What the Freedom Flotilla Was Really About: A Response to Christopher Hitchens
Last week, renowned author Christopher Hitchens published a column highly critical of those who attempted to sail to Gaza on the Freedom Flotilla earlier this month. In the article, he sharply questions the flotilla participants’ “political ambitions,” which he suggests are linked to those of Hamas, Hezbollah and even Osama bin Laden. Presumably, Hitchens would also claim that the International Committee of the Red Cross has ‘political ambitions’ aligned with Al Qaeda’s, because both groups support an end to the blockade of Gaza.
The column concludes with a challenge: “There is something about this that fails to pass a smell test. I wonder whether any reporter on the scene will now take me up on this.”
Challenge accepted. Although the flotilla was prevented from going to Gaza, this isn’t the end of activism to end the blockade, so Hitchens’ assertions about the true intentions of this activism are certainly still relevant. Let’s start with the first major claim he makes about the flotilla: “It seems safe and fair to say that the flotilla and its leadership work in reasonably close harmony with Hamas.”
To Hitchens, it is obvious that anyone who opposes Israel’s blockade of Gaza must by default support Hamas. But there is another possibility he has failed to consider – that the flotilla was organized not to support any particular group, but rather, to support a powerful universal principle – the peaceful promotion of basic human rights for all. Indeed, to show Israel that this was their goal, each passenger signed a pledge of nonviolence and took part in nonviolence training. Moreover, the U.S. boat offered to submit to inspection for weapons multiple times. When the Greek Coast Guard stopped the boat from sailing and arrested its captain, a group of passengers protested – peacefully – outside the Greek Embassy. And finally, it might be worth noting that the participants included a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, the coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, the winner of a Lennon/Ono Grant for Peace, and a member of Veterans for Peace. Does Hitchens really believe that this group subscribes to the ideology of Hamas?
It should tell you something that Hitchens is unable to provide any evidence for this allegation. Members of the Israeli security cabinet told Maariv newspaper that they had no information to suggest that the flotilla posed any threat to Israel. Security officials even told Prime Minister Netanyahu’s inner cabinet that there were no known connections between the flotilla organizers and any terrorist organizations.
It’s clear, given the passengers’ actions in recent weeks and the lack of any evidence to the contrary, that the flotilla had no sinister intentions or links to terrorist groups, and that its only cause was basic justice for the residents of Gaza. Hitchens’ failure to recognize this leads him to make a number of outlandish speculations about the intentions of the flotilla. For instance, he attempts to tie the flotilla to Hezbollah as well as to the autocratic regimes of Syria and Iran: “Again, the Hamas leadership seems compromised at best by its association with this local Tehran-Damascus axis. Surely there must be some spokesman for the blockade-runners who is able to give us his thinking on this question, too?”
He is suggesting, of course, that the flotilla participants support Hamas and that they must also support Tehran and Damascus. But he’s making the same mistake again – confusing support for human rights for Gazans with support for Hamas. It’s true that the Hamas leadership was elected into power, but how does that justify a blockade that deprives innocent people of food, water, education, medical care, and freedom of movement? A separation has to be made between the Hamas leadership and the civilians of Gaza – over half of whom, by the way, are children. Israel has legitimate grievances against one of those groups, but not the other. Punishing Gazans who have committed no crime against Israel is nothing short of collective punishment – a term that has been used by the Red Cross, Amnesty International, and other human rights and humanitarian organizations to describe this illegal policy.
Hitchens goes on: “Half the published articles on Gaza contain a standard reference to its resemblance to a vast open-air prison (and when I last saw it under Israeli occupation, it certainly did deserve this metaphor). The problem is that, given its ideology and its allies, Hamas qualifies rather too well in the capacity of guard and warder.”
Hamas certainly does have a sordid human rights history, particularly in its treatment of political dissidents. But the phrase ‘open-air prison’ is used in a very specific way: to describe the conditions on the ground in Gaza that have prevailed as a result of the blockade. Gaza is compared to a prison because Israel prevents Gazans from importing construction materials, exporting the civilian goods that their economy depends on, and accessing medical, educational, and travel opportunities abroad, especially in the West Bank. Authors who use that phrase are explicitly referring to the suffering caused by the Israeli blockade.
Of course, this isn’t to absolve Hamas of its share of responsibility. It’s perfectly fair, and necessary, to criticize Hamas for its deplorable actions towards Israel and its own people, and for its links to other fundamentalist groups and dictatorial regimes. Hitchens, though, cites these factors – the “ideology and allies” of Hamas – as being responsible for the conditions in Gaza. But he misses the point again. Ideology and allies are precisely what don’t matter to the overwhelming majority of Gazans – to elderly residents who are unable to get medical treatment abroad, to students whose schools’ windows have yet to be rebuilt for lack of glass, to parents whose children suffer from anemia because of tainted drinking water. These are the people that the Freedom Flotilla tried to sail for – not for Hamas. The flotilla participants do not support Hamas’ ideology—they support international law. They believe that bettering the lives of ordinary, innocent people demands immediate attention, and that as citizens of influential governments, they can help to achieve this goal.
The flotilla participants never wavered from this line. Yet Hitchens continues to demand that they prove their good intentions: “Does Alice Walker seriously have no comment?”
Actually, she does. In a moving article published weeks ago, Walker explained exactly why she joined the flotilla:
“As adults, we must affirm, constantly, that the Arab child, the Muslim child, the Palestinian child, the African child, the Jewish child, the Christian child, the American child, the Chinese child, the Israeli child, the Native American child, etc, is equal to all others on the planet. We must do everything in our power to cease the behaviour that makes children everywhere feel afraid.”
It’s compassion for children who suffer in Gaza, who have a right to a better future, that motivates Walker. Hitchens doesn’t seem to have read her article, or any of the other statements by flotilla participants on why they decided to sail. If he had, he might have realized how intellectually lazy it is to assume that the passengers are cronies of Hamas simply because they oppose the blockade. By making this assumption, Hitchens shows that he is completely blind to the human cost of Israel’s imposition of collective punishment. And that blindness – not just of Hitchens, but of everyone that has thus far ignored the suffering in Gaza - is precisely why the flotilla needed to sail.