It is expected that at the end of June, Freedom Flotilla 2 will set sail for Gaza, carrying various forms of humanitarian aid, including medical, school, and construction materials. This second flotilla will consist of 15 ships – including the Mavi Marmara from the first flotilla – sailing from Istanbul, but also vessels departing from several European countries, and carrying as many as 1,500 humanitarian activists as passengers. If these plans are carried out, as seems likely, it means that the second flotilla is about double the size of the first that was so violently intercepted by Israeli commandos in international waters on May 31, 2010, resulting in nine deaths on the Turkish lead ship.
Since that shocking incident of a year ago, the Arab Spring has changed the regional atmosphere, but it has not ended the unlawful blockade of Gaza, or the suffering inflicted on the Gazan population over the four-year period of coerced confinement. Such imprisonment of an occupied people has been punctuated by periodic violence, including the sustained all-out Israeli attack for three weeks at the end of 2008, during which even women, children, and the disabled were not allowed to leave the deadly killing fields of Gaza.
It is an extraordinary narrative of Israeli cruelty and deafening international silence. The silence was broken only by the brave civil society initiatives in recent years that brought both the symbolic relief of empathy and human solidarity, as well as the token amounts of substantive assistance in the form of much needed food and medicine. It is true that the new Egypt has opened the Rafah crossing a few days ago, allowing several hundred Gazans to leave or return to Gaza on a daily basis, but Rafah is not currently equipped to handle goods, and is available only to people, and so the blockade of imports and exports continues in force, and may even be intensified as Israel vents its anger over the Fatah/Hamas unity agreement.
Secretary General: No Flotilla
As the Greek coordinator of Freedom Flotilla 2, Vangelis Pisias has expressed the motivation of this new effort to break the blockade: “We will not allow Israel to set up open prisons and concentration camps.” Connecting this Gazan ordeal to the wider regional struggles, Pisias added, “Palestine is in our heart and could be the symbol of a new era in the region.”
A highly credible assessment of the Israeli 2010 attack on Freedom Flotilla 1 by a fact finding mission appointed by the UN Human Rights Council concluded that the Israelis had violated international law in several respects: by using excessive force, by wrongfully attacking humanitarian vessels in international waters, and by an unacceptable claim to be enforcing a blockade that was itself unlawful. Such views have been widely endorsed by a variety of respected sources throughout the international community, although the panel appointed by the UN Secretary General to evaluate the same incident has not yet made public its report, and apparently its conclusions will be unacceptably muted by the need to accommodate its Israeli member.
In light of these surrounding circumstances, including the failure of Israel to live up to its announced promise after the attack in 2010 to lift the blockade, it shocks our moral and legal sensibilities that the UN Secretary General should be using the authority of his office to persuade member governments to do their best to prevent ships from joining Freedom Flotilla 2. Ban Ki-moon shamelessly does not even balance such a call, purportedly to prevent the recurrence of violence, by at least sending an equivalent message to Israel insisting that the blockade end and that no force be used in relation to humanitarian initiatives of the sort being planned.
Instead of protecting those who would act on behalf of unlawful Palestinian victimisation, the UN Secretary General disgraces the office by taking a one-sided stand in support of one of the most flagrant and long lasting instances of injustice that has been allowed to persist in the world. True, his spokesperson tries to soften the impact of such a message by vacuously stating that “the situation in the Gaza Strip must be changed, and Israel must conduct real measures to end the siege.” We must ask why were these thoughts not express by the Secretary General himself and directly to Israel? Public relations is part of his job, but it is not a cover for crassly taking the wrong side in the controversy over whether or not Freedom Flotilla 2 is a legitimate humanitarian initiative freely undertaken by civil society without the slightest credible threat to Israeli security.
Appropriately, and not unexpectedly, the Turkish Government refuses to bow to such abusive pressures even when backed by the UN at its highest level. Ahmet Davutoglu, the widely respected Turkish foreign minister, has said repeatedly in recent weeks when asked about Freedom Flotilla 2, that no democratic government should claim the authority to exercise control over the initiatives of civil society, as represented by NGOs. Davutoglu has been quoted as saying, “[N]obody should expect from Turkey… to forget that nine civilians were killed last year […] Therefore we are sending a clear message to all those concerned. The same tragedy should not be repeated again.” Underscoring the unresolved essential issue he asked rhetorically, “[D]o we think that one member state is beyond international law?” Noting that Israel has still not offered an apology to Turkey or compensation to the families of those killed, Davutoglu makes clear that until such reasonable preconditions are met, Israel cannot be accepted “to be a partner in the region”.
Liberating Palestine: Arab Spring’s second stage
We should not overlook that further in the background of this sordid effort to interfere with Freedom Flotilla 2 is the geopolitical muscle of the United States that blindly (and dumbly) backs Israel no matter how outrageous or criminal its behaviour. And undoubtedly, this geopolitical pressure helps explain this attempted interference with a courageous and needed humanitarian initiative that should have been affirmed by the UN rather than condemned. It needs to be kept in mind that despite the near universal verbal objections of world leaders, including even Ban Ki-moon, to the Israeli blockade, no meaningful action has been yet taken by either governments or the UN in the face of Israel’s undisguised refusal to respect the requirements of belligerent occupation of Gaza as set forth in the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, and the First Additional Protocol appended thereto in 1977.
Liberating Palestine from occupation and refugee regimes should be a core, unifying priority of this second stage of the Arab Spring. Nothing could do more to manifest the external as well as the internal turn to democracy, constitutional governance, and human rights than displays of solidarity by new and newly reformist leaders in Arab countries with this unendurably long Palestinian struggle for justice and sustainable peace. It would also offer the world a contrast with the subservience to Israel recently on display in Washington, highlighted by inviting Binyamin Netanyahu to address an adoring US Congress, a rarity in the country’s treatment of foreign leaders paralleling the pandering speech given by president Obama to AIPAC, the Israeli lobbying organisation. It is unprecedented in the history of diplomacy that a leading sovereign state would so jeopardise its interests and abandon its values so as to avoid offending a small allied partner. It is in the American interest, as well as in the interest of the peoples of the Arab world, particularly the Palestinians, to unravel this mystery, and if not, to move the resolution of the conflict from Washington to the more geopolitically trustworthy auspices of Brazil, Turkey, Nordic countries, and even possibly Russia or China.
Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades, most recently editing the volume International Law and the Third World: Reshaping Justice (Routledge, 2008).
He is currently serving his third year of a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.
June 2, 2011