Many people have been writing a lot of pieces expressing a wide range of opinions on the upcoming Gaza Flotilla. As is par for the course with anything relating to Israel I can predict with very high accuracy what a particular article or opinion piece is going to say based solely on the name in the by-line. People have their perspectives, their world views, and rarely do any of the folks who grapple with these issues on a regular basis surprise me. That’s fine, except everyone seems to be missing what I think the central issue with this second flotilla really is; the question of its goals and the mission it is actually seeking to accomplish.
Let me explain. I’m not talking about whether the flotilla is “good” or “bad”. I’m not talking about whether it is over hyped and has too much media exposure. And I’m not talking about whether it is too explicitly pro-Palestinian. The question that concerns me is if the mission of this flotilla is to deliver humanitarian aid, be a high profile international protest, or an attempt at both.
The question matters. It has implications that reach far beyond the shores of Gaza and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And for me, clarity on this issue is critical for understanding what the flotilla is and what value it ultimately creates.
To get at this question we first need to address what good humanitarian aid looks like. I have been fortunate enough to study humanitarian aid; its best practices, successes and failures, and core principles, at the graduate school level from a leading aid practitioner. My teacher, who has her M.D. in Emergency Medicine a M.P.H. in Public Health and a M.P.H. in Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and has been on the ground providing aid throughout Africa, in post-tsunami Indonesia and in post-earthquake Haiti. Without exaggeration, she is one of the best in the world, though she is much too modest to ever say so herself.
I’m providing a truncated resume to add the appropriate weight and correctness to what she taught me about humanitarian aid. Not all of what I learned about providing aid is relevant to the case of the flotilla, but several very important aspects are.
- Aid workers should never, ever, under any circumstances, be armed. During the first flotilla some of the participants were armed to various extents, from metal pipes to knives and perhaps even guns. Being armed does not make an aid worker safer; it puts them in greater danger. It also calls into question the humanitarian nature of their mission and if they are doctors their ability to uphold the Hippocratic Oath.
- Aid workers should never, ever, under any circumstances, take sides in a political conflict. Doing so can lead to several problems including being used as pawns in a conflict and only providing aid to one party to a conflict. Aid workers need to remain impartial so that they can be of assistance to all those in need.
- Humanitarian aid should address the specific needs of a particular situation and be tailored to provide what is actually needed. It should also be as efficient and effective as possible, which often means working in coordination with local governments. Humanitarian aid can be temporary shelter, building supplies for construction, food, clean water, sanitation facilities and medicine just for starters. Effective aid cannot be delivered without local government permission at the very least and coordination and co-implementation in the best cases.
It is important to keep all of this in mind when assessing if this second flotilla is an aid mission and if it has a legitimate chance of actually providing much needed aid to the people of Gaza.
The second aspect of this question is what international protest looks like. I’m a rabble rouser by nature. I have not tolerance for injustice and discrimination and I’m a big believer in the power and value of non-violent political protest by “the people”. It’s important to speak truth to power and fight the powers that be for justice and equality. If that came off as cheesy or too earnest, I apologize; I am truly sincere in this stance and world view.
The Israeli blockade of Gaza by land, sea, and air is cruel and unjust. The policy is mostly about punishing an entire population of roughly 1.6 million people; not preventing terrorism. Such a total blockade creates a level of control that calls into question Israel’s assertion that it is no longer occupying Gaza. The blockade has created a preventable humanitarian crisis and the people of the world have a right to protest this policy. I oppose the blockade policy and I’m not afraid to say it. Non-violent political protest in the face of injustice and suffering is not only legitimate; it’s perhaps the most important type of action that people of conscious can take. And for non-violent actions of protest to be really effective they have to be high profile, they have to create controversy, they have to shine a light on the hypocrisy and injustice that they oppose.
Clearly, humanitarian aid missions and high profile political protests are very different things. They have different goals and different modus operandi. I believe that both are valuable for making the world a better place. But I also believe that they are distinct for a reason and that trying to combine them into one operation will result in the failure of both sets of goals.
If the primary goal of the flotilla is to deliver aid, then it should make sure none of the flotilla participants are armed in any way. It should do everything in its power to avoid armed conflict. It should bring as much as the needed aid items as possible and not waste cargo space with letters of peace and hope. It should pressure the Israeli authorities to deliver aid in an effective and timely matter but at the same time coordinate the relief effort with the government. If the goal is to be an aid mission the flotilla should conduct itself according to international standards and best practices of aid missions, and it should do so not only to increase its chances of success but also to avoid putting future aid missions around the world in danger by confusing the purpose of an aid mission with something else.
If the primary goal of the flotilla is to protest an unjust policy, then it should not even attempt to run a military blockade with humanitarian supplies. It should focus all its messaging on human rights, the occupation, and on Israeli policies. It should train all flotilla participants in non-violent protest techniques. And most of it should be up front and explicit that it is trying to make a point, stir the pot, cause a ruckus, and ultimately challenge injustice in order to bring it to an end. It’s a noble goal. It’s a legitimate goal. And if it is the goal then the flotilla organizers and participants need to own it; not conflate it with a separate and distinct type of mission.
Which brings me back to the original question, what is this second flotilla trying to be; an aid mission or a profile protest? It can’t be both. It has to choose.