Israel foiled the ‘Free Gaza’ stunt. At a cost
Israel avoided a PR disaster by letting activists sail to Gaza - but there may be a grave political fallout.
If activists from the International Solidarity Movement were hoping for a media
splash when two vessels ran the Israeli sea blockade of Gaza last weekend, they will have been disappointed.
Firstly, the Israeli authorities - after an internal debate - decided that it would not be politic to intercept the boats and turn a small protest into an international event. Secondly, and more importantly, the world's media have been spread far and wide this August from Beijing to South Ossetia and Denver. A minor, staged event in the Mediterranean was not going to bring the film crews and star reporters half way across the world.
The purpose of the ISM protest was to show that, as a result of Israel's blockade of Gaza, imposed in September 2007 in response to rocket attacks on Southern Israel, the Hamas-controlled territory is being starved to death. There is certainly evidence of suffering. Over the past year, according to the website Just Journalism, the 1.5 million residents of Gaza have been surviving on less than one-fifth of the volume of imported supplies they received in December 2005. There has been disruption to fuel supplies and the Gazan private sector, consisting of small enterprises, ground to halt because of a lack of access to external markets.
As JJ noted, however, Egypt also has closed its mutual border with Gaza, contributing to isolation.
Passengers on the "Free Gaza Movement" boats, who included Cherie Blair's sister, the journalist Lauren Booth, and an 81-year-old American nun, had been counting on an Israeli iron-fist approach to the sailings. They had been prepared for interception by armed Israel naval vessels, boarding and seizure of the Greek-registered ships and towing to Ashdod, the nearest Israeli port. The goal was a public-relations drubbing for Israel and a chance to focus world attention on Israel's perceived humanitarian war on the residents of Gaza.
In the event, as Herb Keinon in the Jerusalem Post observed, "Gaza barely made a blip on CNN, Fox or the Sky News broadcasts". Nor did it make much of a splash in the US press or Britain's normally Middle East-hungry newspapers, with the exception of the BBC News website. In fact, the last month has been one of the most fallow periods for Israel-Palestine coverage in the British media in recent times.
The Israeli decision not to intervene was not taken lightly. The prevailing view was that the boats should not be interdicted. The concern was that a minor-league protest would be turned into an international event, providing the radicals on board with what Mrs Thatcher used to call "the oxygen of publicity". Politically, there was a desire to prevent confrontation at the time of Condoleezza Rice's visit to the region for peace talks. A confrontation at sea in parallel with the release of 200 prisoners as a goodwill gesture towards Mahmoud Abbas would have backfired in the media.
The minority opinion in the government was that Israel needed to interdict the boats so as to assert its authority over its territorial waters. It should then have interrogated the activists on board and gently arrested them before ejecting them from Israel. An additional concern was that failure to arrest would be construed in the Arab media as Israel going soft on defending its territorial rights.
The judicious handling of the protesters shows a sensitivity in Israel to the global media which has often been lacking in its dealings with activists.
But the consequences of the softly-softly approach are already being seen. One of the protesters, Ben-
Gurion University Lecturer Jeff Halper, told the Jerusalem Post that his group intended to start a "revolving ferry from Cyprus" bringing in supplies and people.
Allowing PR to drive geopolitical policy is not a zero-sum game.
Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail