Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Gaza’s Sea of Spin

By Ethan Bronner
Some see a parallel with the Exodus, the ship filled with Jewish refugees that tried to break the British blockade of Palestine in 1947 and helped sway world opinion toward Zionism.
Others are struck by the insistence on transporting basic aid — food and cement — when it is no longer needed.
Still others note the way the Israeli authorities portray the organisers as violent Islamists when most are middleaged European pacifists.
Almost everything about the flotilla stuck in Greece and waiting to challenge Israel’s blockade of Gaza seems to be a parable for something else, part of an unstated effort to recast the Israeli- Palestinian narrative in extreme terms.
Instead of helping to clarify what Gaza needs and how it might build a future, the saga has merely brought out the public relations demons on all sides.
Ostensibly the 10 or so boats, with several hundred advocates from more than a dozen countries, are trying to take goods to Gaza because of a siege imposed by Israel and Egypt to pressure Hamas, the Islamist ruler there.
A year ago a similar flotilla was stopped by the Israeli Navy, and after commandos boarded and scuffles ensued, nine activists were killed.
The international outrage that followed helped force an easing of the siege.
One result, largely unacknowledged by the flotilla leaders: far more goods have gone into Gaza over the past year, and while the 1.6 million people there still need many things, basic supplies are not among them.
Israel is therefore quick to say that Gaza is well provided for and does not need any flotilla.
If it still wants to bring in aid, it should take it to either Israel or Egypt and it will be delivered by truck.
Sea access must remain blocked to prevent weapons smuggling.
The Israeli position defies a brutal truth: last year’s flotilla made a big difference for the people of Gaza — at a terrible cost in lives — by refocusing international attention on their plight and forcing a change in Israeli policy.
Today, twice as many goods enter from Israel as before.
Nonetheless, Gaza remains a deeply sad and deprived place.
“The focus on humanitarian aid by both flotilla organisers and the Israeli government is infuriating and misleading,” Gisha, an Israeli human rights group focused on Gaza, said in a statement.
“There is no shortage of food in Gaza, but economic recovery is blocked by sweeping restrictions.” The Exodus analogy supports a certain political and public relations strategy.
In July 1947, when Britain ruled Palestine and the number of Jews allowed in was severely limited, the ship, with 4,500 Jewish refugees from Europe, tried to get through.
British forces boarded it, killed three people, wounded dozens and essentially destroyed the ship as it listed in Haifa harbour.
The British ultimately sent the passengers to Hamburg.
The sight of thousands of Jewish refugees shipped to Germany soon after the Holocaust sparked international outrage and sympathy for the Zionist cause, a key goal of the trip.
“The Exodus showed that if the British are callous enough to send Jews back to Germany, the only ones who should be in charge of the fate of the Jews are the Jews themselves,” observed MM Silver, an Israeli historian and the author of ‘Our Exodus.’ “Palestinian forces are trying to make the same point through the flotilla, that Israel has no right to control the fate of Palestinians.” Several months after the Exodus, the United Nations General Assembly voted for the establishment of two states in Palestine, Jewish and Arab, the key diplomatic moment in Israel’s history.
The Palestinian leadership rejected that resolution, but this September plans to ask the United Nations for recognition of its statehood with the 1967 lines, a move strongly opposed by Israel.
Israel, for its part, has been campaigning against the flotilla and perhaps doing more — some of the boats have suffered sabotage.
Israel says the Exodus is the wrong analogy; the flotilla is aimed at delegitimising Israel and killing its soldiers.
“The flotilla is entirely designed to attack Israel’s image around the world,” said Yuli Edelstein, minister for public diplomacy.
“We know that there are representatives of different terror groups on their way to join the flotilla.” Israeli military officials have told newspapers that some flotilla participants plan to pour sacks of sulfur on Israeli commandos and set them afire.
The flotilla organisers have denied it.
A government news release noted that Edelstein had participated in a simulation exercise for the flotilla in which Israeli forces were attacked.
The description of the simulation indicates how the government expects the harsh information war to play out: “As the events were taking place, the media — with emphasis on the Internet, Facebook and Twitter — were flooded with mendacious reports (by private users, Hamas and others among Israel’s enemies).” Mendacity has already reared its head.
An Israeli actor put up a YouTube clip saying that he was a gay activist rejected by the flotilla because of his sexual orientation.
The video was exposed as a fake.
Israeli officials, who had promoted the clip on Twitter and Facebook, said they had been duped.
-This commentary was published in The Qatar Tribune on 05/07/2011
-Ethan Bronner is the Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times

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