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    Middle East
     Jul 9, 2011

Gandhians come thundering
By Victor Kotsev

TEL AVIV - At the current moment, it is impossible to say with a straight face that the Second Freedom flotilla, scheduled to run the Israeli naval blockade on the Gaza Strip over a week ago, is progressing well. The latest reports have it that most of the activists, stuck in Greece, are headed home. Depending on one's politics, one may feel the urge to smile bitterly or to smirk. But there is no denying a solid dose of irony in the developments so far.

The pro-Palestinian activists got a chance to try out some of their cherished non-violent tactics. They defied authorities, staged sit-downs, faced armed commandos and arrest, and even conducted

a hunger strike, all the while guarding their flanks closely against sabotage. Remarkably, they did not use any violence.

The irony is that the authorities and the heavily armed commandos were Greek, [1] the hunger strike happened at the American Embassy in Athens, [2] and the sit-down took place at the Spanish Embassy in the Greek capital. [3] Previously, the expedition suffered a substantial loss when the Turkish Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH - The Foundation of Humanitarian Relief) charity pulled out of the venture, apparently under pressure from the Turkish government.

The would-be saboteurs, in the activists' own accounts, were Israeli special operations divers and spies dressed as Greek fishermen. The disguise of the latter was allegedly rather poor, and the watchful activists immediately noticed that the fishermen "had neither bait nor buckets". [4] It has all the elements of a comic spy story.

Add to this that the sabotage - or at least much of it - apparently never happened. Some of the harassment reported by the activists is likely real, but so is evidently their own paranoia. The Free Gaza movement (the organizers of the flotilla) claimed that two ships had their propellers covertly disabled while docked in Greek and Turkish ports.

A Turkish police probe, however, quickly revealed that one of them had arrived in its waters damaged. According to the activists, the Irish ship in question had been disabled "in a planned and professional way" so that it would sink on the way to Gaza and kill its passengers. [5]

The reaction of Hamas (the rulers of Gaza) was no less ironic. Firstly, the movement conducted its own lengthy preparations for the arrival of the flotilla: for example, by simulating an Israeli raid on a ship. [6] For over a month, the purpose of the military exercise has remained a mystery. One has to smile at the absurd thought that Hamas men would attack the flotilla for propaganda purposes, pretending to be Israeli commandoes. But the notion that the Islamic movement’s armed wing would intervene forcefully on the activists' side is almost as absurd.

The flotilla is not even expected to come very close to Gaza, and besides, any kind of Hamas military help would hurt rather than help the activists' cause.

When, more recently, the Islamic movement learned that Greece was blocking the flotilla, it first slammed the Greek government as "inhumane". Subsequently, one version of the story goes, it sought to retaliate on Israel by cutting its gas supply from Egypt for a third time this year. On Monday, unknown assailants blew up a gas pipeline in Sinai; the available reports offer contradictory information, but according to Israeli government sources, the attackers missed the pipes leading to Israel and Jordan and destroyed an internal Egyptian link instead. [7]

Overall, Israel did much better, but parts of the Israeli "hasbara" - or propaganda campaign - against the flotilla bear no fewer traits of cheap comedy. Right-wing Israeli activists, allegedly affiliated with the government, recently released a number of short video clips full of extravagant narratives and questionable cinematography.

Critics have ranked most absurd a video ostensibly portraying Israel as a highly sexualized and neurotic young woman storming out of a psychology session. Dubbed "Sexy Israel", according to the +972 Israeli left-wing Internet magazine, the Youtube clip was initially titled "Sex with the Psychologist". [8]

Second comes a video in which an Israeli actor impersonates an American gay activist who was rejected by the flotilla organizers. [9] While many of the facts related to the oppression of homosexuals and women by Hamas, mentioned in the video, are verifiable, the lie behind it was quickly exposed and led to an Israeli embarrassment.

Flotilla members were quick to retort that homosexuals were welcome, and that they already had an "unofficial queer caucus" onboard the Canadian ship Tahrir. [10] As a side note, the revelation of the latter circumstance may well be an indication of the activists' declining hopes of reaching Gaza, since Hamas would be hard-pressed to welcome warmly a delegation of openly homosexual activists.

Comic relief moments aside, the bottom line currently is that only one out of around 15 ships and 208 out of around 1,500 originally planned participants (if that; the fate of the Swedish ship Giuliano, which reportedly left Greece on Wednesday, is unclear) are sailing toward Gaza. They should pose no major obstacle to the Israeli forces waiting for them. The rest of the ships are either held in Greece or, as in the case of the Turkish Mavi Marmara, pulled out weeks ago.

