The only real danger of Gaza flotillas

Activists on the Freedom Flotilla must understand that the blockade on Gaza is constantly evolving, and that the tactics of yesteryear may no longer be relevant. Putting the spotlight on humanitarian supplies allows Israel to divert attention from the worst parts of the blockade.

By Itamar Sha’altiel

Palestinians drive through a destroyed quarter of Al Shaaf neighborhood, in Al Tuffah, east of Gaza City, March 21, 2015.
Palestinians drive through a destroyed quarter of Al Shaaf neighborhood, in Al Tuffah, east of Gaza City, March 21, 2015.

The truth is that after five years it’s getting a little old. Israeli naval commandos once again take over a boat to Gaza, and again, it happens without any fuss. The Israeli defense minister once again claims that there is no blockade on Gaza, and once again the prime minister tells the activists they should be sailing to Syria.

There is, of course, clearly a blockade on Gaza. It requires massive quantities of unabashed gall to claim otherwise. Israel forbids the entry and departure of boats to and from Gaza; it does not allow it to build an airport; it forbids anybody from entering a 100-meter no-man’s land inside Gaza; it decides what building materials can be imported to Gaza and for which projects; it permits trade with the West Bank, but only on restrictive terms that it sets; and it restricts the entry and exit of people in and out of the Strip. It could be that the Israeli defense minister believes all that is necessary to protect the security of the State of Israel, but let’s be honest — it’s a blockade, clear and simple.

But there is something else that must be said: the current flotilla is driven by actual changes in policy. When Israeli naval commandos took over the Mavi Marmara in May 2010, Israel had been irrationally and disturbingly banning the import of civilian goods and products into Gaza for three full years. Israeli soldiers were in charge of deciding whether or not toilet paper would be allowed into Gaza, whether chocolate would be considered a “luxury” in any given week or whether it would even be allowed in in the first, and there was the infamous ban on the import of coriander. That’s not the case any more. Not since Israeli commandos took over the Marmara. The blockade was altered.

Therefore, it should be no surprise that Israel gets so annoyed by these flotillas. They misrepresent the blockade. I am sure that the organizers of these flotillas are simply doing what they know to be effective. And indeed, these flotillas succeed in making the world talk about Gaza for a week or so — that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

The Marianne, one of the three boats that attempted to sail to Gaza as part of the 'Freedom Flotilla' in June 2015. (photo: Ship to Gaza)
The Marianne, one of the three boats that attempted to sail to Gaza as part of the ‘Freedom Flotilla’ in late June 2015. (photo: Ship to Gaza)

But Gaza does not need flotillas in order to bring in solar panels, medications or coriander. It’s simply not needed. And attempts to argue otherwise, or even to imply as much, are deceitful and divert the public attention from other, very urgent problems created by Israel’s policy vis-a-vis Gaza. You see, the moment you identify the import of consumer goods as the problem, all the Israeli defense minister has to do is to point out the number of trucks that go into Gaza each day and to declare that there is no blockade. That is nothing more than despicable theatrics and it’s time to stop enabling it.

Israeli policy toward Gaza has changed dramatically over the years, and it is far better today than it was in 2010, or even 2014. Israel is now permitting goods from Gaza to enter the West Bank, and temporarily, even into Israel; the number of people who are allowed to cross through the Israeli-controlled Erez border crossing has nearly tripled; and building materials are being allowed in. All that must be acknowledged.

On the other hand, Israel’s grip over the Strip is tightly-sealed. And while talk can be nice, it is still Israeli politicians who are talking amongst themselves about establishing a port in a territory where, according to their boastful proclamations, the occupation has ended; bringing in building materials is allowed under strict supervision, but for some reason wooden panels are not [Hebrew].

And while Israel allows more people to leave through Erez, crossing from Gaza to the West Bank is limited by a draconian list of criteria, which allows the same person to leave the Strip to visit his sick mother, yet forbids him from leaving the following day to mourn with his brother. The rights of Gaza’s population to study, pray, and meet family members is still viewed as a privilege — a bargaining chip that can be taken away at any moment. Meanwhile, the policy of isolating Gaza from the West Bank is as strong as ever. While this doesn’t seem to line up with the stated intentions of the humanitarian flotilla, it is still important, central and inseparable part of the lives of far too many people. It needs to stop.

Itamar Sha’altiel is the new media director at Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement. This article represents his own views. A version of this article was also published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

Newsletter banner