The Gaza Flotilla and the Declining Dignity of Protest

5:13 PM / Posted by Harry McEvansoneya /

There is no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of the 700-odd people who set out on the recent aid flotilla to the Gaza strip did so with nothing but the best of intentions. These people saw human suffering and decided that this area of the world was, for whatever reason, most worthy of their attention, and went off to try and make a difference in whatever way they could.

As it is, they stumbled into a series of events that spiralled out of control, leaving ten people dead and dozens injured. It is, of course, deeply regrettable and very sad that these deaths and injuries were suffered, both among those on the flotilla and the members of the Israeli Defence Force, especially given that the whole fiasco was both eminently avoidable and depressingly predictable.

To provide some background, the initial intentions of both the majority of those within the fleet and the IDF were perfectly legitimate. As said above, people were trying to get aid to a region suffering a humanitarian crisis, the IDF were trying to prevent contraband material falling into the hands of an organisation whose primary goal is the destruction of Israel and the creation of an Islamist state.

The inspection of the boats should not have constituted a problem. It is easy to see why Israel feelt the need to search the boats, given that they planned on passing through Israeli controlled territory and given that weapons have repeatedly been smuggled into Gaza under the guise of being aid convoys in the past. Reasonable suspicion existed, therefore under international law it was legitimate to search the boat, regardless of it being outside of their territorial waters, though it would doubtlessly have been wiser to wait until the flotilla was within them. This has always been past policy with aid deliveries – stop them, inspect them for contraband, discard illegal goods and then distribute the rest to Gaza through appropriate channels.

Indeed, five of the six boats stopped when asked to by the Israelis and only on one of those five did some people refuse to fully co-operate. If that was what it took to get the aid delivered, they were willing to do so, even if it may not perhaps have been completely what they wanted. If they were victims of violence from the Israeli soldiers, it should rightfully be condemned. The flotilla had a dual purpose – delivering aid and protesting the blockade, and when push came to shove, the people on board needed to show what they prioritised, whether they were primarily pro-Gaza or anti-Israel, whether the aid getting through as quickly as possible mattered more, or whether making a show and a statement did. The vast majority of people prioritised the first.

Those on the sixth ship, the MV Mavi Marmara, evidently did not. This is where everything went wrong. The details have been rehashed elsewhere a thousand times, but in short, the Israeli soldiers who tried to board were assaulted by the supposed aid workers on the deck, things escalated, shots were fired and as a result the soldiers were authorised to use lethal force – and people were killed. Those who had set out to make an anti-Israeli statement and see how far they could push things had, in a twisted and tragic way, got what they wished for.

The IDF reacted in the face of provocation, of that there is no doubt, and it is easy to see how troops under threat would have reacted to put their own safety first and neutralise the threat facing them. The problem from the Israeli side is that the nature of the inspection was at best ill-advised and careless, as they did not expect or properly plan for what would happen if there was heavy resistance, not being armed with any kind of heavy crowd control equipment, and at worst stupid and unnecessary as they could have chosen an easier and safer way to deal with the boat, being better aware of what they would face when they boarded.

Either way, it certainly did absolutely nothing to further Israel’s cause. As such, the simple outrage of people over the killings is understandable. However, there is a problem both with how the ire of people is being directed and with what people appear to be considering to be legitimate forms of protest – that is to say, what is being seen as acceptable, and indeed preferable, methods when it comes to highlighting what you think is an injustice in society and attempting to draw attention to, and ultimately change that.

People have been trying to compare the members of the flotilla to the Freedom Riders in America who campaigned against segregation. Naturally, things here are not that simple. What we have in this instance is, as outlined above, two groups reacting differently. The former had dignity. They accepted a level of what they saw as injustice to achieve the greater good, and acted in such a way as to minimise potential harm coming to those around them. They were willing to make a sacrifice and suffer to an extent to get through what they wanted – these people have done essentially nothing wrong. Were they to suffer violence, it would be unwarranted, regardless of how right or wrong one may consider their beliefs to be.

But when we get to the second group, the analogy breaks down completely. Here we have, on the Marmara, a group whose first recourse when presented with the face of what they objected to was to break into violence. These were people who wanted to be hard men, who wanted to make a fuss and be as active as possible, consequences for their cause and others who support it be damned.

