Let's not miss the whole point of the Free Gaza flotilla

Jun 01, 2010
*Special to asia!

We might as well say it now: The truth about what happened in the Mediterranean 60 miles from Gaza went down with the dead activists. But does that matter?


“Out beyond ideas of rightdoings and wrongdoings, there is a field. I will meet you there.” Persian poet, Sanai

It wasn't a convoy of planes. The Turkish-organised Free Gaza was a flotilla of six ships. Now, sea voyages are not known for speed, and it takes a good couple of days to sail from Turkey to Israel.

For the whole time the ships were out at sea, those of us watching sat around twiddling our thumbs, waiting. With so much advance warning being given, the Israeli leadership met to discuss how they were going to respond. According to reports that emerged, the idea from a newspaper journalist of having women soldiers dressed in white greet the flotilla was raised.

This, from Ehud Barak, the Defense Minister, one-time prime minister and highly-decorated soldier, no less.

One can only hope to attribute this to the Israeli sense of humour.

Except that there is nothing much to laugh about. A bunch of dead foreigners are dead after the Israeli commandos stormed one of the ships, said to be carrying a cargo of humanitarian aid from Turkey for the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip. Now everyone, from the United Nations to the United States, from the Turkish to the Israeli public are now demanding answers.

What happened?

Here's the Israeli version: The Israeli soldiers – armed with only pistols and paintball guns – were attacked by those on board the ships.



Here's the story from the other side - the al-Jazeera version – which will have to suffice for the moment, since those on board the ships are being held and prevented from talking to the media by the Israeli authorities: The soldiers boarded the ships and opened fire, while those on board waved white flags. (Difference in size of the screens are solely because of inherent qualities from www.youtube.com.)



The two conflicting accounts are no surprise. Each side needs to present itself as having acted honourably, so there is little sense in putting complete faith in either. In any case, there will be more questions than can be answered:

1. Were there weapons on board the ships?

The ships are said to be carrying humanitarian supplies, sorely needed by the Palestinian people placed under siege by Israel. The Israelis on the other hand, claim they came under fire.

If the soldiers were really fired upon, was it from arms on board, or did it come from the pistols snatched from them as they slid down the rope from the army helicopters?

2. Why were commandos sent on the ships?

What was the Israeli army trying to achieve? Who were they expecting on board? These were clearly people sufficiently scandalised by the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza to want to get on the ships and storm an Israeli naval blockade. Did the army commanders not consider that their indignation would be unleashed by the first sighting of the 'enemy' soldiers?

3. What was the purpose of the Free Gaza flotilla?

Yes, the stated aim was to deliver much-needed humanitarian aid to Gaza. Yet did those on board not realise that they were pitting themselves against the most feared – for various reasons – army in the world?

If this is an armed forces that will retaliate against civilians in Gaza, what more 60 miles out at sea in the middle of nowhere?

Some days later, when we look back at this whole episode, we may ponder about its success, something that can only be measured in terms of its goals.

Last week, Israel had offered to let the ships dock at Ashdod, where the cargo would be inspected and transferred to Gaza under United Nations supervision. The flotilla organisers had refused and insisted on proceeding to sail to Gaza.

And rightly so.

That was a costly mistake and Israel is not going to wake up from this public relations nightmare any time soon.

Saying yes to Israel would only achieve one thing: get the goods to Gaza. But it would do nothing to highlight the situation in Gaza. A bunch of trucks rolling into Gaza does not sexy television. It doesn't garner media coverage. They were right to pass on it, if they wanted to – as the name of the flotilla suggest – free Gaza, where aid agencies say hundreds of thousands are living in dire conditions without employment and basic supplies because of the Israeli blockade.

More international diplomatic pressure would presumably impress on Israel that the inhumane siege on Gaza cannot go on.

Israel called the whole exercise a provocation, and to a certain extent, it probably is. It would be naïve to say there wasn't an intention to rile the Israeli army into action against the activists on board. On 'live' cable news.

Israel knew that if that happened, it would look bad, and acted to try to prevent that. Of the twenty other strategies this seasoned army could have come up with, it chose the most bewildering one: Drop a small group of elite soldiers with no expertise in dealing with a hostile crowd onto a ship carrying more than 700 angry pro-Palestinian activists.

That was a costly mistake and Israel is not going to wake up from this public relations nightmare any time soon.

Something else is certain: There was a screw-up and at least nine civilian lives were lost.

dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for theasiamag.com, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi