The Flotilla Wars: one stunt begets another

Now, Israelis plan to sail a flotilla to Turkey to ‘raise awareness’ about the plight of Kurds and Armenians. The organisers talk to spiked.

Nathalie Rothschild

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A group of volunteers will shortly board some ships in order to deliver aid to suppressed minorities and send a political message to the world: It’s time for an end to occupation and oppression!

No, it’s not another ‘Gaza freedom’ flotilla. This time it’s an Israeli ‘peace flotilla’ organised by the National Union of Israeli Students (NUIS). And it will be heading for Turkey – where the ship that was attacked by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) set sail from – with the aim of bringing attention to the plight of Turkey’s minorities and to challenge the global image of Israel as an evil, murderous state.

In political terms, very little differentiates the ‘Gaza freedom’ flotilla and the Turkey-bound aid ships from Israel: both are PR stunts that use beleaguered peoples as political props to send a message about the decency of the seafaring campaigners themselves. Yet while the Gaza flotilla garnered massive international support, and is treated as a serious, legitimate effort by the global Great and Good to free Palestine from tyranny, the new Turkey-bound boats are likely to be treated as little more than an arrogant Israeli joke. Some self-serving political stunts are regarded more highly than others today.

Fed up with the depiction of Israel as an out-of-control country that executes peace-loving aid workers, while the Turks now pose as human rights-loving peaceniks outraged that nine of their citizens were killed by the IDF, NUIS chairman Boaz Toporovsky came up with the idea of putting together the Israeli flotilla. He tells spiked that student leaders across all of Israel’s universities and colleges voted in favour of his proposal.

The students’ aim is twofold, explains Toporovsky over the phone from Tel Aviv. First, 400 private yacht owners have agreed to lend their boats to the students so that they can sail into the sea and actually meet up with any future humanitarian aid ships heading to the Gaza Strip. Toporovsky says the Israeli students only want to talk to the international activists on board the Gaza-bound ships about ‘what is really going on in Israel and to see if they are willing to listen’: ‘We want to ask them what their concerns are… There are so many wrongs in the world, we don’t know why people are always picking on Israel.’

Second, the students are trying to raise funds to buy a ship which they will sail either to Northern Cyprus or to Turkey itself. They plan to pack it with ‘whatever supplies the Kurdish, Armenian and Cypriot people need. They told us they are very suppressed by Turkey and that there is a lot of poverty over there’, Toporovsky says. The aim? To ‘expose the hypocrisy of Turkey and through that the hypocrisy of the whole world’.

Toporovsky tells me: ‘If the Turks are so concerned about human rights, they should think about the millions of Kurds who have wanted their own country for over 100 years. Just a few days ago, the Turks bombed a Kurdish area in northern Iraq because they believe they are terrorists. There are more Kurds in Turkey than there are Jews and Palestinians in the whole world. So if Turkey’s heart and mouth are in the same place, they should give the Kurds independence. The same with Northern Cyprus: Turkey occupied it and only Turkey recognises it as theirs.’ According to the Jerusalem Post, another Israeli ‘reverse flotilla’, organised by Pinchas Har-Zahav of the progressive Meretz party, also wants to sail to Northern Cyprus to ‘call for an end to the Turkish occupation’.

Undoubtedly it is a bizarre state of affairs when the Turkish state, which has one of the world’s highest rates of disgruntled minorities per capita, can pose as a dove of international peace. And yet, the Israelis’ newfound, high-profile concern for Kurds, Armenians and Cypriots smacks of opportunism. These planned sailings are simply ambitious political stunts, a ‘ship for a ship’ response to the Gaza flotilla.

At the same time, however, it is not at all surprising that some Israelis are choosing to respond in this way – because the ‘Gaza freedom’ ships are also political stunts, in which a motley crew of left-wing activists, politicians, writers and Islamists have also been as interested in advertising their moral purity and goodness as in liberating embattled Gazans. And political stunts have a tendency to invite other political stunts, much like when some Israelis argued for the cancellation of a Tel Aviv staging of the British ABBA musical Mamma Mia! after the UK University and College Union voted for a boycott of Israeli academe.

The agenda of the self-appointed freedom fighters on board the ships to Gaza was self-serving rather than self-effacing: some reportedly expressed a desire to become ‘martyrs’, others had political and literary careers to further, and others had hungry egos to feed. Well-intentioned? Perhaps. Narcissistic? For sure.

Can you really stage a blockade-defying mission, under the watch of the global media, without any inkling of a desire for a feelgood factor, for being congratulated publicly for your efforts? Of course, for some of the activists things went way too far and, tragically, nine lost their lives on the Turkish Mavi Marmara when IDF soldiers boarded it. Yet there is no denying that the aim of the Gaza flotilla was always to stir things up and to have a confrontation with the Israelis, and sadly that is what happened.

In the past couple of weeks, the true agenda of the pro-Palestine camp has become clear: to brandish Israel a ‘rogue state’ that must be reined in and disciplined by ‘the international community’, and to call for the naming, shaming and isolation of Israeli institutions and individuals through the boycott of Israeli goods, academics, artists and even gays. Some want NATO to send troops to Israel, others are demanding that the EU impose sanctions, and Barack Obama has been berated for not condemning Israel in stark enough terms. For a supposedly anti-imperialist peace movement, the pro-Palestine camp is astonishingly keen on using Western power to punish a ‘disobedient’ state.

It is not surprising that the mainstreaming of anti-Zionism (it seems everyone from British grannies to Pakistani Islamists is Against Israel the days) has put Israelis on the defensive. The feeling of being under siege is palpable in Israel today. Toporovsky tells me: ‘We want peace so much and we feel that, no matter what, we are always blamed for everything. We want to shout to the world: “Listen, this is not the reality. They are telling you lies and you’re just buying it.” Of course we make mistakes, but all the complaints are always directed at us. We feel like nobody hears our opinion and our voice.’

However, the Israeli boats looking to sail to Turkey are unlikely to change much in this respect. Because the difference between the Gaza-bound and the Turkey-bound ships is that while the former won massive sympathy in the West, the latter is only being cheered on by Israelis and, apparently, by Jews around the world. (As well as by Kurds, Armenians and Cypriots, according to Toporovsky, who tells me these peoples have flooded the student union’s email inbox with messages of support. ‘They have thanked us for showing the world the truth about the hypocrisy of Turkey and the UN and for raising the issues of Kurdish independence, the Armenian massacre and the occupation of Cyprus.’)

The difference is that the Gaza ships, which have cemented the fairytale version of the Middle Eastern conflict as a story of bad guys, victims and heroes, have the support of the Western intelligentsia and political class. Indeed, many on the Gaza-bound flotilla cited UN Security Council rulings as a justification for their actions and claimed to represent the outrage of ‘peace-loving’ Westerners. In essence, their ships had legitimacy because they were powered by new, mainstream Western prejudices against roguish Israel, whereas the Israeli ships will be seen as an isolated act, possibly even piracy.

As the Mediterranean becomes awash with the grandstanding of anti-Zionists and Israelis, complicated and messy conflicts and political situations – from Palestine and Kurdistan to Armenia and Cyprus – are being dragged in as props and used as pawns in a tit-for-tat game. All this naval-gazing really is enough to make you seasick.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill described the Gaza flotilla as a moral armada and explained what Israel-bashers have learned from George W Bush. Nathalie Rothschild reported on the Rage Against Israel demonstration. Mick Hume asked if the Middle East conflict was a war without ends. Daniel Ben-Ami labelled Israel a warrior-victim state. Or read more at spiked issue Israel and Palestine.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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