According to most accounts, so far the flotilla has been a spectacular disaster for the Free Gaza movement. On Friday morning, many of the activists stuck in Greece were reportedly headed home. [11] Earlier, the Palestinian news agency Ma'an reported: "[L]ate Friday in Athens, the flotilla organizers remarked that this year's embattled effort to sail to Gaza likely spelled the end of the Freedom Flotilla movement." [12]

Though the action is not completely over yet, the time seems ripe to ask two important questions: what led to this debacle, and what are the likely developments ahead?

In a recent article in Asia Times Online, I outlined some aspects of the Israeli diplomatic, legal and public relations campaign against the flotilla. I argued, "Israel itself is getting better in the field of non-violent strategy, and may even be about to outpace the Free Gaza activists." [13]

Developments that have emerged meanwhile have strengthened this argument. All of the Israeli tactics - diplomatic pressure on countries, legal suits by Israeli non-governmental organizations against businesses serving the flotilla, and various harassment techniques allegedly employed - have worked spectacularly well.

The Greek and Turkish governments cut the flotilla down to size, the confrontations with unexpected actors sapped its strength, commercial companies refused services and canceled deals, [14] and members of the expedition started to succumb to paranoia.

All of these tactics, or variations of them, come straight out of the manuals for strategic non-violent campaigns. These methods, including tactics such as sabotage, harassment of individuals and pressure on foreign governments, have been used successfully by self-styled non-violent movements (including pro-Palestinian activists) in the past.

Even the questionable Israeli propaganda video clips could be compared to methods frequently employed by the pro-Palestinian activists themselves. The tactic of mixing facts with distortions and making disproportionate allegations has long been used by anarchist movements seeking to delegitimize Israel. Compare this poster depicting an "Apartheid" Israeli helicopter firing a missile at a lone Palestinian child holding a teddy bear to the paranoid associations of "Sexy Israel."

The "hasbara" clips have accomplished laughably little. As of Friday morning, "Sexy Israel's" Facebook page had fewer than 60 subscribers. The spurious gay activist, in particular, hurt Israel, critics say.

However, though intellectuals frown on them - and rightly so, given that they blatantly distort the truth - a cynic would argue that such tactics, if executed better, have a lot of potential.

The Palestinian claims that the Israeli occupation constitutes "apartheid", though also supported by a number of facts, are ultimately no less spurious given the qualitatively different realities in apartheid South Africa and in the occupied Palestinian territories. But they have struck a powerful chord with many people around the world, and have fueled numerous boycott campaigns of Israeli products and international legal suits against Israeli officials.

Israel's first attempts at using those kinds of tactics may be ridiculous and morally questionable, but they show that the Israeli right wing, and perhaps the government itself, is learning.

Still, despite this setback for the Free Gaza movement, non-violent confrontation, even if occasional bouts of violence occur (such as during last year's flotilla on the Mavi Marmara ship) is rarely a strategy that runs its course very quickly. The activists have an opportunity to learn as well, and they can quickly shift tactics. There is evidence that they are already adapting.

On Friday, hundreds (up to 1,200) international activists plan to arrive at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion international airport, and to "protest against Israeli restrictions on the Palestinians' freedom of movement". The campaign, dubbed "the flytilla", has been in the works for some months now and should be seen as parallel to the flotilla rather than as a new tactic by the same people.

However, it is evidence of evolving methods of the pro-Palestinian activists, and it will in all likelihood be boosted by activists who were unable to take part in the flotilla itself.

Israel, in turn, also has a chance to prepare and to draw lessons. There are various speculations about what exactly the activists will try to do once they arrive, and confrontation, even if it is only symbolic, may set the tone for subsequent protests. Reports have it that flights from Europe will be directed to a special terminal over the weekend, where passengers will be carefully screened. Up to 600 police officers will be employed to prevent sit-downs at the airport; most of the pro-Palestinian activists will likely be denied entry and deported. [15]

By far the most successful part of Israel's strategy so far has been its ability to draw the flotilla into a confrontation with the previously supportive Greek and Turkish governments. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's feat was arguably aided by external circumstances, such as the economic crisis in Greece, the Arab Spring, and an upcoming United Nations report on the deadly confrontation at sea during an attempt to breach the Gaza blockade last year. [16]

Nevertheless, he also demonstrated enviable diplomatic skills, at times seemingly playing the bitter opponents Greece and Turkey off of each other.

Relations between Israel and Turkey had been on the decline since Operation Cast Lead, an Israeli military campaign against Hamas rulers in the Gaza Strip in late 2008 and early 2009. After the Mavi Marmara violence last year, the relationship was undeniably on the rocks.

Netanyahu then turned to Greece, and invested heavily in that relationship over the past year. The severe credit crisis in Greece and the isolation in which the country has increasingly found itself gave him an opportunity to prove himself as a valuable friend. "Netanyahu has become Greece's lobbyist to the European Union," an Israeli diplomat told the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. [17] That the Greeks appreciate this service is evident in their actions against the flotilla. The surprised Free Gaza activists were left to grumble that Israel was "taking advantage of Greece's economic situation".

