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Freedom Flotilla II: No to a Kinder, Gentler Siege

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It was never about aid.

Freedom Flotilla II is, like its assaulted predecessor of a year ago, a political act. The passengers came together in shared determination to challenge Israel's five-year siege of Gaza and to exercise their right to travel through international waters to Palestinian shores and, by so doing, support the Palestinian right to freedom.

Many have misrepresented this political act as being about aid. If Palestinians had a dollar for every time the State Department bleated, "there are established channels for aid to Gaza," they would never need another donated dime. Instead, because of U.S. policy the highly educated and enterprising Palestinians have been stripped of their dignity and forced to live on international charity.

Israel has never made any secret of its intentions for Gaza. Dov Weisglass, key advisor to former Israeli prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, reportedly explained in the wake of Hamas' electoral victory in 2006, "the idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet but not to make them die of hunger." This was later revealed to be Israeli strategy according to official documents.

In fact, Israel's sealing of Gaza from the outside world began before Hamas was elected. It began as far back as 1988 -- almost before Hamas existed -- when Israel imposed a "permit system" in Gaza. Israel introduced closures in 1991 and institutionalized them in 1993, the heyday of the Oslo so-called peace process. Israel sealed Gaza off by an electronic wall in 1994, and continued to punish it with invasions, home demolitions, air raids, "targeted assassinations," and other acts illegal under international law.

Israel often complains that it is singled out for criticism when there are other worse human rights violators. Why not set a flotilla against China or Russia? Because Israel is the only country claiming to be a Western-style democracy whose gross human rights violations are supported economically and politically by major world powers. Take, most recently, the sickening parroting by the Quartet -- the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- of the U.S. line in a July 2 statement calling on "all those wishing to deliver goods to the people of Gaza to do so through established channels."

To repeat, the Flotilla is not about delivering "goods" to transform Israel's siege into a kinder, gentler blockade. Rather, it is to deliver this question: By what right does Israel besiege Gaza? And this answer: None, under international law. The Palestinians of Gaza have the right to freedom of movement, education, and development, like all other human beings on this planet. Collective punishment is against the law.

The passengers and organizers of the US Boat to Gaza in Freedom Flotilla II have powerfully compared this quest for justice to that of the American civil rights movement. Alice Walker traces her activism for Palestinian rights to the Jewish activists who faced death to support Black people in the American South. Hannah Schwarzschild movingly evokes her father's Freedom Ride to the segregated South.

Now Israel and the U.S. have got the Greek government to do their dirty work for them by blocking the Flotilla's ships before they sail. Yet even some Israeli analysts on the political right say "Israel lost the Flotilla war" by magnifying its symbolism.

Beyond drawing the world's attention to the obscenity that is the siege of Gaza, the Flotilla has shown the peoples of the Arab world, engaged in their own quest for dignity and rights, that there are two kinds of Americans and two kinds of Jews. Not just those in power in the U.S. and Israel who are widely seen to subvert human rights throughout the region, but also those determined to uphold human rights. By so doing, the Flotilla has contributed to an eventual era of mutual respect between Arabs, Americans, and Jews.

Meanwhile, hundreds of activists intend to travel by air to Israel to express solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Here, Israel maintains an equally draconian but less visible siege that enables it to colonize Palestinian land and water resources. The activists fly in on July 8, the seventh anniversary of the International Court of Justice advisory opinion reaffirming the illegality of Israel's actions, and the sixth anniversary of the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions of Israel until it upholds international law. Will Israel also block them?

Even as Israel tightens its control over Palestinian lives it faces a growing global movement armed only with the tools of non-violent civil resistance and a powerful story of justice. Soon, as two former premiers acknowledge, Israel will be universally seen as the ugly face of apartheid in the 21st Century. And the world has ways to deal with apartheid states and their enablers.