Of Boycotts and Blockades: An Analysis of the Gaza Flotilla Attack

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June 2, 2010

On Monday, May 31, 2010, Israeli commandos of the elite Navy Seals 13 unit boarded a series of ships originating in Turkey en route to Gaza filled with medical and building supplies. The ships had been inspected by government offices in Turkey and then again in Cypress; both inspections determined that no weapons were being smuggled amidst the humanitarian aid. Israel vowed to intercept the flotilla and make sure it did not reach its destination. The attempt to divert the flotilla turned violent and nine activists were killed and many others wounded. Seven IDF soldiers were wounded, two seriously.

Al Jazeera

No matter what one thinks of the Gazan blockade, it is clear is that this tragedy only reinforces the perception that Israel is acting in ways counter-productive to its stated goals of increasing security and creating peace. It is clear that those on board the ships were not terrorists threatening Israel or its citizens. Whatever their personal beliefs, they were non-combatant carriers of aid that Gazans desperately need. What unfolded was a poorly planned commando raid on civilians that resulted in civilian deaths, a diplomatic disaster for Israel, and a stake in the heart of an already weakened peace process.

This tragedy unfolded within the context of what at first appears to be an entirely different set of concerns. In recent months, while the Israeli government has pursued its blockade of Gaza, the self-same government and pro-Israel activists around the world have protested those who are calling for an economic boycott of Israel. For pro-Israel activists, the blockade and the boycott have nothing in common. Israel is justified in blockading Gaza because Gaza threatens Israel’s security. Activists are not justified in boycotting Israel because Israel is innocent of human rights abuses. The recent flotilla tragedy, however, problematizes both these claims.


The parameters proposed by those in favor of boycott are not monolithic. Some advocate a boycott of companies invested in the occupied territories. Some advocate a boycott of all Israeli products, arguing that the government is complicit in perpetuating an illegal occupation and guilty of human rights abuses. There has been a move in some European universities to boycott Israeli academics.

There is a movement among Palestinians living in the West Bank to boycott items manufactured by Jews in the West Bank, land they consider occupied territory (there has been quite an uproar about this in Israel), and there is even a small movement among left-wing Jews living in Israel to boycott products manufactured by the settlers in the West Bank. Any attempt to distinguish between a pro-boycott movement that is based on humanitarian and (ostensibly) legal grounds and one rooted in a desire to discredit Israel’s very existence is difficult – perhaps impossible. Both camps exist. To deny either is to be disingenuous.

One claim of the anti-boycott platform is that singling out Israel when other countries such as China are guilty of systematic human rights abuses suggests that the motives of at least some of these activists are far from pure. Having said that, many pro-Israel activists who oppose the boycott of Israel supported the boycott of apartheid South Africa and support the boycott of North Korea today, even as China remains boycott-free.

In fact, according to a February 2007 issue of Israel High-Tech and Investment Report, China is Israel’s second biggest trading partner after the U.S.! And the recent study by Sasha Polakow-Suransky, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa (Pantheon, 2010), alleges that Israel negotiated selling nuclear materials to apartheid South Africa in 1975 during an internationally sanctioned boycott that Israel supposedly supported. Geopolitical reality is often more complicated than the “pure” rhetoric of ideology.

Israel is not against boycotts in principle; it supported boycotts in the past and it is one of the loudest voices advocating a sweeping boycott of Iran for ostensibly wanting a weapon that Israel already has (full disclosure: I am against Iran and Israel, and all countries, having nuclear weapons). Its claim, rather, is that it is not guilty of the accusations justifying this particular boycott.


Israel’s protests of innocence when it comes to boycott threats, however, are complicated by the present Israeli blockade of Gaza. A blockade, unlike a boycott, does not mean that nothing goes in and out of a country. It only means that someone else controls what goes in and out. Someone else decides what a society needs to survive.

Both a boycott and a blockade are acts intended to limit the reach or benefits of a society. Both seek to limit the freedom of movement, of access, of commerce. One refuses to engage in commerce and exchange with the citizens of a country; one seeks to control the goods and services of that country.

There are reasons for both actions. The boycott is a tool used to pressure a country ostensibly guilty of things such as human rights abuses. A blockade seeks to deny a society any materials that can be used for weaponry.

Israel certainly knows the power of the blockade all too well. Jews in Palestine experienced them during the British Mandate, in some cases preventing Jewish terrorist groups such as the Irgun from smuggling weapons (not humanitarian aid) into Palestine to fight the British and the Arabs. The Jews in Palestine did everything in their power to break these blockades. This is part of Israel’s history that many are proud of.

Since the election of Hamas in 2007, Israel has operated a blockade of the Gaza Strip, controlling everything that leaves and enters Gaza. According to the Israeli government, “humanitarian aid” is let in, while anything that does not constitute “humanitarian aid” is blocked. In the case of Gaza, Israel allows in food and medicine. However, anything that can be used to construct weapons—fertilizer, metal, computer chips—is blocked, even though these materials are also precisely the materials that Gazans require to reconstruct their decimated infrastructure.