With the Arab Spring and the beginning of the unrest in Syria, however, relations between Israel and Turkey also began to melt. Ankara's Middle East policy suffered a major setback once it started to turn against Syria's regime, as that strategic relationship had been one of its most valuable assets in the region.

Moreover, reports have it, the United States pushed Turkey hard to reconcile with Israel, even offering it a substantial role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Roughly at the same time as this information surfaced, Turkey pressured the IHH to withdraw from the flotilla.

A new shadow of rivalry arguably passed between Greece and Turkey: a rivalry over Israel's friendship. It could even be that the Turkish decision to pull out of the flotilla influenced Greece's decision to block most of the ships from sailing.

There is an upcoming twist to this diplomatic intrigue: a United Nations report on last year's flotilla incident is due to be released soon, and allegedly in its current draft form it is very critical toward both Israel and Turkey. Unnamed Israeli officials claim that it defends the legality of the Israeli blockade on Gaza, but also criticizes the Jewish state for using excessive force against the flotilla. [18]

Israel and Turkey, meanwhile, are conducting intense negotiations to iron out their differences surrounding the incident, and to agree to tone down the report. The main issue is that Turkey demands an apology while Israel refuses to apologize for its actions, claiming that the commandos acted in self-defense.

"If a compromise is not reached soon, the UN report will be released as is, and bilateral ties will likely be frozen for a long period, [an Israeli government] source said [in front of Ha'aretz]. If a compromise is reached, the report will be reworded and toned down." [19]

The outcome of this diplomatic intrigue, in turn, would beyond doubt influence strongly the next rounds of the confrontation between Israel and the pro-Palestinian activists. If Netanyahu preserves his ability to maneuver Greece and Turkey into blocking attempts to run the naval blockade, it may indeed be that the era of the flotillas will be over. Other tactics would surely emerge. For now, however, Israel seems to have won this round.

Surprises may still be in store. Despite the setbacks, not all the activists have given up yet. Besides, tensions around Gaza are rising again and exchanges of fire on Wednesday and Thursday left two Palestinians dead and a number of others, including an Israeli soldier, injured.
The violence started when Israel bombed what it claimed to have been a terrorist cell preparing to launch rockets, and it is unclear whether it was related to the flotilla or not. (For example, it could be that militants wanted to make up for the failure in their own way; it is much less likely, given Israel’s brilliant performance in the non-violent field so far, that the Netanyahu government sought a distraction by bombing a dormant terror cell).

In any event, increased hostilities could give Israel an additional excuse to arrest any would-be violators of the naval blockade, but it could also increase the international pressure on the Netanyahu government and spur further protest.

1. Gaza-bound boat: Greek commandos forced us back , ynetnews.com 1 July 2011.
2 Harbor-bound US flotilla activists stage hunger strike, ynetnews.com 3 July 2011.
3. Gaza flotilla activists occupy Spanish embassy in Greece, Ha'aretz 5 July 2011.
4. Gaza flotilla activists determined to sail on despite obstacles, Ha'aretz, 30 June 2011.
5. Report: Turkey probe reveals Irish ship in Gaza flotilla not sabotaged, Ha'aretz, 2 July 2011.
6. Hamas simulates raid on flotilla, ynetnews.com 29 May 2011.
7. Egypt gas pipeline hit by explosion, ynetnews.com, 4 July 2011.
8. "Sexy Israel" getting treatment for flotilla nightmares, , +972, 6 July 2011.
9. Israeli Video Blog Exposed as a Hoax, The Lede New York Times blog, 27 June 2011.
10. Gaza flotilla activists: Queers welcome aboard aid ships , Ha'aretz, 30 June 2011.
11. Flotilla activists about to give up?, ynetnews.com 7 July 2011.
12. Organizers: Gaza flotilla era may be over, Ma'an, 3 July 2011.
13. The second freedom flotilla sails, Asia Times Online, 28 June 2011.
14. Swiss company cancels deal to sell cement to Gaza flotilla organizers , Ha'aretz, 6 July 2011.
15. Israel prepares for arrival of hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists, Ha'aretz, 7 July 2011.
16. Nothing new for Israel all at sea, Asia Times Online, 3 June 2010.
17. Netanyahu's big fat Greek Wedding , Ha'aretz, 01 July 2011.
18 Israel, Turkey scramble to reach compromise on UN Gaza flotilla report, Ha'aretz, 4 July 2011.
19. Israel, Turkey scramble to reach compromise on UN Gaza flotilla report , Ha’aretz, 4 July 2011

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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