Nonviolence and the Gaza Freedom Movement

Less than a day has passed since the
Israeli navy attacked an international Gaza Freedom Movement "Freedom
," intent on breaking Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip,
in international waters. The explosion of media coverage surrounding
this makes it likely the highest-profile act of (supposedly) nonviolent
resistance to occur in years. But the dust has yet to settle. The boats
and the activists who were aboard them are still under Israeli control,
and so also, therefore, is the story of what really happened. As
information comes in, here are some questions to keep in mind for
thinking about this horrific event through the lens of nonviolence.

Were the activists really acting nonviolently? There
has been considerable controversy thus far about who provoked whom to
the violence that finally ended in deaths aboard the flotilla ships. It
appears as if some people aboard took matters into their own hands and
attacked the Israeli soldiers. But many of those leading the mission
were seasoned activists committed to and trained in nonviolence. Their
primary cargo was humanitarian aid, and their purpose was to make a
political point, not engage Israeli forces in combat. If fighting broke
out when armed Israeli forces arrived that is to be regretted, but that
should not be mistaken for the Gaza Freedom Movement's intentions.

How are the mission's success and failure being measured?
Some are going to look at this and say, "See, they tried a
nonviolent approach, and it ended in violence. Therefore, the mission
failed, and nonviolence doesn't work." It would be particularly
troubling for those Palestinian activists who are thinking about trading
violent for nonviolent methods to come to this conclusion. But
nonviolent resistance always involves self-sacrifice on the part of
those who struggle for justice. Though the tragedy in the loss of life
is not to be downplayed, the flotilla has already proven successful in
significant ways; people around the world, including influential
leaders, have responded by condemning the Gaza blockade, and millions
more have learned about the international movement to transform the
conflict in the region.

Was the flotilla a mission of aid or activism? Reports
often describe the flotilla's purpose as humanitarian aid. In turn,
Israel offered to deliver the supplies to Gaza itself, precluding the
need for the flotilla to finish its delivery. It is true that the ships
carried humanitarian supplies. But the mission also had an explicitly
political purpose, to resist what the activists understand as the
injustice of the Gaza blockade.

Whose suffering is the media considering grievable? We
already know that the Western media is more likely to concern itself
with the deaths of Westerners than that of others. This is a tendency
that we need to counteract. We should strive to treat all victims as if
they are one of us and worthy of our deepest concern. We should also be
attentive of the tendency to portray criticism of Palestinians and their
advocates as plausible, and criticism of Israel as simply anti-Semitic.

What laws were violated, and why? Laws were violated
on both sides. Israel attacked a ship in international waters, in
violation of international law. And the flotilla intended to break the
limits imposed by Israel's blockade. On the one hand, not all laws are
equal; the blockade itself has been called illegal by a United Nations
report last year. On the other, not all violations are equal; Israel
violated international law out of convenience, with little or no
expectation of consequences (since it hasn't suffered them for past
incidents), while the activists on the flotilla intended to flaunt the
blockade as an act of conscience, exposing themselves to the

Who are the activists representing? There is already
a tendency in the reportage to point out the support of violent actors,
like Gaza's Hamas regime, for the flotilla. Some will contend that the
activists are therefore supporters of what has been labeled "terrorism."
Attempts are also being made to link the activists to extremists in
Turkey, which the Turkish government reportedly has investigated and
strenuously denies. Whatever the case may be, it's important that we not
let the activists' actions be falsely conflated with those of others.
Making such conflations are very much in the interests of those who
would want to justify Israel's disproportionate violence; nonviolent
resistance is often more threatening to the powerful than
violent resistance because it so visibly undermines their claim to moral

How is the official story being manipulated? By
conducting its own investigation before allowing any foreign journalists
or authorities to participate, Israel is being careful to ensure that
its version of events is the only version. The Israeli government has
already been hurriedly trying to explain its own violence with
allegations that the activists were armed and intent on delivering
materials meant to be weaponized. If Israel were to plant weapons on the
scene after the fact to distort the investigation, it would only be
following the US's example in Iraq. Since this incident took
place in international waters, involving people from around the world, a
truly international investigation should take place immediately.

For now, first of all, we can at least mourn the deaths of those
killed on the ships, alongside those whose lives have been destroyed or
ruined in the wider conflict, both Palestinian and Israeli. The refusal
to tolerate and glorify violence, whether conducted by the powers that
be or the disempowered, is the first step toward bringing about
nonviolent change.

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