Flotilla and 'flytilla' challenge Israel's blockade and occupation

On July 19, three Israeli missile ships and seven commando boats intercepted the French boat Dignité-Al Karama in international waters as it attempted to break Israel’s illegal blockade of Gaza.

The boat carried 16 passengers from France, Canada, Greece, Sweden, Tunisia and Israel - 10 non-violent human rights activists, three crew members and three journalists. It had set sail to Gaza after spending a week in international waters to avoid attempts to prevent its departure. The Dignité was boarded 40 miles from Gaza and forcibly taken to the Israeli port of Ashdod.

Veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, one of the three journalists aboard the Dignité, told Democracy Now on July 21 that four commando boats had surrounded the Dignité. According to Hass, “Masked men were aiming their rifles at us … they were aiming all sorts of guns that I don’t even know how to name them. There were two cannon ... each of them had a cannon, a water cannon.”

The Dignité-Al Karama was the only boat able to sail toward Gaza among the 10 boats forming the Freedom Flotilla II. The boats were to transport more than 1000 passengers from 20 different countries to Gaza. Carrying 3000 tonnes of humanitarian aid, Freedom Flotilla II aimed to break Israel’s illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip, which is home to 1.5 million Palestinians.

In 2010, the first Freedom Flotilla sailed towards Gaza, only to be met in international waters with violent force by heavily armed Israeli naval commandos, who killed nine unarmed activists aboard the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara.

Hass told Democracy Now that the Dignité was able to sail because its port of origin was French, not Greek. “All the rest [in Greek ports] were subject to very harsh Greek tricks, of course by order of the Israeli government. There is no doubt about it.”

Greek government ‘subcontractor’

On July 1, the Greek government issued a prohibition against any ships sailing for Gaza departing its waters. The decision came as the Greek government, which is facing a severe financial crisis, bowed to Israeli demands to stop the boats. According to Israel’s Haaretz newspaper on July 1, Israel had succeeded in getting Greece to block the flotilla after lobbying the European Union for aid for the cash-strapped country.

Despite Israel’s getting the Greek government to prevent most of the flotilla departing, many organisers, activists and journalists who took part in the flotilla, including Hass, believed it had succeeded in its aim of highlighting Israel’s human rights abuses and its ongoing blockade of Gaza.

Writing for Haaretz on July 7, Hass noted that Israel had been anything but smart in the way it dealt with the flotilla, saying that its “outsourcing, aggressive and vocal diplomacy and ridiculous lies thwarted the flotilla, but they have not taken Gaza off the international agenda”. According to Hass, while turning the Greek government into “a subcontractor of the Israeli army”, the Israeli government had also ensured the international media’s preoccupation with the flotilla and a continued focus on Israel’s blockade of Gaza.

Israeli freelance journalist Joseph Dana similarly noted in his article for the US Nation magazine  that “the bellicose Israeli strategy has helped to publicise this story in ways the flotilla organizers could never have orchestrated themselves”. Flotilla activist and organiser Khalid Turaani, a 45-year-old Palestinian American, on July 2 told Al Jazeera that he believed the flotilla had succeeded in bringing the world’s attention to what was happening in Gaza.

Lies and sabotage

Before the departure of the flotilla, Israel had engaged in a range of strident measures to try to prevent the flotilla sailing, including threatening to ban international journalists from entering Israel for 10 years if they sailed with the flotilla and accusing flotilla participants of carrying chemical weapons and planning to attack Israeli naval forces. The threat to ban journalists was overturned after an outcry from the international media, while the accusation that the flotilla planned to engage in violence was revealed to be a fabrication by Israeli journalist Alex Fishman in the June 29 issue of Israel’s biggest Hebrew daily, Yediot Aharonot.

Also in the lead-up to the flotilla’s departure, a number of propaganda videos appeared on the internet, including one which attempted to smear the flotilla as homophobic. The video was soon revealed to be a fake closely linked to the office of the Israeli prime minister. After two of the flotilla ships suffered sabotage, many flotilla activists accused the Israeli government of being responsible.

Focused on stopping the international flotilla, the Israeli government was caught flat-footed by the Welcome to Palestine campaign “fly-in” which was scheduled to occur on July 8. The “flytilla”, as it was nicknamed in the Israeli media, sought to highlight Israel’s control and occupation of the West Bank. More than 500 activists from across Europe planned to fly directly into Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport and declare that they wanted to visit the occupied Palestinian territories.

Despite claims by the Israeli state that the Palestinian Authority is in control of the West Bank, Israel controls all entry points into the Palestinian territories and regularly refuses entry to visitors wanting to visit the region. Most people who are denied entry are prevented on the basis of supposedly being a “security threat” to the Israeli state. However, the real reason is that they are perceived as too “pro-Palestinian”.

Hysteria and thuggery

As with the flotilla, the Israel government went into overdrive to prevent the activists from setting foot in Palestine. Israeli media reported that Israeli security agencies distributed a “blacklist” with the names of 300 activists to airline companies, demanding that anyone on the list be prevented from boarding flights to Tel Aviv or the airlines would have to return those refused entry at their own expense. According to Israel’s Immigration Authority, at least 180 passengers were turned away by airlines. Israeli media reported that more than 300 passengers were interrogated upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, of whom approximately 120 were refused entry and detained. Many activists were held for several days before being deported to their home countries.

According to Haim Zisovitch, from Bar Ilan University’s School of Communication, the hysterical reaction of the Israeli government, which included systematic updates to the public, dire warnings and the deployment of security officers, gave the impression that Israel was “preparing for war, not a protest”. In a July 7 article on the Israel news site YNet, Zisovitch argued that the over-reaction meant that “Fly-in organizers can go ahead, cancel their tickets and save their money. The Israeli government did the job for them. There is no need to crowd into tourist class and eat pre-packaged meals in order to hold up signs at the terminal. Israel’s PR establishment is offering its fine services free of charge.”

On July 8, as the international activists began to fly into Tel Aviv, Joseph Dana, who had returned to Israel after the failure of the flotilla to sail, spent the day at the airport port tweeting live. Dana reported chaotic scenes as Israeli activists staged a protest in support of the “fly-in” participants. The Israeli activists unfurled Palestinian flags and chanted in support of a free Palestine.

Israeli police stood by while a number of anti-fly-in hoodlums spat on the activists and violently assaulted them, punching and beating them. Larry Defner from the Jerusalem Post, who was also at the airport covering the “flytilla”, was arrested when he tried to stop an assault on one of the activists. Video footage taken by journalists from Russia Today showed Israeli police arresting a number of pro-flytilla protesters, including Matan Cohen, a well-known Israeli activist who at the age of 16 was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet fired by the Israeli occupation forces during a non-violent demonstration.