July 27, 2010

Flotillas to Gaza. The Opportunity Costs

Around the time of the last flotilla – the massacred one – Richard Irvine had an interesting article in the Guardian. Richard (personal interest disclosure: he’s also from Ireland) was pointing out the similarities between the Mavi Marmara and The Exodus. The latter was the ship taking Jewish refugees to Palestine in 1947; it provoked international outrage when British forces boarded it, killing several passengers and preventing it from reaching Palestine.

While the comparison was clever and the article interesting, what struck me forcefully were the differences between the two ships. At its most basic, there were Jews on The Exodus. With a few exceptions, there were no Palestinians on the Mavi Marmara or any other ship on the flotilla. The Exodus served as an example of Jews doing things for themselves – liberating themselves from the Displaced Person’s camps in Europe – this is what gave the story its power. The Mavi Marmara and Freedom Flotilla is an example of other people doing things for Palestinians. As a story, it pushes Palestinians to the margins.

This is not meant to be a criticism of the flotilla tactic, but rather a reflection on its opportunity costs. All tactics come with these opportunity costs, these paths closed off, resources spent that could have be used elsewhere. Nothing - no political action anyway - is perfect. But that’s not to stop us trying to make them more perfect.

But before looking at these costs and weaknesses, we need to recognise that the flotillas have probably been the most successful tactic used to promote Palestine solidarity. As a way of demonstrating and creating international solidarity with Palestine it is unparalleled. As a means of reaching out to the public in our home countries and giving them a way of getting involved, it has surpassed anything else we’ve done. For instance in Ireland, thousands donated their fivers and tenners for bags of cement to Gaza and once this was done, these people were invested in the convoy; they were part of Palestine solidarity in an immediate and (sorry for the pun) concrete way. Connected in a way they hadn’t been before. And while comparisons with Sharpeville (or more extremely with 9/11) may be overstated, the flotillas have made the world aware as never before, of the brutality and random cruelty of the Israeli regime. Israel, unlike South Africa, has been able to get away with killing schoolchildren. But killing (non-Palestinian) aid activists was a step too far, too much for the rest of the world to stomach.

Yet things have been lost. One of the prime things cast overboard in the stories about the flotilla has been the agency of Palestinians. The stories are all about the activists and the aid. This, after all, is what made them easier to sell to the media. At the most cynical, there was the shock factor that Israel has descended to killing and brutalising white(ish) people, not just Arabs, Palestinians. But one does not need to be cynical – in Ireland the last flotilla was about ‘area man’, people from Cork, Donegal, somewhere nearby. It’s easy to get our media to write up stories about our generosity and our actions, be it a group of nurses raising money for medicines or retired bus-drivers on a sponsored run for the flotilla. This is all good. It makes solidarity much more immediate, more real for people than stories about foreigners in a far away land once again doing unspeakable things to each other.

But where are the Palestinians in these stories? They are indistinct, the object of aid, the victims of oppression. They are not seen as agents capable of liberating themselves, but passively awaiting our aid, our bravery. Not actors in this drama but once again assigned the role of spectators to their own history. Activists may be empowered by the flotilla story, but does this correspondingly disempower Palestinians? Perhaps not; the stories Irish or British people tell themselves so as to get involved in solidarity activism aren’t necessarily listened to by Palestinians. They have their own narrativws of action.

And yet… the mantle of despair and victimhood placed over Palestinians must have some effect. This is something solidarity activists are aware of. Speaking from experience, the Irish flotilla people were trying to assign agency to Palestinians, stressing the point of view of Gazans, how Palestinians are trying to break the siege, how they want the borders to be opened so the can be self-reliant, not recipients of aid. But actions speak louder than words and the flotilla tactic remains an action in which Palestinians are largely absent.

We can ask then whether this tactic builds Palestinian capacity to resist, or control of their own struggle. Long-term the hope is that it will - it will help end the siege, enabling Palestinians to have more control over their own futures. But asking the question more specifically: does the process of building the flotilla build Palestinian capacity inside the Occupied Territories? Also does it build specifically Palestinian diaspora activism and capacity the same way it builds other international solidarity activism? Should we be worried if it doesn’t? Considering that it is Palestinian struggle that will win freedom for Palestine, with international solidarity activism simply playing an ancillary role – I’d say yes, definitely.

Relating the flotilla tactic to domestic solidarity activism offers a useful pointer. There is a second opportunity cost to flotillas – the costs to international solidarity organisations to raise millions, only to have the millions captured by Israel. This is simply part of the cost of organising around sending people to Gaza, rather than around domestic activism. Groups like the ISM and EAPPI have been dealing with this quandary for years now. They recognise that Palestinians are pretty clear about what they want – it’s not so much for international activists to act as heroes in Israel/Palestine as for them to get involved in home country work when they return. These two groups stress this point, and in Ireland at any rate, so does the Free Gaza Movement, creating a good balance between flotilla work and domestic activism.

I can only speak for the Irish experience, but speaking for it, the flotilla organisers and participants have done a brilliant job in promoting and getting involved in Palestine solidarity work in this country. They have met ministers and local politicians, done press conferences and interviews, and have spoken up and down the country encouraging people to get active in solidarity work and to boycott, boycott, boycott Israel. This is aside from their work in trying to get another flotilla up and running. They have kept to an exhausting schedule upon returning, when it would have been much easier to lie back and recover from the trauma and craziness of the flotilla. They deserve the highest of praise for this. So, while there are undoubtedly some who would fetishise the flotilla, the majority of organisers and participants here most certainly do not, and conscientiously and deliberately promote domestic activism.

And so rephrasing the rather rhetorical questions I made above, can the same balance be made with respect to conscientiously and deliberately promoting Palestinian activities in the Occupied Territories and diaspora? It’s a difficult one to answer, but should be addressed. How about – even symbolically, getting the ships to take back something from Palestinians in Gaza – symbols of future exports from Gaza? Or ensure that there are Gazans on the organising committee, in constant contact with Western journalists. Or alternatively, using the flotilla to push and expand Palestinian diaspora political activism. After all, if we’re making comparisons with the Exodus, how about a boat with Palestinian exiles sailing to Gaza (They’d need to be citizens of other countries, so Israel’s brutality will hopefully be restrained).

To end: Of course there are some shortcomings in the flotilla tactic. But they’re not insurmountable. It should be possible to think of imaginative ways to overcome any weaknesses in what has already proved to be an imaginative, motivating and above all, effective tactic.

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