Fellow, Institute for Policy Studies
Turning points occur in every campaign for human rights and equality. There are moments when, before victory is certain, and whether or not the effect is immediately felt on the ground, the discourse, the assumptions, the terms of reference — not so much for supporters and opponents, as for heretofore observers, all are shaken. Most often, though not always, those turning points involve a significant escalation of violence, whether individual or widespread.
The killing of Emmett Till, the murder of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi, and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Atlanta transformed public and official perception even more than it changed the reality of the U.S. civil rights movement. The Sharpeville Massacre, and seven years later the Soweto uprising, had the same impact globally on the South African anti-apartheid struggle. The Tet offensive in Viet Nam and the killing of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador all had transformative effects.
The struggle against Israeli occupation and apartheid has had numerous such moments in which public perception was transformed. The most influential, arguably, was the first intifada, or uprising, where the image of Palestinian children armed only with stones challenging Israeli tanks and soldiers reversed many (though clearly not all) of the West’s false assumptions regarding Israel: No longer would Israel be the heroic David under assault by an Arab Goliath. The 2008-09 assault against Gaza pushed that shift in understanding even farther.
The recent flotilla crisis, with much less immediate direct impact on Palestinians, may turn out to be one of those moments in which public understanding and perception, this time at an international level, is transformed. The crisis showed that civil society is the key global actor in the international struggle against Israeli occupation and apartheid. It demonstrated that Turkey’s determination succeeded at forcing Israel to step back, when Washington’s polite requests had so palpably failed. And it proved that human rights and international law remain the basis for victory.
The fact that so many non-Palestinians were killed by the Israeli commandoes (even though the usual intense focus on any American citizen killed was diminished because Furkan Dogan held dual U.S.-Turkish nationality) highlighted the willingness of global activists to take risks on behalf of human rights that governments and the UN were unwilling to defend. It provided a powerful image of an increasingly empowered civil society with the capacity to transform events directly. While not all passengers among the flotilla’s passengers adhered to principles of nonviolence, it was clear that nonviolence was by far the dominant character of the mobilization. And that reflects the increasingly popular recognition, certainly among many Palestinians but in this situation crucially among their supporters, that using violence engages Israel in its strongest arena, whereas strategic nonviolent resistance challenges the legitimacy of Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies — the battle of legitimacy where Israel is the weakest.
The flotilla presented a powerful image of the chasm between President Obama’s failure to stop Israeli settlement expansion in occupied East Jerusalem, and Turkey’s success in challenging Israel’s Gaza siege and blockade through its support of the flotilla. (It was especially important in light of the U.S.-opposed success of the Turkish-Brazilian Iran initiative only weeks earlier.) As Tony Karon noted in Time magazine’s online edition:
The move marks Israel conceding that its Gaza strategy has failed to achieve its goal, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disowned the blockade on Monday, stressing in his remarks to parliament that it was a policy he’d inherited from his predecessors. That the blockade collapsed under pressure is also an embarrassment for the Obama Administration because Turkey’s more muscular challenge will be seen throughout the region to have forced a change in Israeli behavior — something that Obama’s polite entreaties have failed to achieve.
Indeed Ankara’s assertive set of responses to the Israeli assault on the Mavi Marmara, from recalling its ambassador from Tel Aviv to cancelling planned military exercises with Israel to the powerful undiplomatic language of its top officials, and its successful insistence on the immediate return of everyone captured or killed on the ship, provided a model for how mid-sized, mid-level powers could challenge Israel and stand up to U.S. pressure and emerge not only unscathed but reaping enormous political capital both domestically and internationally.
And those who participated in the flotilla, and those who defended them around the world, did so on the basis of international law. Israel was not condemned because its commandoes were mean and brutal, it was condemned because the attack on the Mavi Marmara, a civilian ship carrying certifiably humanitarian goods in international waters, was a violation of international law. Most crucially, the flotilla held Israel’s entire blockade of Gaza up to the scrutiny of international law — and found it wanting, thus forcing the Israeli government to announce its intention to “ease” the blockade.
“EASING” THE ISRAELI BLOCKADE
But — what does that announcement actually mean? As usual, the magnitude of the Israeli decision differs, depending not only on its implementation, but on the vantage point of our assessments.
By my calculations, there are four different levels of significance. From the vantage point of the rising power of rapidly escalating international pressure, Israel caved. That’s huge. Obama’s quiet requests to Israel regarding settlements, a two-state solution, etc., all failed — not surprising, given that the requests were accompanied by the unchallenged continuation of U.S. military collaboration with Israel, diplomatic protection in the UN and elsewhere, and crucially, the payouts from the $30 BILLION in military aid the Obama administration is providing to Tel Aviv.
So in terms of potential impact on discourse and perception, Israel caved. Score one for global civil society and Turkey — score zero for Obama.
