Tel Aviv – The besieger is besieged, such is the forlorn fact emanating from the order by Greece to block the ships docked at its ports from setting sail to the Palestinian strip of land, and that fact seems to have sealed the Flotilla's fate.
“Pursuant to a decision by the Minister of Citizen Protection Christos Papoutsis, the departure of ships with Greek and foreign flags from Greek ports to the maritime area of Gaza has been prohibited,” read the announcement issued Friday by the Greek embassy here.
The resolute Greek order is the latest in a series of no-lesser determined decisions that have highlighted a strange alliance of states against the international front of NGOs.
Last month, a similar statement was issued by Cyprus's transport minister. Earlier still, under the “advice” of Turkey, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) cancelled the participation of the sadly famous M.V. Marmara.
The “Freedom Flotilla II – Stay Human” was supposed to head towards Gaza a little over a year after Israeli naval commandos stormed the “Gaza Peace Flotilla” and killed nine Turkish IHH activists, triggering an international outcry, and worsening Israeli-Turkish relations.
Yet, the botched assault seems to have had a deterrent effect on Israel's neighbours. “Greece of July 2011 is not the Greece of May 2010 when it comes to Israel,” savoured a top Israeli official involved in the attempt to ward off the second Flotilla. “The organisers didn't understand this. Now they're paying the price.”
When the U.S. vessel “Audacity of Hope” left Perama without authorisation later Friday, nonetheless attempting to set sail toward Gaza, it was intercepted a half-hour later by commandos of the Hellenic Coast Guard Authorities.
“We were forced to go back to a Greek port surrounded with bars and barbwire,” read a Twitter message posted by “USBoatToGaza”. Hagit Borer, an Israeli-American citizen, told Ynet about the takeover: “The commandos arrived with machine guns. It was quite scary. They seemed ready for a fight, looked threatening. They wore helmets and their faces were covered.”
“So sad that the Greeks are doing Israel's dirty work by not letting us sail,” another activist lamented to the Israeli website. “I never knew the Mediterranean was owned by Israel.”
From a “breaking-the-Gaza-siege” posture, the flotilla is now trying to break the siege imposed on it, to no avail.
That the tables were turning on the flotilla became apparent from the action's onset. On Thursday, while docked in Turkey, the Irish M.V. Saoirse was forced to pull out due to damage inflicted on the ship. Earlier in the week, the Swedish-Greek “Juliano” had sustained damage in the Greek port of Piraeus. According to the Flotilla organisers, in both cases, the rods connecting the propeller shaft to the engine were “deliberately sabotaged”.
“The inference is that the saboteurs were Israeli,” charged Irish Ship to Gaza spokesman Raymond Deane. It took two days for the Israeli Foreign Ministry to deny the accusation. “Why didn't the Flotilla organisers complain to the police?” spokesman Yigal Palmor asked dismissively.
Also on Saturday, the Turkish daily Hurriyet reported from “Turkish diplomats” that the Irish ship was damaged “before it entered Turkish waters” and that, according to an initial inquiry, “might not be a result of sabotage.”
Even State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner took pain to declare Thursday that the U.S. had seen “no independent confirmation” that the ships had been sabotaged.
“Bad idea”, “unhelpful”, were only some of the diplomatic epithets used by officials in the U.S. France, at the UN, even in Ireland, to qualify the current attempt to set sail to Gaza.
Amira Hass, an Israeli journalist who joined the flotilla reported Friday that the wait to sail to Gaza was “like living in Gaza.” She wrote in Haaretz: “It seems like the Flotilla participants are undergoing a process of 'Gaza-tisation.' They willingly experience some of the characteristics of life under siege in Gaza. They're tied up against their will within a limited radius of several kilometres. Their plans are repeatedly foiled by superior forces.”
From a thousand or so activists on 15 ships, a few hundred have remained aboard nine operational, yet stranded, vessels.
Thursday, at the annual graduation ceremony of Israeli Air Force cadets, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed already to know that the flotilla endeavour was bound to sink slowly. While expressing Israel's gratitude to world leaders, he somehow enigmatically awarded a special mention to his counterpart and “good friend”, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou.
For the first time in a long time, Israeli officials note, it's Israel's turn to enjoy some measure of international solidarity and legitimacy (albeit not necessarily the kind of legitimacy determined by world public opinion). Ironically, the catalyst to such reversal of fortune was precisely provoked as a result of the broad international solidarity movement of peace activists against Israel's policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians, they observe.
For now, Netanyahu may have the wind in his sails, so to speak. But in the protracted debate between state and civil society about their respective roles in the defence of Palestinian human rights, the tense relation between power and rights might be exacerbated.
Proponents of the centrality of states will continue to insist that official institutions be the only bodies allowed to act on behalf of the people they represent and protect Palestinian human rights, even though their record in doing so is not that promising. They will continue to support the primacy of the 'rights of power'.
Proponents of the 'power of rights', and of the centrality of civil society, will retort that only NGOs can provide true meaning to human security to both peoples, and to human rights and freedom to the Palestinians.
In a sense, the flotilla is only but a prelude to the true legitimacy battle currently being waged between Israel and Palestine as both peoples, and the international community, all grapple with the implications on peace-making and state-building of a September UN-endorsed recognition of Palestinian statehood.