Gaza flotilla: Some questions for the activists sailing to Gaza.

A wartime lexicon.
July 4 2011 11:03 AM

Boat People

Some questions for the "activists" aboard the Gaza flotilla.

Palestinians ride on boats at the port of Gaza City during a rally in support of the Gaza-bound international Freedom Flotilla. Click image to expand.
Palestinian boats and the Freedom Flotilla in the port of Gaza City

The tale of the Gaza "flotilla" seems set to become a regular summer feature, bobbing along happily on the inside pages with an occasional update. A nice sidebar for reporters covering the Greek debt crisis: a built-in mild tension of "will they, won't they?"; a cast of not very colorful characters but one we almost begin to feel we know personally. Such cheery and breezy slogans—"the audacity of hope" and "free Gaza"—and such an easy storyline that it practically writes itself. Since Israel adopts a posture that almost guarantees a reaction of some sort in the not-too-distant future, and since there was such a frisson of violence the last time the little fleet set sail, there's no reason for it not to become a regular seasonal favorite.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

However, given the luxury of time, might it not be possible to ask the "activists" onboard just a few questions? (Activist is a good neutral word, isn't it, with largely positive connotations? Even flotilla, with its reassuring diminuendo, has a "small is beautiful" sound to it.) Most of the speculation so far has been to do with methods and intentions, allowing for many avowals about peaceful tactics and so forth, but this is soft-centered coverage. I would like to know a little more about the political ambitions and implications of the enterprise.

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It seems safe and fair to say that the flotilla and its leadership work in reasonably close harmony with Hamas, which constitutes the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. The political leadership of this organization is headquartered mainly in Gaza itself. But its military coordination is run out of Damascus, where the regime of Bashar Assad is currently at war with increasingly large sections of the long-oppressed Syrian population. Refugee camps, some with urgent humanitarian requirements, are making their appearance on the border between Syria and Turkey (the government of the latter being somewhat sympathetic to the purposes of the flotilla). In these circumstances, isn't it legitimate to strike up a conversation with the "activists" and ask them where they come out on the uprising against hereditary Baathism in Syria?

Then again, Syria's other proxy party in the region is Hezbollah, which operates a state-within-a-state and maintains a private army on the territory of Lebanon. Senior associates of this group have recently been named in a U.N. indictment concerning the broad-daylight murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. Hezbollah's leadership and propaganda organs, while refusing all cooperation with the United Nations, are currently expressing undying solidarity with the Assad regime, which relies additionally on heavy support from the dictatorship in Iran. Again, the Hamas leadership seems compromised at best by its association with this local Tehran-Damascus axis. Surely there must be some spokesman for the blockade-runners who is able to give us his thinking on this question, too? At a time of widespread democratic and pluralist revolution in the region, Hamas imposes its own version of theocracy on Gaza and seems otherwise aligned with the forces that stand athwart the hope of continued and deeper change. Who wants to volunteer time to make this outfit look more presentable? Half the published articles on Gaza contain a standard reference to its resemblance to a vast open-air prison (and when I last saw it under Israeli occupation, it certainly did deserve this metaphor). The problem is that, given its ideology and its allies, Hamas qualifies rather too well in the capacity of guard.

Only a few weeks ago, the Hamas regime in Gaza became the only governing authority in the world—by my count—to express outrage and sympathy at the death of Osama Bin Laden. As the wavelets lap in the Greek harbors, and the sunshine beats down, doesn't any journalist want to know whether the "activists" have discussed this element in their partners' world outlook? Does Alice Walker seriously have no comment?

Hamas is listed by various governments and international organizations as a terrorist group. I don't mind conceding that that particular word has been used in arbitrary ways in the past. But what concerns me much more is the official programmatic adoption, by Hamas, of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This disgusting fabrication is a key foundational document of 20th-century racism and totalitarianism, indelibly linked to the Hitler regime in theory and practice. It seems extraordinary to me that any "activist" claiming allegiance to human rights could cooperate at any level with the propagation of such evil material. But I have never seen any of them invited to comment on this matter, either.

The little boats cannot make much difference to the welfare of Gaza either way, since the materials being shipped are in such negligible quantity. The chief significance of the enterprise is therefore symbolic. And the symbolism, when examined even cursorily, doesn't seem too adorable. The intended beneficiary of the stunt is a ruling group with close ties to two of the most retrograde dictatorships in the Middle East, each of which has recently been up to its elbows in the blood of its own civilians. The same group also manages to maintain warm relations with, or at the very least to make cordial remarks about, both Hezbollah and al-Qaida. Meanwhile, a document that was once accurately described as a "warrant for genocide" forms part of the declared political platform of the aforesaid group. There is something about this that fails to pass a smell test. I wonder whether any reporter on the scene will now take me up on this.

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