The so-called Freedom Flotilla 2, a convoy of about ten ships hoping to break an Israeli naval blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, has been off to an inauspicious start. With two vessels disabled due to alleged “sabotage” and other boats held up in a port in Athens by the Greek government, the flotilla will not set sail for at least another few days and may be called off altogether.
Whatever its fate, the flotilla has considerable public support in Europe, where opposition to Israel often crosses the line into anti-Semitism. Although a handful of Americans, Canadians, and Middle Easterners (as well as a few Aussies and Kiwis) are among the 500 pro-Palestinian activists hoping to sail with the flotilla, the majority of its organizers, supporters and actual participants are from Europe, which has become “ground zero” in the global campaign of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
The Gaza flotilla is, in fact, an integral part of a growing European movement to delegitimize the state of Israel. It is rooted in the program of political warfare to achieve the “complete international isolation of Israel” that was launched at the UN conference against racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001.
European charities linked to left-wing and pro-Palestinian causes have raised an estimated €10 million ($14.5 million) to fund the flotilla. Many European politicians and members of the European Parliament as well as media outlets have expressed strong support for it in public. The flotilla has been organized from Britain and the main operational hub is in Greece.
Eight out of the ten vessels comprising the flotilla are European. They include the “Dignity” and the “Louise Michel” from France, the “Saoirse” (Gaelic for freedom) from Ireland, the “Stefano Chiarini” from Italy, the “Guernica” from Spain, the “Juliano” from Sweden, and two Greek cargo ships carrying 3,000 tons of supplies. The two other ships are the “Tahrir” from Canada and “The Audacity of Hope” from the United States.
The European Freedom Flotilla website has pooled information on flotilla campaigns in the various European countries. Some of these include: Belgium to Gaza, Free Gaza Denmark, Ship to Gaza Greece, Freedom Flotilla Italia, Ship to Gaza Netherlands, Ship to Gaza Norway, Free Gaza Scotland, Ship to Gaza Sweden, and so on.
Other pan-European groups directly or indirectly involved in the flotilla include the Brussels-based European Coordination of Committees and Associations for Palestine, the London-based Palestinian Return Center, and the Oslo-based European Network to Support Rights of Palestinian Prisoners.
Britain has hosted much of the organizing apparatus of the flotilla, which is being coordinated out of London by Mohammad Sawalha, a senior Muslim Brotherhood operative closely linked to Hamas and who was granted asylum by Britain in 1990.
Sawalha — together with Zaher Birawi, another Hamas activist living in Britain — is a director of Britain2Gaza, a coalition of left-wing and Islamist organizations participating in the flotilla that includes groups like: the British Muslim Initiative, the Friends of Al-Aqsa, the Palestinian Forum in Britain, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and the Stop the War Coalition. Sawalha is also the vice chairman of the European Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza, a British-based group that coordinates the Miles of Smiles land convoys to Gaza.
Britain is also home to the Boycott Israeli Goods Campaign, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (which is working to “build a mass anti-Apartheid movement for Palestine”), Interpal, Freedom for Palestine, A Just Peace for Palestine, Stop Arming Israel, Oxford-Ramallah Friendship Association, Reading-Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Viva Palestina, Medical Aid for Palestinians, the Scottish-Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and many more.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague says the flotilla is unwise and has advised Britons not to participate in it. But he himself has contributed to the BDS campaign against Israel by his failure to honor a long-standing promise to amend British universal jurisdiction laws in a way that would make it safe for Israeli leaders to visit Britain without the risk of detention on frivolous allegations of war crimes.
In France, a fundraising campaign called “A French Ship to Gaza” collected more than €600,000 ($865,000) for the Gaza flotilla. The campaign was launched in October 2010 under the combined leadership of French NGOs for Palestine and a “Red-Green Alliance” of leftists and Islamists called the “National Collective for a Just and Lasting Peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Nationwide, more than 70 French organizations including political parties and trade unions have been involved in mobilizing activists and raising funds for the flotilla. Some 40 French nationals, including one French MEP, are on board the two French vessels that are participating in the convoy. More than 300 French politicians have signed a petition in support of the campaign.
