There is no doubt about it: Israel's ongoing Gaza blockade has brought the country one of its most serious image crises yet. And there is no end in sight. Israel’s Channel 10 and Haaretz both reported this morning that yet another ship carrying humanitarian goods set sail for Gaza last night. This time, the Algerian government has launched a relief vessel containing sixty containers of food, medicine, office supplies, and educational materials. The vessel also has political and religious leaders on board. Its purpose, the “Muslim Wise Men Organization” explained, was to “show identification with the Palestinian nation."
It is unclear what reception the Algerian ship will receive when it reaches Israeli waters. In July, the Israeli navy intercepted a ship sponsored by the Libyan government on its way to Gaza and redirected it to the Egyptian port of El Arish. There its cargo was unloaded and taken by land to the Palestinian enclave.
Also today, activists in Lebanon announced that another aid ship would leave for Gaza on Sunday. According to the project leader, Samar al-Hajj, the all-woman crew of the “Mariam,” named for the Virgin Mary, would be packing medicine for the Gazan population. It will stop in Cyprus first. Israeli officials have warned it not to approach its waters. Al-Hajj told the press that "All on board were instructed to carry details of their blood groups in case they need blood transfusions in the event of being attacked by Israeli forces. There are nuns, doctors, lawyers, journalists, Christian and Muslim women on board," said al-Hajj. The passengers also include a group of American nuns and a touch of stardom: Popular Lebanese singer and femme fatale May Hariri.
Convoys and blockade runners enjoy a special mystique. The very words conjure up movie images of Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable. Their opponents? Not so much, and anyone who stops ships can easily end up looking like a pirate, Somali or otherwise, which is the kiss of death in the image wars - unless the pirate is played by Johnny Depp, of course. But how many are?
We'll soon find out. A further blockade-busting flotilla is preparing to set sail any day now. In June, leftist British political activist George Galloway announced the formation of his latest “Viva Palestina Convoy.” As Galloway described the project,
The land convoy will leave from London, will travel though Europe, Turkey, Syria and Jordan, and it will sail from Aqaba to Sinai and enter the gates of Rafah… The sea convoy will simultaneously leave on the same day, sail from country to country around the Mediterranean. We will arrive off Gaza together. We will enter together with the mightiest breach of the siege there has ever been, and we will end this siege that day.
Galloway hopes that the showy convoys will not only put an end to the Gaza siege but also finish off Israel once and for all. “Just as Soweto began the countdown to the end of the racist apartheid State of South Africa,” Galloway told a group of supporters in London, “so the killing of our martyrs on Monday began the numbering of the days of the Zionist apartheid State of Israel, be sure about that. … There can be no peace between truth and falsehood, there can be no peace between justice and oppression, there can be no peace between the occupier and the occupied, there can only be eternal struggle between them. There can only be eternal struggle until justice has prevailed and freedom has been won.” Galloway believes that with foreign states and international organizations condemning the Israeli raid, it is time to keep up the pressure. Prime Minister Cameron appeared to back him up last month when he bluntly stated “Humanitarian goods and people must flow in both directions. Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp."
Galloway reaffirmed his convoy plans in an editorial in the left-wing Morning Star last Friday. Galloway has already conducted three such Viva Palestina operations since early 2009. So far, though, there is no word on when the latest convoy – scheduled to depart yesterday – will actually get underway. (On the other hand, the “Kurdish Freedom Flotilla” supposedly being planned by a group of Israeli students, and which I wrote about here, seems to be permanently lost at sea.)
While Galloway’s statements may contain more bravado than beef, he is correct about Israel’s loss of prestige over the May 31 raid on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, in which nine Turkish activists were shot dead by IDF forces in international waters. He may even have been understating his case, since for the Jewish state the bad news just keeps on coming. Yesterday, the Israeli press announced that four IDF soldiers are being held for stealing laptop computers confiscated from passengers on the ships and selling them to their fellow soldiers. One of the suspects is a first lieutenant. Images of the soldiers covering their faces are now being splashed all across Middle Eastern media.
The stolen computers are only the sticky icing on a very foul-tasting cake. IDF soldiers also stole cell phones, an undetermined amount of cash, luggage, and other personal items. An Italian journalist claims that his stolen credit card was used to purchase items. Swedish writer Henning Mankell has formally demanded the return of his personal items, including a confiscated TV script.
"The investigation has just begun,” an Israeli officer was reported as saying, “but as it appears now it will prove embarrassing and shameful. These are soldiers who don't understand what their uniform represents."
Arab Knesset member Hanin Zoabi, who herself was on board one of the ships in the May flotilla and has since been stripped of her parliamentary privileges, told Ynetnews: "Everything that happened on board the ship was an act of pirates…the state cultivates a culture of criminality. If such culture grants legitimacy to killing people, is it any wonder that belongings are being stolen from passengers?"
The IDF is desperate to get this “humiliating” situation under control. One military source told Ynet: "This matter is very problematic in terms of values, as the incident allegedly took place after it was clear that the flotilla was a serious international affair. An officer who under such circumstances steals equipment which does not belong to him, and then tries to sell it – it's almost incomprehensible." Former defense minister Amir Peretz assured the public that “the IDF will do all it takes to clarify that this is a failure in values which cannot be ignored or forgiven,” adding that the offending soldiers are "weeds which must be uprooted."
"I would gladly kill Arabs, even slaughter them" -
The pretty face of the "ugly Israeli"
“Weeds” nor not, the soldiers have seriously damaged the IDF’s already shaky reputation for fair play and are helping to make the Gaza Flotilla fiasco into even more of a public relations meltdown than it already is. Coming on the heels of the Facebook scandal, where IDF soldier Abin Abergil posed alongside blindfolded Palestinians under the caption “the best time of my life,” the scandal has done more damage to Israel than a thousand Qassam rockets. As Hanin Zoabi puts it, “This isn't the first time we hear the IDF being linked to looting and robbery. We've heard about incidents that took place in the West Bank; dozens of incidents involving Palestinians who were robbed and whose homes and businesses were looted. So I'm asking: Is this the society that claims that its army is the most moral in the world?"
It is almost as if Israeli society has simply stopped caring what the rest of the world thinks about it. As Israel steadily loses face thanks to these and a long list of other ugly actions, it seems determined to lose the image war, which means everything in today's media-driven world. And yet, this lack of caring can have some worrisome consequences for the future: In more bad news for Israel, a recent poll by Stanley Greenberg and the US-based Israel Project found a significant loss of US popular support for the Jewish state, particularly among American liberals affiliated with the Democratic Party. “One of the questions that the poll presented was ‘Does the U.S. need to support Israel?,'" Haaretz reports. "In August of 2009, 63% of Americans polled said that the U.S. does need to support Israel. In June of this year, 58% of respondents shared the same view; by July only 51% of respondents said the U.S. needed to support Israel.”
While it's not immediately clear to what extent all these negative images are to blame for this decline in public acceptance, there is no doubt that in the Middle East these days, a picture is worth a thousand friends.