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Rhonda Spivak & Mira Sucharov

 
FLOTILLA DEBATE: WHO MISSED THE BOAT?

June 2, 2010

Dear Rhonda,

 
Today I was thinking about three things: Quit Facebook day, the death of Chris Haney, co-founder of the game Trivial Pursuit, and the flotilla crisis off the shores of the Gaza Strip. While seemingly unrelated, they all connect for me. See, on Facebook -- a site I visit many times per day -- I normally get stressed out by the point-scoring being played out on both sides of the festering Israeli-Palestinian issue. Today represented that kind of mud-slinging discourse par excellence. (The interesting part? Most -- though not all -- of this kind of talk -- on my feed, at least -- is coming from Jews on both sides of the philosophical divide.) The Shalom Hartman Institute, in Jerusalem, is trying to issue a call for a new kind of discourse in the wake of this crisis.
 
As for Trivial Pursuit? My introduction to the game coincided with my first visit to Israel. I wiled away afternoons on my aunt and uncle's kibbutz eating olives and pickles and being mesmerized by my first "grown-up" board game. There, I spoke Hebrew, played basketball with the kibbutznik kids, and, from the board game, learned more than I needed to know about the Honeymooners and Arnold Palmer. 
 
At the same time -- it was 1983 -- Israel had recently finished its escapade in Lebanon and was four years away from facing the first Intifada. The 1980s were years of reckoning for Israel -- a decade that saw Israel act in a way that challenged its identity of being a "defensive warrior" fighting only "wars of no choice." Now, sadly, we are seeing a repeat of a cycle of destructive and self-defeating actions on the part of one of the most right-wing governments in Israel's history. I feel a sense of generalized despair.
 
What was on your mind today?
 
***
 
Dear Mira,
 
I’ve been barely treading water   thinking about all of the issues that have been floating around out there about the flotilla.
 
Before the whole incident erupted, I had been reading the article by Tom Gross , a former Middle East correspondent for the London Sunday Telegraph and the New York Daily News, that was published in the National Post on May 25.-- “Fancy restaurants and Olympic-size pools: What the media won’t report about Gaza.”   In it, Gross says
 
“Indeed the BBC and other prominent Western media regularly lead their viewers and readers astray with accounts of a non-existent “mass humanitarian catastrophe” in Gaza.
“What they won’t tell you about are the fancy new restaurants and swimming pools of Gaza, or about the wind surfing competitions on Gaza beaches, or the Strip’s crowded shops and markets. Many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza live a middle class (and in some cases an upper class) lifestyle that western journalists refuse to report on because it doesn’t fit with the simplistic story they were sent to write.
“Here, courtesy of the Palestinian Ma’an news agency, is a report on Gaza’s new Olympic-sized swimming pool . (…One wonders how an area that claims to be starved of water and building materials and depends on humanitarian aid builds an Olympic size swimming pool and creates a luxury lifestyle for some while others are forced to live in abject poverty as political pawn refugees?)
“If you pop into the Roots Club in Gaza, according to the Lonely Planet guidebook, you can “dine on steak au poivre and chicken cordon bleu”. [the English menu here].
 “And here is a promotional video of the club restaurant . In case anyone doubts the authenticity of this video, I just called the club in Gaza City and had a nice chat with the manager who proudly confirmed business is booming and many Palestinians and international guests are dining there.
“In a piece for The Wall Street Journal last year, I documented the “after effects” of a previous “emergency Gaza boat flotilla,” when the arrivals were seen afterwards purchasing souvenirs in well-stocked shops. (You can also scroll down here for more pictures of Gaza’s “impoverished” shops.)’
 
Gross says that of course there is lots of poverty in Gaza, but there is also wealth, and lots of corruption., and   many “ Western news media are deliberately misleading global audiences and systematically creating the false impression that people are somehow starving in Gaza, and that it is all Israel’s fault.” 
It also reminded me of an article an Israeli journalist sent me from Financial Times by Tobias Buck in Rafah on May 23 2010 which
 rather surprised me because it indicates that Gazan shops are bursting with goods. According to the article, in which tunnel operators who smuggle goods were interviewed, Hamas “is taking an ever greater cut of the operators' profits “ and the prices of many smuggled goods have fallen in recent months, thanks to a supply glut that is on striking display across the strip,.” The tunnels “ have become so efficient that shops all over Gaza are bursting with goods….Branded products such as Coca-Cola, Nescafé, Snickers and Heinz ketchup – long absent as a result of the Israeli blockade – are both cheap and widely available… Everything I demand, I can get,” says Abu Amar al-Kahlout, who sells household goods out of a warehouse big enough to accommodate a passenger jet.”
 
