Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Gaza flotilla: Love boats or hate boats?

Interesting point-counterpoint between Medea Benjamin (below in italics) and Christopher Hitchens. Not surprising that Hitchens prevails, morally and intellectually. Oh, pity the poor anti-Semites and terrorists! All they want is peace!

Some questions for the "activists" aboard the Gaza flotilla
The tale of the Gaza "flotilla" seems set to become a regular summer feature, bobbing along happily on the inside pages with an occasional update. A nice sidebar for reporters covering the Greek debt crisis: a built-in mild tension of "will they, won't they?"; a cast of not very colorful characters but one we almost begin to feel we know personally. Such cheery and breezy slogans—"the audacity of hope" and "free Gaza"—and such an easy storyline that it practically writes itself. Since Israel adopts a posture that almost guarantees a reaction of some sort in the not-too-distant future, and since there was such a frisson of violence the last time the little fleet set sail, there's no reason for it not to become a regular seasonal favorite.
 
However, given the luxury of time, might it not be possible to ask the "activists" onboard just a few questions? (Activist is a good neutral word, isn't it, with largely positive connotations? Even flotilla, with its reassuring diminuendo, has a "small is beautiful" sound to it.) Most of the speculation so far has been to do with methods and intentions, allowing for many avowals about peaceful tactics and so forth, but this is soft-centered coverage. I would like to know a little more about the political ambitions and implications of the enterprise.
 
It seems safe and fair to say that the flotilla and its leadership work in reasonably close harmony with Hamas, which constitutes the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. The political leadership of this organization is headquartered mainly in Gaza itself. But its military coordination is run out of Damascus, where the regime of Bashar Assad is currently at war with increasingly large sections of the long-oppressed Syrian population. Refugee camps, some with urgent humanitarian requirements, are making their appearance on the border between Syria and Turkey (the government of the latter being somewhat sympathetic to the purposes of the flotilla). In these circumstances, isn't it legitimate to strike up a conversation with the "activists" and ask them where they come out on the uprising against hereditary Baathism in Syria?

Then again, Syria's other proxy party in the region is Hezbollah, which operates a state-within-a-state and maintains a private army on the territory of Lebanon. Senior associates of this group have recently been named in a U.N. indictment concerning the broad-daylight murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. Hezbollah's leadership and propaganda organs, while refusing all cooperation with the United Nations, are currently expressing undying solidarity with the Assad regime, which relies additionally on heavy support from the dictatorship in Iran. Again, the Hamas leadership seems compromised at best by its association with this local Tehran-Damascus axis.

Surely there must be some spokesman for the blockade-runners who is able to give us his thinking on this question, too? At a time of widespread democratic and pluralist revolution in the region, Hamas imposes its own version of theocracy on Gaza and seems otherwise aligned with the forces that stand athwart the hope of continued and deeper change. Who wants to volunteer time to make this outfit look more presentable? Half the published articles on Gaza contain a standard reference to its resemblance to a vast open-air prison (and when I last saw it under Israeli occupation, it certainly did deserve this metaphor). The problem is that, given its ideology and its allies, Hamas qualifies rather too well in the capacity of guard and warder.
 
Only a few weeks ago, the Hamas regime in Gaza became the only governing authority in the world—by my count—to express outrage and sympathy at the death of Osama Bin Laden. As the wavelets lap in the Greek harbors, and the sunshine beats down, doesn't any journalist want to know whether the "activists" have discussed this element in their partners' world outlook? Does Alice Walker seriously have no comment?
 
Hamas is listed by various governments and international organizations as a terrorist group. I don't mind conceding that that particular word has been used in arbitrary ways in the past. But what concerns me much more is the official programmatic adoption, by Hamas, of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This disgusting fabrication is a key foundational document of 20th-century racism and totalitarianism, indelibly linked to the Hitler regime in theory and practice. It seems extraordinary to me that any "activist" claiming allegiance to human rights could cooperate at any level with the propagation of such evil material. But I have never seen any of them invited to comment on this matter, either.
 
The little boats cannot make much difference to the welfare of Gaza either way, since the materials being shipped are in such negligible quantity. The chief significance of the enterprise is therefore symbolic. And the symbolism, when examined even cursorily, doesn't seem too adorable. The intended beneficiary of the stunt is a ruling group with close ties to two of the most retrograde dictatorships in the Middle East, each of which has recently been up to its elbows in the blood of its own civilians. The same group also manages to maintain warm relations with, or at the very least to make cordial remarks about, both Hezbollah and al-Qaida. Meanwhile, a document that was once accurately described as a "warrant for genocide" forms part of the declared political platform of the aforesaid group. There is something about this that fails to pass a smell test. I wonder whether any reporter on the scene will now take me up on this.
by Medea Benjamin
Oakland Tribune
© Copyright 2011, Bay Area News Group

"I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him," said Dr. Martin Luther King as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.
These words will guide me and other passengers aboard the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, a fleet now scheduled to set sail shortly for Gaza. While the Israelis try to label us provocateurs, terrorists and Hamas supporters, we are simply nonviolent advocates following the teachings of Dr. King. We refuse to sit at the docks of history and watch the people of Gaza suffer.
 
Our intrepid group has its moral compass aimed at the way things ought to be. Our cargo is not humanitarian aid, as some of the other ships are carrying, but letters of compassion, solidarity and hope written to people living in the Gaza Strip. We travel with what Dr. King called "unarmed truth and unconditional love."
 
We focus on Gaza because since 2007 the Israeli government has enforced a crippling blockade on its 1.5 million residents. Inflicting collective punishment on civilians is morally wrong and is a violation of international humanitarian law.
 
Yet the world's democracies do nothing to stop Israel's cruel behavior and did nothing in 2008-09 while the Israeli military killed approximately 1,400 Palestinians.
 
They continue to sit by while Gazans remain isolated and unable to secure access to building materials and basic living supplies, and while Israeli soldiers shoot at farmers along the border and attack fishermen along Gaza's coast. And in the case of the U.S., our government is not simply sitting by, but supporting the Israeli military with $3 billion in military aid a year.
 
The Palestinians' plea for help has been ignored by world governments, but it has pricked the conscience of civil society. In May 2010, seven ships and nearly 700 passengers carrying humanitarian aid tried to breach Israel's naval blockade.
 
The Israeli military violently intercepted them, killing nine passengers aboard the Turkish boat, including a young American citizen. The rest of the passengers were roughed up, arrested, thrown in Israeli prisons and deported.
 
For a brief moment, this tragedy in international waters focused the world spotlight on Gaza. Israel said it would ease the Draconian siege. Nonetheless, a recent credible report found unemployment in Gaza at 45.2 percent, among the highest in the world.
 
Chris Gunness, spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said the number of abject poor living on just over one dollar a day has tripled to 300,000 since the blockade was imposed in 2007.
 
"It is hard to understand the logic of a man-made policy which deliberately impoverishes so many and condemns hundreds of thousands of potentially productive people to a life of destitution," Gunness said.
 
Although the Israelis know our boats will not carry arms and that we are committed to nonviolence, they have nonetheless vowed to stop us with a dizzying array of force---water cannons, commandos, border police, snipers and attack dogs.
 
At least two ships have been sabotaged so far, probably by Israeli agents, and Greek officials are not letting us out---presumably due to significant American and Israeli pressure.
 
All this bullying, however, only strengthens our resolve. We may be fewer boats, we may have fewer passengers, we may be threatened with violence, but we will sail.
 
Medea Benjamin is cofounder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK: Women for Peace. She is a passenger on the U.S. Boat to Gaza, "The Audacity of Hope."
 

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