Gazans must build mud houses as construction materials have been blocked.

This decision on Israel’s part has created tremendous economic consequences. The blockade has had a devastatingly negative impact on Gaza’s agricultural exports, since it is almost impossible to grow anything in Gaza without fertilizer, and on its attempt to re-build its infrastructure, since it is hard to construct buildings without using metal tools. Meanwhile, the blockade has produced a whole underground economy based on smuggled goods, including food, supplies, medicine, and animals.

This underground economy, in turn, poses new security concerns, as the smugglers also bring in materials used to make rockets that are then fired into Israel. Israel responds by attacking the smugglers’ tunnels, which only spurs the cycle, creating a renewed need for smuggled goods, and thus more smugglers.

One reason ordinary Gazans have turned to smugglers is that Israel determines what does and does not constitute “humanitarian aid” and can be allowed through the blockade to reach Gaza. While to my knowledge there is no exhaustive list of items refused entry into Gaza, UNRWA, the UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees, has compiled a list of items that have been refused entry at one time or another, including light bulbs, candles, matches, books, musical instruments, crayons, clothing, shoes, mattresses, sheets, blankets, pasta, tea, coffee, chocolate, nuts, shampoo and conditioner.

In addition, the Israeli blockade includes control over water and electricity[ in Gaza. Israel can regulate how much fresh water enters the strip and can literally “turn the lights out.” In other words, they retain control over the ability of Gaza to function as a society.

Blockade vs. Boycott

Israel’s blockade of Gaza clearly is about more than security. Shampoo, pasta, and chocolate do not pose threats to anyone.

Perhaps the complicated strategy behind the blockade was illumined last month in an odd diplomatic dance played out between Israel and Qatar. Generally, Israel has been eager to seek full diplomatic ties with its neighbors. However, last month Israel flatly refused an invitation by Qatar to open diplomatic ties. The reason given by the Netanyahu government was that Qatar’s offer was conditioned on sending building materials to Gaza, at Qatar’s expense. The Israeli government stated that the offer was rejected because the amount of cement Qatar wanted to send to Gaza was in excess of the need. Even though Qatar promised to oversee the reconstruction projects for which these materials were destined, the Israeli government stated that it was concerned the supplies could be used to make rockets that would then be fired on Israel.

Netanyahu’s concern was not entirely unjustified: Gazans have shown themselves remarkably adept at turning scrap into qassam rockets. However, Netanyahu’s position appears bizarre in the larger context of Israeli-Arab relations. First, diplomatic ties with moderate Arab countries could only benefit Israel; politically, economically, and in public opinion. Second, Israel has been asking rich Arab countries to help their Arab brethren in the territories for decades. Finally, Qatar was willing to fund the entire project, thus paying to re-build what Israel destroyed in the Gaza war. And yet, the answer was still no.

Israel’s actions seem inexplicable. Why turn down an offer of diplomatic relations with Qatar because of concern over a few tons more or less of cement? Why deny Gazans shampoo and pasta, when everyone knows they will turn to smugglers to get what they need, and that the smugglers will bring in materials to make rockets? Why raid a flotilla of ships filled with civilians carrying only humanitarian aid when the results could—as they have—proven so detrimental to Israel’s image around the world?

These questions can only lead one to wonder whether the blockade is doing more harm than good.

Israel is, in effect, undermining its argument against a boycott against it by its blockade of Gaza. Israel claims to be innocent of human rights abuses, yet strictly controls all items in and out of Gaza, including items that are necessary for a war-torn society to function (and may items that have nothing to do with security). In other words, Israel is creating or at least contributing to a human rights crisis while claiming to be innocent of human rights abuses.

Israel’s counter-argument that it needs to blockade Gaza to protect its own security is real and should not be minimized by the international community. However, one can also justifiably question its sincerity when it turns down an offer of diplomatic relations with a moderate Arab country over the quantity of cement that country wants to import. One can question Israel’s sincerity when its government decides to stage a risky Rambo-like commando operation against a flotilla that had passed inspection by a country with which it has (or had) good relations.

Even given the security concerns, was there no other alternative to blockade? Was there no alternative to boarding the humanitarian flotilla? Is what’s at stake really only security? Or is this also about collective punishment?

Recently, Israel denied entry to Noam Chomsky, a Jewish-American academic. Israel prevented Chomsky from lecturing at a Palestinian university because it “didn’t like what he said about our country.” It refused a gesture of diplomacy by a moderate Arab country because of the quantity of cement. Now it has to explain the deaths of civilians bringing aid to a society on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. Isn’t a blockade, in effect, a kind of boycott? No one is denying that this is a very complicated situation. And I am not denying Israel’s real security concerns. But still, as time goes on, especially after the flotilla disaster, something seems terribly wrong in the Holy Land.

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