This kind of resistance – launching an assault on the objects of their hatred – is not in any way, shape or form dignified or constructive. It is as abhorrent as the use of force against peaceful protestors. If the Freedom Riders had gone around beating up policemen, you can be sure that they would be seen differently right now and would have received nowhere near the level of sympathy and eventual solidarity shown towards them by many of their contemporaries.

However, things suddenly seem different. Few meaningful attempts seem to be being made by the supporters of those involved in the flotilla to distance themselves from those who chose violence. They are being presented as having acted in as legitimate and positive a fashion as the people who chose not to engage in reckless, self-absorbed behaviour that put the lives of themselves and innocent people around them into very real danger.

This is an extraordinarily odd and hazardous attitude that not only denigrates those who act with dignity and put their cause above themselves, but encourages people to act in as bull-headed and violent a fashion as possible, and that going to the extremes, eschewing any attempt at dignified engagement, compromise or understanding is the best possible thing you can do for your cause, so much the better if you can get yourself martyred for it. A martyr is a tragic thing to be, and noble under certain circumstances – but to engineer things so you can create martyrs where there need be none, especially when those martyrs are innocent people who may not want to become so, who consider you their ally and comrade, is despicable. The Israeli soldiers may have been the ones who pulled the trigger, but the circumstances leading to the deaths of any innocent people on the flotilla were engineered elsewhere.

The fact that these people are somehow almost universally escaping condemnation, and are instead being mourned, sympathised with and even in some cases lionised, is a sad indication of how polarised and one-eyed people are becoming when they engage in public discourse on controversial issues. Condolences are being offered by the Irish to Turkey, a nation whose entire involvement in this is a result of a weak Prime Minister trying desperately to placate the Islamist wing of his party, who allowed the aid to be transported by an organisation with past ties to terrorist groups, without any thought being given as to whether or not those who are dead were innocent or were among those who brought violence upon themselves and others.

When we do this, when we allow this to happen, we fall into the trap of legitimising the extreme elements of a movement. The most damning item found on the Marmara was, as far as I’m concerned, not the contraband goods or the knives or the bullet-proof vests or even the rifle scopes. It was the flag of Hamas. Similarly, at the funerals of the Turkish activists, the flag of Hamas has been draped across their coffins. This should be unacceptable for any organisation who wish to be fighting for Palestinian freedom – Hamas are a repressive government, whose policies do more harm than good in Gaza. Indeed, right now, Hamas are refusing to take the aid from the flotilla into Gaza, presumably as a protest against Israel, once again putting the welfare of their citizens in a secondary role. Much like the extreme elements on the fleet, they have shown a clear disregard when it comes to putting innocent people in harm’s way if they think it will help their cause.

The people in this flotilla and supporting it should be aware of the presence of these extreme elements, and if they are not, once they become so aware they should distance themselves from them, not put aside morality in the name of solidarity. The sight of the Labour LGBT flag next to a Hamas one in the protest in Dublin is a great example of this – you should not tolerate marching side by side with the supporters of those whose disregard and disrespect for human dignity allowed innocents to be killed or wounded. What they are marching for is not what you are marching for. All that leads to is a win for the crazy elements on both sides; those legitimised by solidarity from moderates, and those who are able to condemn moderates due to their apparent association with extremists – all that results is further alienation of people and division of discourse towards the extremes, all this leads to is the risk of further undignified, reckless, violent protest and more innocents being hurt.

Praise those with lofty aims, by all means, but to paint all those on the flotilla as the same is wrong and dangerous. Israel acted stupidly, for sure, but that we condemn them and not those who selfishly endangered the lives of others, and betrayed their ulterior motives, is an unsettling turn of events. Remember that there was a group among them who set out to abuse and exploit the naïve among them and use them as a tool to further their own agenda. As tragic as the actual fact of the loss of life is, the self-interested cynicism that led to it is something that should not be forgotten, and the lack of public outcry, indeed, the apparent acceptance of these actions as a legitimate method of protest is something very worrying indeed.

12 comments:

Comment by Social Dullard on June 3, 2010 at 6:02 PM

I congratulate you on a far more coherent blog post than mine.

But as with most people there is no Moral High ground to be gained. The rotten egg's have sparked our hatred, but they are also victims for their actions. We can never ignore that these people are dead, and that they brought it upon themselves.

Their selfishness, and possible terrorist affiliation has made the world listen. We won't listen for long, but it will inspire some to do something.

