Campaign to vilify Gaza flotilla underway in Europe

Italians rally in support of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, May 2011. (“Flickr)

A campaign of vilification against the flotilla that will soon try to break Israel’s siege of Gaza appears to be gathering momentum in Europe.

Over the past few weeks newspapers in the Netherlands have published articles alleging that some Dutch organizers of the flotilla are “terror supporters.” The main focus of these smears was Rob Groenhuijzen, chairman of the Netherlands Gaza Foundation, who was imprisoned for radical activities more than thirty years ago.

In the annals of political violence, Groenhuijzen — convicted of being a threat to the Dutch state — probably merits no more than a footnote. Red Youth, the left-wing group to which he was linked in the 1970s, carried out several bombings but never killed anyone. The renewed interest in his past, Groenhuijzen argues, is a sign of desperation on the part of Israeli diplomats and the network of lobbyists who wish to prevent the flotilla from setting sail.

“They don’t have the political or legal means [to stop the flotilla] and that’s why they try to criminalize the flotilla’s participants,” he told me.

Unfortunately, the government in The Hague has proven receptive to the anti-flotilla campaign. A Dutch office of the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (known by the acronym IHH) was recently placed on a national list of banned organizations.

Uri Rosenthal, the Netherlands’ foreign minister, gave a circuitous explanation for the ban in an interview with The Jerusalem Post (“Dutch government places IHH on terror list,” 1 May 2011). He hinted that the assets of IHH Netherlands were being frozen because it had transferred money to IHH representatives in Germany, who were suspected of funding Hamas.

The Center for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI) is the most influential Zionist lobby group in the Netherlands. A member of the CIDI’s staff told The Electronic Intifada that “We are not campaigning [against the flotilla] as such. It’s just that we don’t agree with the idea of a flotilla. We don’t think it is in any way conducive to solving the problem. We have pretty much the same stance as the one the [Dutch] government has taken.”

The IHH has announced that it will be sending a ship filled with medicines, construction materials and other essential goods to Gaza on 31 May. That date will be exactly one year after Israeli troops boarded the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish-flagged ship, in international waters, killing nine peace activists.

Although the 2010 attack was condemned by top-level representatives of the European Union, supporters of Israel wasted no time trying to convince the EU that the IHH should be outlawed. On 4 June last year, the European Jewish Congress (EJC) issued a statement calling for the IHH to be placed on the Union’s list of terrorist organizations (“European Jewish Congress wants Turkish Islamist group IHH banned in Europe,” World Jewish Congress, 4 June 2010).

The case made by the EJC rested entirely on the conclusions of a 2006 paper by the Danish Institute for International Studies, which accused the IHH of having contacts with al-Qaeda (“The Role of Islamic Charities in International Terrorist Recruitment and Financing,” Danish Institute for International Studies, 2006 [PDF]).

The arguments made to justify labeling the IHH as “terrorist” in that paper included the group’s involvement in “large and raucous protest rallies” ahead of the war against Iraq in 2003. “Even after the initial US invasion of Iraq, the IHH has continued to bitterly oppose the presence of Western troops in Mesopotamia,” that report noted, implying there was something unreasonable about abhorring wars of aggression.

Although the EU has not (yet) bowed to the Israel lobby’s pressure by banning the IHH, it has effectively called for the flotilla not to go ahead. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said in May this year “I do not consider a flotilla to be the right response to the humanitarian situation in Gaza” (“Catherine Ashton EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs …”).

Dror Feiler, a spokesman for the Swedish Ship to Gaza, explained that “When Baroness Ashton says the flotilla is not a proper act, I would ask her what is a proper act? The blockade of Gaza is considered collective punishment.”

“Collective punishment is forbidden according to international law,” Feiler added. “When you see such acts go on for four years, you cannot as an international citizen be silent. It is our duty to act. Ashton is trying to continue with passivity, probably because of Israeli pressure. The EU’s politicians seem to be letting themselves be intimidated. They seem to be letting Israel dictate how to act.”

Ashton’s comments followed those of Ran Curiel, Israel’s ambassador in Brussels, who described the flotilla as “clearly a political provocation since there’s no need for a flotilla to aid Gaza” (“Israel’s EU Ambassador: Flotilla ‘Political Provocation’,” Israel National 11 May 2011). Curiel added that “You can pass whatever you want to Gaza through normal channels.”

His assurance was dishonest. The UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) has documented how a piecemeal easing of the blockade over the past twelve months has not halted the deterioration of health services in Gaza. “The persistent restrictions on the importation of medical supplies and equipment, and on the movement of health staff between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, hinder the provision of quality health services,” UNRWA says in its newly published annual report (“The Annual Report of the Department of Health 2010,” 2011 [PDF]).

“Supplies of electricity, fuel and other consumables for the maintenance of the basic health infrastructure have not significantly improved since the adjustment of the blockade. Hospital treatment is increasingly curtailed because of the inability of hospitals to run procedures when they have limited access to electricity supplies, spare parts and equipment,” UNRWA adds in the report.

The European Friends of Israel (EFI), another lobby outfit, has similarly been trying to tarnish the reputation of flotilla organizers.

Charles Tannock, a British Conservative member of the European Parliament (MEP) who sits on the EFI’s steering committee, has called the planned flotilla an “incredibly irresponsible and hostile action.” Tannock, who doubles up as his party’s foreign policy spokesman in the Brussels-based assembly, believes Israel is “well within its rights” to enforce a naval blockade against Gaza, regardless of the humanitarian consequences for the 1.5 million Palestinians living there (“Center-right MEPs come out against new Gaza flotilla,” The Jerusalem Post, 12 May 2011).

There is, of course, an enormous hypocrisy involved here. This week the EU’s foreign ministers decided to broaden the scope of sanctions imposed on Syria by imposing a travel ban and an asset freeze on President Bashar Assad. The reason for those measure was that Assad’s forces were denying the right to peaceful protest. Yet the same EU elite which — rightly — punishes Syria for cracking down on demonstrations is in effect telling Palestine solidarity activists that they cannot protest against Israel.

It is not the first time that the EU has decided that different rules apply to Israelis than to Arabs. And it is unlikely to be the last.

David Cronin’s book Europe’s Alliance With Israel: Aiding the Occupation is published by Pluto Press.