July 02, 2011

Flotilla questions

These are just initial unformed views on the flotilla. It may be a bit soon to do a post-mortem like this, because the flotilla might yet sail. Also, I wasn’t involved with the flotilla organising, so I don't talk about the more immediate issues the flotilla is dealing with. The piece is in the forms of questions I don’t know the answer to, but I think they’re the right questions at this time.

1. What are the successes of the flotilla?
Now the flotilla looks like failing to get to Gaza, now all the Mediterranean states have been united against the flotilla in various ways (Cyprus, Greece, Egypt, Turkey) it looks like a huge waste of effort. It’s important to tot up the successes too.

Firstly, the flotilla keeps the issue of the siege of Gaza alive. What would happen if there wasn’t a flotilla? Here’s what. Israel’s narrative of the people of Gaza ‘doing fine (if it weren’t for them evil Islamists taking their freedoms away)’ would have become gospel rather than the contested narrative it is now. The siege would become forgotten news – worthy newspapers would tut over it in some obscure article once a year, and Israel would have achieved its main aim – normalisation. The flotilla has helped prevent that.

Secondly, the flotilla isn’t just an expenditure of effort – it was also a means of mobilising. In Ireland, which managed to organise a boat by itself – one can look at the costs of this – which is 100-150,000 euro. Or one can look at the way that people who hadn’t been involved before in Palestinian activism were drawn in, attracted by the heroic nature of the venture, of the obviousness and immediacy of what the flotilla was trying to achieve. We can look at the favourable media coverage, the people educated on the issue. And we can realise that these are people who may be kept in solidarity activism.

2. Was the flotilla a tactical mistake?
We can accept that the flotilla mobilised people and kept the issue alive while at the same time recognising failures.

There are two ways we might consider it to be a mistake. We didn’t realise the extent to which states would unite in defence of the Israeli state and we should have. Not just the Mediterranean states, but the world over, states were declaring that they would let Israel attack the flotilla and merely asking them to be ‘nice’ about it – not leave too many embarrassing corpses. Israel, far from being more isolated, has displayed how it is integrated into the EU system. Now we could say we exposed the hypocrisies of the system, but so what. The flotilla wasn’t needed for that.

The other problem with the flotilla was the extent to which it became a story about the activists rather than Palestinian resistance. I’ve dealt with this earlier, but even though the flotilla folks (at least in Ireland) linked in with what Palestinians were doing, talking about their mission as a political one, it was still treated as a humanitarian aid to passive victims – this despite the participants’ best efforts. I think this should be accounted at least a partial failure

3. What lessons are to be learnt?
We need to acknowledge failure and learn from it, rather than say the flotilla was an unmitigated success. For many, especially those new to the issue, the disappointment will dissuade them from future activism. Thus the first thing is to try to get them involved in small-scale local actions that can lead to success and that can keep them involved and interested in the issue. For those drained by their flotilla experience, this will be really difficult; but it’s necessary.

Part of the unavoidable problem with the flotilla was the huge amount of time it gave to Israel to organise and mobilise other states against the flotilla. The flotilla was a big, easily attackable target, which Israel had over a year to deal with. We don’t have the power that states do – and so we need to trim our tactics accordingly. While it’s important to think big, perhaps the flotilla was premature. Giving a guerrilla war analogy, solidarity activists shouldn’t engage in pitched battles with our far stronger enemies, presenting ourselves as targets, but choose hit-and-run tactics, harrying the enemy. Eventually we might talk of liberating areas and having part of the world not bowing to Israel’s demands, but we are a way from that yet. Our successes have all been in places where Israel wasn’t expecting, in building civil society support for boycott, and in supporting civil society movements in Palestine resisting occupation. We need to expand these areas.

This is not a criticism of the flotilla people or the tactic – as a tactic it had to be tried. After last year’s massacre, solidarity activists couldn’t NOT organise another flotilla. That would have been a disaster. The question is where too now. How can we use the anger we now feel?


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