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The ‘Free Gaza Movement’ Convoy: Humanitarians or Camera-Seekers?

Revealing their true nature, leaders of a massive convoy looking for a confrontation with the IDF say they won't bring aid to kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

by
Allison Kaplan Sommer

Bio

May 28, 2010 - 12:00 am

Noam Shalit, the father of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, offered what sounded like a pretty good deal for the group that calls itself the “Free Gaza Movement.”

Members of the movement have set sail on the Mediterranean in a convoy of eight ships, with tons of food and supplies. They have named themselves the “Freedom Flotilla” and are believed to consist of more than 800 individuals from Europe, the U.S., and the Arab world.

The Israeli government, after a short period of debate, decided that it will intercept the convoy as it has done with other ships heading for Gaza — enforcing the blockade established in 2007 in coordination with the Egyptians after the ascent of Hamas to power. The IDF announced that the ships will be stopped by the Israeli navy, boarded, and then escorted to Ashdod, where the cargo will be unloaded and then transferred to Gaza.

Following that announcement, the father of the kidnapped soldier made his offer.

He said he would give the convoy his stamp of approval and use his considerable moral leverage to pressure Israel to allow the convoy to continue to Gaza — if the organizers of the cruise agreed to make contact with his son:

Attorney Nick Kaufman, who approached the Free Gaza Movement on behalf of the kidnapped soldier’s family, told Ynet that he offered the flotilla’s organizers the family’s full support, provided that “in addition to their demand that Israel lift its blockade they will urge Hamas to allow the soldier to receive letters and food packages from his family and allow international organizations to visit him.”

According to Kaufman, he was referred to the movement’s legal counsel, who rejected the offer. “I thought this movement supports human rights, as it claims, but according to the reaction it seems that it is only interested in provocation and expressing support for a terror group that doesn’t really care about human rights,” said the attorney.

Indeed — depressingly, but unsurprisingly — the humanitarian commitment of those aboard the “Freedom Flotilla” does not extend to Gilad Shalit. It doesn’t even sound like they spent much time debating the offer. Almost immediately after the Israeli media announced that it had been extended, it was refused, in keeping with their support of a regime that has held Shalit for four years under conditions that violate international law.

And so the stage is set for what is gearing up to be a major international media circus this weekend. The ships will approach Gaza, the Israel navy will order them to divert to Ashdod, and they will refuse. The IDF has been very specific as to what the Freedom Flotilla should expect from that point on:

“If they decide to continue sailing and do not listen to the instructions, then they will be stopped, brought to Israel and dealt with by the Interior Ministry, which will return them to the countries they came from,” an IDF statement said.

According to the statement, the IDF will unload the supplies and transfer the shipment to the Gaza Strip, after inspecting it for weaponry.

The Navy has held a number of drills in recent weeks to prepare for the arrival of the small fleet, which is expected to try breaking the Israel-imposed sea blockade on Gaza and dock at its newly expanded port.

The scenarios drilled included the commandeering of the ships, which could, military sources said Wednesday, include violent clashes — depending on the response by the passengers on the vessels.

The Israeli decision to allow the supplies into Gaza is meant to demonstrate that the Israeli blockade is not keeping humanitarian supplies out of the Strip, but an Israeli belief that reports of the goods reaching Gaza will top news headlines is wishful thinking. The “David vs. Goliath” confrontation of activists versus “oppressive” Israeli soldiers will likely dominate the narrative.

The Washington Post reports that Israel has already set up tents in Ashdod, where the flotilla members will be identified and receive medical attention before they are deported, “or [sent] to a nearby prison if they refuse to be deported voluntarily.”

One can already picture the television footage of IDF soldiers rounding up the activists and hauling them off to prison. Even if the most seasoned public relations crisis management team was in charge of this one, it’s a disaster waiting to happen. On the other hand, the alternative wouldn’t be much better. Security concerns aside, if Israel merely waved the convoy on and wished it a merry journey into Gaza, the event would be spun on the Arab side as Israel showing weakness and fear.

It shouldn’t have to be this way.

Imagine if the flotilla had accepted Shalit’s proposal — which, after all, was not calling for Hamas to allow Gilad Shalit to hop a ride home, but merely to bring him some supplies and some letters to reassure him that he remains in the hearts and minds of his family.

And imagine that the Shalit family then convinced the Israeli government to change its decision to stop the flotilla, and following an at-sea inspection for weaponry, allowed it to sail on to Gaza, unload its wares, and distribute them to the people. That would be a win-win situation. The Shalits would get some comfort, the people of Gaza would get their care packages, Israel would not have to disrupt anything and could protect its image, and Hamas would look generous (though still keeping Shalit captive, of course).

But humanitarian relief is not the goal of this exercise — media provocation and continued demonization of Israel is. And unfortunately for those who really care about human rights, it appears destined to succeed.

Allison Kaplan Sommer is a writer living outside Tel Aviv. She is a former PJM editor.
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