Flotilla the Hun: How Not To Do A Nonviolent, Humanitarian Protest

Gaza Flotilla AttackMuch has been made about the conflict (dubbed Operation Sky Winds) between the Israeli military and passengers aboard the MV Mavi Marmara (Blue Marmara), a Comoros-flagged passenger ship purchased in 2010 by the Islamic charity IHH. The conflict resulted in the deaths of 9 activists. The Turkish aid group, Insani Yardim Vakfi, whose full name is the İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri İnsani Yardım Vakfı, and in English is known as “The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief “or “Humanitarian Relief Foundation,” (commonly referred to as IHH), is a Turkish Islamic non-government organization active in more than one hundred countries, all over the world. The IHH owned and operated three of the six flotilla ships involved in the incident. Established in 1992, the IHH is registered in Istanbul, Turkey and provides humanitarian relief into areas of war, earthquake, hunger and conflict. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Danish Institute for International Studies, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center have all published reports alleging links between IHH and Hamas, al-Qaeda or other Islamist and Jihadist organizations, but Mark Hosenball of Newsweek has reported that the U.S. is questioning Israeli claims that the IHH has ties to terrorist organizations.

This recent episode is the latest in a series of protests drawing attention to Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which many claim is a collective punishment of Gazan Palestinians for backing and electing the terrorist organization Hamas to lead their government. Israel says the naval blockade is necessary to keep arms and other military assets out of the hands of Hamas, whose prior provocations led to a full-blown War in Gaza dubbed “Operation Cast Lead” by the Israelis. Precedent does exist. In January 2009, the Israeli air force bombed a Sudanese caravan transporting arms to Hamas in Gaza from Iran. Seventeen trucks full of weapons were destroyed and 39 smugglers were killed in the attack. In February, 2009, Cypriot authorities detained an Iranian arms ship en route to Syria, loaded with ammunition and mortar shells. UN Resolutions 1737 (adopted by the Security Council in December 2006), 1747, and 1803 prohibit the export of weapons from Iran to any party.

The Blockade of Gaza has its roots in the aftermath of the 2007 Palestinian Civil War fought between the two major Palestinian political factions: Hamas and Fatah. The conflict resulted in the militant group Hamas ousting rival Fatah from the Gaza Strip. Fatah continued to rule in the West Bank while Hamas ruled in Gaza. In the wake of the Fatah-Hamas War, Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade of goods into and out of Gaza, allowing only for a limited amount of inspected humanitarian aid into Gaza. The blockade has continued to this day. Israel and Egypt’s rationale for the blockade of goods into Gaza was to prevent weapons – specifically materials needed to build rockets and mortars – from being moved into Gaza that could be used in rocket attacks against Israelis and Egyptians. To prevent another War in Gaza, which resulted from the Israeli response to Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups firing rockets from Gaza into Israel, Israel and Egypt have imposed a blockade of goods into and out of Gaza, allowing only for inspected humanitarian aid to be brought into the city. Egypt has gone so far as to begin the construction of an underground steel barrier to prevent Palestinian smuggling tunnels from circumventing the blockade.

But, if there is a blockade of goods into Gaza, Hamas cannot rearm itself, meaning not only can it not fight the Israelis, but neither can it control its own Palestinian people, including Gazans loyal to the rival Palestinian political group Fatah, who are calling for the ouster of the failed Hamas government. Hamas wants its weapons, but the blockade makes this more difficult.

Of course, the problem with a military blockade of goods to Gaza is that Gazan Palestinians cannot get the goods they need to live normal lives. The constant conflicts – both Israeli-Palestinian and Palestinian-Palestinian (Fatah vs. Hamas) – have left the Gaza Strip in shambles. Buildings are destroyed, public services are lacking, government officials remain unpaid, and the people suffer. And while many of these people take up arms and blame Israel, many do not. Many Palestinians in Gaza don’t want Hamas or its violence. They are tired of war; they just want to be left alone to live their lives, get married, raise their children, own their businesses, and live normal lives. And there are many humanitarian organizations that are trying to help, but the Israeli blockade prevents much of this assistance from getting to Gaza.

So what is to be done? How does one advocate for social justice in a place where the people are governed by terrorists? The answer is a nonviolent, humanitarian protest. It brings attention to Israel’s blockade policy, and delivers much needed aid to Gazan Palestinians, without allowing arms into Gaza. However, there is a right way and a wrong way to do a nonviolent protest. Here’s a general rule of thumb:

If you’re going to participate in a nonviolent, humanitarian protest, it had better be both “humanitarian” and “nonviolent.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. did not attack the police officers who came to arrest him. Mahatma Gandhi did not beat the British soldiers who attempted to arrest him with metal pipes. The whole point of a nonviolent protest is to use your body in a peaceful protest to draw attention to a cause and to shame what the protester believes to be the offending party into rethinking and ultimately changing its policies. Reverend King’s nonviolent protests were instrumental in the American Civil Rights movement in the 60s. Gandhi’s protests helped bring about the departure of the British from India. Closer to my home in Fresno, César Chávez led nonviolent protests to bring attention to often invisible migrant farm laborers in the central San Joaquin Valley of California. Nonviolent, humanitarian protests must be just that: nonviolent and humanitarian.

