The Gaza Flotilla: Fear of Unscripted Non-Violent Action

Israel and its international operatives are working overtime to stop the 10-ship Gaza flotilla from leaving Athens. The Audacity Of Hope, with 40 Americans on board, tried to leave the harbor Friday only to be chased down and threatened by an armed Greek Coast Guard boat and forced to return to a dock. Trumped-up charges may be brought against the captain of the boat. Greece is now prohibiting all boats from leaving. Another boat had a propeller shaft cut and a third was equally disabled by some kind of sabotage. Others have suddenly been plagued with questions about their insurance or their seaworthiness. Israel has openly threatened to bar news organizations with reporters onboard a flotilla boat from entering Israel for ten years. The US government has made vague threats that it might charge US citizens in the flotilla with something.

No one has ever accused the Israelis of not being clever in the international dark arts, and this affair proves they are good at making things not happen. To fill out the scene, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has suggested she’s just fine with the Israeli government boarding and, if necessary, violently stopping the ships from reaching port in Gaza. That is, if they get out of the port of Athens. As one wag on board a flotilla boat put it, “The Gaza blockade is now in Athens.”

 The Audacity Of Hope leaves Athens harbor and, then, at right, is escorted back to the dock by a Greek Coast Guard boat. The Audacity Of Hope leaves Athens harbor and, then, at right, is escorted back to the dock by a Greek Coast Guard boat.

Ms. Clinton says she does not believe the flotilla “is a necessary or useful effort to assist the people of Gaza.” This is sadly not the first time a western power has parentally decided what is good, or not good, for people in that part of the world. In fact, it’s that kind of parental, we-know-best decision-making that led to 30 years of US support for Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

Ms. Clinton also declared that the flotilla plan would be provocative for “entering into Israeli waters and creating a situation in which the Israelis have the right to defend themselves.”

Besides being an obvious statement – the point of the flotilla is to be provocative — her statement amounts to a diplomatic blunt instrument, since the specific question being addressed by the non-violent flotilla’s civil disobedience is exactly who should control the waters off the coast of Gaza. The whole motivation for the flotilla is to make it clear the Israelis do not “have the right to defend themselves” against peaceful ships entering Palestinian waters. In fact, one can argue the idea of “self-defense” on the part of Israel in this context is provocative in its own right.

Then you have right-wing voices like Republican US Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, who suggested the United States make Naval and Special Ops units available to the Israelis “to effectively disable flotilla vessels before they can pose a threat to Israeli coastal security or put Israeli lives at risk.” I know nothing about this man, but it’s safe to say he doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about other than ratcheting up the potential violence. In Israel, similar strains of disinformation have appeared, such as a bogus story, proven to be bogus, that came out of the military suggesting flotilla members were preparing to kill Israeli soldiers.

The US government talks a good game when it comes to people using civil disobedience to seek their rights in nations like Iran or Venezuela. Even in the days of the Tunisian uprising and in the later stages of Tahrir Square (once Mubarak’s fate seemed sealed) the US government talked a quite positive line about civil disobedience.

But, as with everything our huge, entrenched government does – and, here, there is no difference between a Bush or an Obama administration – US foreign policy is about self-interest and military tradition. When it’s anything to do with Israel, the unquestioned policy is to go along with whatever Israel demands. The flotilla is no different.

What is different is the fact the flotilla is a civil disobedience action on the high seas against an entrenched Middle Eastern regime (albeit a Jewish regime) refusing to budge on issues that have plagued it for decades, a fact that interestingly places the flotilla in the context of the wide range of civil disobedience actions in the Arab Spring.

This is a particularly difficult time for the United States and Israel. The government of Israel’s dependent patron is in the hands of a “liberal” who would be expected to have sympathy for Palestinian rights. Conservatives (not counting lunatics who think Mr. Obama is a Muslim Manchurian Candidate) seem certain that Obama has such sympathies, while those of us on the left see Mr. Obama holding to the same tired Israeli apologist line as he focuses on keeping his political war-chest full for reelection. It would take a presidential “profile in courage” to twist Israel’s arm so it might see the sanity of allowing the flotilla to dock in Gaza. Such courage is not in the offing.

