By now you will have heard about Israel’s assault on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, in the course of which, according to current estimates, at least 10 and as many as 20 peace activists were killed, and dozens injured. The flotilla was carrying hundreds of activists, including a Nobel Peace Laureate, along with thousands of tons of humanitarian aid to distribute to the besieged population of Gaza.
The narrative from Israel has been almost comically predictable, as has the extent to which that narrative has been accepted by news organisations. In the week leading up to the mission Israeli officials repeatedly threatened the ships, with the Foreign Minister going so far as to label the unarmed humanitarian voyage a "violent" threat. The flotilla was smeared as "pro-Hamas" and condemned for refusing to deliver a letter to Cpl. Shalit from his father (a claim that, while repeated uncritically in the purportedly ‘liberal’ Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, is a "a blatant lie"), and its attempts to dock in Gaza were declared an "an infringement of Israel’s sovereignty". Needless to say, this last accusation does not sit well with Israel’s claim that it does not occupy and has no intention to annex Gaza (the Israeli human rights NGO Gisha notes, in this vein, that the assault on the Freedom Flotilla "is proof that despite claims to the contrary, Israel never ‘disengaged’ from the Gaza Strip but rather continues to control its borders – land, air and sea").
The Israeli navy began harassing the convoy when it was still well over 100 miles from Gaza, deep into international waters. As the ships drew closer the Israeli military attempted to disrupt their communications (journalists were reporting from on-board and a live video feed was streaming online) and began issuing threats. Finally, Israeli forces attacked, with soldiers descending from helicopters to board the ships. Initially Israel claimed that no activists were killed. It then performed an abrupt reversal, familiar to veterans of its clumsy rhetorical acrobatics during the Gaza massacre, reporting that at least 10 people were killed, but claiming that it was the peace activists who "attacked" first (as one commentator observed: "[p]eculiar how Israel is always violently attacked but it's only the ‘attackers’ who die"). Thus news organisations reported that "[f]ighting broke out between" (via) the activists and the soldiers, as if unarmed peace activists could ever meaningfully "fight" highly-trained, heavily armed members of one of the most sophisticated militaries on the planet. The BBC went even further, intoning, over footage of what was clearly a direct attack on unarmed civilians, that the Israeli soldiers were attempting to "control passengers" (via). Eyewitness reports, by contrast, described how Israeli forces started shooting "the moment their feet hit the deck. They shot civilians asleep". "This was not a confrontation", they report, "[t]his was a massacre". An al-Jazeera journalist aboard the ship reported that "despite the white flag being raised, the Israeli Army is still shooting, still firing live munitions".
Why would Israel attack the flotilla? It’s worth recalling what the activists were trying to do. Since 1991 Israel has kept the Gaza Strip under siege, the intensity of which has varied over time but never to the extent of allowing the residents of Gaza to live something approaching decent, dignified lives. Following Hamas’s 2006 election victory and its takeover of Gaza in 2007, undertaken in response to a US/Israeli-backed coup attempt, the closure was sharply intensified, provoking what human rights organisations described as a "humanitarian implosion" of "unprecedented" scale. The objectives, which also motivated the Dec ‘08-Jan ‘09 Gaza massacre, were clear: to punish Palestinians for voting the ‘wrong’ way in the 2006 elections; to entrench the separation between Gaza and the West Bank; to isolate Hamas diplomatically and thereby thwart its threatened ‘peace offensive’ (yesterday, in a further blow to Israeli rejectionism, alleged ‘hardliner’ Khalid Meshal again affirmed that Hamas is prepared to end violence once Israel "returns to the ‘67 borders"); to undermine the ‘moderates’ within Hamas at the expense of the ‘hardliners’; and to turn the population of Gaza into a "humanitarian" as opposed to a "political" problem. To these ends, Israel, the US and the EU have systematically reduced the 1.5 million residents of Gaza – most of whom are children - to poverty, unemployment and aid dependency. They have, as one senior official explained, "put the Palestinians on a diet".
