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Gaza Flotilla: This is What Smart Strategy Looks Like

The flotilla of ships currently on its way to Gaza, loaded with relief supplies, is not big news in the U.S., yet.  But it's making headlines in Israel and causing plenty of concern there. So this seems like an especially good time to continue the conversation about strategy among those of us working for a just peace between Israel and Palestine.

In a  recent column  I asked, "How long will it be until the American left figures out how turn angry verbal outbursts [against Israel] into useful political action?" The "freedom flotilla," which may well be a useful political action, puts that question in a new perspective.

A spokesperson for the flotilla was quoted in the Israeli press saying, "We are a humanitarian group without political aims."  That may very well be true. But humanitarian actions can have great political consequences, especially if they are planned with an intelligence worthy of Gandhi.

And this is one action Gandhi would surely have admired, because it does just what a smart act of nonviolent resistance should do. It does not compel the oppressors to do anything in particular. But if refuses to be coerced by the oppressors. Thus it creates a new situation where none of the options serve the oppressors' interests, yet they must make a choice.

What options does the Israeli government have? It could do nothing. But then it would have to admit that its blockade of Gaza had been broken, inviting others to bring in more aid by sea. And the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would suffer a blistering attack from the Israeli political right.

The Israelis could negotiate with the flotilla leaders.  In fact the Israelis say they've offered a compromise: Land the goods in Israel, and then they'll be brought into Gaza via land. But it seems that the offer has been made to governments of nations where the goods have been loaded, not to the flotilla itself. To negotiate directly with flotilla leaders would give them a stature the Israelis are determined to deny them.

From the leaders' perspective, to accept the Israeli offer would appear to legitimize Israeli control over what gets in and out of Gaza -- a control that violates international law, they say. So the flotilla continues on its way to Gaza, undeterred.

Now the Israelis say they'll take the most confrontational approach -- using their Navy to prevent the ships from reaching Gaza, by any means necessary.  The Israeli peace group Gush Shalom points out the obvious danger for their government here:  "The State of Israel has no interest in flooding the international television screens with images of Israeli sailors and naval commandos violently assaulting hundreds of peace activists and humanitarian aid workers, many of them well-known in their countries."  That would call attention to an ongoing Israeli injustice that has largely been ignored in the world media, and it would dramatize the violence Israel uses to inflict its injustice.

To make matters more difficult for the Israeli government, there's also a counter-flotilla of right-wing Jews sailing out to confront the humanitarian relief convoy. What will the Israeli Navy do? If it allows the two to meet, it's bound to look bad for Israel whether the Navy stands by and watches the confrontation or joins in on the right-wingers' side. If the Navy keeps the two apart, again the Israeli right will cry foul.

So Netanyahu has only two choices: suffer politically at home, or suffer diplomatically and in the court of public opinion abroad. A political strategist watching the drama unfold would say that the pro-Gazan activists win politically, no matter what happens.

I salute all the brave people, including the American activists, who are on the "freedom flotilla." Rather than using shrill, angry words, they are resisting with calm, highly organized, systematic action.

I hope Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who supports the flotilla, captured their spirit when he said,  "Acting calmly is necessary rather than raising already heightened tensions. The blockade on Gaza should be lifted. We don't want new tensions."


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That's disingenuous in one sense. Nonviolent resistance always raises tensions. It's supposed to. But as Martin Luther King, Jr., explained, the resistors do not create the tension. They merely shine a light on the tensions that are already there. They "seek so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. ... A community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue."

In another sense, though, nonviolence is a calming act. King called it "an object lesson in power under discipline." This is the genius of nonviolence, as described by the great feminist writer Barbara Deming. Nonviolence resistors "have as it were two hands upon [the oppressor]-the one calming him, making him ask questions, as the other makes him move."

Deming added that the calmness of nonviolence affords the resistance another great advantage: an emotional balance that allows thoughtful strategic action.  In the heat of anger, people may not always get violent (though they are more prone to violence). But they will almost always be rash and impulsive, lashing out at the target in undisciplined ways. So they're less likely to achieve long-term political gains when they come up against disciplined people who are carefully following a strategic plan.

The counterproductive effect of raw anger was the thought uppermost in my mind when I complained that those who won't call their elected officials and work through "the system" have no alternative strategy that has a chance of success.  Many of the comments to that column, and a previous column, scoffed at my support for a letter in the House of Representatives, calling on Obama to work harder for Mideast peace.

"Hah!" was the general consensus of those comments. "It won't do any good." OK. Maybe not. I know there are good arguments both for and against working through "the system."  And I know that there are good arguments for, as well as against, working outside the system. The Gaza flotilla is one example.

The boycott/divest/sanction (BDS) movement being directed against Israel is another way anti-Israel anger is being channeled into organized action outside "the system." It's not as obviously constructive as the humanitarian aid to Gaza efforts, but it may turn out to be a smart long-term strategy. It's too soon to tell.

With all that said, though, it does strike me that in the 75 or more comments to my two previous columns, the Gaza efforts and the BDS movement were not mentioned very often at all.  And I still think that reflects a basic problem in the current state of progressive discussion about the Israel-Palestine conflict. We've got too much raw emotion and too little disciplined, organized effort; too much heat and too little light.

We've also got too much self-righteousness (which I'm guilty of sometimes, myself); too much insistence that our own approach to the issue is the only right one, while all others are not merely wrong but dangerous and destructive. So we spend too much time criticizing each other for taking the "wrong" approach to the goal we all share in common: a truly just peace settlement. 

Every political movement needs a whole spectrum of strategies, from the most "insider" to the most "outsider," if it's going to be successful. Thoughtful debate about the pros and cons of various strategies is useful. But the movement has a much better chance of success if all the parties to the debate respect each other's contributions to their common cause.

So my plea today is not for any particular strategy. But it is for strategy of some kind -- well thought out, well organized collective action -- rather than mere cries of rage and frustration, and for ongoing fruitful conversation among people pursuing a variety of strategies.

The brave folks on those boats in the Mediterranean are an inspiring example. I would wish them success, but they don't need my wish. Whatever happens, they have already succeeded. They've taken their anger, which they might have simply screamed out into the universe, and turned into a calm, discipline, organized act of resistance.  That in itself is a huge success.

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of"American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea."

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