 Retired Colonel Ann Wright, left, speaks to the press and while her fellow CD activists make their case on the boat's deck. Retired Colonel Ann Wright, left, speaks to the press while her fellow CD activists make their case on the boat’s deck.

While the US government supports Israeli militarism, it privately knows there will be hell to pay if, as with last year’s flotilla, non-violent activists are shot to death on board a ship. It’s a perfect situation for Clintonian doublespeak.

On one hand, in public Secretary Clinton essentially extends to Israel the right to shoot US citizens if Israel deems that necessary. At the same time, we can be pretty sure the back channel cable chatter with Israel is of the order, whatever you people do, don’t harm a hair on the head of an American and, if at all possible, avoid a commando shooting raid that creates an international incident like the first flotilla did. Because, this time, in the context of the volatile Middle Eastern upheaval, things could really get out of hand.

This leaves only one option: Stop the flotilla before it can leave Athens harbor.

Thanks to its economic difficulties, it’s hard to imagine a basket-case nation more vulnerable right now to being intimidated and bought off by the United States than Greece. So it’s not surprising to see a two-pronged effort of underhanded bureaucratic obstruction and actual covert sabotage having some success in preventing the launch of the flotilla from Athens.

Why Is Civil Disobedience So Scary?

The question that hovers over all this is what exactly is it about non-violent civil disobedience that tends to be so threatening to a fortress nation like Israel?

Paranoid fears aside, the clear purpose of the flotilla is to employ classic civil disobedience tactics to show up an oppressive government or military force for the bully that it is. As Gandhi’s forces did so effectively, the point is to stand there and make them beat you down, and in the process of beating down non-violent people simply asking for their rights it becomes all too clear to most civilized people that the oppression is exactly that, unjust oppressive force that should be lifted for the good of humanity. The fact is, when done well it really works.

People still ask would non-violent civil disobedience have worked with the Nazis? The consensus seems to be, no, it would not have worked, because the Nazis were an especially repugnant and psychopathic movement ready to gun down masses of people. The Brits, on the other hand, gave up India (and, for that matter, Palestine) because they were a civilized people forced to draw a moral line. Or at least that’s how the argument goes from the point of view of the Brits. Gandhi, of course, was once asked what he thought of English civilization, and his famous answer was: “I think it would be a good idea.”

We now live in an age of secret government and public relations where civil disobedience is managed by oppressive governments. Some see this as progress, while others see it as an insidious reality of our confusing technological times. More and more, police and military forces negotiate ahead of time with elements planning CD and, thus, manage and choreograph the CD. If they can’t manage it, they feel a need to spy on it and thwart it ahead of time. In fact, it’s generally a little of both. The goal is to prevent civil disobedience like that undertaken in Gandhi’s time or in the South in the 1960s from ever reaching a profoundly revelatory moment of what Gandhi called satyagraha — or truth force. More than any nation today, Israel seems to understand the power of satyagraha, and over the years it has reportedly gone out of its way to undermine non-violent civil disobedience movements in their early stages.

It’s not exactly fair to say Israel, thus, favors violent, “terrorist” movements; but it is fair to say, these kinds of blatantly violent movements provide a much better demonize-able opposition to reinforce and sustain a militarist fortress mentality. Well-designed non-violent civil disobedience tends to make an effective political point. Boatloads of peaceful, non-violent people putting their lives on the line to break a blockade can be more frightening than ineffectual mortars and furious, violent militants spouting flammable rhetoric. Terrorists are much more useful if what you want is to avoid addressing the tragically bad decisions of your past. A floating truth force is something you want to avoid.

The word from my peaceful Veterans For Peace friends on board The Audacity Of Hope (named ironically for President Obama’s book and campaign) is that the underhanded games to prevent the flotilla’s launch are continuing. Meanwhile, the motto of the flotilla is “Stay Human,” which must send shivers of horror down the spines of Israeli commandos.

If the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the US government of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are successful in thwarting this effort at satyagraha, they will only empower the forces of violence, the violence of their enemies against them and, foremost of all, their own violence.

The only way out of a disaster like the one in Israel/Palestine is to face the truth. Gandhi knew that, and he brilliantly used that fact as leverage. There’s nothing preventing Israel and its patron, the United States, from facing the truth on their own. But, historically, those in power never seem able to do it on their own. They always need a push. The Gaza flotilla is just such a push.