Some who are inspired will be non-violent, Freedom Riders etc, others will be terrorists. Two side's of the same blade.

In the grander scheme of things Our history, and most countries history's are bathed in blood. What give's anyone, anywhere to say peaceful and violent mean's can't exist to enact change where there is injustice.

Historically violence has prevailed. But when Non-violence is met with disproportionate violence, Such Civil Rights, parts of the Anti-Apartheid movement and Indian separation, people take more notice.

Both work, and their co-existence can't be discouraged. Eventually Something will give. What no one can say, but injustice can't and should never be infinite.

Shane on June 3, 2010 at 6:29 PM

I'm not going to bring up everything I take issue with here, you know that would take a long time;)

I'm bemused by the idea that we shouldn't march with people who fundamentally disagree with us on issues unrelated to what we are protesting. It would make the average demonstration a much less sociable affair - though perhaps there's scope for all of us to hold our individual marches at once?

I mean, I say this as someone who has nearly had their head kicked in for laughing at SF posters with "no bombs" logos. I don't have to agree in the slightest with the people marching with me about gay rights, unless we're on a gay rights march. I haven't seen many Gazans at those, fwiw. We're not there because we agree about gay rights, we're there because we agree on, and are expressing, our mutual abhorrence of the IDF's actions. Nothing else is really germane.

Anonymous on June 3, 2010 at 10:44 PM

We need more clarity on what the exact legal situation is....after looking through the UNITED NATIONS CONVENTION ON THE LAW OF THE SEA just one legal instrument...I note that it needs closer examination of the specific lanaguage etc. The headings of innocent passage and piracy are definitely worth a read. The whole legal area is worth debating as a separate strand in this debate.

Comment by David Hartery on June 4, 2010 at 12:08 AM

I read the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea last summer for teh epic lulz. If it's international waters, the flotilla ships can pretty much do what they want. Moreover, the blockade of Gaza is incontrovertibly illegal, as illustrated by http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2009/sc9567.doc.htm

However, I dont believe just because it is illegal is an automatic argument for the illegitimacy of the acts. HAMAS are a particularly pernicious enemy. Take the rocket attacks for instance. During the "cease-fire" rocket attacks into Israel continued. Israel put up with these for a while, then HAMAS started claiming they had momentum, that they were winning the war. This swelled support. Which led to the horrific Israeli incursion, which again swelled support. Israel are a country situated in an unparalleled existential threat and the methods of HAMAS mean they can't do anything right.

When this kind of aid gets through it is given out by HAMAS, even taxed by HAMAS. This means people feel indebted to HAMAS and swells their coffers to enable them to fight against Israel more. So there is obviously and incentive to prevent such aid getting through, regrettable as that is.

The well meaning people in these flotillas were played by HAMAS for their own agenda - furthering their cause in eliminating the existence of Israel.

Finally just to sum up why i don't like HAMAS, helping HAMAS or the violent anti-Zionist protesting going on here or in the middle east -

I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.

- Mohatma Gandhi

Nikki on June 4, 2010 at 2:15 AM

Great post Harry, very coherent indeed, i think its probably more useful to hash things out this way than on a point-by-point basis on fbook status updates, next time I'll know better!

One argument you made in particular I have to take issue with:

"It is as abhorrent as the use of force against peaceful protestors. If the Freedom Riders had gone around beating up policemen, you can be sure that they would be seen differently right now and would have received nowhere near the level of sympathy and eventual solidarity shown towards them by many of their contemporaries."

I don't think this is a fair or accurate analogy to make. Two points here:

1. I don't see how attacking armed men who have landed in the middle (see my point on fbook re the fact that they should have, and could have,landed on the bridge and avoided this mess - a minor but crucial point which anybody who has experience at sea will tell you) of the ship should be equated with "peaceful protesters".
Firstly they didn't come peacefully, secondly if their only aim was to inspect the cargo they would have landed elsewhere - so anyone on board could safely assume the IDF were there for another reason, thirdly they were making no type of principled protest.

