JERUSALEM — Some time in the next few days, a flotilla of at least three ships will set out across the Mediterranean bound for the Gaza Strip. The passengers' stated aim is to confront Israel’s maritime blockade of the Palestinian enclave and deliver symbolic humanitarian aid to the people living there.
Although this is not the first time activists have attempted to break what they see as an illegal siege of Gaza by Israel and Egypt, it is stirring even more controversy than in the past because of the presence of an Israeli lawmaker, Arab Knesset member Basel Ghattas.
The "Freedom Flotilla" — the third since 2010 — is seen in Israel as a particular provocation, in part because it challenges what Israelis believe is a right to defend their coastline.
It also touches a nerve because the initial attempt to force a passage past Israel’s navy patrols, in 2010, ended in a bloody clash between activists and Israeli soldiers. Nine activists were killed and dozens wounded after Israeli naval commandos boarded the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, the lead vessel in that first flotilla. Israel’s actions drew denunciations from around the world and triggered a breakdown in the country's relations with Turkey.
A member of the Joint List, a party representing Israel’s Arab citizens and the third-largest in Israel’s parliament, Ghattas has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum for his decision to join the flotilla. Critics say that his motives are political, not humanitarian, and that he is abusing his position of power to undermine the state.
During a heated debate in the Knesset on Tuesday, another member of Ghattas’s party, firebrand lawmaker Hanin Zoabi, was ejected. Zoabi was suspended from the Knesset in 2011 for her participation in the 2010 flotilla.
Ghattas is currently in Athens waiting to board one of the flotilla’s ships. The Washington Post reached him by telephone to ask him about his planned voyage. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Why is your participation in this flotilla so crucial?
A: The siege against Gaza should worry everyone, everywhere, including Israelis. I don't know why more Israeli Knesset members, not only the Arab ones, are not coming with me on this flotilla.
Earlier this week, I made a political request to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to dismantle the blockade of Gaza because it is inhumane and illegal. It is a collective punishment of Palestinians, who live in jail-like conditions.
Q: There has been criticism that this is a political action, not a humanitarian one. Can you explain what the goals of this flotilla are?
A: This is a nonviolent political action aimed at bringing attention to the blockade. We must remember that it is these conditions that will lead us to another circle of war within a month, a year or two years from now. So why not do whatever we can, make every effort possible, to change the reality, save lives and avoid another war? This is my intention, and I think I am doing my duty as an elected representative in Israel.
Q: Israel says that the blockade is for security purposes and that it is now allowing more humanitarian aid and essential goods to enter Gaza than ever before, so why is a flotilla necessary?
A: The blockade has lasted for eight years, and throughout that time it did not change the reality. Israel cannot just control the passage of goods to Gaza. These people have basic rights to have a seaport and have access to the world.
The security issues that Israel is claiming as obstacles can be solved. Even when Gaza was closed on all sides, this did not stop Hamas from getting all the rockets that it had in last war.
Q: Are you concerned about the consequences of joining this action? There is talk of reviewing your position in the Knesset.
A: I am concerned about that. It is easy for the Israeli media and the public to label someone and to brainwash everyone against him. On the other hand, I am doing my job and listening to my conscience. I am a proud Palestinian and a Knesset member. I don't have anything to hide or be afraid of. I will deal with the consequences when I get back.