Foreign | Sunday, 30 May 2010

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Waiting for the flotilla

On the high seas of the Mediterranean, away from the coast of Cyprus, a flotilla made of eight vessels is approaching the Gaza Strip in the largest attempt ever to break the three-year blockade imposed by Israel.
Other vessels have made it to Gaza by sea in previous voyages, and others still were stopped and detained by Israeli authorities, but this is the first time an attempt to break the siege is going beyond the symbolic.
With four cargo ships in the flotilla, the Free Gaza Movement is shipping around 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid to Gaza, including cement, medical supplies, paper and prefabricated houses. It is also ferrying over 600 passengers from around the world, including MPs, Nobel Peace laureates, a former US ambassador, journalists, activists and Palestinians who were banned from returning to their homeland.
Awaiting them out at sea, Israeli warships are on full alert to prevent them from reaching the coast of Gaza, and to detain all the passengers. A counter-flotilla made of Israeli citizens has also set sail to oppose the humanitarian cargo. A makeshift detention camp has been set up in the Israeli port of Ashdod from where the arrested passengers would then face deportation or Israeli trials.
Scenes of Israeli commandos and naval warships engaged in a showdown on the high seas – dubbed Operation Sky Winds by the Israeli military – to stop humanitarian aid would dent Israel’s image with the world even further. As the Israeli government reiterates, it would intercept the cargo “at any cost” and the Free Gaza flotilla insists it will forge ahead. A confrontation seems inevitable.
Meanwhile fishing boats await in the port of Gaza City as thousands of Gazans are expected to greet the vessels should they manage to evade the Israelis on Sunday morning.
The aid the flotilla is attempting to bring over, particularly cement and prefabricated houses, are sorely needed as most of the reconstruction after the last war on Gaza in January 2009 remains impossible because of Israel’s ban on construction material.
Some Gazans are however not enthusiastic about the arrival of more aid – still bitter at the experience of the distribution of the humanitarian cargo brought into Gaza by British MP George Galloway last January.
“We saw nothing of all the things they brought,” said Mahmoud, a refugee living in Jabalya Camp. “Where are the cars? Where are the heaters? They were all taken by Hamas. That is what’s going to happen again tomorrow.”
Still, upon seeing the coverage the flotilla was finally getting on international news channels, Mahmoud himself realised the value of breaking the siege through the sea. It will make the blockade seem useless: the Israelis will be shown as the aggressors who, despite the disengagement from Gaza, are still occupying the narrow stretch of land. It has also pushed politicians from around the world, as well as governments, into talking about the blockade, taking a stand against it and in some notable cases even endorsing the flotilla.
Israel also seems confused about the message it wants to convey. On the one hand it says the Free Gaza flotilla is useless because Gaza has no humanitarian crisis, on the other it boasts of sending over humanitarian aid itself – confirming there is a humanitarian need.
The European Union’s foreign minister Catherine Ashton yesterday said the EU was “gravely concerned by the humanitarian situation in Gaza”. Stopping short of giving a blanket endorsement to the flotilla, Lady Ashton added: “The continued policy of closure is unacceptable and politically counterproductive.”
The question is: Why does Gaza need aid in the first place? If there was no destruction, there would be no need for reconstruction. If there was no blockade, there would be no need for special medical referrals and special permits to go abroad. If there was no occupation, Israel would have no need to count inflatable toys, spices and ice cream machines entering Gaza except as normal exports if Palestinian businessmen decided to import them. And if there was a Palestinian state the Israeli embassy would stick to talking about Israel and leaving Palestinian data to its neighbouring country.

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