A major showdown off the coast of the Gaza Strip has averted on Wednesday. The world had been watching with great dismay a humanitarian ship—a Libyan government-sponsored vessel—headed for the Palestinian territory. The vessel had been stranded in international waters, some 75 miles away from Gaza City. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) had encircled the ship and threatened to invade unless it changed course. A flurry of shuttle diplomacy took place earlier this week along the diplomatic corridors of the United Nations in an attempt to avoid a repeat of what happened six weeks ago, when a Turkish-led ship headed for Gaza on a humanitarian mission was attacked by the IDF. Nine people were killed, and scores were wounded.
Added to the international worry was that this new ship convoy had been coordinated by Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, an organization headed by one of the sons of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The dread was that if Turkey, the only Islamic country to hold military cooperation with Israel, was rebuffed, Libya was certainly heading to a direct collision course with the hawks in Tel-Aviv.
The world eased a sign of relief when news report out of the Middle East confirmed on Wednesday that the captain had agreed to redirect the ship to Egypt. But what was on board the Amalthea—the name of the ship—to trigger such reaction from Israel? According to Associated Press, nothing serious with regards to the security of Israel was on board the ship. On it was just 2,000 tons of food, cooking oil, medicines and prefabricated houses. Could that be enough to overwhelm Israeli strategic deterrence? Could this in any way threaten the security of Israel? It was clear this was a reverse form of intimidation by a regional power that doesn’t tolerate anyone to challenge its status, let alone its power. Facing such reality, the ship was then instructed to dock at the Egyptian port of El-Arish.
Was Libya truly intended to challenge Israeli authorities?
Since it left Greece, where it was originated from, the vessel had been the subject of countless threats from the Israeli leadership. While the quartet nations worked to defuse the standoff, few believe the unpredictability of the Libyan regime would go all the way to challenge Tel-Aviv, even if it meant bypassing an inhuman blockade imposed on one of the most deprived people of the world. “Libya has routinely issued formal denunciations of attacks waged by Israel against the Gazan population and criticized other Arab governments for their complicity, but only from the standpoint of advancing its own regional political interests and currying favor at home,” asserted Roberts Steven, editorialist for the World Socialist website.
Historically, Libya has been a fervent supporter of the Palestinian cause, but only within the framework of its own limit. Observers believe that Libya will never compromise its sovereignty on behalf of the Palestinians, and many Arab countries often criticize the dubiousness of the Libyan government. Notwithstanding the brutal Israeli occupation—the longest military occupation in modern time (43 years) and the inability of the Palestinian leaders to put forward a united front—Libya as well as other Arab governments have contributed in exacerbating the Palestinian misfortunes. Overt denunciations of Israel have always been matched by plea for support and influence between the European powers and Washington.
Yasser Arafat, the late PLO leader, can be remembered for his harsh criticisms directed at Gaddafi in 1982 for failing to deliver on past promises of armed assistance, which if they had been honored, would have meant “the enemy would not have dared to do what he has done,” Arafat asserted. In September of 1982, Israeli forces occupying West Beirut allowed the Lebanese Christian Militia, the Phalange, an Israeli proxy, into the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps where they massacred more than 700 Palestinian civilians. By the end of the Lebanese war, close to 10,000 fighters died, including Syrian soldiers, PLO fighters and other militants aligned with the PLO.
The Palestinians leadership must bear some of the blame
Since the 1967 war that left Israel in control of the west bank of the Jordan River, the Palestinians have been in a constant struggle to claim their rights to statehood. But their rights and their struggle have been clouted by competing interests within the Arab world, exploiting their struggle to their own strategic agenda when it deems necessary and rejecting it when it proves to be detrimental. After so many losses against Israel, it is clear that no Arab country, unless willing to commit apocalyptic suicide, would want to embark upon another round of military warfare with Tel-Aviv. Even, Syria which has yet to recover the Golan Heights would seriously consider a military assault on Israel to recover its Druze Arab population, cut-off from the rest of Syria during the 1971 war.
Israel’s victory in 1971 consolidated its supremacy over the Arab world and effectively removed what Noam Chomsky calls “the Arab deterrent.” Once the threat removed, Israel pursuit with its expansion agenda, invading its neighbor to the north, as it went on to do in 1978 and 1982, decimating PLO forces and occupying southern Lebanon for almost 20 years. New York Times correspondent James Bennet claimed the goal of the invasion was “to install a friendly regime and destroy the Palestinian Liberation Organization (The PLO).” PLO survived, but severely bruised and shunned by most of its Arab backers, especially after Arafat publicly denounced their betrayal. Since then, The PLO, well aware of its precarious dilemma, sought to pursue its own nationalistic agenda, free of any strategic influence from its Arab brothers.
This logic played well in Arafat decision in 1993 to undermine the “Palestinian delegation headed by conservative nationalist Haydar ‘Abd al-Shafi, who refused to agree on Israeli continued settlement building in the occupied territories, thus deadlocking the negotiations, because the US and Israel refused to agree to this condition, even to consider it seriously,” confirmed Chomsky in his famous book, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance. Arafat, Chomsky continues, secretly cut his own deal with Washington and Israel, independent of the Palestinian delegation, which led to the Oslo peace Process. Arafat was losing popularity in the occupied territories, and he badly needed something to show to his embattled people. But the rush to Oslo without reaching a procedural breakthrough on the issue of Israeli settlement on the West Bank remains, to these days, the biggest obstacle to peace in the Middle East. It was a strategic blunder that the masses of Palestine paid dearly. And this obstacle has since widened with further divisions within the Palestinian leadership, resulting into one fraction controlling Gaza and an other controlling the West Bank.
The biggest winner is of course Israel, which looks for any excuse to continue to lay biblical claims on Arab lands, thereby pushing further way the Palestinian’s dream of statehood.