Although the Israeli navy intercepted and hijacked boats that sailed to Gaza in July as part of the Freedom Flotilla, activists in the Palestine solidarity campaign seem determined to continue their work until the Israeli siege is lifted.
What the Israeli government may not realize is that the international push to break the Israeli-imposed isolation of Gaza does not hinge on the success or failure of the boats to land at the Gaza shores. The solidarity campaign has thus far served to galvanize the efforts of countless people to challenge Israeli defiance and violations of international law.
The outreach of solidarity with Palestine, and Gaza, in particular, has, in fact, reached all corners of the globe, harnessing the support of people from all backgrounds, politics and religions, who are now involved in unprecedented, direct action demanding freedom and justice for the Palestinian people.
One of these spaces that are now considered a major hub for Palestinian support is New Zealand.
Last May, I began a book tour that took me to many countries. However, in New Zealand, a relatively small Pacific island with a population that does not exceed five million people, the solidarity with Palestine was exceptional. The mobilization for justice for the Palestinian people in an island located thousands of miles away from Gaza was so powerful and effective that it puzzled me.
I asked about the strong Palestine solidarity work in New Zealand, from the coordinator for ‘Kia Ora Gaza’ and organizer with the New Zealand ‘Palestine Solidarity Network’, Roger Fowler who, at the time, was busy with final preparations for the Freedom Flotilla.
In New Zealand, he said, “for many years support for the Palestinian struggle lingered, often perceived as being too distant, and falsely portrayed as being 'too complicated'. But the global outrage at Israel's murderous attack on the ‘Mavi Marmara’-led humanitarian flotilla to Gaza in 2010 was a major turning point that changed all that.”
Fowler, along with other New Zealand activists, joined the ‘Lifeline to Gaza’ convoy soon after the attack on the ‘Mavi Marmara’, reaching Gaza with three ambulances, packed with desperately-needed medicine, as the Israeli siege also deprived the Strip of hospital equipment and medicine. Coordinating this was not a simple task as it also needed to be streamlined with the global efforts for the convoy which included the dispatching of 140 other ambulances and 300 activists arriving from 30 countries.
Like the horrific Apartheid regime in South Africa, the Israeli Apartheid will collapse because Palestinians continue to resist and because millions of people are standing by their side.Ramzy Baroud
“There were many moving scenes as Palestinians learned how far we had come to offer solidarity – the Israeli overlords had told Palestinians that nobody cared about them,” Fowler told me. The unprecedented global convoy which included six Kiwi activists arriving from ‘as far away as one can be', “proved (the Israeli claim) to be a big lie.”
When Mike Treen, the National Director of the ‘Unite Union’ in New Zealand arrived at the airport in Auckland, on August 1, a group of people was anxiously waiting for him at the terminal with Palestinian flags and flowers. They were a mixed group of New Zealanders which included native Maori, Palestinians and others. They hugged him, chanted for Palestinian freedom and performed the customary native Haka dance.
For them, Mike, as all of those who set sail aboard the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza last July, were heroes.
But the truth is, Mike Treen and his comrades were not the only heroes braving the sea with the aim of breaking the hermetic Israeli military blockade on the impoverished and isolated Gaza Strip. Without those who were present at the Auckland airport upon Mike’s arrival, and without the thousands of supporters all across the world who mobilized as a community, having held numerous meetings, raised funds, created a powerful media discourse, and so on, Treen’s attempted trip to Gaza would not have been possible.
Of course, legitimate questions were and continue to be asked, such as: are whether such attempts, aimed at breaking the Gaza siege are of any value if they are constantly disrupted and foiled by Israel. If all such boats are intercepted by the Israeli navy, and hijacked and hauled to some Israeli port along with their passengers and cargo, does this not qualify as a failure for the Palestine solidarity movement?
A historic moment
The first boats to successfully break the Gaza siege in October, 2008, were the ‘Free Gaza’ and the ‘Liberty’. They carried 44 people from 17 countries. The diversity of the group, in terms of nationalities and backgrounds, reflected the fact that they championed a higher cause than themselves, their own politics and ideologies. These activists determined to push their countries to acknowledge the illegality of the Israeli blockade on Gaza and to eventually challenge the siege.
Their triumphant arrival in Gaza ten years ago marked a historic moment for the international solidarity movement, a moment that was probably unparalleled. Since then, Israel has launched several massive and deadly wars on Gaza. The first took place merely weeks after the arrival of the first boats, followed by another war in 2012 and, the deadliest of them all, in 2014. The siege grew tighter, and what started as a political siege to break the will of Palestinians following the 2006 elections, became one of the world’s most perpetual and painful acts of collective punishment and humanitarian disasters.
Since then, many attempts have been made at breaking the siege. In fact, between 2008 and 2016, 31 boats have sailed to Gaza from many destinations, all intercepted, their cargo seized and their passengers mistreated. The most tragic of these incidents was in May 2010 when the Israeli navy attacked the ‘Mavi Marmara’ ship - which sailed alongside other boats - killing 10 activists and wounding scores more.
‘Mavi Marmara’ was attacked in international waters. In any other political context, such a ruthless attack would have triggered an international crisis, a war even. Thanks to American blind support of Israel and western silence, Israel literally got away with murder.
Even then, the stream of solidarity boats continued to arrive, not only unhindered by the fear of Israeli retribution, but also stronger in their resolve. Palestinians consider the murdered activists ‘martyrs’ to be added to their own growing list of martyrs. Suddenly, solidarity with Palestine grew in meaning, beyond slogans and political convenience.
However, none of the boats made it to Gaza, so why keep on trying?
I spoke with Mike Treen upon his return from his Gaza sea journey. Treen is a seasoned activist who works daily at defending the rights of workers from across the country. Included in his view of global solidarity is his struggle for workers’ rights in New Zealand.
“In my role as part of the union movement in this country, I was also able to explain (to New Zealanders) that innocent working people (in Gaza) are the victims of this siege and that Israel has driven unemployment to over 50% for working people - one of the highest rates in the world,” he told me.
Treen, like Fowler, understands that the mission of the Freedom Flotilla is not merely an issue of providing badly needed supplies, but is also a well-coordinated effort at exposing the evils of the Israeli blockade.
“Unless Israel is directly bombing Gaza, the siege and its hideous human implications simply drop off the radar of public consciousness because the media outlets serving the powerful and wealthy of the world don’t want us to be reminded of it,” he said.
This is precisely the real mission of the Gaza flotillas - they are a glaring reminder of the Israeli atrocities in Gaza. While Israel wants to normalize the Gaza siege just as it is currently normalizing its Occupation and Apartheid regime, the solidarity movement has created a counter-discourse that constantly foils Israeli plans.
In other words, whether the boats arrive on the Gaza coast or are hijacked by the Israeli navy, makes little difference – the mission is accomplished either way.
The power and effectiveness of this kind of solidarity go even beyond Gaza and Palestine. “Our involvement in international solidarity endeavors, such as the Freedom Flotillas has, in turn, sparked a resurgence in other important elements of building the strength of the worldwide movement for justice”, Fowler told me, soon after Treen’s return to New Zealand.
Mike Treen also has his work cut out for him as he is engaging the media and various communities in his own country, sharing his experiences on the boat, which led to his arrest, beating, tasering and deportation.
“Working people and their unions worldwide must be in the vanguard of those taking action in solidarity, like we did in New Zealand during the days of apartheid South Africa,” is Treen’s message to his fellow activists internationally.
And like the horrific Apartheid regime in South Africa, the Israeli Apartheid will collapse because Palestinians continue to resist and because millions of people, like Mike and Roger, are standing by their side.
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is ‘The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’ (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California Santa Barbara. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.