It's been over a year since the world watched with anticipation as the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza set sail to breach Israel's naval blockade. Around 700 passengers from different corners of the globe carrying ten thousand tons of humanitarian aid for the people of Gaza made the decision to not sit on the sidelines of history and watch the suffering of the people of Gaza.
We all know well how that expedition ended. The flotilla was attacked by Israeli Shayetet 13 naval commandos from speed boats and helicopters in international waters a little before dawn. Nine activists were killed, many left wounded – one of them remains in a coma till today. As for the aid, it was never really completely delivered. The international uproar led to the straining of ties between the Netanyahu government and Ankara, as the activists killed on board the Mavi Marmara were Turkish nationals (although there are reports of back-door negotiations between the two sides to get the relations up and running again), and an "easing" of restrictions by the Israelis in allowing some goods (that were already accessible in Gaza thanks to the Rafah border tunnels) into the coastal enclave as a PR move. Let's not forget though, essentials such as construction materials and fuel were not (and are not) allowed. The fuel that is needed to keep Gaza's hospitals up and running is also not allowed, and neither is the cement that the region needs in order to rebuild itself after Israel's devastating war on Gaza at the turn of 2009. Just this month, health authorities in Gaza proclaimed a state of emergency due to a shortage of vital medicines.
With over three hundred thousand Gazans now living on just around one dollar a day, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness best describes the situation at hand, "It is hard to understand the logic of a man-made policy which deliberately impoverishes so many and condemns hundreds of thousands of potentially productive people to a life of destitution." Gaza still remains world's largest open air prison, with Israel in control of its borders, water supply, airspace, and ports. The promises of rendering the siege useless by the Egyptian junta have fallen short. The Rafah crossing is open to a select criterion, with commercial crossings still closed.
This is the Gaza that Freedom Flotilla II set sail to on the 25th of June. A fleet of nine boats beginning their journey from various Mediterranean ports, its passengers have made it clear that they are not armed, they are not hostile, and they just want to take humanitarian goods and letters of encouragement to the people of Gaza.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu has vowed to stop the flotilla from breaking the siege. Water cannons, commandos, border police, snipers have all been deployed for the mission. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, who is joining the flotilla, said, "If the Israeli military attacks us, it will be as if they attacked the mailman. This should go down hilariously in the annals of history."
The Israeli government has more tricks up its sleeve. The US government, with all its claims of supporting freedom, dignity and rights around the world, is calling the flotilla a "provocation". UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, though admitting the situation in Gaza is unsustainable, is pressuring countries whose nationals are part of the flotilla to discourage the venture. And of course, the most disappointing, what was supposed to be the flagship of the flotilla, the Mavi Marmara, the very Mavi Marmara that was attacked last year, has bowed to pressure from the Ankara government and announced it will not be joining this expedition, citing technical difficulties. Moreover, a lawsuit filed in Toronto, Canada is seeking to block Canadian participation in the Freedom Flotilla II, charging that it seeks to raise funds for Hamas, which was declared a terrorist organization by Canada in 2002.
With such a push to discredit this challenge to Israeli policies, it is difficult to imagine how this expedition would end in anything different from what happened last year. But things are different. The Freedom Flotilla II makes its way today to a new Middle East, one very different from what it was in the summer of 2010.
To begin with, the Arab Spring has brought to light the general sentiments amongst the populations in the region when it comes to the Palestinian cause. Even now, as people continue to take to the streets to protest, there rises a slogan in support for Palestine from amidst their calls for freedom and democracy. There are protests in Jordan every Friday that continue to condemn the regime's normalized relations with Israel. Egyptians also continue to demand an end to the peace treaty signed with Israel. Even in countries where a revolution has not taken place yet, governments are attentively paying attention to the demands of the people: from which the Palestinian cause seems inseparable. Netanyahu knows he will receive no standing ovation in most quarters of the world, like the one bestowed upon him by the US Congress.
Another result of the Arab Spring was seen manifesting on the streets of the Palestinian territories. Thousands of youth took to the streets to demand unity between different Palestinian factions. For the first time in years, Fatah and Hamas flags were waved side by side in a show of solidarity. Today, all Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas included, have signed a unity deal and are on their way to forming a unity government. The world is no longer dealing with a particular faction, but a unified Palestinian leadership.
An ideological support from the populations within the region (and beyond) and a unified representative governing body for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have opened the doors to new possibilities. All this is also coupled with the feat of the original Freedom Flotilla. What the May 31st "incident" did for Palestinians was that it brought into focus, once again, the humanitarian aspect of an issue that has been marred by political wrangling and failed theoretical road-maps for 'conflict resolution'. It humanized the situation in Gaza and the plight of the Palestinians for a world that had become numb to the daily, monotonous headlines the region had become synonymous to. A result of this continues to comes in the form of movements like Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, which continues to grow globally and was even taken up by the largest student union in the UK more recently.
However the Israeli government decides to deal with the approaching flotilla, a part of its mission will perhaps be achieved even before it touches the banks of Gaza. Through the publicity of the voyage via various forms of media, it works to raise awareness of the situation of the average Gazan that depends on aid handouts and doesn't know what tomorrow is going to bring. It also challenges Israel's impunity in face of widespread popular support for the Palestinian cause and a unified (and much stronger) Palestinian leadership.
Israel has been warned though; peace activists aboard the flotilla have vowed to call on people all over the world to protest in front of Israeli embassies and consulates if the boats are intercepted. Co-founder of Code PINK Madea Benjamin's words put it all into context, "Like the inexorable rhythm of the ocean, the Palestinians will continue to lap at the shores of injustice. They will keep coming back, wave after wave, demanding the right to rebuild their tattered communities, the right to live in dignity. Shoring them up will be the international community, including activists like us who join their nonviolent resistance. The real question is: How long will the Israelis, with US backing, continue to swim against the tide?"