But from the vantage point of actually alleviating the human catastrophe facing the 1.5 people who remain confined in the open-air prison that is Gaza, the Israeli decision means, at best, a minimal improvement in conditions of daily survival. Israel has no intention of lifting the blockade — Gaza will remain besieged, with Israel in control of borders, all people and goods moving (or not moving) in and out, all airspace, all coastal waters, and more. It remains unclear whether any significant amounts of building material will be allowed in — Israel has hinted it may decide that cement or steel building rods are “dual-use” potentially military items and prohibit their entry. (If they do, they will have a powerful legacy to follow of U.S. sanctions in Iraq, in which pencils were considered dual-use for the graphite inside, water treatment and hospital sterilization equipment was banned, and more.) So some additional foodstuffs will likely get in — but as Gazans like Fida Qishta are telling the world, “We don’t need food or clothing; we don’t want money,” she said. “We need to be free to come and go. We need to feel human. People in Gaza are like you — not from another planet.”
From the vantage point of Israel’s violations of international law, the decision changes nothing. “Easing” an illegal blockade does not make it legal. Until it ends the blockade, Israel remains in violation. The Geneva Convention, Article 33, prohibits an occupying power from using collective punishment — no exceptions. And according to the San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea:
The declaration or establishment of a blockade is prohibited if: (a) it has the sole purpose of starving the civilian population or denying it other objects essential for its survival; or (b) the damage to the civilian population is, or may be expected to be, excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the blockade. (My thanks to Peter Weiss, co-founder of the Center for Constitutional Rights and longtime supporter of IPS, for the citation.)
Increasing the number of food items allowed into Gaza, or even switching from a “what-is-allowed” list to a somewhat less restrictive “what-isn’t-allowed” list does not bring Israel into compliance.
And from the longer-range vantage point of ending Israel’s occupation, the impact of the “easing” decision could arguably be worse than nothing. If, for example, Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister and current Middle East envoy of the so-called “Quartet,” continues his role of cheerleader and spokesman for the Israeli government, part of his plan will be to celebrate the “easing” decision as a qualitative step towards a two-state solution. Israel will deserve so much support for taking such a big step — certainly the Palestinians will have to match that Israeli “concession”… Probably with a return to negotiations. Because as we have seen before, for the Obama administration, when it comes to Israel negotiations — any negotiations, however fruitless — are the preferred substitute for real accountability.
THE WAR OF LEGITIMACY
So in the immediate period, Palestinians on the ground in Gaza are not likely to see a qualitative change as a result of the flotilla crisis.
But in the only-slightly longer term, the changes it causes are likely to be powerful and long-lasting. More governments have seen that it is possible to challenge Israeli policies and stand up to its U.S. protectors and come out unscathed, and perhaps more popular than ever. Turkey is consolidating its increasing role as a regional Middle East power in its own right, with far less concern (at both government and popular levels) about winning support to join the European Union.
And global civil society has won a huge battle in what Richard Falk, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, calls “the war of legitimacy.” The political success — despite the huge price in human lives — won by the Free Gaza Movement flotilla, strengthens not only the international movement to break the siege of Gaza but the Palestinian-led campaign of BDS, or boycotts, divestment and sanctions, that is spreading across the globe.
As Falk wrote in Le Monde Diplomatique after last year’s Israeli assault on Gaza:
In the end, the haunting question is whether the war crimes concerns raised by Israel’s behaviour in Gaza matters, and if so, how. I believe it matters greatly in what might be called “the second war” – the legitimacy war that often ends up shaping the political outcome more than battlefield results. The US won every battle in the Vietnam war and lost the war; the same with France in Indochina and Algeria, and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The Shah of Iran collapsed, as did the apartheid regime in South Africa, because of defeats in the legitimacy war. It is my view that this surfacing of criminal charges against Israel during and after its attacks on Gaza resulted in major gains on the legitimacy front for the Palestinians. The widespread popular perceptions of Israeli criminality, especially the sense of waging war against a defenceless population with modern weaponry, has prompted people around the world to propose boycotts, divestments and sanctions. This mobilisation exerts pressure on governments and corporations to desist from relations with Israel, and is reminiscent of the worldwide anti-apartheid campaign that did so much to alter the political landscape in South Africa. Winning the legitimacy war is no guarantee that Palestinian self-determination will be achieved in the coming years. But it does change the political equation.
The interaction of governments with the flotilla activists — not only Turkey but Ireland, Malaysia and other countries provided support — means that perhaps we will see other countries in the UN General Assembly following their lead in defense of international law and human rights. Perhaps some will remind their fellow members that the UN itself has supported BDS campaigns in the past, and that some resolutions remain on the books. Specifically, in 1982 and 83, during the Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon, the Assembly passed two resolutions calling on its Members to:
Refrain from supplying Israel with any weapons and related equipment and to suspend any military assistance that Israel receives from them; to refrain from acquiring any weapons or military equipment from Israel; to suspend economic, financial and technological assistance to and co-operation with Israel; to sever diplomatic, trade and cultural relations with Israel.
With civil society in the lead, and Turkey providing an example, such action on the part of UN Member states does not seem so impossible.
Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies; her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer. She was in Turkey during the flotilla crisis, and some of her articles can be accessed at http://www.ips-dc.org/mideast.