably candid admission of the challenges posed by the recent surge in nonviolent pro-Palestinian organizing. "The Palestinians' transition from terrorism and suicide bombings to deliberately unarmed mass demonstrations,” he said, “is a transition that will present us with difficult challenges." Missile strikes and open fire may pass muster if the government can accuse its opponents of violence or terrorism, but Israeli officials are keenly aware about the dangers of reacting to nonviolent demonstrations in the same way—especially when foreign nationals are involved.
The same conundrum vexes Netanyahu’s government as it confronts this year’s “Freedom Flotilla” to Gaza, an attempt by international activists to run 10 ships carrying letters and humanitarian supplies past the Israeli blockade—or to force a confrontation with Israeli forces in so doing. The Israel Project has called the campaign, along with a separate “airtilla” of activists flying to Israel and declaring their destination “Palestine,” an effort to “challenge Israel’s legitimacy by air and sea.”
Israeli officials have been eager to avoid a repeat of last year’s flotilla fiasco, when elite Israeli soldiers boarded a Turkish vessel in international waters and killed nine activists in the ensuing melee. The move sparked international outcry and torpedoed Israeli’s friendship with Turkey, its oldest and most powerful ally in the region.
Israel has thus pursued a multi-pronged campaign to stop the new flotilla and discourage or discredit its organizers.
Foremost, of course, it has reserved the right to stop the flotilla with violent force if necessary. Such threats received ample backing from hawkish Americans, including two Democratic lawmakers and a GOP governor who called for U.S. participants to be prosecuted, as well as a former Bush speechwriter who tweeted that he would be “cool” with Israeli soldiers killing Americans who broke the blockade.
The U.S. State Department also issued a “travel warning” discouraging U.S. citizens from participating, referring to the flotilla’s route as an incursion into “Israeli” (vs. Gazan) waters and forcing Israelis “to defend themselves,” effectively giving diplomatic cover to any action Israeli soldiers may take. Compare this to the response of the Irish government which, even as it discouraged its nationals from participating, called the Gaza blockade “unjust and counterproductive” and demanded that Israel “exercise all possible restraint and avoid any use of military force if attempting to uphold their naval blockade.” Only six U.S. House members signed a still-unanswered letter urging Secretary of State Clinton to protect American citizens aboard the U.S. boat.
At the same time, the Israeli government and its backers have made unsubstantiated claims that flotilla activists are carrying firearms or chemical weapons and intend to attack Israeli soldiers. Such accusations have been debunked, but they mirror a similar strategy of linking the activists to Hamas. Jonathan Tobin has likened the flotilla to an effort to “[break] the international isolation of the Hamas government,” while Christopher Hitchens has written—without offering a word of explanation—that it “seems safe and fair to say that the flotilla and its leadership work in reasonably close harmony with Hamas.” While no one has substantiated such purported links, the accusations implicitly endorse violence against the activists.
The Israeli government and its allies have also sought to outflank the flotilla organizers with some of their more liberal backers. The IDF released a video, widely circulated on right-wing blogs, pointing out that the Israeli government allows much more aid to cross into Gaza than could be delivered by any flotilla. Of course, the video curiously avoids any discussion of why aid might be necessary in the first place, and it sits uncomfortably next to Commentary writer Alana Goodman’s claims that Gaza is a land of luxury hotels and shopping malls and that “what these people really want are luxury sports utility vehicles.” Citing a mishmash of statistics without providing any context, Michael Rubin added, “to pretend there is a humanitarian tragedy under way in Gaza is simply counter to reality.” Another circulating video, said to be of an American whose participation was rejected by flotilla organizers because of his sexuality, has also been revealed as an Israeli hoax.
But it wasn’t Israel’s hard power threats or duplicitous soft power campaign that has ultimately parked the flotilla in Athens, where the Greek government has refused to let Gaza-bound ships depart from any of its ports. Rather, it was intense Israeli lobbying of the beleaguered Greek administration, preceded by a campaign to provide military and financial assistance to the cash-strapped country. Leaving little to chance, Israeli agents may well have also been behind the sabotage of at least two flotilla boats docked in Athens.
While this approach has been so far less violent and less openly confrontational than last year’s flotilla attack, it amounts all the same to an attempt to halt a nonviolent demonstration by means of coercion and subterfuge. Max Boot, while affirming “Israel’s right to use force to stop attempts to break its embargo,” has approvingly called the present Israeli approach “a smart, focused, and, above all, subtle response to head off a threat before it materializes.”
Although the activists appear stymied for now, they have successfully demonstrated not only how other states have abetted the Israeli policy in Gaza, but more importantly how much Israel fears the new wave of nonviolent activism against its policies. If the flotilla had been allowed to proceed, Israel might have been faced with the choice of either allowing it to pass or using force to prevent the transfer of humanitarian goods, highlighting a most unpleasant fact of its blockade. That’s a choice Israel is happy to defer for now.
But with its narrative about Gaza and the activists who organize on its behalf failing to stick anymore, Israeli officials realize that they may soon lose the ability to justify their policies solely on their own terms. While its present success in Greece represents a more-or-less elegant dodge, Israel is only delaying the inevitable.