Rachel Corrie

Rachel Corrie, an Evergreen State College student and peace activist was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting in Gaza. Visit http://www.rachelcorrie.org/.

This is the beauty of the nonviolent, humanitarian protest recently carried out on the Irish ship, the Rachel Corrie, sponsored by the Cyprus-based Free Gaza Movement, whose passengers set sail from Ireland toward Gaza. The ship is named after the American peace activist, Rachel Corrie, a student at Evergreen State College who was run over and killed by an Israeli army bulldozer as she acted as a human shield in protest over house demolitions in Gaza in 2003. The Rachel Corrie set out from Ireland loaded with nonviolent peace activists and loads of humanitarian aid destined for Gaza. The ship was painted with the organization’s website address and a Palestinian flag, and the protest was announced to the press well in advance of its departure to ensure a maximum visibility of the protest. And, when the Israeli navy enforced the blockade, approached the ship, and boarded it on June 5, 2010, the passengers on the ship sat down in the truest and most powerful sense of a nonviolent, humanitarian protest. The activists refused to obey the orders of the Israeli military in a nonviolent fashion. They welcomed their arrest and deportation, and their actions – their journey, defiance of the blockade, arrest, and deportation – become a symbol of Israeli insensitivity policies towards Gazan civilians. Meanwhile, the Israelis diverted the ship to the Israeli town of Ashdod, just north of the border with Gaza. They will inspect the goods, release the passengers, and deliver the ship’s aid to humanitarian non-profit organizations that will deliver the aid to Gaza. Because of this process, the world’s attention is drawn to the humanitarian suffering of the Gazan victims of the Hamas government and Israeli policies. This is how to do a humanitarian, nonviolent protest properly:

On the other end of the spectrum, there is the MV Mavi Marmara, whose crew lay in wait and attacked the Israeli soldiers as they boarded the ship. The harrowing ordeal is described by The Times Online reporters Uzi Mahnaimi in Tel Aviv and Gareth Jenkins in Istanbul. Watch as the so-called “peace activists” attack the Israel soldiers as they boarded:

The video below shows some of the weapons discovered aboard the MV Mavi Marmara:

Ultimately, this recent conflict will lead to a reexamination of Israeli policies in Gaza. I doubt Israel will lift its blockade; doing so will just open the doors for Hamas to rearm. However, if the coming June 2010 Palestinian elections (which Hamas has vowed to boycott) lead to a victory for Fatah, then Israel and Fatah-led Palestine may find themselves at such mutually weakened positions that they may finally agree to sit down and negotiate a peace settlement. Neither Fatah nor Israel want to see Hamas elements in Gaza rearmed, and both Fatah and Israel know that the continued suffering of the Gazan people and the blockade of humanitarian aid helps nether of them.

Of course, Islamic groups and anti-Israel factions will tout images of the funeral of the flotilla “martyrs” and condemn Israel. Likewise, pro-Israeli groups will highlight the connections between the IHH and Hamas, and will remind the world of the “true feelings” and lack of objectivity of many international journalists (like the recent comments made by Helen Thomas) condemning Israel.

Rachel Corrie (ship)

A of the MV Rachel Corrie, taken during its October 29, 2009 inauguration. AFP Photo/freegaza.org.

And while this can serve as a lesson for Israel and Palestine and encourage the two parties to return to the negotiating table and make peace once and for all, it should also serve as a lesson for those of us who use non-violent means to protest injustice around us. When protesting a perceived injustice, let’s say, by attempting to break through an Israeli naval blockade, do not become “Flotilla the Hun” like the Islamic protesters aboard the MV Mavi Marmara did. Attacking the police only leads to violence, retaliation, and a justification for return fire from the authorities. Rather, do as the passengers aboard the other five boats in the Gaza Flotilla did, and as the 19 passengers and crew aboard the Rachel Corrie did: sit in silent, nonviolent protest. As Mairead McGuire, an Irish Nobel Peace Prize laureate on board the Rachel Corrie told the Associated Press, “We will sit down.” “They will probably arrest us… but there will be no resistance” if Israeli forces come aboard.

And that is how nonviolent resistance is done. Repeated, peaceful, thoughtful, protests shame those targeted by the protest into changing their ways. A “Floatilla the Hun” strategy only perpetuates the violence and empowers one’s perceived enemy. Only a nonviolent, peaceful resistance can bring about the long-term change to the way things are. Think like MLK and Gandhi, and not like Islamic militants, and Israel will be forced to do the same.


For more, view a picture essay of the conflict.

For my thoughts on the incident, watch the YouTube video below.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for this balanced, thoughtful critique. This was very helpful.

  2. Very good article. Succinct and clear.

    The M/V Rachel Corrie is not an Irish ship, nor did it set out from Ireland loaded with activists. It’s registry is Cambodian. It is owned by Free Gaza Movement based in Cyprus and Malaysian Perdana Global Peace Organisation, yet another Islamic NGO financing this activity.
    There is just one Irish citizen onboard, Mairead Corrigan. The rest are Islamic Malaysians, including television journalists and camera crew.

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