2. Major difference here is that policemen are, generally speaking, upholders of law and order, sanctioned by a legitimate government which has the support of the people. Obviously that's an ideal situation, we're bound to have crooked cops etc. etc. but for the purposes of this point we can assume that for the most part they're the "good guys".
I don't see any good reason why the IDF should be afforded the same respect, and to do so would in my opinion only serve to legitimise what is a highly illegal, and in my opinion immoral, blockade, which is clearly not hurting Hamas because they're still at it, but seems only to be hurting innocent citizens. The Israeli state has no right to put a limit on how much aid goes through, and the aid that is getting through isn't the sort that will allow the people of Gaza to literally start building their society again. So i entirely reject their "but we give them x tonnes a day!" argument.


I don't have a background in International Law, and I've been pretty politically ignorant of this issue until last week. To be honest I always associated the pro-Palestinians with those really irritating temple bar folk who seem to go along with radical causes for the sake of it. It's only because a member of my (albeit extended) family was involved in this that it's really come to my attention.

Nevertheless,sometimes an "over"analysis (not suggesting you've done that, but it always happens with such polemic issues) and sometimes the experts can miss the crucial and perhaps more simplistic point. People were murdered during an illegitimate attack on what was a peaceful (despite the dodgey folk on board, who only turned to violence when provoked by the IDF) flotilla aiming to either bring aid to one of the most poverty-stricken countries/areas/zones/whathaveyou in the world, or to draw the world's attention to what they saw as inhumane treatment. We cannot as decent people condone this behaviour, and to essentially say that a few people were spoiling for a fight and more or less got what was coming to them is to shift some of the blame from these murderers, and it's something I can never be comfortable with.

Shane on June 4, 2010 at 2:17 AM

David, what role do you think a ban on importing coriander serves in preventing rocket attacks?

Comment by Harry McEvansoneya on June 4, 2010 at 10:12 AM

Nikki:

Thanks :) I think the great thing about FB discussions and the like though is it makes you think - all your views will be challenged, and hopefully refined as a result.

1. As far as I'm aware - and according to all reports - landing on the deck is the easiest way to access the bridge on a ship like the Marmara. You can't land *on* the bridge itself because it is indoors. I will agree that the mission was poorly planned in general so it wouldn't surprise me, however, if there was a more sensible, if more difficult to access, place to land.

2. The problem with this is one of default positions. For Israel, the most important thing is that certain items of aid are not made into bombs and rockets to attack Israeli civilians. Hamas (who, by the by, have been hurt both in terms of resources and support by the blockade) obviously don't agree. Calling the blockade "immoral" depends on where you stand - frankly the IDF are doing their job and attacking them should be considered negative and counterproductive.

I don't think anyone is condoning the violence, my problem is with the one-sided treatment that this issue has recieved. As I said, if Israeli soldiers hurt innocent people, that is terrible and should be condemned, but so should the violent behaviour of the people that caused them to react in such a way - you can't expect that the soldiers would sit back and allow themselves to be beaten/shot to death.

Shane:

They probably have their reasons. That said, they might not be ones I agree with. I don't think all facets of the blockade are good policy, I'm not even sure the blockade itself is, but from the Israeli perspective it's a neccessary policy.

Comment by David Hartery on June 4, 2010 at 1:46 PM

Shane, nice attempt at reducto ad absurdeum there. But i think you know as well as anyone else that the blockade is about more than coriander.

For instance - the reason they seize all concrete that the aid vessels bring is so HAMAS cannot fortify their positions. The naive idea that the aid is actually getting to people on the ground is laughable. The flotilla was organised in co-ordination with HAMAS, HAMAS take control of *all* aid that enters Gaza by any means (they have an absolute stranglehold on the area) they take whatever will help their cause and then allocate the rest to the population. That means that any aid that does go through simultaneously engenders goodwill towards HAMAS in the population AND strengthens HAMAS from a provisions point of view.

Also, I wasn't saying that the blockade stops rocket attacks. I don't even think that is its immediate intention. What i was doing, was using the example of how Israel reacted during the rocket attacks (disproportionately) and then use it as an analogy to this situation, where Israel was similarly worried about their image to the terrorists.

The Israeli mentality is that if they can use the blockade to erode HAMAS support *that* will stop the rocket attacks. Presumably not being able to get coriander is the straw that will break the back of HAMAS support, i don't know. Stranger things have happened. Kim Jong-il broke after a week when the West prevented him from getting Cuban Cigars and whiskey. Can't remember when it was, but they got him to sign some concession.

Shane on June 4, 2010 at 2:35 PM

That's a hell of a presumption.

