As Turkey stays out, Israel thwarts second Freedom Flotilla from reaching Gaza

The story of the second relief Flotilla to Gaza is a tale of how to marshal all the king’s horses and all the king’s men in order to muffle a humanitarian enterprise. After Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish members of the first Freedom Flotilla on May 31, 2010, Turkish-Israeli relations chilled to sub-zero, while Israel’s already-brittle reputation developed minute fracture lines. The second time around, Israel operated through the militaries, espionage corps and governments of the international order. Of the ten vessels that attempted to sail from ports in Greece and other countries, only one left the harbor –” the French vessel Dignité al-Karama, which was finally intercepted in July 2011 by four Israeli military ships armed to the teeth.

High-profile participants in the second Flotilla for Gaza clearly indicate that global support for Gaza is accelerating, even with the steady refusal of mainstream news corporations to report on Palestinian suffering. The flotillers included African American novelist Alice Walker, Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin, former CIA official and current dissenter Ray McGovern, al-Jazeera reporter Ayyache Derradj, MP of the European Parliament Nicole Kiil-Nielsen, French trade union leader Annick Coupe, and others. Four women activists were Nobel Peace Prize winners: Rigoberta Menchú from Guatemala, Mairhead Maguire of Northern Ireland, American Jody Williams, and Shirin Ebadi of Iran.

Alice Walker has been particularly vocal about her participation in the flotilla. She has written about her saving the children of Gaza that are being victimized by the ruthless blockade, and also to pay tribute to the Jewish activists who laid their lives on the line to participate in civil rights demonstrations and Freedom Rides. “I see children, all children, as humanity’s most precious resource, because it will be to them that the care of the planet will always be left,” she expressed in her Guardian opinion piece. “As adults . . .We must do everything in our power to cease the behavior that makes children everywhere feel afraid.”

The international coalition of activists organizing the peace armada widely published their intentions through press releases and letters to their heads of state. While some ships carried humanitarian supplies for Gaza’s beleaguered civilians, most simply bore letters of support and the symbolic capital of global sympathy. Benjamin Netanyahu and his rightwing associates lost no time in recycling stale old narratives of Israel under attack by aggressive enemies, in this case violent supporters of terror hell-bent on carrying arms to Hamas.

In one such fabulous instance of storytelling, Israeli military spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovitz declared there were “radical elements” among the activists participating in the sea convoy, including some carrying “dangerous incendiary chemicals.” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called the activists “hardcore terrorists.” There was even a fake video blogger, later revealed to be an intern in Netanyahu’s office, who attempted to cast doubt on the character and intentions of the flotilla activists.

The United States, which Netanyahu once characterized as “a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction,” made its support to Israel clear. Senator Mark Kirk declared that the US should “make available all necessary special operations and naval support to the Israeli Navy to effectively disable flotilla vessels before they can pose a threat to Israeli coastal security or put Israeli lives at risk.” As demonstrated on numerous occasions, the Israeli power class indicated a stronger grasp of reality than the US Congress. Several unnamed members of Israel’s security cabinet published a letter in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz claiming that the military’s hate campaign amounted to nothing more than “media spin” and “public relations hysteria.”

While Israel usually makes no bones about vaunting its military might, this time it proceeded more cautiously –” the machinery behind the international stage has subtly moved to block the activists from freely expressing their conscience. A number of ships were sabotaged while they were docked in Greece and Turkey. The Irish ship MV Saoirse and the Juliano (named for the Israeli Arab actor and director Juliano Meir-Khamis, shot to death in Jenin in April 2011) were damaged in order to prevent them from leaving their ports. “This was the type of sabotage that endangered human life,” declared Fintan Lane, the national coordinator of Irish Ship to Gaza organization. Israeli divers, with the tacit cooperation of the Greek and Turkish governments, cut a piece of the propeller shaft, which would have ripped the bottom of the boats and caused them to sink once out in open waters.

Other ships were refused permission by authorities or immobilized by punitive state action. The captain of the US ship, The Audacity of Hope –” the name is of course, an ironic riff on the title of President Obama’s best-selling book –” was arrested by the Greek authorities. Eight American activists with the flotilla protested by undertaking a hunger fast outside the US embassy in Greece on July 4th, only to be arrested in turn.

The Canadian ship Tahrir and others were prevented from leaving after the Greek authorities demanded new papers, which the crew was not able to provide on short notice. Al-Karama was apprehended by Greek ships while refueling in Cretan waters, but evaded them until it was finally cornered by Israeli forces. Only Malaysia’s The Spirit of Rachel Corrie met with partial success –” it was allowed to unload its supplies in Egypt, while Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf assured the flotillers that the goods would reach Gaza.

The sabotage brought to bear against the flotilla activists, acting on conviction and conscience, outlines the predicament of a Greece bankrupt in more ways than the financial. Israel’s cooling relations with Turkey spurred the Zionist nation to turn to Greece, transferring its trade, energy and military connections to Turkey’s historic rival. Despite mouthing criticism of the Mavi Marmara massacre, Greek premier George Papandreou embarked on a state visit to Israel one short month after the death of the Turkish activists. Greece and Israel have conducted six military training exercises this year, and Netanyahu is discussing plans to build a gas pipeline with Greece that will harvest the bonanza of the Leviathan gas field found off the coast of the Shaam region.

