In the wake of the flotilla tragedy of 31st May 2010, are there signs to suggest that the struggle of the Palestinian people and other Arabs for justice and peace has entered a new phase? Are some elements of the shift more obvious than others? How should we encourage the change that may be taking place?
There are five signs that we may want to focus upon.
One, the flotilla has underscored the growing significance of people’s movements and citizens’ groups in the Palestinian struggle. In a sense, people’s movements have always been part of the resistance to Zionism. It was people’s movements that first stood up to the intensification of organized Zionist colonization of Palestine, following the Balfour Declaration of 1917. The general Arab uprising of 1936 was an example of this.
However, after Israel was established in 1948, Arab states played a big role in resisting Israeli aggression. All the early wars — 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 — involved states. Of course, Palestinian groups such as Al-Fatah were also at the heart of the resistance. In November 1987, people power came to the fore once again through the first Intifada. Since then, people’s initiatives have remained important. In the last 20 years there has been a proliferation of people’s movements and citizen groups in the Palestinian struggle, including groups that are part of the Palestinian Diaspora.
People’s movements and citizens’ groups are a source of strength to the Palestinian cause. Since they are less constrained by considerations that inhibit governments from committing themselves totally to the Palestinians — considerations such as their relationship with the United States in an international system dominated by the West — these forces are able to adopt principled positions on behalf of the oppressed and the dispossessed. Though US and Western dominance is declining, there are still many governments in the Arab and Muslim world that are eager to project themselves as allies of Israel’s most devoted patron and protector. In such a situation, it is not surprising that people’s movements and citizens groups have been able to campaign with much greater vigour and vitality for Palestinian rights.
Two, the flotilla has also shown that the movement for Palestine is becoming more and more multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-national. There were a number of prominent individuals from outside the Muslim and Arab world in the six ships that were part of the 31st May flotilla and in earlier flotillas — the most notable of whom was the Irish Peace Laureate, Mairead Maguire. Equally significant, the active and extensive involvement of Turkish nationals has taken the Palestinian struggle beyond Arab boundaries.
Of course, even in the past, there were non-Arabs and non-Muslims who defended the Palestinian cause. It is not widely known that Mahatma Gandhi was one such public figure who expressed his support in writing way back in the late nineteen thirties, in the midst of creeping Zionism. There is no need to emphasize that over the decades there have been scores of Jewish intellectuals and activists committed to Palestine.
The Palestinian movement should be encouraged to become more diverse in every sense of the word. It is when it embraces the whole of humanity that it will have the moral might and power to overcome Israel and Zionism, with their inordinate influence over US elites in every sphere of life. Some Muslim groups that tend to see the Palestinian struggle in exclusive religious terms will have to learn to appreciate the imperative importance of an all-encompassing movement that transcends the Muslim ummah.
Three, the flotilla episode has also highlighted the value and virtue of peaceful, non-violent protest. The flotilla was a protest against the inhuman, unjust, illegal, blockade of Gaza imposed by the Israeli regime since 2007. None of the boats was armed. None of the passengers carried weapons.
If violence erupted on the lead ship, the Mavi Marmara, it was because the Israeli commandos who hijacked the ship in international waters intended to kill some of the peace activists. It is when they started shooting that some of the activists retaliated with knives and sticks and pistols they had seized from the commandos. This is the allegation made by the leader of the Malaysian team of 11 activists on the Marmara, who claims to have seen the commandos’ hit list. According to the autopsies performed, many of the nine Turkish males who were killed were shot four or five times, and at close range.
It is this brutal barbarism of the Israeli commandos in contrast to the humanitarian mission of the flotilla that has created so much moral outrage among decent men and women everywhere. When stark violence is employed to crush peaceful protest, human sympathy is transformed into human solidarity with the victim. It is because the Israeli regime under Benjamin Netanyahu knows that non-violent resistance to Israeli power has tremendous psychological impact upon people that he is going all out to convince the world that the Marmara activists were violent.
Israeli propaganda in fact reinforces the case for non-violent resistance and non-violent protest. And indeed, non-violent resistance and non-violent protest has been gaining more and more adherents in recent years. Apart from flotillas, there have also been attempts to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza through land routes. Groups in Turkey, Malaysia and Britain have pledged that they will continue to organize many more land and sea missions to bring food, medicines and other essentials to the beleaguered people of Gaza. Universities in Britain have voted to boycott Israeli academics; churches in the US have divested from Israeli companies that operate in the occupied West Bank; and Swedish workers have launched a week-long blockade of Israeli ships and goods arriving in that Scandinavian nation.
As non-violent opposition to the Israeli regime gathers momentum, as rejection of Israel’s arrogance and intransigence becomes a global phenomenon, it will be totally isolated in the international arena. Even its ardent defenders would be too embarrassed to come to its aid. Israel’s isolation brought about through its own haughtiness will eventually compel its protector, the US, to force Israel to change its policies and to recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.
This is why Palestinian freedom fighters themselves should not at this critical juncture undermine their own struggle by resorting to acts of senseless, mindless violence. Killing Israeli civilians or indulging in revenge for its own sake, will not advance the Palestinian cause. The goodwill and support generated by the flotilla tragedy should be harnessed to the hilt to strengthen the struggle.
Four, as a consequence of the flotilla episode, advocates of Palestine should step up efforts to tell the world their story. The world is at the moment in a mood to listen. An oppressed people who have justice on their side should not hesitate to convey the truth to millions who still do not know how the Palestinians became the dispossessed, how Zionism and Colonialism conspired to deprive them of their land, how the UN betrayed its own Charter and the inalienable right of the Palestinians to self-determination in order to create the state of Israel, and how over the last 62 years through wars, expulsions, usurpation of land, and territorial expansion, successive Israeli regimes have sought to cleanse an ancient land of its indigenous population. Compared to Israel and the Zionist propaganda machine whose tentacles extend to every nook and cranny of the planet, the Palestinians have been rather ineffective in sharing their pain and anguish with their fellow human beings.
It is not only the Palestinian case that should be put across with intelligence and eloquence; Israeli manipulations and machinations, its distortions and its fabrications, its atrocities and its injustices should be disseminated as widely as possible. Because of Zionist media control, not many people know that Israeli discrimination against its Palestinian–Arab citizens is so pervasive and so extensive that it is even worse than the apartheid of the old racist Pretoria regime. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was appalled by Israeli apartheid. So was Nelson Mandela who once described Palestine “as the greatest moral issue of our time.”
Advocates of the Palestinian cause should inform the general public of all this through both the conventional and alternative media. The alternative media has been a boon to the cause. It is partly because of the new channels of communication that the truth about the flotilla tragedy reached a huge segment of society. Much more can be accomplished through the alternative media.
Five, if the flotilla tragedy has succeeded in bringing almost the whole of the human family together in condemnation of the Israeli action, can it help to unite the two warring Palestinian groups? Is there anything to suggest that the Palestinian Authority that administers the West Bank and Hamas that is in charge of Gaza, will now bury the hatchet?
If PA and Hamas cannot work together, if their feud continues unabated, will all the other changes that we have talked about here mean anything at all? Without unity and cohesion, without a single overriding purpose that transcends group interests, what hope is there for the Palestinian struggle?
Perhaps the Turkish leadership which has been playing such a positive role in Palestine and the Middle East, can help to bring the PA and Hamas together. And after the flotilla tragedy that impacted directly upon Turkish nationals, Ankara may be more inclined to try its hand at resolving the intra-Palestinian conflict.
For their part, Palestinian leaders from the PA and Hamas should realize that if they do not turn to one another in amity, the flotilla tragedy of 31st May might not be a turning –point in the Palestinian struggle for justice and peace.
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST) and Professor of Global Studies, at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, Malaysia.