The "diet" has been an extreme one:
- since the intensification of the siege in June 2007, "the formal economy in Gaza has collapsed". (More than 80 UN and aid agencies [.pdf])
- "61% of people in the Gaza Strip are ... food insecure", of which "65% are children under 18 years". (UN FAO)
- since June 2007, "the number of Palestine refugees unable to access food and lacking the means to purchase even the most basic items, such as soap, school stationery and safe drinking water, has tripled". (UNRWA)
- "in February 2009, the level of anemia in babies (9-12 months) was as high as 65.5%" (UN FAO)
- "water resources in the Gaza Strip are critically insufficient" (UN FAO)
- "the blockade has been a major obstacle to repairing the damage done by Israeli air attacks and destruction. Nearly none of the 3,425 homes destroyed during Cast Lead have been reconstructed, displacing around 20,000 people. Only 17.5% of the value of the damages to educational facilities has been repaired ... [T]he infrastructure which remains unrepaired is often that which is most essential to the basic needs and well-being of the Gaza population." (UNDP)
The siege of Gaza is explicitly directed against the civilian population. It has been condemned by nearly every government in the world, and according to UN agencies and human rights organisations it constitutes "collective punishment ... a flagrant violation of international law" (Amnesty International [.pdf]), possibly amounting to a "crime against humanity". In attempting to deliver aid to Gaza the Freedom Flotilla activists were not merely highlighting the brutality of the siege, they were challenging Israel’s basic right to dominate and control the occupied territories. Hence the hysteria from Israel, and hence the attack.
Even so, Israel’s cavalier disregard for its own, already battered PR image is surprising. To attack a convoy of unarmed peace activists in international waters, and then to claim that it was the peace activists who committed the aggression, is so manifestly absurd that one wonders whether Israel truly has, as Chomsky recently implied, entered the "irrational" phase. I would caution against this conclusion. In the run-up to the voyage Israeli officials showed a keen awareness of the difficult PR situation they were in. It’s not that the Israeli government doesn’t care about its international image – far from it. Rather, the most plausible explanation is that, after a cost-benefit analysis, it determined that it would be able to attack the peace activists on the flotilla, take the concomitant day or two of bad media coverage in its stride, muddy the waters as much as possible with PR spin, and then move on without suffering too much damage as a result. Yousef Munayyer recently observed that ‘Palestinian non-violence requires global non-silence’. Evidently, the Israeli government took the risk of attacking the flotilla on the presumption that the world would be muted in its response.
It is time to disabuse them of that notion. Protests have been planned outside Israeli embassies worldwide - including across the US and in Israel - and Stop the War has called an emergency demonstration outside Downing Street today at 2pm. Make it if you can.
Update: title changed to reflect new evidence that some of the activists on board appear to have been 'armed' with metal poles. This does not, it should be stressed, change anything fundamental about what happened here. Israeli forces threatened, then aggressively boarded, a humanitarian convoy in international waters, with the express intent of hijacking it, and in the process killed 10-20 peace activists and injured dozens more.
To cite resistance by those activists to being hijacked by a hostile military power in international waters to justify their murder is appalling. Even more so given that they were murdered as part of an effort to maintain a regime of systematic collective punishment of a desperate civilian population. Andrew Sullivan is worth reading on this point, though I disagree with him about any violence by the activists being necessarily "abhorent":
"A simple point. The violence by the activists is pretty abhorrent. These are not followers of Gandhi or MLK Jr. But the violence is not fatal to anyone and it is in response to a dawn commando raid by armed soldiers. They are engaging in self-defense. More to the point: theya r civilians confronting one of the best militaries in the world. They killed no soldiers; their weapons were improvised; the death toll in the fight is now deemed to be up to 19 - all civilians.
It staggers me to read defenses of what the Israelis have done. They attacked a civilian flotilla in international waters breaking no law. When they met fierce if asymmetric resistance, they opened fire. And we are now being asked to regard the Israelis as the victims.
This is like a mini-Gaza all over again. The Israelis don't seem to grasp that Western militaries don't get to murder large numbers of civilians because they don't like them, or because they could, on a far tinier scale, hurt Israelis. And you sure don't have a right to kill them because they resist having their ship commandeered, in international waters. The Israelis seem to be making decisions as if they can get away with anything. It's time the US reminded them in ways they cannot mistake that they cannot."
See also Glenn Greenwald:
"So, to recap what seems thus far to be the central claim of Israel apologists: Israel is the official Owner of international waters (which is where the flotilla was when it was attacked). As such, they have the right to issue orders to ships in international waters, and everyone on board those ships is required to obey and submit. Anyone who fails to do so, or anyone in the vicinity of those who fail to do so, can be shot and killed and get what they deserve.
What's so odd about that is that the U.S. has been spending a fair amount of time recently condemning exactly such acts as "piracy" and demanding "that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes." When exactly did Israel acquire the right not only to rule over Gaza and the West Bank, but international waters as well? Their rights as sovereign are expanding faster than the BP oil spill.
Thus, there are at least 10-20 dead passengers and 50-60 wounded on those ships -- compared to no Israeli fatalities and virtually no wounded -- but it's the passengers, delivering humanitarian aid in international waters when Israel seized their ships, who are the aggressors and were "attacking Israeli sovereignty." The only thing worse than this claim is how many apologists for Israel will start parroting it".
Cross-posted at The Heathlander