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Gaza Flotilla : humanitarian or political ?

Date de publication
Rony Brauman

Medical doctor, specialized in tropical medicine and epidemiology. Involved in humanitarian action since 1977, he has been on numerous missions, mainly in contexts of armed conflicts and IDP situations. President of Médecins sans Frontières from 1982 to1994, he also teaches at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI) and is a regular contributor to Alternatives Economiques. He has published several books and articles, including "Guerre humanitaires ? Mensonges et Intox" (Textuel, 2018), "La Médecine Humanitaire" (PUF, 2010), "Penser dans l'urgence" (Editions du Seuil, 2006) and "Utopies Sanitaires" (Editions Le Pommier, 2000).

Was the flotilla boarded by the Israeli army on a "humanitarian" or "political" mission? Is there a "humanitarian crisis" in Gaza or not? The answers to the questions everyone has been asking over the last few days say nothing about the situation itself but do tell us something about the already well-known opinions of those giving them. The issue at stake, of course, is situating the operation within a framework of irrefutable legitimacy or, conversely, denying its legitimacy by rejecting it as a crude manipulation. Leaving aside the question of the disproportionate violence of the Israeli attack, let us therefore try to approach the problem from a different, comparative point of view, by examining the use - and non-use - of the adjective "humanitarian" in other contexts.

First, we should remember that getting supplies through to a population subjected to a blockade or any kind of isolation is not in itself a "humanitarian" action. The air lift between Berlin and Western Europe in 1949 during the Soviet blockade was clearly not about humanitarian assistance and has never been presented as such. The "free world" was making a clear statement of its determination faced with the Soviet Empire at a critical and tense moment in the relationship between East and West, and it was considered a more than sufficient reason. Similarly, the first version of the "Boat for Vietnam" campaign in 1967 was designed to transport goods that we would now no doubt classify as "humanitarian", insofar as it involved medicines, electric generators, bicycles and other civilian goods. Such a description would have made the activists laugh, however: they would have dismissed irrevocably because we saw it (I was one of them) as an act of militant solidarity with Vietnam in its resistance to the American invasion. When another "Boat for Vietnam" was chartered 12 years later, to pick up the victims of the regime we had previously defended, the "humanitarian" nature was this time considered self-evident. This boat, however, was not there to rescue the victims of some disaster but those of a very specific regime, the Communist authorities in Hanoi, which was why such a label was questionable. Many other "boat people", indeed, risked and continue to risk their lives, fleeing a miserable existence in makeshift boats without anyone being inspired to go out and rescue them. The "Boat for Vietnam" was above all a symbol, a denunciation of totalitarian oppression, and only secondly a humanitarian action. There is nothing dishonourable about that but it is important to be aware of the nuance in order to understand the erratic and opportunistic way the word is used.

Back to the news of the "Freedom Flotilla" and the battle of words it has sparked, noting in passing that the phrase "humanitarian flotilla" was coined by the press and not by the flotilla's passengers. The Israelis are adamant that there is no "humanitarian crisis" in Gaza, that its government sends hundreds of "humanitarian lorries" there every week and that the flotilla's cargo could simply have been sent via Israel or Egypt in the same way, for example, that aid was sent to Haiti via Santo Domingo following the earthquake. The conclusion is that the organisers' refusal to do so reveals the "political" (read "illegitimate" or "suspect") nature of their intentions. Those on the "flotilla" side, meanwhile, present themselves as human rights activists highlighting the "devastating effects of Israeli violence on the Palestinian people" and taking action to "support Palestine's right to welcome international visitors, humanitarian observers, humanitarian workers, journalists and others." At least both sides agree on two points, namely that the blockade is a reality and external aid is essential for the survival of Palestinians in Gaza.

The central issue in the conflict is therefore the symbolic nature of the delivery of supplies, designed to attract media coverage of the territory's isolation in a spectacular fashion. In reality, using Israel to access Gaza is not the equivalent of using Santo Domingo to get to Haiti, insofar as the earthquake in Port-au-Prince was not due to a decision by a neighbouring country. Arriving direct by sea was, of course, the whole point of the convoy. There is no "humanitarian crisis" in Palestine if one takes this rather odd phrase to mean a life-threatening emergency such as a famine, but everyone knows that the strategy of throttling Gaza's population adopted by successive Israeli governments over the last three years has had disastrous consequences. We should also be aware that it is not the nature of the goods being supplied that determines whether the contents of the Israeli lorries can be classified as humanitarian or not, any more than that of the boats in the flotilla, although careless use of the word has become widespread since the 1980s to describe any donation in a crisis situation. As we saw earlier, useful and legitimate assistance can be inspired by considerations other than humanitarian ones.

Some of the maritime protesters were motivated by humanitarian considerations, others on the basis of their political or political/religious sympathies, but they were all united in their denunciation of a government policy. This inevitably propels them into the political arena, like many others before them, who were not necessarily subjected to the same criticisms. As there is no copyright on the use of words, we are obliged to accept that they are used in various and sometimes inconsistent ways, but we are not forced to do the same ourselves. In this case, the question is not whether the flotilla was motivated by humanitarian or political concerns but what policy it was pursuing, and on this point there is no ambiguity at all: "To raise international awareness about the closure of the Gaza Strip" in Freegaza's own words. We can at least agree that such spectacular non-state diplomacy, humanitarian or not, has succeeded where various diplomatic efforts have so far failed.

To cite this content :
Rony Brauman, Gaza Flotilla : humanitarian or political ?, 4 June 2010, URL : https://msf-crash.org/en/blog/humanitarian-actors-and-practice/gaza-flotilla-humanitarian-or-political

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