If you happen to be running an authoritarian regime which practices torture, routinely locks up dissidents and muzzles the press, there are few causes better than Palestinian solidarity to polish up your public image. One might say that it's a political form of money laundering; just as one would wash shady banknotes through an offshore bank, so the most bloodstained of reputations can be cleansed just by engaging in a publicity stunt billed as a humanitarian gift to Gaza's Palestinians.
Or so the Libyans seem to think, anyway. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of Africa's longest-serving dictator Muammar Gaddafi, has announced that his charitable foundation is dispatching a ship to Gaza carrying 2,000 tons of humanitarian aid. "Now we are helping the people of Gaza who are suffering," said one of the volunteers preparing the ship.
Not really. 2,000 tons is in fact a paltry amount, equivalent to about one day's worth of the aid that crosses from Israel into Gaza with clockwork regularity each week. In Gaza, there is actually no shortage of the foodstuffs which the ship is carrying, like rice and cooking oil, since Israel ensures that these are all delivered. To take the example of one week in June, 30 truckloads of cooking oil crossed from Israel into Gaza (and yes, these are official Israeli statistics - those who don't believe them are welcome to provide credible alternative figures.)
As with previous escapades to challenge Israel's blockade of illegal weapons transportation into Gaza, this Libyan effort is really about politics. And the intended beneficiaries are not the Palestinians, but the Gaddafi dynasty.
Life in their Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya is pretty wretched. According to Freedom House's 2010 Freedom in the World survey, Libya's record on political and civil rights earns it the lowest possible ranking on a scale of 1 to 7, placing the country in the same basket as North Korea, Burma, Zimbabwe and similar paragons of enlightenment. Political parties are banned, media is entirely state-owned and corruption is rife - Transparency International places Libya at 126 in a list of 180 countries.
About the only demonstration of liberalism in Libya is in its use of the death penalty -a policy that can be summarized with the words "as often as possible." Just Saudi Arabia and Iran trump Libya when it comes to wielding the hangman's noose. Migrants from African countries attempting to enter the European Union by traveling through Libya are especially vulnerable, even more now that Gaddafi's regime has closed the Tripoli office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR.) Three weeks ago, a motion before the European Parliament noted that 200 people, overwhelmingly foreigners, languished on Libya's Death Row. The motion also noted the execution in early June of eighteen unidentified foreigners, as reported by Cerene - a newspaper "closely affiliated" with none other than the prime mover behind Libya's ship to Gaza, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi.
Harshness towards foreigners unfortunate enough to end up in Libya is nothing new. Just ask those 30,000 Palestinians expelled by Gaddafi in 1995 to underline his objection to the peace agreement signed between Israel and the PLO. Gaddafi, reported the New York Times at the time, "has said other Arab countries should follow suit, to show the world that Palestinians have gained nothing from the self-rule agreements."
It would be truer to say that the Palestinians have nothing to gain from Libya, then or now. For Gaddafi, the Palestinians have never been anything more than a political tool. Nothing better symbolizes that dead end than the praise heaped on Gaddafi by Hamas in the wake of the 2009 Gaza war.
"A political structure is corrupted if it becomes subservient to the sectarian social structure of the family, tribe, or sect and adopts its characteristics," wrote Gaddafi in his Green Book, an inchoate work of political theory that serves as the ideological foundation of his regime. Those same words encapsulate the state of Libya under Gaddafi's permanent rule. That is why the Palestinians - and those who claim to support them - would be wise to avoid any ships bearing his gifts.