Flotilla 2011: Dueling narratives of the Gaza blockade
The blockade on Gaza is oversimplified by those most active in supporting and protesting against it. Public relations branches of the Israeli government argue that the land and sea blockade on the coastal strip is necessary to prevent weapons smuggling into Gaza that would threaten Israeli civilians living near the Strip. Those protesting the blockade, including participants in the upcoming flotilla, say that the blockade on Gaza is an illegal form of collective punishment on the citizens and civilians who live there, unnecessarily and painfully harming every aspect of life in the Strip. Both sides are correct, but neither is willing to allow the entire picture to enter their narrative.
From the time that Israel first occupied the Gaza Strip in 1956 and for more than three decades after its continuous occupation began in 1967, there was near freedom of movement for Palestinians and goods between the Strip, Israel and the West Bank. In 1991, that started to change as Israel implemented a personal permit system, which required any Palestinian wishing to travel out of the Strip to acquire a permit from Israeli authorities. Still, most Palestinians were allowed to leave the Strip as well as to import and export goods from it. From 1998 until 2001, an international airport operated in Gaza and its historic seaport was in operation. Only at the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2001, when a number of suicide bombers from Gaza (and the West Bank) began terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians, did the beginnings of a blockade on Gaza resembling that which is in place today, begin.
Between 2001 and 2005, while Israel still maintained a civilian and military presence in the Strip, freedom of movement and exports and imports were still allowed, but these were tightly controlled by the IDF. In 2001, the Gaza airport was destroyed by the IDF, imports and exports were frequently halted and permits to travel to and from the Strip were issued and revoked sporadically. When Israeli settlers and soldiers left Gaza in August 2005, Israel abandoned its 37-year-long internal control of the Strip but continued control over all of its land, sea and air crossings. One exception was the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, which was put under joint EU-Israeli-Egyptian-PA control, but that arrangement was short-lived.
In June 2006, when IDF Corporal Gilad Schalit was abducted by Hamas operatives and held captive inside Gaza, Israel froze the Rafah border agreement, leaving operational only those crossings directly under Israeli control. Just over a year later, after Hamas seized control of Gaza from Israel’s preferred Palestinian partner Fatah, the Rafah arrangement was cancelled. Imports and exports were almost completely halted. Israel implemented a calculated formula to allow just enough goods into the Strip in order to prevent a humanitarian crisis, although Israeli-controlled crossing points were opened and closed sporadically.
The official position of the Israeli government at the time was that the blockade was necessary in order to prevent further Hamas armament and the entry of terrorist elements (Al-Qaida has established a small, but mostly homegrown presence in the Strip in recent years). Indeed, Hamas and other terrorist groups consistently smuggle weapons into Gaza through tunnels (a shadow economy that emerged as a result of the blockade) and domestically produced rockets often pound Israeli civilians along the border. Israel, argues quite logically that it has a duty to protect its citizens.
The nearly complete prohibition on the import and export of goods, however, was initially put into place as a way of pressuring Hamas to free Gilad Schalit and as a part of Israel’s blanket refusal to cooperate with the Hamas regime, which it describes as a terrorist entity. Detractors of the blockade, including participants in the current and past flotillas, argue that the restrictions and sporadic closing of commercial and goods crossings into the Strip constitute collective punishment imposed by Israel on the people of Gaza. The Schalit kidnapping and terrorist activity emanating from the Strip are irrelevant, they say, because Gazan civilians – not Hamas leaders and terrorist operatives – are those who suffer from the lack of imports and the devastating economic effects of the export ban. Furthermore, the near-complete prohibition on free movement is a human- rights violation, turning the Strip into “the world’s largest open-air prison,” as it has been described.
One argument used by the Israeli government against letting even inspected ships through to the Strip is that it would set a precedent, letting loose a flood of other ships, some of which could contain weapons. This argument has been strengthened in the eyes of Israelis in recent months as attempts to break through Israeli borders were made in Nakba and Naksa Day incidents. The need to control – and demonstrate control over – sovereign borders, Israel feels, is necessary to prevent future such attempts.
However, detractors argue, Gaza is not sovereign Israeli territory and Israel has no right to prevent trade or aid ships from entering or exiting Gazan territory, nor to limit civilian freedom of movement. Furthermore, Israel has in the past allowed ships from the Free Gaza Movement through the blockade. In late 2008, three ships were allowed to reach the Strip, the last one coming just days before 2008-2009’s Operation Cast Lead. A defense official describing the decision to allow that ship through to The Jerusalem Post at the time said, “If we stopped the Free Gaza boat we would be playing into their hands, since this is all a publicity stunt.”
That quote has become the essence of the debate over the upcoming flotilla. Israelis argue that the aid being carried on the ships in the current flotilla is unnecessary as Gaza is suffering from no humanitarian crisis. But that’s not the main point of the flotilla. The main point is far closer to that of the nameless “defense official” from 2008. It is indeed a publicity stunt, one meant to bring attention to and to protest what organizers are correct in describing as a needless, cruel and in many ways illegal blockade against a civilian population. What they fail to account for, however, are the legitimate security concerns faced by Israel.
At the end of the day, the dueling narratives surrounding the upcoming flotilla – Palestinian human rights and humanitarian concerns vs. Israeli security fears and concerns – are in no way different from the rest of the conflict, in which the two sides highlight their own narrative while ignoring the other’s.
This post first appeared as a Jerusalem Post blog