By Adina Rosenthal
‘Tis the season. Flotilla season, that is. Summertime marks a new tradition of groups gathering in boats and sailing to the Gaza Strip, with the alleged aim of providing humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, though many think the main objective is to test Israel’s resolve by breaking its naval blockade.
Last year, the flotilla made headlines when IDF commandos clashed with Turkish activists on board the Mavi Marmara, a ship sponsored by the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), a Turkish NGO accused of having links to Hamas and al-Qaida. With nine killed and several injured, including Israeli soldiers, the aftermath of the conflict resulted in an inquisition and finger pointing that has torn holes in the alliance between Israel and Turkey and has given the international community another excuse to vilify Israel. Since the disaster, Israel has added the IHH to its terror watch list.
Keeping with tradition, the “Freedom Flotilla 2” plans to set sail at the end of June. However, there’s something different in the air this summer. World governments and the U.N. are pleading with participants not to sail to Gaza and elicit a showdown with the Israelis, even in the name of humanitarianism. Even more surprisingly, the Mavi Marmara, now seen as a symbol of the Gaza struggle, recently announced it would not be part of this summer’s brigade.
So what gives? Why has “Flotilla: the Sequel” lost the wind in its sails? While the IHH cites damage from last year’s IDF raid as the reason for the Mavi Marmara remaining docked, it’s possible that the overall initiative has lost steam due to the strong winds still lingering from the Arab Spring.
While the Arab Spring didn’t directly hit Israel, its implications have reverberated throughout the Jewish state, particularly from neighboring Egypt and Syria. With Hosni Mubarak pushed out of power and democracy trying to take hold, Egyptians reopened the Rafah Crossing, ending their participation in the four-year blockade of Gaza, which began in response to Hamas’ takeover. The combination of Egypt reopening Rafah and Israel allowing more aid into Gaza seem to have deflated the rhetoric and the apparent urgency of the mission.
In Syria, the Arab Spring uprisings against Bashar al-Assad’s government have spread to the Israeli frontier. After 37 years of quiet on the border, al-Assad allowed thousands of Syrians to protest, perhaps to detract from attention at home. One opposition group—Reform Syria—claimed on their website that the protesters were poor farmers, paid $1,000 by the Syrian regime to protest and promised $10,000 for their families if they were killed. Moreover, the Syrian chaos has spilled into Turkey, with thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing oppression across their shared border. Perhaps Turkey is trying to hedge its bets, keeping Israel happy by discouraging flotillas as violence encroaches on its borders.
Despite clear differences from last year, flotilla advocates still believe there is work to be done. “While we wholeheartedly welcome the decision of the Egyptian government to regularly operate the Rafah crossing… Israel’s unlawful blockade remains in effect,” said a Greek coordinator of the flotilla. Bülent Yıldırım, head of the İHH stated, “In the past, we went there for Gaza, but now we are going for humanity and the law,” highlighting the flexible rationale behind the flotilla missions.
Clearly, the Arab Spring has shifted the playing field of the flotilla initiative. But what does it mean for Israel?
Despite this year’s more tamed rhetoric and the Mavi Marmara’s lack of participation, Israel has thoroughly prepared for any summer showdowns. According to one Israeli diplomatic official, Israel is “continuing to prepare for the flotilla as usual…We have not heaved a sigh of relief, but are continuing to prepare on all fronts, including the diplomatic front.” Last year, Israel was arguably unprepared for the violence that ensued. Learning from past mistakes, the IDF has spent weeks preparing, training through simulations geared specifically toward a worst-case flotilla scenario. According to Israel Navy commander, Adm. Eliezer Marom, the Navy “will continue to prevent the arrival of the ‘hate flotilla’ whose only goals are to clash with IDF soldiers, create media provocation and to delegitimize the State of Israel.”
Though the flotilla summer is as full of uncertainties as the Arab Spring, Israel must remain vigilant in securing its safety and protecting its borders. In other words, business as usual.