Germany is sending more than 20 activists to participate in the flotilla, which is being coordinated by the German Initiative to Break the Gaza Blockade, a coalition of more than a dozen pro-Palestinian organizations, including: the Palestinian Community in Germany, the Palestinian-German Federation for the Right of Return, the German-Palestinian Union, the German Youth for Palestine, the Committee for a Democratic Palestine, and the Palestinian Society for Human Rights, which in May 2011 held the 9th Annual Conference of Palestinians in Europe titled “The Return Generation Knows its Way.”
In Ireland, the flotilla is being coordinated by Irish Ship to Gaza under the direction of Caoimhe Butterly, a pro-Palestinian activist who in April 2002 spent 16 days as a “human shield” in Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah. Other pro-Palestinian activist groups in Ireland include: the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Alliance, and the Derry Friends of Palestine. About 25 Irish nationals were planning on sailing with the “Saoirse,” including Irish MEP Paul Murphy of the Socialist Party and United Left Alliance. But the vessel dropped out of the flotilla after being “sabotaged” while docking in Turkey.
In Norway, which hosts the European Network to Support the Rights of Palestinian Prisoners, some $250,000 was raised to send 20 activists to Gaza. In neighboring Sweden, the campaign Ship to Gaza Sweden has been selling “nautical miles to Gaza” for €100 ($145) each.
In Spain, the flotilla is being organized by “Rumbo a Gaza” (Course to Gaza). Despite massive unemployment in Spain, the group managed to raise enough funds to send 45 Spanish activists to Gaza on a boat called the “Guernica,” which also happens to be the name of a small town in the Basque country that was bombed by Adolf Hitler during the Spanish Civil War.
In Switzerland, more than 200 NGOs are supporting the flotilla. It is being coordinated by a Geneva-based group called Droit pour Tous (Right for All), which in March 2011 sponsored ‘The First International Conference on the Rights of Palestinian Prisoners and Detainees.” Three members of the Swiss National Council, the lower house of the Swiss parliament, want to sail with the flotilla.
If Gaza has become an obsession for many ordinary Europeans, so too for Europe’s political class, which rarely misses an opportunity to rebuke Israel for a blockade the latter says is necessary to prevent weapons for reaching Iran-backed Hamas militants.
Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger visited the Gaza Strip in April 2011 and demanded that Israel lift its blockade. British Prime Minister David Cameron said Israel has turned the Gaza Strip into a “prison camp” and at least 14 British parliamentarians have publicly backed the flotilla. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as several members of her government, has insisted that Israel end the blockade and the German Bundestag in July 2010 passed a resolution condemning Israeli policies in Gaza.
In Ireland, which recently needed a $113 billion bailout to save it from financial collapse, Prime Minister Enda Kenny is closely following the events in Gaza. “I have every sympathy with the people of Gaza,” Kenny told the lower house of parliament. Even tiny Luxembourg has something to say about Gaza: In February 2011 Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn visited the territory and demanded that Israel lift the blockade.
In Spain, the kaffiyeh-wearing Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, whose often toxic anti-Israel rhetoric has contributed to a notable rise in anti-Semitism in Spain, has called for a “strong, joint EU position” on Gaza and Israel’s blockade. Hamas militants recently gave European Union “Foreign Minister” Catherine Ashton an opportunity to do just that when they welcomed her to the Gaza Strip by firing a rocket into southern Israel, killing a man working in the Netiv Ha’assera kibbutz. Rather than condemn Hamas for the killing, the European Union, which takes pride in being the largest contributor of aid to the Palestinians, berated Israel instead.
A notable exception has been Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, whose government has prohibited eight boats participating in the flotilla from leaving Greek waters. Previously, Papandreou had described an Israeli commando raid on a similar flotilla in May 2010 as “condemnable and unacceptable.”
The irony of all the Gaza activism in Europe is this: The European single currency is on the verge of collapse. Many European countries are on the brink of bankruptcy. The European social welfare state is crumbling. Millions of Europeans are out of work and many are losing their homes. Europeans are losing the war they started with Libya. Muslim immigration to Europe is out of control. Islamic Sharia law is becoming increasingly common (here, here, here, and here) in many parts of the continent. Considering all the problems besetting Europe today, the issue many Europeans care about most is … the Gaza Strip.