Members of the mainstream solidarity organizations must be feeling a few nerves as the ships from Lebanon prepare for departure. While it seems positive that Arab solidarity is making a belated appearance, and international organisations say the more pressure the better, there seems little to be gained from sworn enemies of Israel throwing their partisan agenda into an already diffuse mix.
A major land and sea convoy is planned for September, with up to 700 vehicles in tow. Over 50 nations will be represented. It is surely a time for careful planning and consideration over how to maximise their effect. MK Haneen Zouabi said the Palestinian spokesmen “wasted Gaza”, meaning they failed to capitalise on the spike in global opinion in their favour. If momentum from the massacre is intelligently built on, Israel’s siege, losing legitimacy around the planet, will seem unsustainable.
It’s hard to perceive what benefit the movement will derive from having a few postage stamp vessels full of Israel’s enemies representing it. This can hardly be declared as the world speaking against Israel and as such makes the IDF’s position easier. Minister Danny Ayalon sounded relaxed talking about how the new flotilla would be handled, “the situation is different, these are from enemy states, they will be dealt with differently”, going on to suggest passengers would be imprisoned. Back on home turf. Dealing with enemies rather than a confusing mix of 50 countries that cant all be calling for Israel’s destruction.
There has been little detailed publicity about this edition, little of what the sophisticated PR people at Viva Palestina call ‘trailing’. The previous ships went through very public security searches to show they had no weapons, they released constant updates, videos and blogs to relay their journey to the world. They hosted enough reporters to staff several newsrooms. Such methods guarantee a level of interest that, carefully managed, can become a huge media event. Publicity is the currency of these missions, to facilitate external pressure on the policy makers. Haneen Zouabi called the last flotilla a success, because “Gaza got more coverage in the Israeli papers in a month, than it had in four years.”
Right now we are told the ships are poised to depart but we don’t know where, or what they are carrying, or when they will land. That vital link to the outside, or at least western world is missing and as a consequence the flotilla becomes too easy to ignore. Their journey will last days instead of weeks, meaning the subplots (the Cyprus docking) and drama that captured the popular imagination last time, will be absent.
The only emerging information is coming from IDF sources, reporting the passengers are predominantly Islamists. Whether its true or not, this is worrying for the organisers and the Free Gaza movement at large. If, as last time, the army’s strategy involves dominating the narrative from beginning to end, it is vital the Hasbara does not go unchallenged. Having effectively smeared the previous coalition, army communicators must be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of finding muck to rake on the Lebanese and Syrians. If the previous trip taught us anything it is that the agendas of each passenger will be under a microscope and should these groups be successfully tarred as extremists, it would be damaging for the movement at large. The September flotilla would depart under a cloud.
The key factors of size and demographic are simply not there in this case. Logistically, Israel’s navy will have few problems picking off the boats and quietly leading them to Ashdod, where no doubt some ‘terrorists’ will be discovered and some prison sentences delivered as warning and precedent. Few embassy officials will be called. Few protests will be held in London, Madrid and Seattle. If the reports indicating a large contingent of fundamental Islamists are true, international public sympathies could lurch toward Israel, being ganged up on by its aggressive neighbours.
The last flotilla was effective because it included such a range of nationalities, faiths and backgrounds that no collective, sinister motive could be successfully foisted upon them. By representing just one face of the free Gaza movement, rather than the mosaic which made up the previous and following trips, they risk splitting the support base. European and American elements are said to be uncomfortable that a by-product of these trips has been propaganda coups for Hamas. It may alienate key supporters to promote an Islamist agenda that would lead to dark whispers of Anti-Semitism and terror networks.
With Lebanese-Israeli tensions bubbling in the background, sending ships to confront the IDF which is perceived to be hostile, could lead to complications in their fragile truce. Israel holds the state of Lebanon responsible for all its citizens, and will doubtless treat them with little sympathy. If prisoners or casualties are taken, the Lebanese government will be obliged to ramp up the tensions further, with obvious implications for neighbouring countries.
The chances of this flotilla reaching Gaza are nil, in the best case scenario it will be clay to the IDF spin mongers, led meekly into the obscurity of a stage managed non-story. At worst it will cause a diplomatic incident that jeopardises the hard-won progress that owed so much to the deaths of the Mavi Marmara activists, while hardening dangerous tensions throughout the region. Organisers of the following flotilla, which has a far greater chance of influencing policy, will be watching though their fingers and praying for damage limitation.
With a UN probe underway and three Spanish activists suing the military, the issues are still bubbling close to the surface. Perfect embers for the September convoy to fire afresh. This ill-conceived trip shows cracks in a movement which proved unity could be a potent weapon.