If the flotilla activists had simply wanted to get humanitarian aid to Gaza, the y could have easily dropped it off in Ashdod, to enable it to be inspected to ensure there were no illegal weapons. What the activists wanted was to say that Israel has no right to put a blockade on Gaza, or to conduct security inspections to reduce weapons smuggling/build-up which eventually, one way or the other, will be unleashed against the Israeli civilian population.
So Mira, my first question to you is whether you think that Israel has a right to put a blockade on Gaza at all? If it does, then the next question is whether it was wise to try to enforce that right in relation to the flotilla?
****

Dear Rhonda,

Certainly, boarding the flotilla (in international waters, yet) was diplomatically unwise on the part of Israel. The organizers of the flotilla knew that as a public-relations move, global public opinion was on their side. The short-term aim of bringing humanitarian relief to Gaza’s 1.5 million residents was of course tied to the broader aim of undermining Israel’s continuing blockade. This is one point that can be agreed upon both by Israel’s most ardent supporters as well as by its loudest critics. And Israelis may very well begin to revisit its Gaza policy in the wake of the crisis.

Comparisons inside and outside Israel to the Exodus ship are already being made, where Great Britain was forced to revisit its Palestine Mandate policy making way for the creation of the State of Israeland click here. 

Whether Israel has a right to place a blockade on Gaza is a separate issue. Given that the vast restriction on goods (cinnamon is allowed, but coriander is not; animal feed is okay, but goats are not), the blockade amounts to a form of collective punishment. To most analysts, the siege of Gaza is another form of the forty-year occupation which Israel should make every attempt to end. On the diplomatic level, Israel wants to claim that it has withdrawn from Gaza (Israel did remove its troops and all 7,500 settlers in 2005). But Israel’s continuing chokehold over the area keeps the state an occupier in sheep’s clothing.

As for the article describing pockets of wealth in Gaza that you cite: this reminds me too well of the point-scoring that is dominating much discussion of the Middle East, where people are more concerned with exposing hypocrisy (link to: http://www.winnipegjewishreview.com/the-hypocrisy-obsession.html) and double-standards than with discussing the issues on their merits. Internal corruption does not negate the need for Israel to seriously examine its blockade policy, as Aluf Benn, strategic analyst in Ha’aretz implores his government to do (link to: http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/analysis-israel-needs-national-inquiry-into-deadly-gaza-flotilla-clashes-1.293347).

One option might be to switch from a blockade to a quarantine, where ships would be searched before they reach Gaza’s shores). (Link to: http://www.cfr.org/publication/22245/stormy_seas_off_gaza_for_israel.html). On the other hand, Israel need not lift the naval blockade to permit more commercial and civil goods and people to enter Gaza through land routes. (The vast tunnel network between Israel and Gaza has, ironically, made weapons smuggling cheaper.) This is a moment of reckoning for Israel. The government needs to consider various policy options surrounding Gaza. The status quo is simply not working -- for Israel or for the Palestinians.

***
Dear Mira
 
I too read Aluf Ben in Ha’aretz, On June 1, he wrote that the blockade of Gaza has a fourfold purpose: “to compel the Palestinians to reunite Gaza with the West Bank under a leadership friendly to Israel; to pressure Hamas to restrain the rocket fire and other attempts to attack Israel; to maintain the fiction that the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, is still the legal sovereign in Gaza; and to prevent friction with Egypt, which fears the opening of its border with the Palestinians.”
 
I think the worst result, of all of this, would be a lifting of the blockade that would serve to make Hamas, the puppet of Iran, victorious in Palestinian eyes. Not only would lifting the blockade enable a massive arms build-up, it would likely serve to strengthen Hamas and could ultimately lead to them being more popular in the West Bank than Fatah. And then what? And what’s the point in bringing about some form of Palestinian reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah where the extremists in the relationship rule..
 
Even in his article, Aluf Benn, who promotes a full disengagement from Gaza, where the Israel-Gaza border would be completely sealed, says, “Israel would also make it clear that it will exercise its right to self-defense by inspecting suspicious cargo on the high seas in order to thwart arms smuggling. That is also how the Western powers behave: They search cargo ships for nuclear weapons and missile components. And if we are shot at from Gaza, we will shoot back - with intent to cause harm.” (http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/it-s-time-for-real-disengagement-1.293671)
 
Mira- even in Aluf Benn’s proposal, Israel will be able to inspect cargo to thwart arms smuggling. This means there is always going to be a possibility of confrontation, isn’t there?

I don’t think there are any easy answers in all of this. But, one thing is for sure. Israel made a disastrous mistake in not releasing immediately the IDF footage showing that the so called “peace activists” on the Marvi Marnara were not in fact not peace activists at all. The IDF footage released shows conclusively the “love boat” passengers were beating IDF soldiers with clubs and iron bars in a planned lynch. As David Horowitz, editor of   the Jerusalem Post has written somebody made a grave mistake in not releasing this footage of Israel’s naval commandos being beaten within inches of their lives.( http://www.jpost.com/Israel/Article.aspx?id=177187)

This footage may have not been released initially to prevent loss of IDF morale but I also suspect it wasn’t released right away as a way of protecting Ehud Barak and Neatanyahu from receiving the wrath of Israelis who could witness how their men were sent on such a poorly planned mission. But, in delaying the film’s release, the story that got around the world was that the people on this boat were peaceful humanitarians. For a man who understands well the importance of stating Israel’s case, Netanyahu really missed the boat.

And, speaking of boats, one other thing is for sure—you can probably get really cheap cruise ship deals from Israel to Turkey these days.
 
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


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