Israel has been effusive in praising Greece after its help in stymieing the Flotilla. “I want to thank you for following the instructions of the United Nations secretary-general and stopping the Gaza flotilla,” Israeli President Shimon Peres self-righteously declared to the Greek President Karolos Papoulias in Jerusalem. “Israel always has its hand stretched out in peace.”

Their appreciation has not been limited to rhetoric. Less than a week after Greek cooperation, the Greek economic bailout long-shrugged off by French and German bankers who complained about shelling out funds for an “incompetent” and “lazy” government, was speedily approved. Protests from a Greek public enraged over austerity measures and photographs of Athens burning accomplished nothing. However, Greece’s greasy handshake with Netanyahu moved the hearts of the bankers within five short days. This is how Greece, which once launched a thousand ships for the sake of Helen of Troy, reaped the rewards of stopping ten ships in an armada of peace.

The Turkish role in stopping the armada is far more hazy –” and also, far more dismaying. Early in the mobilization process for the Freedom Flotilla, Turkey barred the Mavi Marmara from participating. Under the Erdogan-led Turkish Freedom and Justice party, Istanbul had formulated a policy of building Middle East-oriented political alliances that Western observers had nervously dubbed as neo-Ottomanization. However, following the crisis point in relations between Turkey and Israel after Israel’s brutal attack on the Mavi Marmara, pressure from the West seems to have penetrated the inner sanctums of Turkish executive authority –” Erdogan and his cabinet are back to reaffirming their links with NATO.

For its part, Israel seems to have realized that it is suicidal to cultivate antagonism with all of its Muslim neighbors. The tactic that Netanyahu seems to be pursuing these days is to reach out to the Turks as “the good Muslims,” while splitting the latter’s solidarity with the “bad Muslims” –” aka, Iran, Hamas, and Hizbullah. In June, Israeli Minister for Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya’alon conducted secret talks in Geneva with Feridun Sinirlioglu, undersecretary at the Turkish Foreign Ministry. In a press conference before Turkish reporters, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon unctuously declared, “Now we need to let go of this mutual blame game as to why trust [between Israel and Turkey] was lost.” Israel has recently persuaded the United Nations to delay its report on the Mavi Marmara massacre, hoping to repair relations with Turkey under the radar and thus soften the document that will eventually be released to the public.

Erdogan has significantly back-peddled on his stand against Zionism –” his willingness to talk tough to the Israelis had previously made him the most popular man in the Muslim East. He seems to have abandoned the cause of Gaza, and now demands an apology for the loss of Turkish life as the price of normalizing relations with Israel. “As soon as the path to peace opens again I’m sure that relations between Turkey and Israel will return at the same good level,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told French news service AFP in a joint press conference with French counterpart Bernard Kouchner. There is even talk of using Turkey to bring Hamas in line with a “peace deal” that will establish Israel’s legal hegemony over the West Bank and Gaza. “[We will] kiss the hands of each and every Turk if Ankara convinces Hamas to sign onto peace,” Ayalon said, as reported by Turkish newspaper Hurriyet.

The question of Turkish motivations is yet unclear, but the lead they have taken in spearheading NATO plans of colonizing Syria and Libya is a significant blot on their record. There can be no doubt that Bashar Al-Assad and Muammar Qaddafi are distateful dictators, but the alternatives are significantly more gruesome –” the US-armed rebels that make up Libya’s National Transitional Council would blithely rubber stamp NATO plans to split Libya into three colonies administered respectively by France, Italy and the United States. Erdogan has stooped to relaying the Pentagon’s demands to Qaddafi to quit power and leave, offering to help him find a safe berth in whichever country he desires. “Depending on the reply we will get from him, we will take up the issue with our (NATO) allies, but unfortunately we have received no reply so far,” said Erdogan. In an ironic twist, Turkey now finds itself moving on the path taken by Greece.

It appears that the AKP party now faces an existential crisis of some sort. Taking a stand against Pentagon Inc. (leaving aside the “NATO” euphemism for the moment) means losing lucrative markets in the US and Europe and short-term economic loss for Turkey. While remaining with NATO is certainly opening up a fast track to the regional power Turkey has long desired, they are losing their momentum as a new kind of power in the Muslim East. Erdogan’s Justice and Development party is forced to make a decision between “justice” and the economic gains that have translated into wide political support at home. To make the wrong choice is to lose the platform of leadership on issues that the global Muslim Ummah cares about –” and eventual political irrelevance.

So, where do the chips stack up? While the 2011 Flotilla appears to have suffered a defeat, in reality it marks a watershed moment in the worldwide protest movement against Israel. Gaza is sparking a collision between the global infrastructure of power, with its corporate banks, media outfits, and governments, and the masses of people on the ground who are attempting to find ways to break through their collective invisibility. Gaza’s muffled strangulation has become a metaphor for various formations of corrupt power ignoring the human base on which they rest.

As political philosopher Hannah Arendt once observed, power rests in the collective movement of a public. States and corporations who want to believe that their people are docile drones to their dictates, are now forced to react to the creativity and determination of a global public that finds itself united in its human sympathy for Gaza. While Erdogan, Davut-oglu and other members of the AKP have made rhetorical invocations toward the leadership afforded by the platform of universal justice, they now have to make a choice. What will they choose, the call of history or the short-term dividends of regional power?