September 21, 2016
Women’s flotilla to Gaza is more than mere symbolism
Their actions blur the boundaries of nation-states, race and class, shifting loyalties towards universal rights.
The significance of these endeavours becomes apparent when viewed in the wider context of popular movements taking root around the world, writes Abulhawa [Getty Images]
Susan Abulhawa is a Palestinian writer and the author of the international bestselling novel, Mornings in Jenin (Bloomsbury 2010). She is also the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, an NGO for children.
Amal and Zaytouna, a flotilla of two boats with all-women crews and passengers, set sail from Barcelona en route to besieged Gaza in another maritime attempt to break Israel’s illegal blockade on the tiny strip of Palestinian coastal territory.
This is a place where 1.7 million Palestinians have been locked for nearly a decade in what many describe as the "world’s largest open air prison", a human laboratory that Israel uses periodically to test its weapons.
As with previous civilian voyages to Gaza, these boats are carrying prominent international figures who hope to use their stature to focus international attention on continuing Israeli crimes against Palestinians.
There are 11 women in each boat, including Malin Bjork, the European Parliament member, Mairead Maguire, the Nobel peace laureate from Northern Ireland, Fouzia Hassan, a doctor from Malaysia, and retired US army colonel Ann Wright.
VIDEO: Turkey-Israel deal: Flotilla victims’ families wanted Gaza blockade lifted
Carrying a message of hope
There have been more than two dozen such voyages since 2008, with only five actually making it to Gaza. The rest have been intercepted by the Israeli military, which often confiscates the boats and other equipment, and arrests passengers.
And while the boats do often carry aid, including medical, building and educational supplies, organisers regard these costly and risky endeavours as largely symbolic. Spokeswoman Zohar Chamberlain Regev told Al Jazeera, "Mainly we are carrying a message of hope and solidarity [for the people of Gaza]."
It is perhaps difficult to see the real and material impact of international activists setting sail to try to visit Gaza, only to be intercepted, arrested and deported. But the significance of these endeavours becomes apparent when viewed in the wider context of popular movements taking root around the world.
One of the most visible current examples is happening in North Dakota. As the Women’s Boat makes its way to Palestine, an epic battle is being waged by the Standing Rock Sioux nation to halt construction of an oil pipeline that threatens the integrity of their land and water.
They have been joined in their struggle by more than 60 Native American tribes. First Nation peoples from around the world have expressed solidarity, and statements of unqualified support have been issued by the National Lawyers Guild, prominent Palestinians, the Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, Black Lives Matter, and the Nation of Islam, among others. And rallies of support have been held in cities throughout the US and elsewhere.
Violence breeds global solidarity
As in the case of Standing Rock, such immediate coalescing of leftist movements in common cause has been a powerful reinforcement to the Palestinian struggle against Israel’s settler colonialism. Further, the traditional response of power - namely, the use of violence - has proved ineffective.
For example, when Israel boarded and attacked the Gaza Flotilla in 2010, killing 10 unarmed passengers, the Free Gaza movement was flooded with requests from around the world to join their cause.
Photo: The Zaytouna and the Amal - meaning ’olive’ and ’hope’ - set sail last week from Barcelona, Spain [Laura Burdon-Manley/Al Jazeera]
Overnight, the coalition grew from six to 20 organisations, including groups from Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and more.
Likewise, when the Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners used attack dogs on unarmed protectors of the land, the resolve of the Sioux peoples was further galvanised and activists around the country took to the streets in solidarity.
Predictably, power - whether corporate, state, or both - has thus turned its attention to preventing the dissemination of information.
One of the most powerful tools available to activists recently has been the relative ease in accessing news that bypasses traditional gatekeepers of information, such as mainstream newspaper editors and corporate television producers. Social media, independent news outlets, and citizen journalists have effective forums of communication with the world.
READ MORE: All-female flotilla aims to break Israeli siege of Gaza
So it came as no surprise when North Dakota issued an arrest warrant for Amy Goodman, whose Democracy Now news report showing corporate security unleashing attack dogs on unarmed protesters went viral.
Israel, on the other hand, has taken the unprecedented step of concluding deals with social media giants, such as Facebook, to censor Palestinian voices, in particular video evidence of persistent Israeli war crimes.
Towards a new concept of citizenship
The theft of Palestine and destruction of its native society is the world’s last vestige of settler-colonialism. It is the link between that ignominious era and contemporary neoliberal destruction of life, lucrative war-making and wholesale destruction of our planet for the profit of few.
Two boats with 11 women each and a few hundred people encamped on their land to stop a pipeline might appear only symbolic in the face of the overwhelming power of corporate and military states, but they are more.
They give cause to the global discontent of an increasingly informed public. They represent a popular awakening, where citizens are moved to protect each other from predatory power. They are the righteous agitators we all need in these desperate times of state violence and unprecedented global wars, pollution, food and water insecurity.
Their actions blur the boundaries of nation-states, race and class, shifting loyalties towards universal rights. They build global networks of activists. They help to change the prevailing narrative by injecting words like "occupation", "siege" and "dignity" into popular discourse.
The women on the Amal and Zaytouna are mostly from powerful nations, or at least stable ones. They are using their privilege and access to resources in the best possible way: to lend solidarity with the struggle of a besieged people and to help forge a new concept of citizenship.
Susan Abulhawa is an international bestselling novelist, poet, and essayist. Her latest novel, The Blue Between Sky and Water is translated into 26 languages.