But I'm making no reductio ad absurdum at all. The fact is, the blockade is at best minimally about preventing rocket attacks. Even to that, it's a wildly disproportionate reaction - the concrete ban may prevent Hamas fortifying positions, but the population of Gaza does have a great number of, y'know, essential construction requirements that are *not* fortified rocket sites. Crumbling or bombed houses, for instance.

The reason the coriander thing is important, is that it's indicative of the fact this isn't about prevention, it's about collective punishment. The list of embargoed items - which lifts, incidentally, when Israeli farmers produce surpluses - is best explained by two purposes; to cow and humiliate the Gazan people by destroying all semblance of quality of life: and to prevent indigenous industry from developing.

Coriander is banned, as are seed-spices. Ground spices are not. What's the difference? If you have the first type, you can grow your own.

The aim is to keep the population in a state just short of famine (yes, some Gazans get along well, but 80% are on food aid. Mad Mel's shrieks about surpluses are to be taken as seriously as anything else she says) until it turns against the government it freely elected, of which The Only Democracy In The Region disapproves.

The deaths of a dozen(!) people from rocket attacks was indefensible, but is nothing more than a pretext for the blockade.

Coriander.

Comment by David Hartery on June 4, 2010 at 2:44 PM

The last paragraph was tongue in cheek, should have probably flagged that.

"The fact is, the blockade is at best minimally about preventing rocket attacks."

I agree. Read response above.

"population of Gaza does have a great number of, y'know, essential construction requirements that are *not* fortified rocket sites. Crumbling or bombed houses, for instance."

Indeed - but if the rebuilding of those houses is accredited to HAMAS being in the ascendency against Israel (which it is) then that is a problem for Israel.

"The reason the coriander thing is important, is that it's indicative of the fact this isn't about prevention, it's about collective punishment."

I didnt say it was about prevention, again, read my response properly.

"until it turns against the government it freely elected, of which The Only Democracy In The Region disapproves."

That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. HAMAS are democratically elected BUT they're terrorist scum who actively seek the complete destruction of Israel. I can see some reasons why Israel may have issues with that. Its not about democratic hypocrasy, it's about the end goal of HAMAS being "driving all the Jews into the sea". (quoted verbatim)

The best deal that HAMAS have ever offered was a 7 year cease fire so, and i quote, "they can rebuild their arms cache to attack the Zionist oppressors".

If you support HAMAS you are a far more repugnant human being than those who at least understand why Israel operate the way they do.

I'm not saying that Israel are always right, but at least their approach is defensible.

Comment by David Hartery on June 4, 2010 at 2:49 PM

'm not saying that Israel are always right, but at least their approach is defensible.

Should qualify that by saying that in the flotilla instance - Israel were wrong.

Just that the blockade isnt inherently wrong, though it may violate international law.

Comment by Harry McEvansoneya on June 4, 2010 at 3:38 PM

Shane, firstly, apologies if this looks like ganging up! I think you have a point about coriander - there is a ban on certain "luxury" items which is about deprivation as method of creating discontent in Gaza. I don't think it's as far as you say to create a famine deliberately - Israel stand to gain nothing from that. Furthermore, if that many people are on food aid, Hamas' "moral" rejection of aid from the flotilla is even more disgusting.

However, yes, the initial point is valid and while it is having some success - a lot of Gazans are fed up with Hamas, their popularity is now below that of Fatah in Gaza (!) - it's also making them equally unpopular. So it's ill-advised in that sense, for sure.

However when one looks at what Israel's incentive structure is, the government primarily has to look after its own citizens. If it permits a resource to enter Gaza that is then used, even if it's only 10% of it, to attack and kill Israeli citizens, that is an irresponsible act on behalf of Israel's government. So it's not a simple issue of oppression but a serious quandry - the problem being that everyone involved seems to be driving everyone else to the extremes, which is one of the issues at the heart of this article.

Just a postscript: Hamas may have been democratically elected in a sense, but their dismantling of power-sharing through violent means and refusal to engage in subsequent democratic process has abrogated that. It's as if say the DUP, having won a plurality of seats in the North, murdered a load of Sinn Fein councillors, threw the other parties out of Stormont, expelled or repressed any remaining political opposition, made the UVF into the official police force and ran the country effectively by diktat. Hamas have zero democratic legitimacy, so please don't suggest that they do.

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