As Swedish activists return from Israel and stride towards the waiting microphones and television cameras, it’s important to take a look behind the events which took place off Gaza and perhaps revaluate the way Swedish activists engage in one of the most complicated regions on earth.
It’s worth saying at the very outset that the nine people who died on the Mavi Marmara didn’t deserve to die. This is true whether they acted violently or peacefully, whether they were terrorist sympathizers or not, whether one agrees with their politics or not. The whole affair was handled badly by Israel, to say the least, and there are many questions about the legality and reasonableness of Israel’s actions.
Beyond that, however, there is a bigger picture.
Who actually profited from what happened? Well, most analysts agree that the biggest beneficiaries are the radical Islamists of the Middle East, notably Hamas, the terrorist organization which currently rules Gaza. Hamas won a major PR victory and gained valuable international legitimacy at the expense of moderate Palestinians and the Fatah leadership of the West Bank. Politically this is a boost for those Palestinians who object to peace negotiations with Israel, and prefer the more violent path of jihad, the so-called holy war against Israel and the non-Muslim world.
In Turkey, Islamist extremists are milking the incident to win easy points against secular and modernising forces. Iran is delighted that the world’s attention is being diverted away from its nuclear programme and arms deals with Hezbollah and Syria. As so often before in the Middle-East, the rhetoric of peace and freedom becomes a tool to strengthen despotic, terror-sponsoring regimes which scoff at both. This happened largely because, as Israeli author David Grossman put it, Israel acted like a puppet on strings pulled by a small fanatical Turkish organization.
It’s hard to tell if this is what the Swedish activists on the flotilla were hoping to achieve. If it wasn’t, and their only aim was to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza and protest against Israel’s blockade, they must be extremely naïve if they call the flotilla a success. Assuming their intentions were good, they might want to consider a few changes next time they embark on Middle East mission.
First, it’s always good to know who your partners are. In this case, the IHH, the Turkish movement behind the Mavi Marmara, has proven links to terrorist organizations and global Jihad. It is now obvious that their aim wasn’t only humanitarian aid: they have boasted that they were looking for violent confrontation and sadly Israel gave them more than they needed to make their point. Now they have their martyrs.
In reality, the flotilla was an unfortunate alliance of idealistic peace activists and hard-core Islamic extremists. Swedes genuinely wanting to help Palestinian refugees would do far better to act with bodies like the UN or the many local Palestinian or Israeli humanitarian organizations, which have been getting aid to Gaza and the West Bank for years.
Second, in a conflict as complicated as this one, context is king. Many of those who condemn Israel for its blockade of Gaza don’t even know that Gaza is also blockaded by Egypt. But Egypt, an Arab and Muslim country, is not the target of demonstrations, boycotts or international vilification. It would be interesting to see an international convoy trying to enter Gaza through the closed Egyptian Rafah crossing instead of the regular Israeli route, and no one should hold his breath to see demonstrators burning Egyptian flags in the next demonstration at Sergels Torg.
This is because most Swedes see Israel as the sole aggressor whilst in reality, this is much more than a conflict between nations, it’s a conflict within nations. The women of Gaza, for example, were victims of Gaza’s armed men long before they were victims of Israeli tanks.
The children of Sderot in southern Israel were victims of the neglect of various Israeli governments long before they became victims of Palestinian missiles. And the sight of the Turkish government acting as a spokesman for human rights is probably very strange to some of its neighbours and citizens, like the Greeks, the Armenians, the Cypriots and the Kurds. This is a long and bitter conflict between forces of democracy and social progress and fundamentalist fanatics serving powerful global economic masters.
Any Swede who wants to act in this region must realize that this is not just a question of Israel vs. Palestinians or Jews vs. Arabs. Painting it this way may make it easier to explain, but it’s false. Iran’s machinations, the Egyptian blockade, Syria’s domination of Lebanon, the mockery of human rights in the Arab world, and the violence in Iraq are just some examples which demonstrate that Israel isn’t the real problem. At least not the only one.
But Israel has become the neighbour everybody hates and that’s its tragedy. It may have the most powerful army in the area and it may be the strongest economy but in the long run it will never survive as a Jewish democracy without recognition from its neighbors and legitimacy from the world. And this is exactly what it is losing now.
The Palestinians, on the other hand, need civilian development; they need industry, infrastructure and democratic institutions. These too can only come as a result of an international effort. If Swedish activists have perspective as well as good intentions, they should focus their efforts on these areas, not on provoking violent confrontations, however justified they may appear.
The last piece of advice for potential Swedish peace activists is this – peace is about understanding, compromise and reconciliation, not about winning an argument. Peace can never be achieved without understanding both sides, even the side you’re initially opposed to. True, five years after its disengagement from Gaza successive Israeli governments seem to display a constant lack of moral judgment and continue to make terrible mistakes, both political and military.
Monday’s seizing of the Gaza-bound flotilla was just another mistake, as many Israelis reluctantly admit. By now many Israelis also realize that the three year blockade of Gaza is both wrong and ineffective. But it also remains true that Israel has a right to defend itself, and a basic duty to its citizens to prevent ever-more powerful weapons being smuggled into Gaza by land and sea by Syria and Iran who continue to arm their puppet allies. It is also true that international law does acknowledge a nation’s right to impose maritime blockades and the right to intercept ships even in international waters.
These events have gradually changed Israel, which has been under attack for too many years and has tried too many solutions. It signed peace agreements and withdrew from occupied-territories but the extremists on all sides invalidated these steps and led to yet more bloodshed. Every Israeli generation has seen full scale wars, military campaigns and endless terror attacks, everyone knows someone who was killed or injured, everyone is a soldier or a soldier’s relative, and everyone is at war.
And so Israel expels visitors just because they speak against it, it continues building settlements, irresponsibly risking its relationship with the US and it persecutes journalists and activists. Its government is wrapping itself in a warm blanket of self-conviction, behaving like it’s the only victim, with truth being unconditionally and eternally on its side. Israelis have largely lost faith that the International community will ever be able to understand their unique position, and this is sadly becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Does all this sound familiar? If it does, it’s because these words describe the Palestinian condition too. It’s a tough situation and it won’t be resolved without help from the outside. Surely Sweden, with its long and rich record of diplomacy and moderation, could support moderates on both sides, resist provocations and promote the only realistic answer – a two state solution. Surely Sweden could do better than the Mavi Marmara.