A member of the sailboat ‘Estella’ waves a banner reading ‘Ship To Gaza’ upon arrival in the port of Naples in 2012. (Mario Laporta/AFP/GettyImages)

Flotillas, Politics & Italian Views Of The ‘Conflict’

While supporting pro-Palestinian activists on the flotilla, Palermo’s mayor says his city respects the rights of both sides

It is hard to avoid the impression that Palermo, the capital of sun-drenched Sicily, is aiming to become the capital of something else: Palestinian solidarity. This is thanks to Palermo Mayor Leoluca Orlando who has done a lot to promote the Palestinian cause.

Just last week, the mayor welcomed another “flotilla” to Palermo’s shores. The word—now a key term in the political lexicon of the Middle East—means a small core of sea-going vessels (usually three or four) staffed with pro-Palestinian activists. The activists, who hail mainly from Europe and beyond, especially Anglophone countries, sail the boats towards the Gaza Strip where they attempt to break Israel’s decade-long naval blockade of the Palestinian enclave.

Flotillas have become a common form of protest within the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. From 2008 to 2016, international activists have sailed at least 31 boats to challenge the Israeli blockade. The latest one is expected to reach the waters around Gaza in the next few days, after setting off from Palermo last weekend.

Comprising four boats, the flotilla, dubbed the “Freedom Flotilla,” is carrying more than 40 pro-Palestinian activists from Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand, Malaysia, Canada, the United States, France, Germany and Italy. After setting off from Copenhagen on March 22, it stopped in 15 European ports before arriving in Palermo, a journey of 4,000 nautical miles (4,600 miles). The final leg of the voyage from Sicily to Gaza is expected to take up to 10 days.

In a show of solidarity with the activists, Mayor Orlando announced shortly after the arrival of the flotilla on July 16 that the city of Palermo will rename a section of the port in honor of the late Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat. Drumming up support for the initiative, he added that the Freedom Flotilla Coalition, an umbrella for pro-Palestinian organizations, is welcome to use the Sicilian capital as a future port of call where flotilla activists can rest up and prepare for the final leg of the journey.

Mayor of Palermo Leoluca Orlando in 2008. (Wikimedia Commons)

When flotillas get closer to Gaza, what usually happens is that the Israeli navy intervenes before the ships can dock. Generally, they either redirect the ships or seize them, sending the protestors home by other means. In one incident in 2010, Israeli troops boarded multiple ships in a flotilla that set sail from Turkey. On one ship, clashes broke out when the troops boarded, resulting in the deaths of nine activists.

When contacted by The Media Line, the IDF Spokesperson’s Office did not want to comment on the particulars of the latest flotilla, saying it was still premature to give information as every flotilla requires a different response.

Beyond throwing his support behind the flotilla movement, Orlando also made other shows of support for the Palestinians. In 2014, he granted an honorary citizenship to Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader serving five life sentences in a maximum security Israeli prison. In 2002, an Israeli court convicted Barghouti of directing two shootings and a bombing that resulted in the deaths of five Israelis.

“It is with great honor that we welcome Marwan Barghouti among Palermo’s citizens,” the mayor said, speaking in Italian. “Barghouti represents the will for peace in the Middle East, and even those who do not agree with our act will in the future remember how even small gestures like today’s will serve to give back peace to that land.”

How does Orlando explain a stance that seems to outsiders as firmly on the side of the Palestinians? Is this sentiment widespread among Sicilians or Italians more broadly? And if so, does it perpetuate a perception of the conflict as irresolvable, or in other words, a zero-sum game between the two sides?

Responding to these questions from his office in Palermo, Orlando, speaking in English, told The Media Line that his city is trying to promote a culture of peace.

“I normally say that in Palermo, the dog, the cat, and the mouse have to live together. Because the message we are trying to send is that Palermo is a city that welcomes everyone, and respects all peoples.

“Therefore, we are not pro-somebody, we are for everyone. We know exactly the situation of Palestine and Israel. We just wish to give our contribution to let these two different peoples live together.”

The mayor explained that there is a sense of special solidarity with the Palestinians, which derives from “following the resolutions of the United Nations, which have to be respected.”

Also, Orlando added, “we have not yet dedicated a piazza or square to Arafat. We wish to dedicate some human space to him. But I wish to tell you that we have an important street in Palermo that has just been, by me, dedicated to [former Israeli prime minister] Yitzhak Rabin. Because we have enormous respect for the different peoples and identities.”

The mayor added that he is proud to have promoted the construction of a synagogue in the city.

Orlando, who has also built a reputation for courageously and successfully taking on the Sicilian mafia, concluded the interview by saying that his city has changed enormously on the cultural level. “It is a city that respects the rights of everyone.”

Marco Giallonardi, an Italian writer and film director who has lived among the Palestinians for over nine years, told The Media Line that he believes Italy is not a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli country.

“Rather, historically speaking, Italy—not the European Union—has sought to support the Palestinians since the 1980s while never negating political support for Israel.”

He explained that the Italian Left, which often throws its support behind the Palestinians, is not anti-Semitic, but is anti-Zionist. “This distinction is important to keep in mind,” Giallonardi contended.

“But living here [in the West Bank] and knowing about life in both countries, I can say it is true that many pro-Palestinian Italians do not recognize, or at times do not want to understand, the desires and needs of the Israeli side. Few pro-Palestinian Italians could arrive at the conclusion—one I firmly believe—that here there are two victims, the Israelis and Palestinians, even if one is the ‘occupier’ and the other the ‘occupied.’”

Laura Silvia Battaglia, a documentary film maker and award-winning journalist of Middle Eastern affairs—also a native Sicilian—told The Media Line that in Italy perceptions of the conflict are very polarized.

“Actually, in Italy it is 50/50: There are people who still think that Hamas is an organization working for peace, and they stand with them. They do so not knowing that many Palestinians are also victims of Hamas and that the organization is fueled by Iran and Qatar and listed among other terrorist organizations like al Qa’ida.”

At the same time, she elaborated, many Italians have never seen the Palestinian territories. They do not understand the motivations behind Jewish settlement of the West Bank, including the huge internal debates among Israelis, as well as the protests of Israeli citizens against the policies of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. Furthermore, they don’t know the difference between early Zionism and the new ideologies.

“Basically, half of the Italian population ignores the reasons of the Palestinians and half those of Israelis… The reality is complex and the solutions are difficult.

“Unfortunately we are living in bad times, where everything has become black and white. People don’t acquire knowledge, but prefer to take part in a big match. When a conflict becomes so polarized, we should not expect common sense from any side. We don’t see it in politicians, so why are we expecting people to be wiser?”

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