Blue-washing settler-colonialism: The sea beyond Palestine and the maritime BDS

by Nikolas Kosmatopoulos

This essay is part of a series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip

In this season of anniversaries, I wish to bring to memory the early summer 2010, when the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, the humanitarian fleet carrying cargo and solidarity activists sought to break the siege on Gaza. The flotilla was the boldest and bloodiest grassroots maritime campaign in the history of the international solidarity for Palestine. In international waters, the Israeli Navy attacked the fleet and killed nine civilians on the spot. Despite the brutal killings, the massive arrests, and the eventual blocking of the sea route, the Ships to Gaza constituted a watershed event that would be displaced in memory only by the Arab uprisings that arrived few months later. They caused a sea change that challenged the illegality and inhumanity of the siege before global audiences, uniting on board hundreds of people from all over the world. The ships were to the siege what a growing movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) is to the occupation: ample evidence that both are falling out of the consciousness of the world. Surely by serendipity, the ships went perhaps a bit further; they made the world conscious that the sea, not only the land, is about Palestine, politics, BDS.

Late summer of 2010 marked another historic first, though one with much less media attention: the official visit of an Israeli prime minister to Greece. The statesman who ordered the military attack on humanitarian ships in international waters was welcomed with all pomp and circumstance by the prime minister of the country from which half of the ships (including the Greek Ship to Gaza) sailed from and whose father, as prime minister in 1982, had sent other ships to Beirut in support of the retreating PLO guerrillas. Beyond reflecting obvious Oedipal issues as well as the foreign policy motto “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” (i.e. Turkey), the visit initiated an unprecedented strategic alliance between the two Mediterranean states. Ever since, Israel has found in subsequent Greek governments an invaluable and close ally with whom it coordinates military drills, ministerial councils, and milestone voting in international bodies. The current SYRIZA-led government in Greece – notwithstanding anger by ex-SYRIZA one-time-voters including this author – further solidified the bond of the blue-and-white-striped flags sporting the Christian cross and the Star of David respectively. This bond can transform the same sea that carried the Ships towards Gaza into a vehicle for bluewashing the Israeli settler colonial project, through materialist fantasies of sea-based geo-power and ideological imaginaries of sea-linked national rebranding.

Materialist fantasies of geo-power include minerals, militaries, and—crucially—mutual campaigns of regional repositioning in response to image crises.  Both states experience continuous declines in their international standing; Israel, due to the illegal military occupation of Palestine, and Greece, due to its illegal occupation by the troika of global financial capitalism: the European Commission, European Central Bank, and IMF. Unconditionally backed by the sole superpower and equipped with one of the most advanced armies in the region, Israel promises to recover Greek geopolitical power in the region through enhanced cooperation in oil, tourism, and military affairs. In exchange, Greece supports Israel in crucial international votes, such as the recent attempted veto of an EU resolution on illegal settlements and a ‘No’ vote to an Israel-critical resolution regarding Jerusalem and Gaza at UNESCO’s executive committee. But most crucially, the unfolding alliance has already expanded horizontally and vertically in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Thus, the airspace between Athens and Tel Aviv has become a military training space for possible future Israeli aerial attacks against Iran, while the bottom of the sea between Haifa, Cyprus, and Crete is crafted as a unified mineral field for potential drilling and environmentally suicidal extractions. Above and below sea level, the colonial Euro-Zionist imagination that promised to make the desert bloom now threatens to make the sea burst, either way.

Ideological imaginaries and national narratives of becoming and belonging are reworked as mutual campaigns of rebranding nations in response to image crises. Materials that matter are anthropological and historical images of Otherness, enmity and solidarity. Islamophobia, in both its liberal and far-right versions, rapidly growing on both sides of the sea, seems to underwrite the Greco-Israeli alliance at the level of the society and threatens to redefine the east Mediterranean region in terms of an imaginary Judeo-Christian maritime space. As an imagined community, Greece presents an attractive, but also distorted, historical parallel for the self-proclaimed Jewish state. In the Zionist imagination, modern Greece can perhaps be the closest example of a successful development from a post-Ottoman, multi-religious and poly-lingual space to a West-oriented, mono-national, liberal democratic state (that recognizes no national minorities). This point can be better made with historical depth and in light of the guiding inspiration that Philhellenism – the intellectual movement at the turn of the 19th century for the establishment of an independent Hellas in the south Balkans – provided for proto-Zionists. Greece, however, is not a colonial-settler state. Nevertheless, the sea that links Israel to Greece via Cyprus (the other oath breaker in an otherwise traditionally pro-Palestinian Southern Europe) becomes today a symbolic-strategic pool for the baptism of a colonial project into a liberal-democratic, mono-national and multicultural regime.

Bluewashing the settler-colonial project in Palestine has far-reaching consequences for the Middle East, the nature and peace of the Mediterranean Sea, but also the struggle against racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the West. This bluewashing presents the BDS movement with far-reaching options as well. First and foremost, following upon the waves made by the Ships to Gaza, it opens up the sea as a privileged space for political action, social theory and academic research. After the Ships to Gaza, in ports around the world dockworkers have repeatedly attempted and often succeeded to “block the boats” of ZIM, Israel’s container giant. Bluewashing offers a holistic platform from which to oppose further militarization and mineralization of the sea, by Israel, allied states and companies, but also by the EU’s maritime border policy, guilty for dozen migrant deaths daily. Finally, it invites a comprehensive research program on the relationship between politics and the sea beyond Palestine, on maritime versions of mineral-military-migrant assemblages in the Mediterranean, on the hitherto invisible and under-researched networks of commercial fleets and transport infrastructures in the oceans, on past and present imaginaries of co-belonging, national exclusionism and colonial expansionism in the post-Ottoman Mediterranean.

Nikolas Kosmatopoulos is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs and Anthropology at the American University of Beirut