The Free Gaza Movement: triumph of politics?

By James Le Grice

Everyone knows you shouldn’t mention politics in polite conversation. Inject politics and you don’t have a polite conversation anymore; you have a debate, an argument, perhaps even a fight depending on whom you’re talking to.

The same logic underlines the golden rule of humanitarianism: always remain politically neutral and impartial. When humanitarian groups take a political position, they cease to be humanitarian groups. Politics inevitably takes priority and hinders them from meeting their humanitarian objectives.

Case in point is the Free Gaza Movement. They are best known for the “Freedom Flotilla” that attempted to break the blockade of Gaza in May 2010, resulting in a deadly confrontation with Israeli commandos. They have run a total of nine boat trips to Gaza since 2008, and currently have a second flotilla held up in Greece.

The Free Gaza Movement is the brainchild of five left-wing activists, including Greta Berlin, an American media expert. Their humanitarian aims include transporting medical supplies and construction material into Gaza, helping the Gazans rebuild their infrastructure, reigniting their war-ravaged economy, and empowering Gazans to be self sufficient.

They also have political objectives, including a permanent sea lane to Gaza, Israel returning to its 1967 borders, an independent Palestinian state, equal civil rights for Arab-Israelis, right of return for Palestinian refugees, and the demolition of all barriers to Gaza and the West Bank.

The movement’s identity is as mixed as its objectives: humanitarian aid group or political pressure group? The first line on their home page states: “The Free Gaza Movement is a human rights group”, and the message on their donations page refers to the flotilla participants as “human rights defenders”.

On the other hand, Huwaida Arraf, chair of the group’s Flotilla Committee, recently told Al Jazeera’s Inside Story “It’s not about humanitarian aid at all. It’s about liberation.”

Liberation is the core theme of the Free Gaza Movement’s politics. The organisation’s position is that Israel, which Greta Berlin called “a country founded on terrorism”, is the sole perpetrator of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. A free Gaza in their eyes simply means freedom from Israel.

Here is where politics hinders the Free Gaza Movement’s humanitarian goals. They see Israel solely as the problem, not part of the solution, and proclaim they  “have not and will not ask for Israel’s permission”. Specifically this means the Free Gaza Movement does not operate via the border crossing; this requires Israeli permission. Instead they attempt to enter Gaza via the sea.

The advantage of a nautical route is that it avoids the restrictions inherent in the border crossings. Aid organisations that enter Gaza by land, such as the Red Cross, Red Crescent, and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), are limited in frequency of entrance, the amount of relief they can transport, and are forbidden from transporting cement or construction materials.

An approach by sea cuts out the middle man, in theory at least. If a vessel can evade the Israeli navy, it can transport as much aid, including banned items, as the cargo hold allows.

But a theory is a theory. The fact remains that the Free Gaza Movement has failed to make a successful humanitarian aid delivery since 2008. Their first five boat trips reached Gaza, but since then the Israeli navy has always intercepted them.

Whereas the Red Cross and UNRWA have operated with greater regularity, setting up and running medical clinics, schools, and other vital humanitarian services. They have built a sustained rapport with the locals, gaining first hand knowledge of their needs and the ever-changing dynamics of the conflict.

Logic would suggest that after three years of failure, the Free Gaza Movement would either abandon the nautical approach or operate furtively.  However, the interceptions by the Israeli navy have been a success towards the Free Gaza Movement’s political objectives.

“Israel stops human rights group from giving aid to dying Palestinians” is an exceedingly better headline than “Humanitarian group delivers medicine to besieged Gaza”, and is why the Free Gaza Movement makes world headlines, whereas other aid groups working in Gaza rarely do.

The media buzz that follows the group’s failed blockade-runnings empowers them to heap political pressure on Israel and influence international relations. For example, the headlines from the 2010 flotilla raid  dealt a hefty blow to the twenty year old Turkish-Israeli alliance, and caused Israel to ease the blockade.

Thus the Free Gaza Movement has declined to take advantage of the reopened Rafah border crossing in Egypt, and instead has assembled an even larger flotilla. They have made no effort to operate “Flotilla II” in stealth, but have announced their intentions at every opportunity, hosted international news crews, and run Twitter accounts detailing their movements and locations. After Flotilla II’s grounding by the Greek Coast Guard, the Free Gaza Movement rejected Athens’ offer to insure their cargo of humanitarian aid gets to Gaza anyway.

Their leaders understand the catch-22. Enter Gaza successfully, they meet their humanitarian objectives, but make no headlines and fail to advance their political goals. Be prevented from reaching Gaza, they fail to deliver humanitarian aid, but win the attention of the world and influence politics. Naturally politics took priority.

So just as a polite conversation ceases to be a cordial chat when someone brings up politics, humanitarian groups cease to be humanitarian groups when they spurn neutrality to advance a political cause. The Free Gaza Movement should label itself  as a political pressure group, due to its leaders preference for politics over humanitarianism. By calling themselves a human rights group, they cheat both those who donate to them with the intention of giving aid to Gaza, and, more importantly, they cheat the suffering victims of war whom they claim to be fighting for.

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