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Flotilla Wars 3.0

Flotilla Wars 3.0

In May 2010, Israel raided a flotilla of aid ships determined to breach the maritime blockade of Gaza which activists claim violates international law by imposing collective punishment on the civilian population of the Gaza Strip. Nine activists were killed in the raid, which created a major international incident for Israel and Turkey, where the ships originated from. However it also solidly placed the Gaza Blockade back in the spotlight for human rights activists in the region and around the world.

Since then much has changed in the Middle East but efforts to breach the blockade have not. Attempts of a second flotilla this past June were thwarted after a sustained diplomatic and legal campaign by Israel that saw the Greek government stall ships from leaving port and Cyprus refusing to let potential participants dock. Although the attempt was much publicized, it also had to compete with growing turmoil in Syria and the ongoing war in Libya for attention within the region. After it became clear that most of not all of the ships would sail, focus quickly shifted to other more pressing issues.

To be clear, it’s not that Palestine isn’t getting attention but just that other issues are dominating the spotlight. In September the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority launched a campaign for statehood at the UN, creating ripples throughout the system as seen with the recent admission of Palestine by UNESCO . Meanwhile, the historic prisoner swap between Hamas and Israellast month dominated headlines for days. Then there is Israel itself, which has grown increasingly hawkish in its stance towards Iran. Such power moves are what makes news, not small symbolic attempts to shed light on a blockade that has existed since 2007.

The lack of sustained attention led Dan Murphy to ask the real question of what if there was another Gaza flotilla and no one noticed? The article refers to the most recent attempt at breaching the blockade with a smaller group of two ships that left from Turkey on November 2. With just 27 activists, this attempt was miniscule compared to the 500 activists that attempted to participate in the June attempt. As expected, the Israeli Navy intercepted the two ships on Friday before they reached Gaza and are now in the process of deporting the activists. Compared to the other two attempts, there has been little drama this time around. It would be easy to overlook this event and let it pass without much coverage. But in the Middle East, conflict is not hard to find and therein may lie the bigger story.

Fortunately most of the conflict of this attempt was left online in a “battle of the hashtags” on Twitter with Israeli officials documenting the issue with #provocatilla (a pithy form of provocative flotilla) and pro-Gaza activists using #FreedomWaves. The stakes were raised over the weekend as several key Israeli government websites were taken offline after calls from the “hacktivist” group Anonymous to target the sites in solidarity with the flotilla. Again, these incidents involve far less drama than last year’s military raid or the diplomatic maneuvering back in June. But it also mirrors the tactics of other groups in the region such as the pro-Assad Syrian Electronic Army and the “Bahraini Trolls” that are nearly inescapable in any conversation regarding Bahrain on Twitter. These tactics may seem inconsequential, the juvenile tricks of people who spend too much time online. But the rise of hacktivist groups and their growing numbers also suggests that these campaigns may be just the tip of an iceberg where serious cyber damage could be wrought.

Finally, a word about the flotilla itself. The clearest message this latest attempts tells us is that the issue of the Gaza blockade is not over. Despite the bigger concerns of the region in a year that has seen the status quo turned on its head, two small ships sailing towards an imaginary line in the sea still garnered a considerable amount of attention. And once again, the blockade is back in the spotlight along with the outlines of what conflict in the region may increasingly look like in the future.



Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa