The first flotilla in 2010 ended in a bloodbath on the high seas, when the Israeli navy intercepted Islamists and activists seeking to challenge Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. The second flotilla fizzled, when international lawyers prevented a second round of boats from embarking on another ill-fated mission in 2011.
Now, after two by sea, there will be one by land. The Global March to Jerusalem, slated for March 30 (Land Day for the Palestinians), is a coordinated attempt to breach Israel’s borders from surrounding Arab states—Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Participants are planning to arrive from around the globe –Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and even America. Their goal is to ensure that as many as one million people overwhelm Israeli border security and march to Jerusalem, where they will assert Muslim rights to the holy city.
But will this march result in bloodshed, like the first flotilla, or red tape, like the second?
Should the organizers have their way, this will be a messy affair. If Israel fires upon the marchers, it will be a public relations victory. The organizers already know this is likely. On May 15 and June 5 of last year, activists marched on Israel’s borders. When Israeli officials could not contain them, both incidents turned violent, resulting in dozens of deaths and many more injured.
As the group’s website claims, “We aim to make this march a turning point in the nature of the confrontation, with the occupation having to face millions of protesters and demonstrators demanding Freedom for Palestine and its capitol Jerusalem.”
A brief survey of the sponsors should dispel any doubt surrounding the intentions of this movement. Participants and funding can be traced back to a pastiche of traditional anti-Israel groups like the International Solidarity Movement, but it is the other organizers that should be cause for concern.
UK-based Mohamed Sawalha is a former Hamas commander who played an integral role in the first flotilla. Ashraf Abu Zayed, who does public relations work for Hamas in Gaza, now sits on the GMJ central committee, as does Hamas parliamentarian Ahmad Abo Halabiya.
In December, Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh announced the march, calling for the establishment of “the ‘Army of Jerusalem’… in order to take action to liberate Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa.”
Hamas is coordinating its efforts with other regional terrorist groups. On March 14, a Hamas delegation headed by Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzouk met with Hezbollah figurehead Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut. According to Hezbollah media outlets, the GMJ was one of their agenda items.
Iran is a sponsor, too. The government-run FARS news agency reported in February that regime loyalist Hossein Shaikhol-Eslam was named secretary of the board for the GMJ, and “emphasized that the Global March to Jerusalem is a symbol representing the protests of the different movements from the free nations of the world against the occupation, oppression, injustice and Judaization of Jerusalem.”
A GMJ delegation from Southeast Asia recently toured Iran. The group will then travel to Turkey and then hop a ferry to Lebanon, and then make its way to the border with Israel.
This is a carefully constructed, global operation. The Muslim Brotherhood alone has representatives from Jordan, Lebanon, South Africa, Egypt, and Turkey.
The GMJ’s international component may prove to be its Achilles’ heel. The Obama administration still has time to warn Israel’s neighbors that it will not tolerate a breach of the border. Similarly, Washington can warn other countries to block the exit of activists who are bound for the march.
Obama might even reach out to his old pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who sits on the GMJ advisory board.
The need for early intervention is compelling. The region is already on tilt, thanks to multiple Arab protest movements, and ongoing tensions over the Iranian nuclear program. The last thing we need now is a new conflict in the Palestinian territories.
A new uprising would be all the more dangerous if outsiders, with no ties to the land they’d be dragging to war, sparked it. They would pay no price for violence, and create untold unrest in a region that already has its fair share.
Jonathan Schanzer, who served as a terrorism and financial intelligence analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.